Joan Collins's Private Lives
A backstage chat with America's favorite wicked woman.
by Lou Harry
UNTIL NOW, JOAN COLLINS’S PRESENCE on Broadway has been limited to a lyric in Song and Dance. In “English Girls Do Great in LA,” the Dynasty diva is derided by the play’s sole character, Emma, as a perfect example of the lower order of British talent embraced by Americans.
Well, Emma (and Song and Dance lyricist Don Black) can mock all they want, but after a stint in England and a tour of the United States, Joan Collins has made it to Broadway. Her vehicle: Amanda Prynne in Noel Coward’s Private Lives, a role close enough to Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington Colby so as not to alienate fans, but far enough away that Collins can claim to some actual acting.
The author of the bestselling novel Love and Desire and Hate, the star of the movies The Bitch and Kingdom of the Spiders, the producer of the television mini-series Sins, and the woman who almost got Captain Kirk to abandon the Enterprise in one of the better Star Trek episodes, maybe best known to Americans for her seven and a half years of back-stabbing on Dynasty. But before these other pursuits, she has done time in theater, beginning with 18 months at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Before rushing off to Hollywood, she appeared on British stages in productions of The Skin of Our Teeth, The Seventh Veil, and The Praying Mantis.
Never quite becoming a star in Hollywood, she returned to England after a couple of marriages (including one to Anthony Newley) and played the lead in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney at Chichester and the West End. The big break followed. The central role in Dynasty brought with it the fame that had eluded Collins throughout her career. When the show finally went off the air, Collins looked for a theater project. She found Private Lives.
We caught up with Collins in Washington after a surprisingly full Super Bowl Sunday matinee at the National Theatre.
Theater Week: Have you found big differences between American regional audiences and those in London?
Collins: Of all the places we’ve been, I would say that Washington audiences are much closer to London audiences with the exception of, sometimes, San Francisco. They’ve been very appreciative and understanding of the play and its subtleties.
In Miami, we found ourselves—not Miami but in a couple of the other places—’ponging” the jokes too much. I think we’re still having a tendency to do that a bit. It is a comedy and if one is not getting laughs at certain things one has a tendency to do a bit too much. But on the whole, now that we’ve hit the East Coast, I’m much, much happier.
If someone saw your performance in London and in the current production,would they find differences?
Oh, yes. It’s a completely different production for a start. Different sets. Different actors. Different staging. Different blocking. Different business.
But what about in your performance?
It’s quite a bit of a change. I think it’s grown a lot, I hope I brought out Amanda’s mercurial quality more than I did in the beginning in Bath. By the time I was into the London run, I had more of a mercurial quality. That’s one of the things I find extremely challenging about this part is that she has to change so radically in less than the bat of an eyelid from purring, kittenish charm to, you know, fishwife. And then back again. And also, particularly the first act with an awfully big gamut of emotions there.
Was Denver’s selected as the starting point for the tour because that’s the setting for Dynasty?
That was pure coincidence.
How many times have reporters asked you about the differences between Amanda and Alexis?
Too many times for me to have expected you to.
Why this particular play now?
I haven’t been able to do a play since I started Dynasty in 1981. We never had more than a three month break. As soon as I got out a bit, I wanted to spend some time in London.
So I said to my agent, “I want to do Private Lives,” which had been a wish of mine for a very long time. Ever since I was a 16-year-old ASM [assistant stage manager] and I did the curtains and the props and set the stage. And so that was why I did it in London first for a limited run.
You took a break in between runs?
I couldn’t do it immediately after. I had this series of plays I was producing and staring in called Tonight at 8:30. Eight different Noel Coward plays. It’s coming on A&E in February. They’ve changed the title unfortunately to Collins Meets Coward.
Probably because they’re not going to put it on at 8:30.
Are you happy with the Coward shows?
Yes. Well, as happy as one can be with the fact that they were rehearsed and taped all in six days. I played eight completely different characters. I’m reasonably satisfied with them, but I’m the sort of person whose never that satisfied with anything I do.
Since this production of Private Lives exists primarily because you want to do it, does that lead you to take the box office response and the critical response more personally than you might otherwise?
Not really, no. You know, the thing about this play that I find very fascinating—and I’ve read all of Coward’s diaries and a zillion biographies and autobiographies—is that he loved Private Lives and he wrote it in four days, which sometimes shows. He said that the play was always savaged by the critics but that the audiences loved it. Amanda and Elyot aren’t sympathetic people at all. They’re a couple of bickering, intelligent but self-indulgent and narcissistic, hedonistic people. And I think people were much more accepting of that in the ‘30s. It’s not so accepted in the ‘90s. That’s why it’s quite challenging to bring it to today’s audience and see if they can become acceptable.
Is this the kind of show you would go see?
I don’t believe in just having the kitchen sink with everyone in ripped blue jeans just playing just plain folks. I really think that’s not entertainment. That’s not what I want to go out and see. If I was going to the theater in New York, I would want to go and see Alan Alda in the Neil Simon play and Private Lives. I’ve seen all the musicals.
Were you a good student at RADA?
I think so.
In step with what was perceived as proper acting at the time?
I was very, very young when I went to RADA. Me and David McCullum were both 15, the youngest there. I think that what I found at that time was that there was much more of an emphasis on classical acting, which I was not interested in doing. Chekhov. Ibsen. Shakespeare. We did do Present Laughter and I played Joanna, which is when I think I started to get my love for Noel Coward.
Are there better roles open to you now in theater than in film?
I’m not doing movies. People who are doing movies aren’t even doing movies. That to me is really a rat race. Much more so than it ever was before. Whatever happened to the big actresses who had like three movies two years ago? They haven’t worked. I’m an actress. Basically television and the stage. I used to be movies, but not anymore. I’m quite realistic about that. And if I do another play, I want it to be a new play. I’ve done enough revivals.
There would be more risk involved.
Absolutely. I think there’s a risk in the theater in any case. Theater is risky. Very, very risky. More so for producers than anybody else.
What’s the reason for Keith Baxter [Elyot in the London production] not being in this production?
I’m not going to answer that question. (Long pause) I think Simon’s wonderful, don’t you? [Simon Jones plays Elyot in the current production].
I think he’s terrific
He even looks a bit like Noel. The hair. The shape of the head.
You’ve written novels. Any desire to write for theater?
No. Couldn’t do that. I think that’s terribly difficult. I get sent plays all the time and it’s unbelievable how bad they are. There are so few good modern playwrights.
There was a recent quote by Maggie Smith that you’re probably familiar with—about the play and you in it
In the New York Post, she was asked if she was going to see the show and she said “I haven’t the stomach for it.”
[Long pause] How bitchy. Did she really? Do you believe the New York Post? I’ve not heard this story.
Is that something that follows you because of the character you’re associated with?
I honestly don’t think I can answer that. I would never dream of commenting on another actor or actress. That’s why I wouldn’t answer your question about Keith Baxter. I think one gets slagged off enough by the press. One doesn’t need to have it from a member of one’s own profession.
Do you read reviews?
Not all of them, no.
We get to hear you sing in Private Lives. Are you interested in musicals?
No. I don’t have the voice for it. As you heard. No, I think my singing is a bit flat. Actually, “Someday I’ll Find You” is a very, very difficult song.
Any particularly unusual questions asked of you along the tour?
I’m sure there were. It’s just that I’m not exactly on top form for interviews between two shows. Now that we’ve done the interview, what did you think of my performance?
Copyright: THEATERWEEK - 24 February 1992