Eveneing Standard: Best in Show

29 Sep 2006 Marianne Macdonald

Late on a Tuesday last month, in a black and white Vivienne Westwood decorated dressing room at the Old Vic, you would have found one of England’s finest acting hopes tapping ash into a teabag snaffled from the bin, gulping a glass of Sauvignon, and preparing to go home to do some more lines – ‘learning them, I should say, not snorting them’. Eve Best, 35, in a pair of stained, khaki three-quarter- length trousers, old T-shirt, cotton jacket and brown flip-flops, has been rehearsing all day for her starring role with Kevin Spacey in Eugene O’ Neill’s AMoonfortheMisbegotten, and is so knackered she is finding it hard to make sense.

‘I’ve only done one other Eugene O’Neill play, which was MourningBecomesElectra, which I absolutely adored,’ she explains, clearly struggling to wring the words from her shattered brain. ‘It’s so rich and well

constructed that the emotions and language just take you along, like you suddenly become a really great surfer. So, I was really looking forward to this one, and then we started rehearsing!’ She lets out a rather horrified laugh. ‘And I realised quite how difficult it was!’

You probably don’t even know the name Eve Best, which is one of the many anomalies of Eve Best’s career. She is bizarrely little-known, given that for the last decade she has been the great hope of British theatre, often compared to a young Glenda Jackson or Dame Judi Dench. Ever since her days at RADA she has been the most promising of her generation. In her first year there, she was standing in for Imogen Stubbs as Yelena in UncleVanya at the Young Vic. The summer she left, aged 24, she beat every actress in London to the dreamiest role in town, co-starring with Jude Law in a Young Vic production of ’TisPityShe’sAWhore. ‘No matter who is on the stage, your eyes will find Eve,’ says David Lan, who directed her. ‘I, and a lot of other people, have no doubt she will be one of the leading actresses of her generation.’ That performance won her the Evening Standard and Critics Circle awards for Best Newcomer, in 1999. But then – nothing. Nada. The parts dried up.

It’s one of the mad things about acting,’ she laments now in her warm, controlled, enunciated voice, consonants polished by years at RADA and the girls’ boarding school, Wycombe Abbey. ‘You can’t control it. You’re sitting, twiddling your thumbs, thinking, “I hope somebody might decide that I’m good enough to do something soon, but I don’t know if they will. Then what will I do?” It’s incredibly disempowering. You feel, “I’ve done this, this and this, surely it should count for something?” I used to get really very, very low. I used to get self-help books and read things like The Artist’sWay [a workbook to recover your creativity]. I’d write a lot, just about my thoughts, and run up an enormous overdraft without any money coming in!’

Looking at her, in her stylish dressing room, it is hard to believe. Eve seems the epitome of thespian accomplishment, with her wide, mobile mouth, enthusiastic double handshake of greeting, crumpled clothes and blunt, attractive, make-up-free face reflected in the mirror above a ragged row of Simple cleansing products. Not only is she about to star with Kevin Spacey, last year she won a Best Actress Olivier for her ‘triumphant performance’ at the Almeida as Hedda Gabler, alongside her role model and idol Dame Helen Mirren. ‘Well, I’m not really too aware of all that, to be honest, though the parts I’ve been given have been amazing,’ she explains, blushing.

‘Because I have such long periods when I’m completely out of work, I always think, “I’ll never work again and I’m the worst person in the world, what was I thinking?”’ She says she finds acting so difficult ‘that I often ask myself why on earth am I doing this, and I guess it’s just something I’ve always done. My mum was an actress, so me and my sister grew up knowing about that world. And we had a very imaginative upbringing. We were always doing plays for our grandparents, and painting things and singing songs and having adventures. Our parents were very good at encouraging us to entertain ourselves.’

She grew up near Westbourne Grove (her real name is Emily, and this is what everyone calls her at the theatre), when it was scruffy and lined with antiques shops, with her younger sister, Sarah, who also became an actress before moving to Australia with her children and husband; he cooks at the famous Rockpool restaurant in Sydney. Their house backed onto communal gardens on Blenheim Crescent in Notting Hill ‘in the days before property went through the roof’.

Her parents both read English at Cambridge: her mother, Sue, runs a charity theatre company called Shakespeare Link – which offers Shakespeare plays in sign language, teacher training and student workshops – with her second husband Philip Bowen, an actor who has worked at the Old Vic and the English Shakespeare Company. The couple live in Wales, where Sue has just completed a replica of the Globe theatre in willow, two-thirds the size of the real one and complete with stage. Eve’s father Alastair, who was a design journalist, has now thrown himself into painting: he lives in Jersey with his second wife, an architectural writer called Penny McGuire.

‘They are both very different and wonderful, wonderful parents. They’re both with people who they are much better suited to,’ Eve says with a tactful laugh. She shakes her head in embarrassment when I ask if she found their divorce difficult (she was 18 and had just gone up to Oxford). ‘Well, these things are never easy,’ she says vaguely and discreetly changes the subject. She loved Oxford, which was a total contrast to her strict, rule-bound school life at Wycombe, presided over by the gracious, poised Miss Lancaster who drummed the concepts of duty, respect and honesty into the girls. ‘I’d had a fantasy about going to boarding school. I was convinced it would be like Malory Towers: jolly hockey sticks and apple-pie beds,’ she admits. ‘Of course, it wasn’t. It was very draconian. I was far too wet to be rebellious, but inwardly I rebelled. I thought all the rules were petty and pathetic.’

But it got her to Oxford to read English, where she did no work at all and immersed herself in acting. ‘I had a nightmare the other day about not having revised for my finals! You go into a cold sweat!’ she exclaims, laughing. ‘I had very indulgent tutors. I was at Lincoln, and I think I wrote two essays the whole time.’ She pulled off a 2:1, even so. ‘You always romanticise the past, or I do but, my God, we were lucky,’ she observes. ‘I was 19, you arrive, and it’s like Brideshead. They said,

“I’ll just show you to your rooms,” and I said, “Room, don’t you mean?”. They said, “No, rooms,” and I walked into an enormous drawing room, with a huge bay window and window seat.’

At college she started a relationship with a fellow thespian called Will Keen, now also a successful actor. She assumed that, like him, she’d get a good agent when she left. Instead, in the first of her many setbacks, she hit a brick wall. She was turned down by RADA, and couldn’t get an agent for love nor money. ‘It was a nightmare!’ she exclaims, the disappointment still apparent. ‘All my friends had got agents, and my boyfriend had immediately got an agent and started doing a play at the Cottesloe, so I, completely arrogantly, assumed that that would happen to me. I came down to earth with a massive thump. I ended up waitressing at the River Café which was… tricky. It was frustrating. It was really good fun but I was definitely feeling frustrated. I’m not good at not being busy.’

After a difficult three years she auditioned for RADA again, at 24, and got in. She was six years older than most of the students, and still it wasn’t smooth sailing: she watched the others get agents, one by one, at the shows in her final year, and was ‘absolutely mortified’ when she was ignored until almost the last minute. ‘ Nothing ever seemed to come easy!’ she admits with a wry laugh. ‘ But I think that’s great, because it makes it so, so worth it when it works out.’

At 25, she broke up with Will Keen, and subsequently had a relationship of four years with, I suspect, another actor, although she won’t tell me his name. She has been single since. ‘No one’s turned up,’ she explains. ‘I feel I’ve slightly done everything upside down, because when I was young I was in a very stable relationship, and now a lot of my friends have completely settled down.’ Does she want to get married? ‘Yes, I think so! But it’s not something you can control. Who knows what will happen. I’m a bit weird because, where men are concerned, I’m attracted to character.’ She grins. ‘My pin-up is Gérard Depardieu because of his sexiness and the fact that he’s a real man, and knows what he wants, and he’s very masculine and aggressive and doesn’t give a shit! For me, that’s so attractive when the personality is strong and dangerous and exciting.’

Not too many men like that, I think, in Portobello, where she has just moved from Shepherd’s Bush, and is living surrounded by unopened mail and boxes. But I’m sure she’ll find one. A Moon for the Misbegotten (0870 660 6628) is at the Old Vic.

London Evening Standard