The sadness behind Zoe's smile

The sadness behind Zoe's smile
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Words: Alison James         

Zoë Wanamaker doesn’t play wall-flowers or shy, retiring types. The characters she’s best known for – Madame Hooch in the Harry Potter films, mum Susan in My Family and amateur sleuth Ariadne Oliver in Poirot – tend to be gutsy, outspoken and no nonsense.

The same qualities Zoë herself seems to possess. She likes a drink and a smoke, but underneath there is a softer centre, which is quite vulnerable. She has recently said she was brought up not to push herself forward. “I’m not comfortable being a ‘front’ person – my job is to
act. I don’t have the confidence to be a ‘personality’.”

And she also revealed that she suffers from depression, though acting helps her confidence.

“Working changes everything. When you’re working you’re confident.”

But perhaps it’s this mix of vulnerability yet confidence as an actress that allows Zoë to completely inhabit the character she’s playing. Watching her as Marie de Bolotoff in Mr Selfridge, for instance, you forget she’s Zoë Wanamaker – for that hour on Sunday evenings she really is a Russian princess.

“I love playing her,” says Zoë, who’s 65 and has been happily married to actor Gawn Grainger
for 20 years. “She was a real person and is a complete aristocrat. She’s used to being waited on hand and foot; never closes doors because someone else is meant to do that and expects someone else to clear up after her. It’s
always been that way.

“When it comes to money, she doesn’t think anything of charging everything to Harry Selfridge’s account. As far as she’s concerned it’s totally normal. She’s the mother of Harry’s son-in-law and that’s just how things are. Marie was known as a serial spendthrift and that’s how she lived all
her life.”

Zoë’s been enthralled to learn about the princess’s history.

“Doing the research was fascinating. I learned a lot from Lindy Woodhead who wrote, Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge.

“I’ve also been reading about Russian history, particularly during the period in which my character lived. The fact the aristocracy had to get out of Russia very quickly in 1917 and take as much wealth as they could carry without being searched was very important to me.

“You can see the desperation of having to survive and get by in a foreign land. To have to run must have been terrifying. Imagine horses chasing you across snow and ice, and trying to get on a train and out of there. Apparently the aristocracy's mentality was extraordinary. In Moscow, before they had to get out, the manicurists were run off their feet because the women had to have their nails done!”

Although Zoë didn’t know much about Harry Selfridge when she started filming, she was already very familiar with his famous store.

“When I was young, my mum used to go to Selfridges all the time and I used to go with her,” says Zoë. “I remember it really well. My mum was American so going into department stores was the norm and Selfridges was fairly close to where we lived. It was massive! It’s changed so much now but it was a very glamorous place, and still is. The architecture is so beautiful. I love the clock and the doors and it still has the wooden floors. It is a beautiful shop.”

Wearing Marie’s fabulous costumes is another joy.

“I absolutely hate clothes shopping, but I love clothes so it’s my idea of heaven to be handed things to wear – and very beautiful things, too,”
Zoë goes on. “Marie had been in Paris before arriving in London so she would have spent a lot of money on clothes of the couture at the time.
She would have had the very best and it was important she looked moneyed. The detail is wonderful. The costume designer has been great, we talked a lot about what the princess would wear – the colours, jewellery and make-up. We looked at a lot of pictures and talked about different styles.”

Coupled with fantastic costume creations, Zoë also has some of the best one-liners of the series.
“She’s a force to be reckoned with,” Zoë laughs. “I love her one-liners. She’s arrogantly funny. But she’s got to be witty and sharp – to go through all she has and keep your sense of humour, you have to be funny.”

Zoë’s only concern about taking on the role was being sure she
could adopt Marie’s Russian accent correctly.

“I didn’t want to make the accent too ‘meerkat’ because that’s going slightly too far,” she smiles. “Instead I wanted to give her an aristocratic tone that wasn’t incomprehensible or laughable. I had a wonderful dialect coach who did a lot of research for me.

“He has a Russian friend and recorded her voice for me to listen to. During the filming of the wedding reception in episode one there were a couple of Russian speakers. I started speaking to them and asked them if my accent was OK. Fortunately they gave me the seal of approval!”

  • Mr Selfridge is on ITV1 on Sunday evenings
  • For more star chat, pick up the next copy of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday