Lindsay Duncan shared that she was once asked to reveal her legs during her first TV audition, highlighting the rampant chauvinism that she had to endure in the industry.
The sight of Lindsay Duncan’s unpleasant behavior – being self-centered, difficult, or inherently wicked – will always be entertaining. Despite her angelic appearance, she clearly enjoys portraying a character who is the opposite, making it feel like watching someone escape from jail.
I communicate with her through Zoom. She is currently located at her home in London. She recently acquired a new ring light, which enhances her appearance (I assume that was the intention), and she is very satisfied with it after seeing herself in the upcoming comedy drama Truelove. “Let’s be honest,” she remarks. “It’s quite a shock when I don’t look the way I do in my bathroom mirror, which I consider to be perfectly acceptable.” I tell her, as I always do, that she looks fantastic in Truelove, maybe just a tad grumpy, and she brushes it off with a laugh. “I can’t be accused of being vain when it comes to work. But this ring light, I think it might be a positive addition.”
The story of Truelove begins at a funeral, where a group of lifelong friends in their seventies gather. They have known each other since they were teenagers and have made a pact to not have a death similar to their friend Dennis, who recently passed away in a tragic manner. One might assume that the show will revolve around death and assisted dying, but that is not the case. The main character, Duncan, is quite complex. She is unhappy in her marriage, does not conform to traditional motherhood roles with her adult daughter, and continues to smoke at the age of 72 (73 in real life).
The painting depicts a dissatisfied woman. Duncan expresses her desire for more with enthusiasm. He explains that the long marriage is not about disregarding your partner’s wishes, such as wanting to go on a cruise when you do not. There is a strong affection between them, but it is not enough. It is almost comical how unconventional this desire is – an older woman who just wants one more chance at excitement. As we age and have successful careers, we may reach our 70s and regret not having more fulfilling experiences. It is crucial that we do not pretend to be content while secretly feeling resentful.
She used her imagination to create Phil, a prickly character. When asked about retirement, she replied, “I cannot answer that because I am still working.” She then added with a hint of humor, “But of course I can speak to the longevity of marriage.” She has been married to fellow actor Hilton McRae since 1985.
One of the most challenging aspects of the drama is that Duncan is not very enthusiastic about being a mother or grandmother. She strongly opposes the idea of downsizing to a bungalow for the sake of her grandchildren. Having children has become more about identity and privilege for those who have enough money. While she acknowledges the significance of having a child, it has shifted her perception of herself as a parent. She and her partner, McRae, have a son named Cal who is in his early 30s. However, society has changed and become fractured, and things that were once taken for granted in growing up are no longer present. The sense of community and neighborhood has disappeared.
It is clear to see why she was a beloved actress of Alan Bleasdale and Stephen Poliakoff. She effortlessly navigates between the personal and the political, the small and the large scale, and emotion and intellect. She believes that the most skilled writers use a captivating story to convey political messages. Bleasdale was deeply committed to his political beliefs and had a knack for blending them with humor, making his work both thought-provoking and entertaining. His show GBH premiered in 1991, by which time Duncan had gone through many changes.
She was raised in Leeds and later in Birmingham by her Scottish working-class parents. When she was 15, her father passed away in a car accident and her mother, who was now a widow with no money, supported her in pursuing her dreams. With her mother’s help and a grant, she finally gained acceptance to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London after two years of trying. She fondly remembers her time in rep theatre, where the focus was on the group rather than individual actors. While there may have been a hierarchy, the atmosphere was mostly supportive, and it was a stepping stone into the larger world for her.
In 1982, the play “Top Girls” at London’s Royal Court theatre marked a turning point for both the actress Duncan and the playwright Caryl Churchill. It also represented a surge of fierce, unabashed second-wave feminism. “I was blown away,” Duncan recalls. “To see such a bold and ambitious piece brought to life on stage was unbelievable. Churchill took on all the oppressive forces of patriarchy and boldly declared, ‘We as women cannot surrender our humanity. We have already endured enough. It’s time to wake up and make a change happen.'”
In the early 1990s, Duncan gained recognition for her portrayal of Madame de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. This role later brought fame to Glenn Close on screen, but it first made a significant impact on stage as it traveled from Stratford to London to Broadway.
Duncan’s successful career began during a time of intense nationalism, which may make the idea of creativity, camaraderie, and radicalism seem idealistic. She recalls auditioning for Further Up Pompeii, a 1975 TV movie based on the Frankie Howerd sitcom, and doing promotional interviews during this time. Despite wearing a full-length dress as part of her costume, she was asked to show her legs at the audition. This request seemed unnecessary, as she was never known for being young or glamorous. Later, at a photocall for the project, she was even asked to bend forward.
She imitates a Zoom call where she was asked to reveal her cleavage, and she laughs while remembering how painful it was. Looking back, she realizes she lacked confidence and wanted to please others. She didn’t even understand what was happening to her. When she returned to her apartment with two male roommates, she couldn’t hold back her tears. She felt a mix of shame and distress that she couldn’t express. She jokes about the idea of someone asking her to do that now, and it makes her laugh. Her self-deprecation, claiming she was never young, should be annoying, but there’s a playful mischievousness to it that I can’t help but find amusing.
According to her, she lacked confidence and was unsure of her actions, especially when it came to being on television. She credits her success to having a good eye for material and collaborating with talented writers. However, her career has not been about climbing the ladder, but rather about the type of work she is drawn to, which she defines as working with writers.
She enjoys collaborating on short films. It’s not about advancing her career or making money, but she appreciates the opportunity to be a part of someone’s early work that could potentially launch their career. It’s a fulfilling experience for her.
I appreciate Duncan’s performance in Truelove the most because it reminds me of her previous roles, where she infuses them with a sense of radical restlessness. According to her, individuals in their 70s are faced with the reality of death and illness, but also the question of “What do we do now?” Interestingly, she almost turned down the role. Initially, she compared it to going on a cruise (apologies to cruise-goers). She hadn’t even read the script and thought, “Four months with a bunch of elderly people?” However, I can honestly say that it has been a highlight in every aspect. But let’s be real: there are a lot of older people involved.
The show Truelove will be airing on Channel 4 at 9pm on January 3rd.