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5:00pm Friday 17th February 2012 in Interview
Getting older is proving an unexpectedly positive experience for actress Harriet Walter.
In the past year alone, the 61-year-old has become a Dame, self-published a book and married – for the first time.
She puts much of this good fortune down to the ongoing “randomness” of life, but will admit ageing has afforded her a degree of confidence lacking in her earlier years.
“It gives you a certain sense of proportion and more of an acceptance of yourself. You realise a lot of the things you’d been fussing about when you were younger don’t really matter and you relax a little.”
Walter is not, by her own admission, a woman with a natural capacity for relaxation.
Her impressive career – which includes a long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company and roles in films such as Sense And Sensibility, Atonement and The Young Victoria – has been fuelled by hard work.
These workaholic tendencies have, in the past, come at the expense of her private life.
Now she says she doesn’t get so fretful when she isn’t working. Her marriage to American actor Guy Paul has filled “the romantic gap”
left after the death of her long-term partner (and fellow actor) Peter Blythe, and she’s more inclined to debate whether to take a role or, as she puts it, “go travelling to Thailand. And I might go travelling to Thailand!”
She has struggled with the physical effects of ageing, however, particularly with the notion that looking good is about looking young.
It’s clearly not true, but, as she points out, it’s one thing knowing it, quite another seeng it widely acknowledged.
It was only a few days ago that a report commissioned by the BBC revealed serious concern at the lack of middle-aged women represented in the media, backing up a petition launched by actors’ union Equity and signed by nearly 10,000 people, demanding TV companies address the imbalance of male and female roles on UK TV.
A few years ago, Walter attempted to redress the balance herself, mounting an exhibition of photographs of older women she found inspiring.
This led to her new book, Facing It, in which images of Anita Pallenburg, Annie Lennox and Cleo Laine sit next to those of non-famous, equally attractive women, all over the age of 50.
“I was facing growing old and had started wondering about my own aspirations; I want to go on feeling young, positive and ambitious but at the same time, I accept I don’t look the same as I used to.
It seemed to me there were a lot of fantastic, inspirational older women who may have grey hair, or bags under their eyes, but still look stunning.
I was sick of this fear people seem to have of growing older and trying to freeze their looks.”
Making the book, which she self-published – “No publisher would touch it because photographic books are so expensive... and anyway, I was the one who wanted it out there” – changed her own views on the subject of age.
“I’d started off collecting pictures of people I’d like to look like. But it made me realise you can’t look like anyone else, especially when you’re older. And why should you want to? It also made me question the notion of vanity.
I came across a lot of women who told me they dressed for kicks and not to be attractive to anyone else, and I came across others who said they liked the fact being older meant they didn’t have to bother what they looked like, and I realised both views were perfectly valid.”
Although she continues to enjoy steady work, Walter says she is disappointed by the lack of rounded roles for women of her age.
“When I was younger, I’d be reaching to play parts that were bigger than me.
Now, I’m having to put my big, older self into a tiny little bottle of a part. Older women are often just used as ciphers to carry the plot forward, the story rarely hinges on them.”
There is, of course, a balance to be struck. She would hate to start seeing parts created purely for the sake of inclusivity, she says, or for young actors not to be given their chance to shine.
“At the moment, the older generation has it so much better than the younger one,”
she adds. “But there are all sorts of areas of expertise and experience that you can’t just put on the dust heap once people reach a certain age.”
Charming as she is, Walters is certainly intense. She lightens when asked about becoming a Dame, explaining that her first reaction was “the Woody Allen one – I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of any club that would have me as a member. But actually, like all actors, I can get incredibly insecure in a very short space of time and this was something absolute, something concrete that means someone, somewhere, has voted for me. I was quite delighted.”
Currently starring in ITV 1’s Law and Order UK, Walter’s next role is to be a comic one in The Wedding Video, a romantic comedy from the writer and director of Calendar Girls, set in the cut-throat world of English society weddings.
Walter plays “a blonde, tanned, over-made-up, nouveau-riche mother-ofthe- bride. I know comedy is not what people immediately associate me with, but actually, I’ve done quite a bit and I’d rather like to do more.”
* Harriet Walter will be talking about Facing It, and signing copies of the book at IEKO Environments, High Street, Lewes, at 7pm on Saturday, Feb 25. Entry costs £3.50. For more information, call IEKO on 01273 472625.
*Facing It can be purchased through visiting www.facingit publications.
com, priced £21.99.