Dame Diana Rigg, best known in popular culture for two TV roles (Emma Peel in “The Avengers” and Olenna Tyrell in “Game of Thrones”), also has an extensive theatre résumé, including a Tony for Medea in 1994. At the age of 79, she shows no sign of slowing down; she’s currently playing Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center Theater in an open run, directed by Bartlett Sher. This is her third time with that story—she played Mrs. Higgins and Eliza in previous versions of Pygmalion in London. She answered questions about her career while reclining on a white couch in artistic director André Bishop’s office.
DIEP TRAN: You played Mrs. Higgins in Pygmalion at the Garrick Theatre in London. Why did you decide to do this role again?
DIANA RIGG: Well, I just loved the idea. This is what the theatre is about. It’s about revisiting. Most people, they’re awfully busy, moving on, on, on, on. My age, you revisit. I love the play. I just love it. It’s [Shaw’s] perfect play.
Which ending do you prefer, My Fair Lady’s or Pygmalion’s?
I like her to have the last word. It’s more enigmatic coming from her. I seem to remember when I played [Eliza in 1974 at the Albery Theatre in London], I said, “What you’re going to do without me, I cannot imagine,” which is delicious, because it means she’s got the choice. I’ve always thought that she would play it her way and wait, then make him suffer. Make him suffer, but then he’d be so grateful when she stepped over the threshold. That’s my theory. But that’s what I love about the play. Every member of the audience makes their own decision according to whether they’re romantics or cynics, or people that have been divorced 15 times.
I always felt like he enjoyed it when she talked back.
Yes, exactly. He says, “You know, I’ve made you the woman you are.” Rubbish. He hasn’t made her the woman she is. The woman she is was always there. The economic circumstances kept her the underdog. But now she’s not anymore.
Tell me about Mrs. Higgins. What’s your take on her?
Obviously you have to work out the background. It’s just Mrs. Higgins and Henry, no mention of mister. So I’ve worked out that he was obviously rich because she has money. But their relationships would suggest that the husband or father hasn’t been around for a long time, I would say from when he was a young boy. That accounts for the fact that Henry has obviously been indulged, and she knows she’s indulged him. She’s turned him into this rather indulged grown-up who behaves like a child from time to time. But there’s great love there, her for him. Henry has to work out for himself what he feels for her.
I think Higgins’s treatment of women is one of the more problematic aspects of the play, especially now.
It’s not my problem. It’s his problem. And Bart [Sher]’s problem.
What do you want the audience to take away from the piece now?
It’s the same, truly: that for a woman to be whole, she has to be true to herself and she has to be truly independent. I was around when feminism kicked off, not obviously the suffragettes, but close. And I think economic independence is, and has always been, incredibly important. Because that way you get respect.
You fought for pay equality as far back as “The Avengers.”
Yes, when it was considered bad manners, unladylike, unfeminine, masculine, mercenary. It was not a good thing to do. You were painted in a rather unattractive light as a result. But I weathered it. It was lonely because nobody backed me up. There were no other women who stood out and came forward and said, “Well done, you. How disgusting it is that you’re getting so much less than the cameraman.” Nobody said a word. I’m so pleased now to see all the support that women are giving each other.
I think a lot of actresses still feel afraid to speak up for themselves. How did you find the courage then?
It’s just a sense of justice. I was cross. It was so unfair. And I was not not employed as a result of it. I got a lot of publicity. That’s always a good thing. Publicity was always good.
And then you went back to the theatre.
I have to say, leaving theatre and going to television, I got shit from Peter Hall, who was my boss at Royal Shakespeare Company. He said, “Oh, she’s going to waste herself on films and television.” Because in those days television was considered a lesser medium. It didn’t have the power it has nowadays. When I left the Royal Shakespeare Company, I had absolutely loved it, but I was cornering myself as a classical actress, and I had to break out of that. And the first thing I did, when I knew I could put buns on seats, was to go back to the Royal Shakespeare Company and do Viola in Twelfth Night. Each perfectly valid medium is feeding the other.
Is that advice you give to younger actors now, to be versatile?
Well, my advice to them now is if you want longevity in your career, serve the theatre. The theatre audiences are incredibly loyal. If you keep going back, you build your audience, and apart from anything else, it’s such a joyful part of the profession, the live audience.
Have you found a difference between American versus British drama?
There is a difference, and it’s good there’s a difference, and we can learn from each other. I haven’t been rehearsing all the time, so I’ve been watching Turner Classic Movies. I’m so admiring of what was written and how it was acted in those days (and still, obviously). There was a turning point, I think it was the ’40s and ’50s—Splendor in the Grass, On the Waterfront. The writers, such as William Inge, and the subjects they tackled—they were miles ahead of us, and still are, as a matter of fact. The visceral subjects they tackled, and we tend to be skittering on the top. I’ll probably be kicked in the teeth when I go back to England if you put that!
So Albee over Stoppard?
Oh, no. Stoppard, I love him, and I am deeply grateful to him, because he has given me wonderful opportunities [Jumpers, Night and Day]. Albee, actually, didn’t like my performance [in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?].
I only learned afterward that he didn’t. I thought, “You silly wuss, why didn’t you tell me at the time? I’d have done what you’d wanted me to.” He was there during rehearsals. I’m not sad about it, but what I am sad about is I missed the opportunity of learning from the very man who wrote the piece what I was doing wrong.
I read that you compiled a book, No Turn Unstoned, of bad theatre reviews. What do you think of critics now?
Well, I’ve always insisted, and I said so in the book, that critics are an integral part of our business and they are wonderful historians, because what they’ve written is a resurrection of glorious performances in the past. You can read them and realize the extent of these brilliant performances. They inform the public. So I’m not against critics at all. I’m against ignorant critics who do not know their theatre history, and do not know good writing when they see it or hear it, and do not know good acting when they see it, and come with an agenda. That’s what I truly dislike.
What was your most memorable experience onstage?
I have to say Medea, because it started so small and so utterly unrecognized, and then ended up a sellout on Broadway. Who would’ve thought? I asked the producers if they would put Euripides’ name up in lights and they wouldn’t do it, because they said it would turn the audience off. I said, “I’ll pay,” and they still wouldn’t do it. But 2,000 years after a play has been written, to be packing a theatre in America on Broadway…It was so moving.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Generally, food. The best: caviar. I feel very guilty because it’s so expensive. Double guilt.
If you had one play that you could just perform over and over again for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I think it would probably be a play I never did. I understudied Katherine in Taming of the Shrew, and I’d have loved to have to done that. I know the feminists rise up and say, “What the hell?” And I just say “What the hell, it’s a gloriously romantic piece.” I know her last soliloquy. I’ve had anesthetic recently, a couple of times, and I’ve said to the anesthetist, “I know this soliloquy. I’m going to be saying it when I go under, and I expect to be saying it when I come out.” And that’s what I do. It’s a wonderful speech. “Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth? Unapt to toil and trouble in the world, but that desire soft conditions and our hearts should well agree with our external parts.” She’s just kidding Petruchio, she’s just saying it to wheedle him.