Former actress Nancy Wait gained notoriety and a loyal following due to her big screen debut in the 1972 British sex farce "Au Pair Girls". She later returned from London, where she had studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and concentrated on building a new career as a painter and writer. Her memoir "The Nancy Who Drew" has received praise since its initial publication in 2011. Cinema Retro contributing writer Brian Davidson caught up with Ms. Wait for this exclusive interview that ties in with Brian's tribute to "Au Pair Girls" in the latest issue of Cinema Retro (#34). Visit Nancy's official blog/web site by clicking here.
Brian Davidson: Christa in ‘Au Pair Girls’ is an introvert
coaxed into wearing sexy clothes which imply confidence and an extrovert
personality. I understand that you took up acting initially to help overcome
shyness. Were you therefore attracted to the role because you saw something of
yourself in Christa?
Nancy Wait: Absolutely. I remember when I was 14, in my
first year at the High School of Performing Arts here in New York and my acting
teacher took me aside one day and told me I should wear red. I have brown eyes
and brown hair and used to like wearing the colour brown. And this teacher who
I thought was very glamorous and sophisticated told me I was too mousy. She
said ‘’You need to wear red to bring you out!’’ It made an impression. The
change I went through over the next few years was also the change most
teenagers go through on the way to becoming their own person, and I started to
enjoy calling attention to myself with makeup and various hats and certainly
more colourful clothes.
But however much I changed myself outwardly, inside
I remained the same shy girl. They say that an introvert and an extrovert are
two sides of the same coin and you will often find an extremely shy person
behind the most extrovert actor. In fact, that’s the very reason many of us are
drawn to the profession- the chance to be someone other than our shy,
introverted selves. Though my basic nature has always been shy and modest,
moving to London and going to RADA was a chance to be really brave- though it
was nothing compared to the courage I needed to play Christa in the film. And
you’re right, I don’t think I could have even imagined doing the role if she
hadn’t been shy at first. Luckily the scenes were shot in sequence, so while I
got my feet wet I could play her shyness first, the part of her character that
was closest to me in spirit. My confidence was up by the middle of the shoot,
when Christa breaks out. So it all worked out very well from that standpoint!
B.D. In order to help pay for your tuition at RADA,
I believe you worked as a Bunny Girl at London’s famous Playboy Club, a form of
role-playing which I’m sure appealed to the actress within you. How did your
transition from Bunny to film actress come about?
N.W. I was working at the Playboy Club during term
breaks to earn the fees for school, and in a way the film and being a Bunny had
nothing to do with each other and yet they had everything to do with each
other. For instance, I don’t think I ever dreamed I would be the kind of person
who would be brave enough to take her clothes off for a film. And yet I had
already stepped out of my previous comfort zone by taking the job as a Bunny.
And what I first thought was tremendously daring- parading around in the Bunny
costume- after a few weeks became just par for the course. So there was that
but also the fact that I was just a glorified cocktail waitress who had to wear
distressingly high heels and be on her feet for an 8-hour shift. So when I was
offered the film and realised I could earn the fees for school in a week
instead of a month playing one of the leads in a film directed by Val Guest-
me, who had never been close to a professional job before- I didn’t have to
think too long about it.
There was also that thing when something comes to
you, falls in your lap as it were, completely out of left field and you can’t
believe it’s happening to you. Because I wasn’t looking for an acting job-it
was too soon and I still had a couple of terms to go at RADA. But my boyfriend
had an agent, and this agent said it was never too soon for me to get my
headshots out there and, without my knowing, he was putting me up for parts. I’ll
never forget that afternoon when I was working at the Club and got a call from
this agent who told me I was up for a lead in a film and he said ‘’ Oh, and
they love that you’re a Bunny!’’ Meanwhile, little did I know that my unlikely
transformation from a shy, modest student into a Bunny was only a precursor for
the far more public transformation that Christa would go through …
Self portrait, 1980.
B.D. Unlike your already established co-stars
Gabrielle Drake, Astrid Frank and Me Me Lay, you had never acted in a feature
film before yet the part of Christa is surely the most challenging of the four
girls’ roles from an acting point of view. Did you find Val Guest sufficiently
supportive under the circumstances?
N.W. I wouldn’t really have known if the part of
Christa was the most challenging as I didn’t see the others’ scenes until much
later after the film was out. And even if I had seen them, my part was
challenging enough! On the other hand, acting is acting whatever the mode,
stage or screen, and the only important thing is to remember your lines and
‘’don’t trip over the furniture’’ as Noel Coward famously said. And Val Guest
was enormously considerate to a newby like me. My first day on the set, he had
me sit next to him while they filmed a scene with Gabrielle Drake and Richard
O’Sullivan- the one in the barn with all the bundles of hay- and like the
seasoned professionals they were, these two made film acting look easy. So that
was a bit of luck! I suppose another bit of luck was my first scene with Lyn
Yeldham who played Carole, the daughter of the home where I was an au pair. Lyn
already had professional experience in front of the cameras yet she was far
more nervous than I was and kept flubbing her lines. Though I felt bad for her,
it gave me a boost. There was someone on the set who was less sure of herself
than I was!
But honestly, if Val hadn’t been so kind and
patient and understanding I don’t think I would have been able to do half the
things he asked of me. You have to trust your director and Val made that easy
with the way he made it seem we had all the time in the world. You never would
have known we were on such a tight schedule. I’ve no doubt he was the same with
the other actresses but he let me know all the time that he thought I was doing
a wonderful job. It’s the sort of thing that goes a long way in getting a good
performance out of someone.
Nancy in "Au Pair Girls".
B.D. John Standing, who plays Buster in the film, is one of this country’s best known character actors. Are there any memories of working with him which you would like to share?
N.W. John Standing was very kind. I remember him being helpful and supportive too. We had that difficult scene together which somehow didn’t seem nearly as troublesome as it might have been because he was so comfortable to work with.
B.D. Although never produced, Val Guest announced his intention to film a sequel to ‘Au Pair Girls’ entitled ‘Glamour Incorporated’. Do you recall this project being discussed?
N.W. The title sounds familiar. I remember Val talking about using me in his next film. It could have been that one. But then nothing came of it. You get used to things being promised or talked about, which is why we never used to count our chickens until the ink was dry on the contract. And even then, things could fall apart at the last minute!
B.D.What was the reaction to your big break in the movie business when you returned to RADA after filming?
N.W. It was awful, Brian. All hell broke loose. The first day of term after winter break I was called into the principal’s office. He was livid. You see, I had no idea that we were not permitted to do professional work while we were students. I was ignorant about the rules. I did wonder at the time, and I called the school to ask if it was alright, but it was the Christmas holidays and no-one was there. Now the principal was threatening me with expulsion and I was sobbing, telling him I hadn’t known and trying to explain to him that I needed to earn the fees for school. It turns out that he had been going to offer me a scholarship, but of course I hadn’t known that either. I was absolutely devastated. It had taken me two years and four auditions to finally get in to RADA and I had been doing very well there.
The upshot was that he allowed me to stay, but he took away all my leads in the finals. Word went around school that I had done a ‘blue movie’. I felt like an outcast. I finished the term but dropped out before the final term as I already had an agent. Unfortunately, I had now become ashamed of the film as it had gotten me into so much trouble and it was years before I could be sensible about it in any way.
Nancy Wait original painting, 1987.
B.D. What a terrible experience and one which must have affected you deeply. Even if you had been playing Ophelia at Stratford instead of doing ‘Au Pair Girls’, my guess is that the response would have been exactly the same but, as an overseas student less familiar with the system, I think they should have shown more leniency. Thank goodness you now had an agent who was able to find you work both in theatre and television. What are your memories of working on television series such as ‘Moonbase 3’ and ‘The Cedar Tree’?
N.W. It’s an interesting question- if you don’t know the rules, should you be judged as if you did? A few years later, I was to have another painful learning experience when I came through Heathrow and went blithely through the ‘Nothing to Declare’ aisle. I hadn’t known the rules there either, but I was punished anyway. Innocence was no excuse at RADA or British Customs!
‘Moonbase’ was significant because I remember walking into the interview knowing I would get the part. Actually, I can say that for all the parts I did get. But once rehearsals began, my confidence plummeted! I spent the first 5 years of my life in this little place called Skokie, Illinois and always in the back of my mind there was this voice saying ‘’You’re a little nobody from Skokie- what are you doing here with all these marvellous British actors?’’
Funnily enough, ‘Au Pair Girls’ was the only time it hadn’t mattered. And I think it was because Val Guest treated me with such deference. With kid gloves, really. It was years before I recovered from the fallout of the movie, and by then I’d had enough of acting.
B.D. In 1974, you starred as Margo in ‘The Amorous Milkman’, another sex comedy not dissimilar in mood from ‘Au Pair Girls’. Unlike the veteran Val Guest, you were directed this time by the well- known actor Derren Nesbitt who also wrote and produced it. Was the experience a positive one for you?
N.W. I wouldn’t call it positive. No, I was going through a difficult period at that time. If there was anything positive about it at all, it was that I realised I wasn’t meant for that particular genre any longer.
B.D. The acting profession’s loss was the art world’s gain when you decided, shortly afterwards, to no longer pursue a career as an actress but return to New York (by cargo ship) and establish yourself as a painter. What prompted this decision?
N.W. A dream. I had this amazing dream of dying and then being shown an entrance to the inner world. My acting career had been picking up too. I’d just come back from touring with the Oxford Theatre Club and Manchester Rep. had asked me to audition. But I couldn’t do it. Not after this dream of being shown another dimension, because when I woke up, I realised I had things inside I needed to discover and express. I had loved acting at one time, but this new revelation was like a fork in the road. And instead of being onstage, it was like a command to go backstage now, delve into areas behind the scenes as it were. It was quite an adjustment and it didn’t happen overnight, this transition from being ‘out there’ and having people look at me, to putting myself behind the easel and looking at them for a change.
It turned out that my acting training was a big help when it came to painting portraits. Because I was used to playing other people, putting myself in their shoes, feeling what it was like to be them. I picked up the energy of my models, then transformed the feeling of them onto the canvas. All art forms are related, each containing a part of the other. Becoming an actress in England was the fulfilment of a dream. But now there was something else I had to do. And this time it was an actual dream which told me what my next step was. I was sad packing up my life in London and leaving so many friends behind but I made into another adventure by sailing home on a cargo ship (that too had been a dream!) As the bard says, ‘’We are such stuff as dreams are made on…’’
B.D. Can you describe how your style as an artist has evolved over the years?
N.W. I began with the figure and portraits and thought I’d stick with that, but by a fluke I got into architectural renderings, which paid the bills for many years. And then alongside this commercial work, I started painting from my imagination. These were also figurative, and were based on whatever I was feeling at the time. So alongside these precise, detailed and realistic drawings in pen and ink and watercolour, I let loose with large, colourful expressionistic canvases in oil that allowed me to tell a very emotional and personal story I could not have told in any other way because it was all intuitive, based on dreams and past-life memory. Though at the time I didn’t really know it was a past-life memory. It was only a feeling. And that is one thing art does, it takes us to places beyond the logical mind.
B.D. Much more than an autobiography, your first book ‘The Nancy Who Drew’ is an extraordinary debut in my opinion, the meaning of events and relationships in your past revealing themselves as the story unfolds. Can you talk a little about the process of writing it as well as its sequel, which I understand you're working on at present?
N.W. Adjectives about writing off the top of my head: gruelling, exasperating, tortuous. But on the other side is a sense of fulfilment, the satisfaction of realising a goal, gratitude for one’s own perseverance. I would never have been able to get started without going back to school. And I never would have gone back to school in my late forties had I not felt a desperate need to find ‘’the blueprint of my soul’’. I’ve never been one to shy away from a difficult task, but it’s another thing to see it through. And if I hadn’t felt the project was soul directed, and by that I mean that it came from a deep inner need for clarity and understanding, I’m not sure if I would have had the courage to keep going despite the obstacles.
Writing about one’s life takes a lot of courage. One of the assignments in my first memoir class was to write a synopsis. An overview doesn’t sound like a big deal, right? Well, it just about did me in. I was so stressed I had to take Valium to finish it. But when I read it aloud to the class they loved it. They laughed so loud they were practically falling off the chairs. And there I was, thinking my story was tragic… Which is why, especially in the beginning, it’s so important to attend workshops and get feedback.
But the main thing is to face the necessary aloneness and isolation in order to ‘’know thyself’’. Though I know others can, I’ve never been one to write in a café or the library as I find it too distracting. And then, of course, there’s the task of facing oneself. Being brutally honest, letting go of what others might think. All these descriptions of the writing process like ‘’opening up a vein and letting it bleed’’ and ‘’peeling an onion’’ are absolutely true.
So first there is remembering the feelings, then finding the words to describe them. Then writing them down in such a way that others can relate. They might not have had your experiences, but they have to be able to relate to your emotions. It’s how we connect with each other. The very human need to connect by sharing stories, and the very personal need to connect to one’s own story in the most conscious way possible.
My motivation was very strong, firstly because I began my adult life by acting other people’s stories, identifying with them, sometimes losing myself in them. Secondly, because after acting I went into painting, I pictured the feelings I wasn’t able to put into words. It was all intuitive. Intuiting the memories held deep in my subconscious. Did I know what they meant? No, I did not. That was when inner guidance (soul guidance) stepped in and told me it was time to write my own story. Because I needed to understand with my conscious mind.
My first book was about how and why I became an actress and what that led to, and its sequel is about how and why I became an artist, and what that led to. And specifically what it was like being a female artist. We don’t have many stories of these, as artists usually tell their stories through visual means. The muse, for instance, is usually portrayed as feminine, and mine male.
As a painter, I delved into the mystery behind the form. And now, as a writer, I’m delving into the mystery behind the events that led me to portray those very forms. It’s the story of how an artist found she could possess something, and her longing to be possessed, overcome, transported into a different reality. Remember that line from ‘The Godfather’ that was made famous in ‘You’ve Got Mail’- ‘’Take it to the mattresses?’’ In my case, it’s always been ‘’Take it to the canvas…and battle it out with paint!’’ And yet, if you look at my pictures, you wouldn’t have a clue that’s what I was doing. I’ve called my work ‘’A mute expression of the unattainable’’. My task has now been that of giving it a voice.
If I may add a couple more descriptions of the writing process, they would be long and arduous…
B.D. In the course of our exchanges, one word keeps coming into my mind and that is ‘courage’. To overcome the difficulties you faced early in life, refusing to accept initial rejection by RADA and coming to London at a time when overseas study was almost unheard of, all of this must have required great bravery, particularly given your basic nature and background.Your achievements as an actress, artist and writer seem to me strong evidence that if we face up to who we really are and recognize the flaws within ourselves, only then can we move forward and achieve our potential. Would you agree?
N.W. Absolutely! And I would add the importance (when telling one’s own story) of letting go of shame. This has been a key one for me. But I was inspired by editor Laurie Stone in her introduction to ‘Close to the Bone’ where she says ‘’The challenge is to write about shame from a post-shame point of view, to enter an ego-free zone, cleared of mirror-worship and whining, to walk out naked and speak intimately…’’
As for courage, half the time I was scared out of my wits. But fear and excitement are two sides of the same coin. They always say it’s OK to be scared; just do it anyway! Besides, WHO is the one who is scared? The ego, afraid to make a fool of itself, afraid to be wrong? I had a sense of destiny from a young age, but it wouldn’t have done me much good if I wasn’t also in touch with my own soul, that part of myself beyond ego. The soul knows it is immortal, so what does it have to fear?
I want to add that so many people helped me along the way. Even if it may have seemed a negative experience at the time, it propelled me on to the next place because I was open. And when I’ve had doubts, I’ve always asked for assistance from my guides. Guidance is there for all of us. All we have to do is ask.
B.D. Thank you so much, Nancy, for sharing your memories and thoughts with our readers and also for offering so much insight into the creative process. It’s also nice to know that, in the end, at least one of those au pair girls made good!