I turned down a romp with DiCaprio! Dame Eileen Atkins, 78, reveals why she said no to a steamy kiss with Leonardo – and still regrets it
02:04 GMT, 2 November 2012
Dame Eileen Atkins as Maud, Lady Holland in the recently cancelled Upstairs Downstairs
Dame Eileen Atkins is feeling rather pleased with herself. She has been performing a tough Beckett play, in which she is on stage for the entire 75 minutes, for three weeks already and she hasn’t lost her temper once.
‘I am a bit volcanic,’ she admits, flashing a surprisingly girlish smile. ‘All the actors have been saying to me, “Oh, Eileen, you haven’t blown.” I normally blow. That’s why I like to live on the river — I’m in Chiswick — the river calms me down. And I need calming down.’
While her temper has never got in the way of her work — she will be 80 in two years, but still has to turn down jobs — it does mean that she, perhaps, has forgone the national treasure status afforded to her fellow acting dames Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, with whom she appeared in the BBC’s Cranford, and Helen Mirren.
Not that she gives a hoot. Eileen has always walked her own path; it has always been about what excites and inspires her. Take her latest job for example.
The lead in All That Fall is certainly exciting. Samuel Beckett wrote it as a radio play and this is the first time it has appeared as a play (of sorts — the actors still carry their scripts and talk into radio microphones). Sir Michael Gambon is her co-star and it is directed by Sir Trevor Nunn. She plays Mrs Rooney, who has lost a child and whose husband has gone blind — although the play is a lot funnier than it sounds.
It is a fabulous role for Eileen to get her teeth stuck into — she compares it with a female Lear — but, as she says, she gave up a lot to do it.
A month before rehearsals were due to start she was offered a part in Martin Scorsese’s new film The Wolf Of Wall Street. ‘There were four very nice scenes with Leonardo DiCaprio including a quite sexual kiss in one of them,’ she says. ‘I would have loved to have done it but there was a chance I would have missed rehearsal time.
‘They could not believe I turned it down. Several people called me saying [she mimics an American accent]: “You are doing what Doing it where [The play is deliberately appearing in small theatres.] Can’t you just tell Sir Trevor to wait a few days” But I just wanted to do the play and I didn’t want to be panicking about missing rehearsals for it. I never felt bad. It’s my choice. It’s always been my choice.’
Leonardo di Caprio in his recent team up with Quintin Tarantino, Django. Dame Eileen recently turned down a chance to play alongside the former heartthrob
With Dame Judi Dench in the BBC's Cranford
She similarly refused to act in the first Upstairs Downstairs, which she co-created with her friend Jean Marsh — she never wanted to be contracted to a long-running television series. The 1971 drama became a huge hit worldwide and ran for five series, but she never changed her mind about appearing in it.
When the BBC approached the pair in 2010 to revive it for three episodes, she admits she had mixed thoughts — rightly as it turns out. After the second series of six episodes this year, the revived Upstairs Downstairs was cancelled.
Out TakeWhen she was three, a fortune teller told Eileen’s mother Annie that Eileen would one day be a great dancer
She says: ‘I think it would have been nicer if it had been left but I was heavily persuaded to go ahead with it. It was done for the wrong reasons on my part; I did it for the money. I wanted a pension.’
Eileen is a small, slight woman and is scintillating company. It’s not surprising Colin Farrell once famously tried to bed her. But you would not want to get on the wrong side of her. No, no, no.
She admits she was ‘blowing’ often on the new Upstairs Downstairs. At first she did not want to be in it; but they made it clear they would only go ahead if she was. She wanted to play the cook; they wanted her to be the matriarch. There were several rows and she lost.
But she was determined to make her redoubtable Maud, Lady Holland as different from Maggie Smith’s redoubtable Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey as she could. The two are friends and knew they were going to be in rival shows.
That is where Eileen’s, well Lady Holland’s, pet monkey called Solomon came in. ‘Heidi Thomas, the series writer, didn’t like the monkey, nor did the producers. But I thought the show needed livening up and Solomon was brilliant.
‘One day there was a whole rigmarole. I knew they didn’t want the monkey in the scene but I thought it was necessary. The monkey was hired for the day but they kept delaying the scene. I could see what they were doing; it was so f***ing obvious that they were hoping to run out of time so the monkey couldn’t be used.
‘I said to the producer that if we got to the end of the day and we hadn’t done the scene with the monkey, I would want to do it tomorrow.
Dame Eileen in the film 'Equus' (1977) alongside Richard Burton
Eileen Atkins (left) and Sir Laurence Olivier, Mona Washbourne, Patsy Rowlands and James Bolam in 1962
‘First, they tried to tell me the monkey was too expensive to hire for another day. So I asked them how much Solomon cost. They said 2,000 a day, so I wrote them a cheque for 2,000. Then they told me that the monkey wasn’t available.
‘They are so daft. So I called the trainer and asked why Solomon wasn’t available. The trainer said, “What are you talking about They haven’t asked for her. Of course she’s available, she’s on contract.” It’s so stupid to lie. I can’t stand it when people lie to me.
‘If Heidi had said right at the beginning she hated the monkey, then I would have chosen another pet — a parrot maybe — instead. I hit the side of my trailer and I said: “If you don’t get the f***ing monkey, then you won’t f***ing have me.” ’
Eileen got her monkey.
But the uneasy working relationship continued. ‘When I agreed to play the matriarch in Upstairs Downstairs I said to them it’s got to be bloody good because it will be me and Maggie playing old dears and people will be comparing us. In Downton, Julian Fellowes writes all the best lines for her.
‘For the second series I kept asking for the script. It finally came six weeks before we were supposed to start shooting. There were about six lines in three different scenes for my character — and one of them was in a gas mask.
Grand Dame: Eileen Atkins in The Sea, play photo by Sasha Gusov
‘I just thought to myself, “Somebody doesn’t want me to be in this. So I’ll come out.” I asked to see Heidi and she wouldn’t see me even for half an hour. I said to the producer, “I am not someone who is greedy for a big part but I would like to talk about the situation,” but I couldn’t even get a face to face. So I thought that was enough.’ She left.
The script called for Solomon to be accidentally gassed and Eileen was no longer there to fight for the monkey. Soon after, Eileen’s friend Jean, who had revived her role as servant Rose Buck in the show, had a stroke and Heidi was forced to rewrite the scripts again to give her a smaller role. The show never really recovered and, after a disappointing second series this year, it was canned.
‘There were a million reasons why it didn’t work but the biggest one was the amazing bad luck that we should start at the same time as Downton,’ says Eileen.
‘Julian had got the idea from Gosford Park, which originally Jean and I had been asked to do. But that is part of life. Julian has won the prize and you just move on and forget it.’
Thankfully her relationship with Jean endured. ‘We’ve had a lifetime of friendship,’ says Eileen. ‘I was the sister she wished she’d had and she was the sister I wished I had. Thank God she has got better from the stroke.’
The two both had families who had been in service and that is where the idea of Upstairs Downstairs originated.
Dame Eileen was born in Tottenham, North London. Her mother Annie was a barmaid and her father a gas meter reader.
‘My mother was a hugely fat woman and terribly wanted to have a dainty daughter,’ says Eileen. ‘She was also a seamstress and wanted to dress me up; all I wanted to do was not to dance and run around in shorts.’
Eileen was set to perform in working men’s clubs but knew the men were interested in more than her dance moves.
‘I knew even as a kid that what I was doing wasn’t right,’ she says. ‘I don’t think my mum thought about it like that — it never entered her mind. A lot of touching and sitting on laps went on. You would try to move away. It was a slightly weird time but then I think most people’s childhoods are odd.’
She was saved by two teachers who stopped the dancing. One of them wanted to adopt Eileen and paid for her to go to a small local private school — from there she got into her local grammar. ‘She was a potty Victorian woman but, oh, she was heavenly,’ says Eileen.
From there she went to the Guildhall School Of Music & Drama. There is very little of her Tottenham accent left but she says it comes out when she gets excited and ‘I still get muddled up with bought and brought. I will say: “I brought a nice hat at a shop.” I can’t believe I still get that wrong.’ She met her first husband, Star Wars actor Julian Glover, shortly afterwards, although she later admitted she married him mainly to get away from home. She has been married to producer Bill Shepherd for more than 30 years, although they never had children.
Eileen Atkins with fellow actor Ian Holm.
She has never been short of male admirers. Colin Farrell tried to seduce her while filming Ask The Dust in 2004. Farrell, who was 28, invited Dame Eileen for a drink just before her 70th birthday and later made his way into her hotel room and tried to get into bed with her.
‘I was wearing an awful nightdress with a hole in it. I told him I wanted to read my book and he said: “I’ll read it to you,” ’ she recalled later. ‘He lifted up the cover and tried to get into bed. I don’t know how I held out but I did. I enjoyed getting him out of my room for about an hour.’
Work remains her biggest passion. Earlier this year she spent nine weeks in New Orleans playing a witch in supernatural drama Beautiful Creatures. Even there her stubbornness got the better of her; because they did not do tea at breakfast, she refused to have a morning drink. She became dehydrated and ended up on a drip.
‘I felt so idiotic, as it was all my fault. I hate drinking water and I had not had enough liquids. I was hallucinating and nearly passed out. I felt like a fool.’
Next year she will return to Doc Martin as Aunt Ruth. ‘I love that role,’ she says. ‘I am a grumpy aunt who thinks she knows it all. I hate playing sentimental nice people.’
She is meant to be doing a play she has written with Vanessa Redgrave, about a friendship between two older women. ‘Vanessa thinks we are doing it in 2014, but as I will be 80 then I don’t even know if I will be around.’
The idea of old age and death doesn’t worry her. ‘I had a funny conversation with friends the other day,’ she says.
‘We were saying it would be good to know exactly how long we were going to live then we would know how much money we need. Two years Five years Ten years’
Seventeen years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She considers herself lucky — she only felt really ill once or twice and her hair did not fall out.
She says. ‘I remember saying to the doctor I’m 61, so if I do die I have had 61 good years. I feel I must write thanking them for another 17 fantastic years.’
Linda McCartney had cancer at the same time and the two became friends. ‘Linda used to call me all the time,’ she says.
‘She asked to go to my oncologist. They met but he said he couldn’t take her — when he said that I knew she had a bad stage of cancer, but she never told me she was dying. She didn’t want me to worry. A lot of friends have died and sad as one is to see them go, it’s natural. I think once you have had your three score years and ten then everything is a bonus.’
Not that she is ready to go just yet. ‘I still have loads of things I want to do. That kiss with Leonardo would have been nice. I hope they put me in the next one.’
I wouldn’t bet against it.
All That Fall will transfer to the Arts Theatre from November 6 for 23 performances only. Box Office, 020 7836 8463, artstheatrewestend. co.uk/bookings