Interview: Eve Best on Hedda Gabler, from the Daily Telegraph
14th March 2005
‘I’m falling to pieces. It’s terrifying!’
She’d disagree, but Eve Best is one of Britain’s most thrilling young actresses. Preparing to play Hedda Gabler, she talks to Dominic Cavendish. Published in the Daily Telegraph, 14 Mar 2005
“Oh God, please don’t say that!” I’m telling Eve Best how wonderful it is that she has landed the part of Hedda Gabler at the Almeida, that her first fully-fledged starring role is long overdue, that it must feel like a watershed moment. And she’s having none of it.
“I’m falling to pieces,” she says, drawing a deep lungful from the first of many cigarettes, waving the compliments away. “It’s terrifying!”
Was there ever an actress so well- and yet so ill-named? Well-named because from the moment she stepped out of drama school and into the part of Annabella in John Ford’s Jacobean tragedy ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore at the Young Vic in 1999, she’s been consistently impressive, distinguishing herself as one of the greatest hopes of her generation.
Ill-named because “best” is the kind of superlative this modest, self-doubting actress would never apply to her own capabilities.
You might think that the work she’s done to date would make this attractive, articulate 33-year-old – born Emily but, for Equity reasons, known to the public as Eve – arrogantly confident. ‘Tis Pity, in which she starred opposite Jude Law, won her the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Awards for Best Newcomer; Law, playing her incestuous brother Giovanni, drew the crowds, but she, sensuously controlled in the midst of mounting havoc, was the real discovery.
Since then, she’s been often – if not often enough – found at the National: most visibly as the emotionally coiled-up Catherine in the Henry James-derived melodrama The Heiress, as the embittered, unhappily married Masha in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and, above all, opposite Helen Mirren as the mother-hating Lavinia in Eugene O’Neill’s monumental Mourning Becomes Electra. This last performance, saturated with pent-up venom and righteous anger, bagged her another Critics’ Circle award, this time for Best Actress. Yet she’s openly unsure of her gifts: “I always have a terrible sense that it’s going to be a disaster,” she exclaims, with a laugh, her hazel-brown eyes searching around the Islington café where we’re sitting as if in involuntary search of an exit.
The offer to play the part of Ibsen’s bored, calculating and finally suicidal heroine, who scorns her academic husband yet destroys the life of his closest rival, came after this new version’s author and director Richard Eyre saw Mourning Becomes Electra. She unhesitatingly accepted, but immediately fretted.
“Richard says he always understood Hedda. I was nerve-racked by that, because I didn’t at all. I kept reading it and she seemed quite unpindownable. I wrote a list of all the words you could use to describe her” – here Best frantically reels off a list of stark personality contradictions. “I thought: she’s like a will o’ the wisp!” This would imply, of course, that Best has actually got the measure of the character far better than anyone who simply views her as a moral monster. Being unsure is a rare strength and it’s this tension, which Best carries with her to the stage, which Eyre thinks makes her ideal for the role.
“She can be simultaneously forceful and fragile,” he says. “That’s a very rare combination. She can turn on a sixpence.” David Lan, who gave her that all-important break in ‘Tis Pity, concurs: “You think you’re getting a violin, then you discover there’s the resonance of a cello.”
At one point it looked as though Best was never even going to come close to being discovered. She crash-landed after studying English at Oxford: “I thought that it would be easy – ‘I’ll turn up in London and arrive’ – and of course that didn’t happen.”
The first time she applied to Rada she was turned down – “They took one look at me and said, ‘Get lost until you know what you want to do with your life.'” She then spent several years on the London fringe, leaving her poorer but no closer to getting an agent. Rada’s eventual acceptance of her at the age of 24 was the making of her, she says. Even so, despite her rising profile, there have been longish patches when the offers have run dry.
Nothing looms on the horizon after this show – “It’s a blank canvas,” she reveals. Why has she never been approached by, or approached, the RSC, I wonder? She brightens at the prospect: “I’d love to be in Stratford. I’ve always liked the idea of living in the country. I’m really bad at London. Even though I’ve lived here all my life, I still get lost. I still don’t know how to work the Tube or what shops to go to.”
Her self-deprecation is at its most endearing when she recalls her first meeting with Jude Law. “I remember going into the audition and there was this guy who looked like he’d walked out of a Calvin Klein ad. He was beautiful and tanned. I thought, ‘My God, I’m in completely the wrong place!'”
This time round, hers is the name in lights. Much as she may bashfully rebut the suggestion, she’d better get used to the idea that, any day now, it’s going to be other actors who stand in awe of her.
‘Hedda Gabler’ opens at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida St, London N1 (020 7359 4404) on Wed.
Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice
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