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Stage legend Glenda Jackson on owning the spotlight in her eighties

The illustrious Glenda Jackson, this year’s lock for Best Actress in a Play, sits down with us for afternoon tea

Glenda Jackson in Three Tall Women
Photograph: Brigette Lacombe Glenda Jackson in Three Tall Women
By Elysa Gardner |
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After an absence of 30 years, Glenda Jackson—the stage legend, two-time Oscar winner and, from 1992 to 2015, member of Parliament—returned to Broadway this spring in a revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. The critical reception was rapturous, and after four nominations, Jackson is expected to win her first Tony. Chatting at a teahouse on the Upper East Side, the 82-year-old Englishwoman is warm, relaxed and sharp as a tack, viewing awards, she says, “the way I’ve always viewed them: They’re gifts, but they don’t make you any better.”

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Your performance in Three Tall Women is breathtaking, as are Laurie Metcalf’s and Alison Pill’s.
That’s one of the reasons I chose to do it. Opportunities for actresses are limited. It is so rare for a play to have more than one part of this caliber. Why don’t contemporary dramatists find women interesting? For some reason, the central dramatic energy is still predominantly male.

What is it like to be playing, essentially, Albee’s mother, with whom he had a notoriously frosty relationship?
Albee said—I’m paraphrasing—“During her life, I never met anyone who liked her, but I’ve never met anyone who saw the play who disliked her. What have I done?” [Laughs] You have to look at the character through the character’s eyes. This woman believes in herself, and she has achieved the things she wanted to achieve.

How did your time in Parliament inform your perspective as an artist and a woman?
When I first went in, it was with the largest number of women that had ever been elected, though we were still a minority in the House of Commons. Someone said to me, “How are you going to function in what is essentially a middle-aged men’s club?” And I said, “What are you talking about? That’s been my experience my whole life.” It has shifted quite a bit now; MPs are younger, babies are allowed to be carried through voting lobbies.

As a former insider, do you feel a special sense of despair when you read the news?
It’s interesting, in a macabre way. It’s something that the whole developed Western world seems to be suffering from, this shift to the right. This kind of blame culture that seems to be very prevalent at the moment. If one looks at the historical data, things are liable to get worse before they get better—but they will get better. I believe that human beings do want to live in peace, that they don’t want starvation and poverty and cruelty. It’s a matter of how long it takes before we bloody wake up and say, No, we’ve got to change this.

Was it a relief to return to acting?
The egos you see going up and down that corridor wouldn’t be tolerated in professional theater for 20 seconds! When I left, I said to the girls in my office, “I’m going to have a life of utter irresponsibility. It’s going to be wonderful.” But your responsibilities actually increase because no one is going to get you out of bed in the morning. I’m blessed in that I have a very strong work ethic, which stems from my social upbringing: If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat—simple as that.

Is anything on your agenda after this production wraps?
Not really. You never know what’s going to come through the door—might be interesting, might be nothing at all. But I’ve been very fortunate in my life.

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