Greta Scacchi: ‘I was always being invited to play a male fantasy’

<span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Greta Scacchi, 63, is an Emmy award-winning actor. Born in Milan, Italy, she spent her childhood in England and two years of her teens in Australia, where she began working in theatre. Her films include White Mischief, The Player and Emma, and she can currently be seen in the TV series Bodies and recent film Run Rabbit Run (with Succession’s Sarah Snook), both on Netflix. Scacchi is about to play Mrs Hardcastle in a 1930s-style update of Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer at the Orange Tree theatre, Richmond.

She Stoops to Conquer’s Mrs Hardcastle is one of theatre’s best-known older female characters – flamboyant, mercenary, funny and vulnerable. What drew you to her?
I remembered the play from my first year at drama school when I was 18. You wouldn’t have thought of it to look at me then but I loved playing the ridiculous character parts. Mrs Hardcastle was one I’d always wanted to do, so it’s incredible that it’s finally happened, now I suit the age and the size of the woman. I’m getting to a place where it’s great to embrace different kinds of characters which are not what people expect of me.

You also play The Lady in Bodies, a character who begins as a mysterious voice. What is it like being part of a big Netflix show?
I’m very glad that people like it, and I’m a huge admirer of Stephen Graham and the other very fine actors in it, but it doesn’t matter what I think, really, because I never watch my stuff. TV doesn’t feel as warm, collaborative and creative as theatre. Only the camera crew and the makeup artists who are there every day get the sense of being part of something bigger. I did two or three days out of five months, so I struggled to remember my character’s name, let alone anyone else’s.

So theatre’s your preferred medium?
It’s like my sacred space. As you get older, life itself continues to throw more challenges and dramas your way, and doing theatre, with its pace, its timings of rehearsals and its rules, makes me feel a bit more in control.

Greta Scacchi in White Mischief (1988).
Greta Scacchi in White Mischief (1988). Photograph: Alamy

You were a huge star in the 1980s. How do you reflect on that time now?
It was very clear to me even then that I was always being invited to play a male fantasy. I had to work very hard to punch some integrity into the idea of being a woman when I was placed inside that male gaze. I’ve seen that change a lot, and there are so many more female directors getting attention, which is great, but the way older women get portrayed is often still very odd.

In what way?
I call it the grey wig in the wardrobe problem. In the last five years I’ve played five characters that have required me to wear grey wigs of varying levels of quality, so I’ve had one made that actually fits me and sits ready in my wardrobe at home. But many women don’t look grey-wigged. Look at Maggie Smith in real life and she’s fashionable, youthful. Where are the glamorous – or even not glamorous – representations of today’s older women? Where are the women who went through women’s lib? Flower power? The punk chicks? Just because we’re playing people over 60, we shouldn’t be playing outdated preconceptions of what we are.

Despite having a British mother you only got a British passport in recent years. Why?
Even though my mother’s family is English all the way back, that didn’t count for Margaret Thatcher. My older siblings had British passports, but just before I got to adulthood she legislated against children born to foreign fathers. I’m still offended. When I knew Brexit was coming, I thought I’d better do something about this before I’m kicked out. I love Australia and Italy too, but I’ve always chosen to live near London. It’s annoying and rainy and cold but it’s also very interesting. Up to my standard!

If acting hadn’t worked out, what were your alternative career plans?
I wanted to be a tour guide in exciting places – to, say, go to the Valley of the Kings and find out about it, belong to it and share my enthusiasm. It was another version of acting, really, of immersing myself and travelling.

Which actors inspire you today?
Matthew Macfadyen in Succession. How can he become both a seemingly squeaky clean and yet completely corrupt American person? And how did Tom and his mate Greg [Nicholas Braun] create something that perfectly, singingly incredible together? I don’t know! Jemma Redgrave in Octopolis at Hampstead theatre recently was astonishing too. She’s come to that point in her career where her history, the accumulation of her powers and that role have just gone into a sort of zing. And I can’t recommend Monica Dolan in Carol Morley’s new film Typist Artist Pirate King enough. She is constantly in my head at the moment.

You starred with your daughter, Leila George, in an Australian film, He Ain’t Heavy, earlier this year, playing her mother. Do you give her advice?
No way. You soon learn not to give any advice! In our relationship on screen there was friction and blame, and, of course, allegiance and cooperation, all of those things that are just typical of a mother and daughter in real life. It was very strange, but in the end it was very good and really lovely.

You live in Sussex again, as you did as a child. What is that like?
I still love running up the Downs. I also have a proper Sussex garden, and I have green-fingered ancestors from Gloucestershire on my mother’s side, which I think have passed down to me. I’m fascinated by the weeds, the meadow areas, how differently things develop every year, and I grow lots of basil, tomatoes, zucchini, borlotti beans. Tuscan veg for proper Italian soup! If my beans don’t grow, I don’t buy tins either. I’ll go to Italy in August or September and fill my suitcase with them instead.

  • She Stoops to Conquer is at the Orange Tree theatre, Richmond, Surrey, from 18 November to 13 January 2024