Catherine McCormack talks to Sarah Freeman about playing Mrs Robinson in The Graduate at West Yorkshire Playhouse
First a spoiler. Catherine McCormack will not be baring all as Mrs Robinson.
There will be a glimpse of skin, quite a bit in fact, in the new production of The Graduate, which opens next week at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, but she won’t be doing a Jerry Hall or a Kathleen Turner who stripped off for the West End production in the early Noughties.
“Believe me when I say that I am sparing the audience,” says the 45-year-old. “I guess it is the thing a lot of people associate the role with, but it’s not been a big deal. When I first spoke to the director Lucy Bailey she said not to worry about it, that scene would be something we would discuss together.
“It came up a week or so into rehearsals and we both decided that it wasn’t necessary.”
While full nudity might have generated a little more publicity for the show, McCormack has never been much interested in hype. When she got a big break in 1995 starring opposite Mel Gibson in Braveheart she was heralded as Britain’s next big thing. One critic went so far to describe as a “an Elizabeth Hurley who could act”.
Following the film’s release she spent some time in Hollywood making movies which never quite garnered the attention of Gibson’s epic tale of William Wallace and she quickly knew that LA would never be home.
“I loved going out there and doing my job, but if I had stayed I think it would have sent me mad. I think you have to be a certain type of character to be able to survive and thrive in LA and it really wasn’t for me.”
While McCormack hasn’t avoided being in front of the camera – recently she was out in Prague filming a the new National Geographic series Einstein – but it’s on the stage where she has made her mark, playing the likes of Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Isabel Archer in the stage adaptation of Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady.
“In theatre you definitely feel like you have more input into the final result, it is much more of a collaborative process,” she says on a break from rehearsals for The Graduate. “Of course you play your part in film, but there can also be a lot of time sitting around and eating biscuits. Often you just have a couple of run throughs, you say your lines and that’s it you’re done. I love the rehearsal process in the theatre when you really get to explore a character.”
This is the first time McCormack has worked with Bailey, but she had admired the director, whose particularly gory version of Titus Andronicus at the RSC a few years ago caused a tidal wave of fainting in the auditorium, from afar.
“I have always loved her work, it feels so fresh and exciting. Lucy is brilliantly eccentric and when she asked whether I would be interested in playing Mrs Robinson, I said yes as soon as I had read Terry Johnson’s script. The dialogue is so sharp and so funny.
“The film wasn’t an all-time favourite, it was one of those that I had watched years ago and forgotten about, but the play is wonderful and rehearsals have been a joy. Lucy is one of those directors who encourages you to experiment, to play a character as big as you can go and then rein it back in. I really love that way of working.”
While Mrs Robinson, famously played on the big screen by Anne Bancroft opposite a very young Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock is often characterised as the original cougar, she is, says McCormack, much more complex than that.
“Outwardly she is a woman who seems to have everything. She has a comfortable existence, everything that money can buy, but you don’t have to scratch much below the surface to see that everything is not well. She’s an alcoholic, her marriage is falling apart. She has no-one to turn to and that’s why she seeks solace in Benjamin. It’s a doomed relationship, but she just wants someone to notice her.”
In Lucy Bailey’s production, Jack Monaghan, who played the lead role in the record-breaking West End production of War Horse, plays the object of Mrs Robinson’s affections.
“Thankfully, he is 28 years old, although yes, it still feels a little weird,” says McCormack.
Another reason McCormack loves theatre might be that it neatly avoids the problem of whether she should watch her own performance.
“When I first started out I did watch everything I did, but I was so critical of myself that I stopped. I also no longer read reviews. If they are bad it’s not good for the soul, but I also don’t think it’s healthy reading how good someone else thinks you are. Growing up I was that cliche of the shy, awkward, gangly kid who found confidence through acting, but underneath that’s still who I am.”
Outside acting, and partly as a way to fill the time between jobs McCormack is also a writer and she has directed a number of comedy shorts. It’s something she would like to do more of, but there is no longer a huge wish list of career ambitions.
“For a while in the 1990s I coveted every part that Juliette Binoche had. I loved everything she did but I’ve got over that slight crush now. Most actors start out with roles they really want to play, but your career rarely pans out the way you think it’s going to. Now I’m just content to take each job as it comes.”
The Graduate runs at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds until May 27. 0113 213 7700, wyp.org.uk.
The many faces of The Graduate
The Graduate started life as a novel by Charles Webb. Published in 1963, four years later it was adapted for film, starring Anne Bancroft as Mrs Robinson and a 21-year-old Dustin Hoffman.
Terry Johnson’s adaptation of the original novel ran both on London’s West End and on Broadway, starring the likes of Kathleen Turner, Jerry Hall, Amanda Donohoe and Linda Gray as Mrs Robinson.
The stage production uses songs by Simon & Garfunkel not used in the film, such as Baby Driveras