1 Jun 2011
Alex Kingston is in a strange place, professionally and personally. The former ER star, who for years made her life and career in Los Angeles, is today finding richer pickings in Britain, on our screens as River Song, the older love interest of Matt Smith’s Doctor Who, and on stage at the Donmar Warehouse in Friedrich Schiller’s Luise Miller.
She confirms recent reports that she has separated from her second husband, German journalist Florian Haertel, whom she married in 1998 (“I can’t talk about that, but we have been apart for two years”). Since they share equal custody of their 10-year-old daughter, Salome, who goes to school in America, though, Kingston finds herself torn: pulled to the UK by work and to the US by maternal ties. Her life is even more complicated than that of the average 48-year-old actress.
Luise Miller is directed by Michael Grandage, the outgoing artistic director of the Donmar. He has a proven track record in making Schiller’s Sturm und Drang dramas accessible and popular and is probably the most in-demand director around.
“I’d wanted to work on stage here again, and to work with Michael, for a long time,” says Kingston. “We’d discussed projects - an Ibsen, I think - but the timing has never been convenient.
“For me the hardest thing to negotiate is time away from my family. But this series of Doctor Who was shot during my daughter’s spring break, so she could come over for that. And Luise Miller coincides pretty much with her summer holiday. So I was able to prepare myself psychologically for her going back to school, thinking: six weeks is really hard but it will be all right because she’ll be with me for the summer again.
“If Michael had offered me this during term time I don’t know if I could have accepted it. That said, this is what I do. I wanted to be an actor to perform plays, to work with other people to create something.
“If you think of creativity as a muscle that has to be exercised, there isn’t that much opportunity to do that in television.”
Kingston describes Luise Miller as “Schiller’s Romeo and Juliet, but a lot less lyrical”. It’s the story of a low-born girl’s doomed relationship with a prince’s son, destroyed by jealousy, politicking and class differences. It describes a relentless downward slide into tragedy. “Michael told us early on that we can’t hold back and naturalise it,” says Kingston. “So it’s big performances, big themes, big emotions, like opera. Which is kind of great.”
Here, she is Lady Milford, Luise’s older love rival, a courtesan past her peak. Kingston finds contemporary echoes not just in the depiction of a government engaged in fruitless foreign wars but in her character’s situation.
“In the scene I have with Felicity, her character talks about how women are made to believe that their beauty will last for ever,” she says, “and of course it doesn’t and there’s nothing you can do about it, so you have to accept it. She also questions why men find innocence so inflaming, what it is about young girls that men find so attractive and enthralling. These are questions asked throughout the ages.”
For the record, Kingston herself looks remarkable - lithe and unlined, with just a touch of grey in her corkscrew mane - which she attributes to good genes inherited from her German mother. But this is difficult territory. Kingston herself moved from early stage success after Rada to playing a series of spunky, desirable screen heroines, from Moll Flanders and Boudicca to ER’s Dr Charlotte Corday. More recently in the US, she has found herself relegated to guest-starring roles in the likes of CSI and Law & Order.
In the past she reportedly claimed she was dropped from ER because she was too old, and that she was passed over to play Felicity Huffman’s character in Desperate Housewives because she was too large.
Now Kingston says her comments about ER were a joke taken out of context, and the Desperate Housewives story is nonsense.
“Having said that, if I stood beside those women, I would have looked like an elephant, because they are all so petite and I am not.” But, she adds, “the trend during pilot season seems to be that I am put on the list for callbacks or screen tests, as are other actresses obviously, but then the studio just offers the role to a much bigger name. Which is very frustrating.” And, of course, she is up against TV’s eternal cult of youth. “You probably hear this from actresses in their forties all the time but I wish they would write more roles for us. Because we are a huge demographic.”
Thank goodness then for Doctor Who. The show is “the closest thing to theatre” on telly in terms of its ensemble atmosphere. It also dares - thanks to the complexities of time travel - to posit a romance between Matt Smith’s twentysomething Doctor and Kingston’s mysterious, gun-toting River Song.
“It plays with the notion of an older woman being in love with a younger man, who in his own funny, confused way loves her but doesn’t quite know why, because it’s a love in his future, in a different body,” she says. “I’m not sure you’d get that kind of dynamic in America. At first I thought, my goodness, children aren’t really going to understand or respond to River Song because of the age difference. But it seems they don’t notice that. It’s the character they are responding to. I have had women coming up to me saying that she’s a fantastic role model. That it’s great to see a woman in her forties being kick-ass.”
Kingston herself seems more kick-ass than in the past. We last met when she came back to Britain to star oppositeChristian Slater in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the West End in 2006. Then, she described herself as “emotionally fragile”.
She confirmed that, yes, she had contemplated suicide when her first husband, Ralph Fiennes, whom she met at Rada and lived with for 12 years, left her for Francesca Annis, 18 years his senior, in 1996. Now, that relationship is firmly in the past: “I never bump into him because I don’t socialise with actors: when I’m in America, I’m a mum, just very domestic.”
She is clearly sad about the break-up of her second marriage, and feeling rootless, currently renting in both America and the UK. She says she can’t contemplate another relationship right now, or think about having or adopting another child. (Salome was born after many tortuous courses of IVF, and there has been speculation that Kingston’s wish for another baby contributed to her break-up with Haertel.)
But she is relishing being back in Hackney, her old Rada stomping ground: “Back then if you went to the canal you took your life in your hands, whereas now it’s full of little cafés and people on bikes.” She likes being able to walk everywhere and people-watch, impossible activities in LA.
“I need to sort out the logistics of how I live with my daughter, but I’m relatively happy just discovering myself right now,” she says.
And if she was offered the choice of another character like Corday on US TV, or a big classical stage role here, which would she choose? “To be honest, I would have to do something that was going to help me out financially,” she says. “I would have no choice. But I am longing to play Cleopatra. In fact, I’m going to tell Michael Grandage that he can direct me. Is that having my cake and eating it?”
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