Interview: Susannah Fielding
Published in The Stage, 11.12.2014
Susannah Fielding has just come from a costume fitting, and she’s on a bit of a high. Pulling on Portia’s “pageant princess baby-doll outfit with a pink rara skirt and a big blonde wig” took her right back to Stratford-Upon-Avon, three years ago, when Rupert Goold’s Merchant of Venice was probably the best – and certainly, the buzziest – show in the country.
Goold set the play in an abstracted version of Las Vegas, full of casinos and addicts, and almost all grime. Belmont – where Portia’s based – becomes its opposite: all gloss. “It’s the world of reality TV,” explains Fielding. “The caskets are a game show, and Portia’s both the presenter and the prize.”
Inspired by American beauty pageants and their “toddlers in tiaras,” Fielding played Portia “as a broken doll.” She wanted to look at the psychological impact of being so objectified and so false. The critics raved and raved. “She enriches the role with layers you never thought possible,” wrote one.
Thinking back, she remembers “the intense nerves” of putting such a new spin on such a revered role. Even so, Fielding loves that approach: “Anything to get away from that stuffy” – she adopts her best Simon Callow boom – “’We are talking in Shakespeare’ vibe. Let’s make it immediate and relevant and troubling.”
She suits the style too – and you can see why Goold cast her. Fielding has a zing onstage: more pop art than pastels and oils. She’s perky and, with big brown eyes and full moon cheeks, gorgeous in a slightly cartoonish way.
Bright too – all of which suits Shakespeare’s front-footed women perfectly. She relished Portia’s ability to “drive the intellectual side of a scene,” and, in time, one suspects she’ll kill it as Rosalind and Kate the Shrew, too. Her Hermia, for Michael Grandage, was positively pugilistic.
So why go back to Portia four years on? Unfinished business, apparently. Merchant had been due to transfer into town. A theatre was lined up, but with four Stratford shows to go, the show got gazumped. Such is the West End way. Free theatres are scarce and highly sought-after.
Fielding was particularly disappointed. “It was really tough. It was the first time that people had been saying, ‘Oh, you won’t have to go back to the pub now’ – and that’s exactly what I did. I went back to washing up.”
She wound up out of work for six months – a stint that significantly dented her confidence. “You really start to think, Was I genuinely any good? Am I doing the right thing? Can I actually handle the ups and downs of this now I know what they are?” That’s a big deal. Every actor starts with warnings ringing in their ears: about the insecurities, the rejection, the financial hardship. It’s only when you live that life – and only the very luckiest handful never have to – that you really understand what it entails. For Fielding, it meant washing up – and lots of it.
Four years on, she’s philosophical about that phase. “It often happens when you’re moving into a different casting bracket or if you get a big job. Once you go up a rung, people don’t really know where to place you for a while.”
Beforehand, she’d hardly stopped working. She left school – a means-tested boarding school in Dorset – and, after a year living in London, went to Guildhall, leaving early after being cast at the National in The Rose Tattoo.
Only months earlier, she’d been ushering there, watching Anna Maxwell Martin in His Dark Materials night after night. She wells up at the memory: “I’d sit there every night and go, Wow. It’s amazing: how different it was, how the energy changed, how performances progressed.”
The NT kept hold of her for 18 months, during which time she joined Rory Kinnear and Conleth Hill in Philistines, and Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker in Much Ado About Nothing – both inordinately acclaimed productions.
Television followed: Wallander, Dr Who, and her first regular role in Pete Versus Life. Then, in 2010, she won an Ian Charleson nomination for The Enemy of the People in Sheffield. She turned 25 on the day of the ceremony. “All the people handing out awards – some amazing actors – sang me happy birthday.” Merchant followed soon afterwards.
Something happens to attractive young actors who achieve success early on: they get publicists. There’s a star-making machine, unseen, behind the industry. Drama school grads are whisked off, dolled up, well spun and – faster than you can say Henry Higgins – they’re the Next Big Thing. Publicists get actors into the right places and the right publications, to be seen by the right people and, hopefully, the right work follows. Success breeds success – but so does the perception of success.
Fielding’s totally in that merry-go-round: well media-trained and properly photogenic. But she really doesn’t seem the sort for it: too grounded and, frankly, too clever. “It’s part of the industry now,” she says, without the slightest harrumph. “It’s a tough, tough industry and sometimes, especially going into big films or big TV, you need a bit of help.
“Unfortunately, when you get to a certain level, you’re as much a clothes horse as an actress. Some actresses do that really well, but there’s still sexism – well – in every industry really. Women are judged on their image a lot more.”
Case in point: Fielding did a lad’s mag photoshoot, soon after drama school – something she now regrets. “They approached my agent and in I went, totally unaware of what that would mean. Obviously, I wish I hadn’t done it and I wouldn’t do something like that now. When I started out I thought you had to do everything people told you to do.”
At 29, you sense she’s changed, grown into herself and taken charge of her own direction. “You have to keep your integrity. Otherwise you can be pushed into doing things that don’t feel right and find yourself sitting in a hotel room in Hollywood, after five days of interviews, going ‘This isn’t what I wanted. I don’t have any friends left.’” America, she’s realised, isn’t for her. More theatre, more comedy, more really great tele are.
The reason is, in part, vanity – or, rather, a lack of it. Casting director Rosalie Clayton, who cast Fielding in the recent Channel 4 sitcom Scrotal Recall, says its what makes her so watchable: “She doesn’t worry about being silly – which is often lacking in pretty women – and so she plays with the lines and lands the jokes.” It makes for rounded and realistic female characters too. “She’s presents women that women want to watch,” says Clayton.
That’s a very conscious choice. Fielding doesn’t do roles that are “just pretty girls. We’re all much more complicated than that, and it’s refreshing to get the girl who’s mad and funny or rude and brave.” Silliness, too, is an deliberate ploy: “A million people can stand there are look pretty. I’m interested in actors that put themselves on the line.”
That said, she’s a technician as well. Comedy appeals to her “obsessive” side, honing the timing or inflection to land a joke. Theatre, too – balancing the “technical stuff” with
What, I wonder, does acting feel like? Fielding’s big eyes get bigger. She beams. “Liiiike,” – she stalls – “being on a dance floor, late at night, dancing to a song that you love and getting the moves just right. It’s about the sheer freedom and exhilaration of being in front of an audience like that. I just love it.”
Photograph: Tristram Kenton