A Conversation with Kathryn Hunter
Harry Potter fans best know Kathryn Hunter as the actress who plays Mrs. Figg in Order of the Phoenix, the Dursleys’ unassuming Squib neighbor who was brought forward as witness to the Dementors’ attack of Harry and Dudley at the Wizengamot trial. Her brief, tantalizing appearance left two distinct impressions on the viewer: her tiny, weathered figure, cloaked in an opaque raincoat, completely at odds with the bloated, tacky presentation of the Dursleys; and her raspy, emotion-laden voice, which wonderfully added dimension to her character as written about in the books. This is what Kathryn Hunter excels at, completely immersing herself into a character until the viewer can barely distinguish between them and their character.
She’s a wonderful theater actor, most known for her turns as King Richard in Richard III and Red Peter in Kafka’s Monkey. Right now, she will be donning both hats of producer and director in the upcoming play My Perfect Mind, which will be performed at 59E59 Theaters in New York from June 10 to June 28, a limited three-week run for the theater’s Brits Off Broadway season. You can buy tickets here and read more about the play here.
I had the fantastic chance to interview Kathryn Hunter about My Perfect Mind, as well as poke her fascinating and intelligent brain about herself and her thought processes. The thoroughly intriguing interview, conducted via email, has been slightly edited for both clarity and brevity.
MuggleNet: You co-created and directed My Perfect Mind, a fantastic two-man show that humorously and wonderfully conflates Shakespeare’s King Lear with an exploration of the human spirit. What inspired you to create this play? You had played King Lear before, in 1997 – does your past performance inform your directing? If so, how? If not, why not, and what does inform your directing?
Kathryn Hunter: Paul Hunter, the founding member of Told by an Idiot, rang me to invite me to direct a devised piece involving himself and Edward Petherbridge. He said it was to be about the stroke that Edward suffered when in New Zealand to play King Lear, it was to be about Lear, perhaps a version of Lear with two people, and a comedy. Being a great admirer of Paul and Ed’s work and impassioned with Shakespeare’s Lear since I was 14 years old (having played the part myself aged 37), and because I love devised theatre, I was immediately interested. [Author’s note: Devised theater, a concept that is a bit loose and undefined even now, is, in a nutshell, collaborative, sometimes improvisatory, creative work by a group of people who stage the work with the exact same group of people. The theater website Culture Future has a fantastic post re: devised theater.] When Paul phoned, I was actually in the hospital with my mother who was dying: She had suffered a very severe stroke. Paul asked me if this was a convenient moment to talk. I said not really, but he did not seem to hear, but I immediately said yes to the proposition: the connections of life and work dictated the answer. We started work together, with Paul and Ed not knowing where we were going, improvising for long hours, diving into Ed’s autobiography, merging memory and imagination, Lear and mountain climbing… Of course, my passion for the play Lear propelled the line-through we found: a person’s need to achieve his or her own personal Everest, be it Lear or another life challenge. Returning to it now, the piece has a structure, but we agreed with Paul and Ed that there was always to be an element of improvisation, and I am sure arriving in New York will have an impact. They are such flexible and sensitive performers, they will respond to whatever is new around them. An exciting openness and freshness will emerge, I am sure. The unknown!
MN: This is the play’s second run; are there any differences from last year, in terms of producing and/or directing it? What’s new? Are you anticipating anything?
KH: Improvisation: I believe that in live performance, even a highly structured text like Beckett or Shakespeare should SEEM improvised in the moment. That is the excitement for the audience. And actual improvisation can be gold when created by talented performers such as Paul and Ed, who are […] brilliant improvisers [not only] individually but also together. In a world that is so dominated by technology (which can be so liberating and informative but also threatening and isolating), I believe that invention in the moment with a live audience – which is what improvisation is – returns us to the collective experience, which we risk losing when we are so attached to our phones and our computers. Physical and verbal improvisation are collective shared moments, the joy of invention.
MN: You mentioned in a 2013 Guardian interview that you wished more directors experimented with gender-swapping in casting, that “I love seeing men play women: it’s often very revealing and not at all like caricature,” and in a 2013 NY Times interview, you explained that you’re always on the search for “interesting bits” when it comes to performing. For you, what are those interesting bits? Additionally, you are well known for playing King Richard in Richard III, just one example in which you completely transformed your physicality for the sake of your performance. What’s the greatest thing about being able to play, literally, any type of role?
KH: Yes, I love to be allied to play anything and very much hope to be able to play Lear again. Currently, I am reviving a piece called Kafka’s Monkey based on Kafka’s short story [“]A Report to the Academy.[“] I played it all over the world and two years ago in New York at the Barishnikov Arts Centre. I play a chimpanzee called Red Peter. He had been captured, put in a cage, and made to perform in a circus. In order to get out of his cage, he decided to imitate human beings. The “Academy” asks him to report on what it is like to be an ape. He apologizes, saying he cannot report on this as he has had to cut off his past in order to become a human being, but he can tell them what it’s like to be a human being. First thing he learnt was violence (he was shot twice), then oppression (he was put in a cage), then, he learned to spit like the sailors on the ship, how to drink so that now he is an alcoholic, how to smoke, etc. etc. It is a brilliant piece, where, essentially, the chimpanzee asks the human audience if they are really so very civilized? What has PROGRESS in human evolution achieved? Are we not as violent, and sometimes more, as our ape forbearers? It is also a parable about the cost of leaving one’s culture and attempting to adapt to a new culture, which is the plight of so many immigrants, both past and present. I will perform it at a new theatre in Manchester, UK, called Home.
MN: Last year, you had played a mnemonist, Sammy, in The Valley of Astonishment; what is your personal favorite weird/odd/unusual human ability?
KH: There are so many human abilities to admire, but if I limit myself to two, perhaps I would choose floor gymnasts and bar gymnasts – the ones who flick themselves over the floor and the bar with no digital help whatsoever, just incredible muscular flexibility and control. And the second outstanding ability of human beings, perhaps the most miraculous ability of all, is human beings’ capacity to love.
MN: Human beings are amazing, resilient creatures, you especially, who have rebounded/bounced back from a personal injury into this larger-than-life, transformative, physical, chameleon of a performer. Have you taken on any sort of carpe die, tabula rasa, or #YOLO mantra in your life since then? Personal or professional?
KH: Never give up, and as Samuel Beckett says, “Fail better!!”
MN: This interview wouldn’t be complete without at least a foray into your experience as Arabella Figg in the fifth Harry Potter movie. You had mentioned that one time, in Japan, you were swarmed by schoolchildren, and that was a surprise. Why? What is the biggest difference between acting in movies versus acting in theater? You do bits and pieces of film work every so often, and IMDb lists your most recent movie credit as “Witch” in Tale of Tales, which premiered at Cannes on May 14. Can you describe your character? Can you tell us a bit about the overall movie?
KH: It was an amazing experience to enter the truly extraordinary world of Harry Potter. I think one of the aspects I love most about the books and the films is the sense that JK Rowling brings to the stories, that there are other dimensions in our lives, beyond the purely rational. Conventional science would have us believe that REALITY is what you can see and prove – albeit under microscopes, etc. – but Rowling seems to plunge into other less tangible dimensions, where myth and magic and psychology or psychic forces and the imagination converge. Even scientists now are acknowledging that REALITY has multiple dimensions. Also, it was a joy to work with Daniel Radcliffe. He is modest, unbelievably hardworking, respectful, and multi-talented.