In conversation with Fiona Shaw
Fiona Shaw is a mix of class, wit and intellect. Well known for her role as Mrs. Dursley in Harry Potter, Marnie in True Blood and in several leading Shakespearean drama’s, Shaw is eloquent and passionate about her work and her love for language.
At Daily Mirror Life, we got the chance to talk to the Irish actress and director about beginnings, tough times and her work over the years.
How do you like Sri Lanka?
What I love about Sri Lanka is that it’s very much like Ireland. It’s a small compact country. Because of that I feel like I recognize the country and I absolutely love being here because we’ve been frozen and drowned in my country so it’s fantastic to be here. You have such immense beauty and I think the literary festival is another leap forward. I’m thrilled to be a part of this!
When did acting begin for you?
When I was in school I was good at poetry and I felt empowered by it because I loved speaking difficult words out loud. Yates especially was an influence because here was a man who wrote about our country and our experience, not about England and he sounded just as classical as anything in Greek or Shakespearean. And that empowerment got me interested.
But when I was 18 my father forbade me to go to drama school because he thought it was fundamentally morally and educationally wrong so he sent me to university. Which was, I must say, not the worst thing. I went to university for 3 years and studied philosophy and when I was 21 I joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in London. There I was trained into another creature. When I went their first they said I smelt of libraries but when I came out, I came out of it smelling like something different. From there I went straight to the National Theatre and then climbing through my 20’s I learnt so much. It was at my late 20’s did I become most knowledgeable.
You’ve done many roles in many genres such as Shakespeare but what is your favourite genre to act in?
Well I haven’t done a Shakespeare drama for 20 years! But I’m very keen in Classical Drama because as a woman you get given these fantastic roles. You are not playing the baker's wife, you are playing the thing that’s going to be in trouble, the person who gets the chance to be what it is like to be human and it is in these plays that the actress has many possibilities. Why I wish there was a King Lear for women!
I think I play a lot of Shakespeare because I was lucky. I was lucky to play Cecilia, Portia, Beatrice and a whole lot more. Once I got through those heroines I got into the Greeks and played Electra. It’s not that I do Shakespeare all the time but they certainly do mark my life.
And I think once you finish one thing you need to leave it so for me, there is not a favourite genre in particular.
You direct operas. Tell us a little about that.
Well I directed 4 operas and I enjoyed them very much. The fun of it is that you are under the control of the conductor so there is a little bit of time and unlike a play which can go on forever and be bad, opera has the same length of time and it’s held by the music.
As much as I enjoy it I may move away from directing opera and go towards the theatre...
Was it difficult for you to break into the drama / movie industry?
Maybe because I started a few years later I was more ready. When I came out of RADA, I had already won a few awards in there which in a way I needed because being from Ireland I had no connections to anybody in England. In fact, I’ve seen very little plays. When the Royal Shakespeare Company found me they said I was extraordinary and it was amazing and unusual how I approach my work. I didn’t know it was unusual because I didn’t know how to approach the work!
In a way my ignorance was my greatest tool. I played what I felt was the correct thing to play.
Having a massive portfolio, what has been your favourite role?
I really couldn’t say. Who you are when you are young is not who you are when you are older, so it would be foolish to say that. But I did enjoy playing Electra and I enjoyed them all but I especially enjoyed the ones that changed me. When I was playing Electra, it was two years after my brother had been killed and I’ve never been in a play where my life and a play have connected. It was not so much as it was biographical but it helped me discover that art is really about people’s experience.
What would you say is your greatest achievement professionally?
Playing in The Waste Land which no one thought was going to be anything but it did very, very well. Again, I’ve had too many marvellous nights! Too many to say.
What was it like to get into the character of Aunt Petunia in Harry Potter?
She’s very described in the book and I enjoyed her so much. She’s so important in the book because without that springboard you would never get the magic. In a way I feel that magic is the revenge children take from adults and in that way the Dursleys represent the panic young people feel when they are in a home which is so prescribed.
But I adored my character and I adored her little costumes!
Does it ever get tiring being recognized for Aunt Petunia?
I’m thrilled to be recognized and sometime when I get off at the airport and children go insane about Aunt Petunia and some get frightened and run to their moms. But it’s often children who have a ball with it. Sometimes I’m in the subway and I see a child look at me and they can’t believe their eyes so I give them a little wink and they get so frightened!
What would be your Patronus if you were not Muggle-born and what house would the Sorting Hat put you in?
Oh, I don’t know! I never thought of it. But I always thought she somehow replies to Professor McGonagall. As for the house I really have no idea. She wouldn’t allow such a thought!
By Panchali Illankoon
Photographs by Pradeep Dilrukshana