Eve Best: ‘Webster is like learning to eat with a chainsaw’

Kate Kellaway Sun 26 Feb 2012 00.04 GMT

Eve Best is famous for her role as glamorous Dr O’Hara in Nurse Jackie. But she made her name in Jacobean theatre – and she is back in London for more

Eve Best photographed at London’s Old Vic for the Observer by Sophia Evans.

Eve Best has just walked into an unprepossessing bar in Waterloo and joins me at a quiet corner table at the back, rain sliding down the windows behind us. From the start, it is clear this is not going to be a conventional interview because there is nothing ordinary about Eve Best and one of the delightful – and defining – things about her, as a person and an actress, is that she is curious. The difficulty will be to stop her asking all the questions. “I was wondering whether to order cake?” she says, “or” – with a merry glance at the menu – “a champagne cocktail?” But then, and before you can say John Webster, we have somehow jump-started ourselves into a conversation about The Duchess of Malfi in which she is to star at the Old Vic, over the road, with Jamie Lloyd as director. I wonder about the satisfaction of the role and she seizes on the word: “Why satisfaction?” At one point, she even burrows in her straw basket – the sort you might lug round a French market – for pen and paper, the sort of person always ready to note down a thought, pose a new question.

She knows about Jacobean tragedy. It was her performance, in 1999, in John Ford’s Tis Pity she’s a Whore, opposite Jude Law, that made her name. Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1612-13) is, she suggests, “like Shakespeare with mad spice”. Its language is “perverted, twisted and wild”. I say it is freakishly fresh. “Why do you think that is?” she says. I insist it is not me doing the answering. She argues that Shakespearean rhythms are “part of our blood and subconscious”, while Webster’s are “more jagged” and “very hard to learn”. They are “pulled about, the iambic pentameter is frequently broken … and yet the syncopation of scenes is like music”. If she is right, this will suit her for she has a beautiful and musical speaking voice. But evidently delivering the lines is hard: “It is like learning to eat with a chainsaw,” she says, pulling at her mouth comically.

I steer us away from Malfi and she is too obliging to complain, although the hour might easily have vanished with Jacobean drama as our only theme. I look at her as she leans one shoulder against the wall. She has shed a drenched beret and a wraparound poncho-ish garment and has the time-honoured look of an attractive hippy: white cotton shirt, silver and coral bracelets. There is something of an aspiring beachcomber about her even in this Waterloo winter. Her black hair is in slight disarray. There is a discerning spark in her brown eyes. Hers is an unconventionally beautiful face, brimful of life.

I tell her that, at the risk of sounding like a passport official, my questions involve name, age, address and occupation. Her name is especially intriguing – because Eve was born Emily. She could not use her real name professionally because it already belonged to another actress. Eve was chosen after her grandmother. “I hated having to change it – because your name defines you.” For years, “Eve” felt like a stranger. But now she appreciates Eve more and the distance the name creates: “It is nice to separate real life from work.” All her friends call her Emily. Suddenly, a new thought hits her: “The Duchess of Malfi doesn’t have a name. She is an archetypal woman – variously compared to the Virgin Mary, the world’s worst strumpet, a visceral animal, a ‘box of worm seed’.” And, she adds: “The experience of playing this part is that the praise and condemnation are equally absurd.” She will fight for Malfi’s right to be “just a person”.

Might we take a tremendous leap now from the Jacobeans to Nurse Jackie?Best is widely cherished for her role in the blackly comic American TV series as Dr Eleanor O’Hara, a gorgeous British medic – poised, sultry yet wacky. She is all dressed up (Oscar de la Renta, Manolo Blahnik, Gucci) with nowhere to go – apart from her glamorous appearances in intensive care. Best has just finished filming the fourth series and adores the part. “When I got it, I had recently finished doing Josie, in A Moon for the Misbegotten with straw coming out of my hair.” She adds that she often feels “scruffy and unkempt” anyway. “It would be fibbing not to let on that the dressing up is fun. The only boring thing is you have to stay off the cake to fit into these tiny, tight skirts.” She sees the character as “tough, intelligent, delightfully daffy and yet a moral cornerstone for a lot of deviant behaviour”. But that is to leave out Dr O’Hara’s occasional delinquencies – such as the hilarious episode in which she has, uncharacteristically, tried ecstasy. She has a blissfully moronic look as she whips off designer sunglasses and dances down the hospital corridors.

As Dr O’Hara – and as herself – Eve Best has generosity, animation and impishness. Yet she can transform herself completely between one role and the next (as Wallis Simpson in The King’s Speech, as Hedda Gabler, as Ruth in The Homecoming). How much does she see acting as about losing yourself? “It is never about leaving yourself behind – that is not possible. It is more a stretching out – like having an elastic band on the end of your fingers and lassoing, far out, things much bigger than you.” It is an “expansion of spirit” that has to exist alongside ordinary life: “I spent this morning buying a sink plunger,” she says. As she describes her elastic band theory, her gestures get livelier. If you couldn’t hear her and could only see, you would be completely foxed.

Eve Best grew up in west London. Her father was a design journalist, her mother founded Shakespeare Link – a conduit of a theatre company, spreading Shakespeare’s word. She boarded at Wycombe Abbey, then read English at Lincoln College, Oxford: “I loved it – I did a lot of acting. I went from being a girly swot to having the time of my life.” She went on to Rada (getting in second time round). But Best was not recognised as one of our best straight away. She experienced all the unpredictability of an acting career and spent three years waitressing at London’s River Cafe.

As we talk, she has been doodling on a napkin – a complicated wheel or a sun. We talk about patterns – and how “seductive” they can be, the way we turn our lives into narrative. And she ventures, falteringly, to tell me a story – “I’ve never told anyone this before…” When she was in her first professional role, as Beatrice in Much Ado – she was 23 – she received a card from her friend, the show’s director, James Menzies-Kitchin (who died suddenly at 28 and has a young director’s award named after him). It simply read: “Emily Best: mine eyes dazzle.” The quote was from Malfi. Looking back, she sees it as a message, one of life’s dropped stitches, a clue to what was to come. And, in the same breath, she talks about Deepak Chopra’s concept of synchrodestiny (there is a new age strand to her plait of enthusiasms).

We talk, too, about nerves. Hers are calmed at night by watching Strictly or reading Georgette Heyer’s The Corinthian before nodding off. She says it has been proved that the amount of adrenaline actors feel waiting in the wings is equivalent to what a person would experience in a car crash. And yet, she says, “if a part terrifies me, that is definitely a reason to do it.”

And we eventually get back to what was supposed to be my second question – about age. How much does it signify? “Well, I turned 40 in the summer. I haven’t done the milestoney things – getting married, buying a house, having children. And I have felt vagrant…” She believes age “matters less” than it once did. “It feels like structures and strictures are more malleable.” How conscious of time is she in other ways? “I have never worn a watch. I did at 17 and it annoyed me. Time is about the need to control. Let go of control and embrace what happens…”

And what will happen next? She loves being back in London – she has lived in New York for five years. “I feel like a tourist. I love crossing the bridge at Embankment on my way to work and seeing St Paul’s … it is soul lifting.” But she has been thinking “a lot” about the concept of home. She has felt “displaced” with possessions in New York, LA and London and family in Australia. Her fantasy, which she hopes to “make a reality as soon as possible”, is to buy a house in Italy. “I would love to go and live in the mountains … and make jam.”

She is intrigued by the way houses either chime with you or don’t. To illustrate this, she seizes a teaspoon and starts trying to sound the right note on the edges of glasses on our table. “I am so longing to be domestic,” she says, “cooking stew, gardening, hopefully having some children, painting, sitting still in one place.” As to her other half, she says – I am charmed by her phrasing – “I am probably not talking about that.”

She may not be a clock-watcher but our time is almost up. We seem to have got through four pots of mint tea – they crowd the table like symbols of a full conversation. Once Malfi is behind her she plans to travel, with Shakespeare Link, to Mozambique to be Hermione in The Winter’s Tale and, in November, to Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates to do Shakespeare workshops with women. One last question: what makes her happiest? “So many things. Playing with my sister’s kids on Bronte beach in Sydney. My geraniums’ little shoots making it through snow. Being in a rehearsal room with like-minded, intelligent and kind people. Crisp blues skies on February mornings. Swimming in the sea and…” She barely gets the word out because she has started to laugh: “Laughing.”

The Duchess of Malfi previews at the Old Vic, London, from 17 March and opens on 28 March

The Guardian