So, Glenda Jackson: Have you found that egos are bigger in the acting world or the political realm?
The multiple threat who’s straddled both couldn’t help but laugh at the question. “I have seen people walking down the corridors of Parliament and the House of Commons with egos that would not be tolerated for 30 seconds in the professional theater,” she responded.
That was just one of many frank answers the legendary veteran of film, stage and politics gave Tina Brown at the 10th annual Women in the World Summit at Lincoln Center.
Jackson is 82 years old — “rapidly approaching 83,” she was quick to note — yet most nights she commands a Broadway stage for three-and-a-half hours in a ferocious interpretation of King Lear. She considers Shakespeare “still the most contemporary playwright around” and says that once you dig into the energy of the play, “it takes you forward like an express train.”
While in New York, she’s watching events unfold in her homeland, aghast. On Brexit, described by Brown as a “slow-moving car crash,” Jackson was characteristically candid: “Some of those people I’ve known quite well. They seem to have reverted from adults to overindulged spoiled babies,” she said. “They are crazy… The country voted and it is Parliament’s responsibility to deliver that democratic decision — that’s what our country is based on.”
She doesn’t blame Britain’s beleaguered prime minister, however. “The way Theresa May has been treated is utterly appalling. Absolutely disgraceful. There she is, slogging away, bless her, back and forth to Europe to a Parliament that seems deliberately intent on savaging her and her ideas while having none of their own to put in their place.”
When she was first elected to Parliament, someone asked Jackson how she would manage the men’s club. Jackson parried: “That’s been my experience my whole life.” Auditioning as an actress, she said, “I spent a long time making myself look as good as I could.” Then the men in charge of the hiring would look up and say, “‘Thank you darling, but we’re looking for a blonde.’ Or, ‘We need someone a bit taller.’ You were totally rejected within 30 seconds.”
Jackson originally put her acting career on hiatus with two Oscars in the bag because she would do anything “that was legal to get Margaret Thatcher out of power.” During a tribute to Thatcher after her death, Jackson went on a now-famous tirade against the prime minister. She told the Women in the World audience that Thatcher’s constituency suffered from her policies, with schools lacking basic fundamentals like books, paper, and pencils. “This was the woman who said, ‘What did the suffragettes ever do for me?’ I mean, c’mon.”
But, as Brown noted, Jackson wasn’t turning her back on a surplus of meaty roles for women. “What I find utterly bemusing, and have the whole of my theatrical career, is why contemporary dramatists don’t find women interesting?”
She said the biggest difference in the way women wield power — especially in politics — is that they can remain civil and get the work done. “Women can dislike each other and not have a friendly word to say, but you sit around the table and when we’re all there to tackle a particular problem, we can do it.”
Age is very much on her mind. “The inside me seems to be stuck at around age 15,” said Jackson, who scooped up every conceivable acting award for Three Tall Women last year. “It’s the envelope that carries that which becomes inordinately disobedient and doesn’t do what you tell it to do.”
Maintaining youth and beauty in Hollywood is practically mandatory for women. Jackson, though, has a quick antidote to plastic surgery: “I’m afraid of needles and knives and I don’t want to go through all that.” But, she said, “I always wanted in a sense to be old, because I wanted to demand somebody stand up and give me a seat on the bus… Now that people stand up on the tube and offer me a seat, I’m always quite shocked. Really, do I look that old? But I take it.”
Growing up in a working-class family as the oldest of four sisters was a lesson in itself. “One of the greatest gifts of my life has been a strong work ethic. I grew up in that socioeconomic group where, if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat,” she said.
Now Jackson lives in London with her son and 12-year-old grandson, who wants to be an actor. “I work assiduously to put him off that idea,” she said. “It is a very, very hard life.” (And yet, somehow she makes it look all quite effortless.)
Despite the tidal wave of change following #MeToo, Jackson thinks it’s imperative to look further down the ladder. “I was in this country when that broke and my overwhelming sentiment was huge hypocrisy. Did we really not know what was going on? That’s just crazy. Although I value very much there’s an opening of the door in that way, it’s a very narrow door.” From honor killings to girls not being allowed to go to school, “We kid ourselves if we think this kind of behavior is reserved for a certain kind of men,” she said.
As the conversation came to a close — Jackson had an evening performance to prep for, after all — she was asked which passage speaks to her most powerfully in Lear. She said it’s when he refers to the “poor naked wretches” and says, “I have taken too little care of this.”
We are often confronted by injustices. You can walk around anywhere and see homeless people sleeping in doorways — and we must take care. As Jackson said, it’s the “responsibility of us all as individuals and human beings. We find it much too easy to forget that we’re all the same.”