Once in a long while, the right actor and the right role coincide, and the result redefines the actor's public persona. Anne Reid's performance in the just-released film The Mother exemplifies this confluence and has garnered her critical praise, public attention, and also a Best Actress nomination at the 2004 BAFTA Awards. Reid plays May, a recent widow in her 60s, a woman who surprises herself and shocks her family by taking a handyman in his 30s as her lover; unfortunately he's also the current lover of her adult daughter. Making Reid's story more remarkable is that she left the profession for more than a decade yet was able to revive her career successfully.
"I trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and I went quickly into television," says Reid. "I got into a soap called Coronation St. I was there for nine years, and I really found that quite boring. I was very frustrated, because I always wanted to do comedy. I don't think I got a laugh in nine years," she laments. "Then I left and got married and became pregnant. My son was born and I gave up the business for about 15 years. My husband was ill; he died in 1981. My mother was living with us, and there wasn't room for my career. My career restarted in 1986, or I restarted it. I just clawed my way back to the top. [It was] terrifying. I'd lost my nerve."
In 1986, Reid accepted a part in the play Billy Liar. "I thought, if I don't take the plunge now, I'm never going to act again," she says. "I was so frightened. I tell you, you could ask me to sing at Carnegie Hall, it would not be as terrifying as [going onstage again]. I just wrote letters like a maniac to every director and producer, and gradually the work started to come in.
"I'm basically known for comedy," she says, referring to the popular BBC-TV series Dinnerladies. "There aren't too many laughs in The Mother, unless you count [me] taking my clothes off," she says.
The challenges of doing The Mother were in doing something other than comedy and in tackling her first leading role. "I didn't expect to get this part in The Mother, because I thought they wouldn't get the money on my name. And [director Roger Michell] said I was very arrogant at the interview. I think I just thought, 'Well, I haven't got a chance of getting this, so what the hell?' I looked at the script and thought, 'I'm perfect for this, but I'll never get it. It'll go to Julie Christie or somebody like that.' "
Reid was seen by Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) while she was acting in the West End play The York Realist. "They sent me the script and we had the interview, and then I didn't hear anything," recounts Reid. "And then I got offered Calendar Girls. So my agent rang [the CD] and said, 'I'm sorry, but Anne's been offered another film.' So they said, 'Don't tell her not to do [Calendar], but we'd really want her to do [ours].' There was kind of panic for a week."
She ended up turning down a smaller role in Calendar Girls to take the lead in The Mother, which was not a sure bet that the money would come through. "I said, look, I'm not waiting any longer. All my life I've wanted to do movies, now I'm going to end up with nothing, if we don't sort this out in the next couple of days. Two films where you take your clothes off? It's a good laugh, isn't it? I never got asked when I was 20 to take my gear off when I looked pretty good actually and wouldn't have minded at all."
Acting honestly in the role was her greatest challenge, says Reid. "Roger pushed me, very gently, to not ever be fighting back in this character. I would've fought back, I think, quite a lot. And then it would have fallen apart, maybe. And the concentration—to be totally concentrated. As Roger would say, not presenting it, just being it. And also the sex scenes, which I've never ever done before. Which were a bit daunting, because it wasn't just [her co-star] Daniel Craig with me, it's a roomful of blokes with cameras and lights. They're mostly young enough to be my sons. I made them all laugh, the day I took my robe off, and I said to the crew, 'I'm sure you're all wondering why I've invited you here.' You mustn't be inhibited, because it's not going to work. I've never faked an orgasm in front of a room full of blokes before, so….
"It seemed to me that [May] hadn't had a very interesting sex life," continues Reid, who can next be seen on the British TV series Life Begins. "I think she was absolutely desperate. Before she died, you know, it's like people have to go up Everest or see the Grand Canyon or something. It was an unfulfilled life. I think there are lots of women who lead respectable lives, who just stayed for the sake of the family. You suddenly think, 'My God, I'm going to die, and I haven't lived the life I wanted to live.'
She adds, "I hope people are going to stop thinking, when [women] get to 50, that they suddenly have no libido. I fancy young men all the time. All my contemporaries say the same thing. Why is Michael Douglas or Clint Eastwood allowed to fancy young women? There is an army of women now, very feisty, strong, sexy women in Hollywood, who are moving right into their 60s, and they're not suddenly going to turn into grey-haired old ladies and put their cardigans on, are they?"