A a week before we meet, I see Lindsay Duncan a few rows ahead of me at the National Theatre. Was it determined, I ask you now? at The normal heart? “Oh yes! Yes, yes, yes,” beams the star birdman and Doctor Who, sits in the glass suite of a chic London hotel. What did she think? “Oh God.” A long silence, then a sharp, shuddering inhalation. “It’s difficult. We’re sorry.”
I didn’t know that when I mentioned it, but The normal heart – Larry Kramer’s astounding 1985 account of the AIDS crisis – hits close to Duncan. The 71-year-old lost her oldest and closest friend, playwright Kevin Elyot, to AIDS. They went to neighboring schools, then to the same university, and decades later they wrote a role for her in mouth to mouth, his play about a playwright struggling with AIDS. She was nominated for an Olivier Award for it. In 2014, the disease finally killed him. Duncan’s husband, fellow actor Hilton McRae, also lost his oldest friend to AIDS. “It’s personal,” she says, pressing a handkerchief to her eyes. “We belong to this generation. We were literally there.” She was in her early 20s when the epidemic first spread. “Nobody knew what was going on. Nobody knew. And people weren’t interested because it was about homosexuals.”
She looks at me for a moment. “Of course you’re a lot younger,” she says, “so I was wondering if the play had the same impact for you — because I thought it was extraordinary.” I didn’t live through it, I tell her, but the play was one nonetheless A reminder of what the queer community has gone through to allow people my age to live the lives we lead. she nods. “To see young people sitting around me walking like that” — she gently covers her mouth as if she’s shocked and sad — “and to think, ‘You’re here’… that was so satisfying. Because it’s very, very powerful when you experience things. Being a witness is important. There will always be something that some people don’t want to see, and other people know in their bones that it needs to be looked at. Just being there in the audience filled me up. I was just so glad it was there and we were there. It just felt important.”
Duncan is incredibly exuberant. Everything she says in her soft, smoky voice feels like it comes from the deepest depths of her soul. She’s not a luvvie, but she has a kind of pure, focused presence. It’s the same when she acts as if she’s a commander of the Mars shuttle Doctor Whoa fragile divorcee on stage in private lifeor shows the gap in Margaret Thatcher’s armor of steel in the 2009 BBC drama Margaret. Today, when she feels something in particular awe—which she often does—she whispers.
take her new movie A banquet, a crawling psychological horror about a young girl, Jessica Alexanders Betsey, who inexplicably stops eating – much to the alarm of her mother (Sienna Guillory) and the silent anger of her grandmother (Duncan). It’s Ruth Paxton’s feature film debut, but Duncan speaks of her in a low, amorous voice. “Ruth is one of my heroines,” she says. “I only know her for that, but everything about her as a filmmaker, as a person, just speaks to my heart and mind. She wants to explore things. She doesn’t want to be preachy. At the end of this film there are only questions popping, popping, popping everywhere. Is that what you thought?” I did: Is Betsey insane or possessed by the devil? Or is she the owner of the family? “Good!” Duncan yells. “Oh good, oh good.”
Unlike Duncan, her character June has a certain froideur. Even her ice blonde bob is severe. “We all have problems, darling,” she tells her granddaughter. “Don’t be the show.” It is later implied that she once sent her own daughter away under similar circumstances. “It’s not my idea of motherhood,” says Duncan, who has one son, Cal, in his early 30s, “but it was her idea of motherhood.”
A banquet is, she continues, full of observations “so human, so unbearably poignant, about our fragility as human beings. We can’t control things, and love can’t always get it right.” She claps her hands almost breathlessly. “Oh god, that’s so awesome. It just keeps you in that grip that’s gentle and firm at the same time. You can’t get out of it as a spectator.”
A banquet was the first acting job Duncan took on after lockdown restrictions were briefly eased in the summer of 2020. “Everything was new,” she says. “Testing. This one.” She holds the mask up in her lap. “They called action and I was like, ‘Oh s*** I didn’t take my mask off,’ and then I cut and I didn’t put my mask back on. And we put our masks under pillows on set and then whipped them out again. It was totally unsanitary.” Despite all that, “It was really nice to see other people. And my instinct was to do the work that felt important.”
She has felt a particular attraction to this type of work since the beginning of the pandemic. “I know people flock to musicals to have a laugh and a smile, but we need really good, big, important plays and movies to see together,” she says. “I think it’s good for us. Because it makes us feel more human. And we feel more connected, don’t we? The idea of really good work moves me enormously.”
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Is that why she became an actress? “I don’t think I knew the power in it,” she says. “It was just kind of an instinct. It attracted me. The feeling that something is happening when you see something, when you’re part of something.” She whispers again. “You don’t know what it is, but it’s happening and you want to be a part of it.”
The daughter of two working-class Scots, Duncan spent the early years of her life in Scotland before moving to the English Midlands. Her father died in a car accident when she was a teenager, and the family had “no money.” They had no telephone, no car and no television. One of her few luxuries was the weekly family trip to the movies, to which she brought her teddy bear in a tote bag.
It was her English teacher, Kate Flint – “her saw like a Kate Flint” – who first encouraged her to act and chose school plays that would make Duncan shine. Antigone was a particular highlight. “She made me feel like I was worth something,” says Duncan. She also acted in the boys’ school plays, taking on any female role they needed to fill. That’s how she met Kevin Elyot. “I was crossing the driveway to go to the boys’ school and it was all exhilarating,” she says. “It wasn’t about sex because these guys were gay, it was about common interests. And they seemed to think I had a place. You’re just fumbling around feeling awkward and shy and then suddenly you’re in that place where people don’t think of you that way. They see you as something else.”
It was Elyot who told her that acting was an option – “I said, ‘There are drama schools? What? ‘” – although she didn’t join until she was 21. From there came a weekly rep in the English seaside town of Southwold, which involved doing a play a week between getting stoned and going to the pub. then a stint at Manchester’s Royal Exchange before landing a role top girl at the royal court. Then the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, frequent collaborations with Harold Pinter, and television and films.
Older generations will have seen her in the TV drama as wealthy manipulator Barbara Douglas GBHyounger than the Doctor’s brief, humanity-saving companion, Adelaide Brooke Doctor Whoor as Lady Smallwood in sherlock. She showed up Starter for ten, Alice in Wonderland, black mirror, about time, birdman – she even had a small speaking role as the droid TC-14 in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
However, she has criminally few leading roles on screen. Margaret was an exception. The weekend (2013) was another. Duncan is mesmerizing but never pretentious in Roger Michell’s wry, meandering comedy-drama about a couple who head to Paris to try to rekindle their marriage. “I want more from me,” she screams when her husband accuses her of wanting someone else. An actress who isn’t afraid of the complex, she plays Meg callous one moment, vulnerable the next. Her performance caused many critics to wonder why Duncan didn’t rank in the highest acting ranks with Maggie Smith and Julie Walters. Michell, who died last year, said she deserves “great fame and fortune and I would love it if she got that”.
However, Duncan doesn’t seem particularly interested in big fame and fortune. She says it’s a “miracle” that she made a career out of acting, “because it was my life and it was a fantastic, fantastic way of living and actually a way of being in the world. Learn more. Being with curious people. The older I get, the more curious I become.”
But during lockdown, when she was barely able to work, “I was absolutely fine,” she whispers. “I don’t want to work like I did when I was doing a lot of theatre. I definitely want more life. And I love my life and life itself.” She breathes a sigh of relief. “I do, really.”
A Banquet is in cinemas now