To have one iconic part you’re associated with forever can be a joy, or a drag. Stockard Channing has two.
For some, she’ll always be go-getting wild child Rizzo in Grease. Rizzo was “sex positive” before the term existed – and how. Her big number, “There Are Worse Thing I Could Do”, has been embraced by successive generations for its full-throated refusal to throw one’s life away waiting for Mr Right. For others, she’s the First Lady of our dreams. As Abbey Bartlet, she was the great woman behind Martin Sheen’s President in The West Wing: likeable and formidable in equal measure.
These parts may be a joy for fans, but they’re clearly now a drag for her. “Do you know, when you’ve done as much work as I have, it’s not a question of having affection for [characters], you just hope you do a good job and then you’re on to the next,” she says. “I’m the last person to ask about Grease. I think it’s nice that people like the character and think I did a good job at her. That’s about it.”
Of course, boredom at rehashing the past is understandable – and the 73-year-old is right, she’s done plenty of work. She has over 90 TV and film credits, including recently a recurring part in The Good Wife, her own 1980s sitcom, The Stockard Channing Show, and an Oscar-nominated performance in Six Degrees of Separation, in a part she’d originated on Broadway. Channing is an equally accomplished stage actress, seven times nominated for a Tony, and winning one for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.
She has not, however, been seen on the London stage for a decade, last appearing as a tough matriarch in Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing at the Almeida. But now Channing is back, playing another tough matriarch in a revival of British writer Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia. First seen at the Bush in 2009, the family drama gets the big-name casting treatment from director Jamie Lloyd, whose previous hits include Macbeth, starring James McAvoy, and Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus.
Channing plays Kristin, who hosts a dinner party for her sons and their girlfriends. An esteemed art historian, she’s just published a memoir – which she fails to mention her kids. This slight reopens old sores, which are soon weeping all over the stage: both Peter, a banker who’s recently found religion, and Simon, a depressed failed writer, resent their mother for prioritising work over her children; Kristin, a radical 1960s Marxist feminist, believes she was taking a vital political stand. Add Peter’s sweetly naïve Christian other-half Trudi and Simon’s narcissistic soap star girlfriend, and the table is set for a painfully funny evening of snap judgements and overdue home truths.
“We’ll see how she’s received,” says Channing, laughing, when I ask what she makes of the character. “I’m really curious what people make of her. I admire her on one level and she’s appalling on another – but that’s sort of how people are. We all like to think we’ve done things right in life, and then it’s appalling to find we’ve maybe really screwed something up – and that to me is very moving and very human.”
With some killingly caustic lines, she’s the potential mother-in-law from hell – “there’s no diplomacy to good old Kristin”, Channing wryly observes – but she does also have true convictions. An ageing activist, she’s lived her life according to her political principles, in a way that really is admirable. I rather liked her, I say.
“Oh, she’s funny. She’s smart… [and] she feels very strongly that life should be approached in that serious way, not being distracted by consumerism [or] hiding out under organised religion. That’s the serious bit. But at the same time, the play is ‘let’s get mum!’ Or maybe, ‘mum fights back’.”
You bet she fights back – and Channing would make a terrifying opponent. She’s tricky enough in an interview. For someone so steeped in the business, she hasn’t a trace of luvvie-ness; even glowing endorsements of Lloyd and her fellow cast members – including Downton Abbey alumnus Laura Carmichael – are delivered with severity rather than the usual thespy cooing.
“I’m very, very fond of [Lloyd], he’s extremely present, he’s very smart. We’re all having a very good time,” – her tone suggests otherwise, frankly, but I wouldn’t dare contradict her – “and working very hard”.
I ask whether Kristin’s memories of the 1960s rings true to Channing’s own experience. “Yeah. Absolutely.” It looks like that’s all I’m getting, but a little more digging reveals how completely life-changing women’s lib really was. “I was born to a world where – especially as a woman – you were told exactly how you should behave, how you should dress, what was expected of you. The real goal was to marry well. And then suddenly the world exploded. I myself took full advantage of it, unconsciously and consciously.
“Life really expanded; there were options to be self-determining. That is something I wish people would try to recognise. It was a question of having options – which now still exist, thank God. But they’re more fragile than maybe people are aware of.”
Is she afraid of a backsliding in women’s rights in America? “We don’t know yet, do we? It’s all in flux…” Channing explains she’s rather enjoying being in London and away from the relentless US news cycle and the “chaos” of the Trump administration.
“It requires a lot of energy just to not panic,” she says. “To be confronted with this chaos is absolutely gobsmacking. But my country, that I was born in, raised in, live in – we created him. And people voted for him. If we want to dispute the current situation, we should really look at what discontent created this regime.”
She made no secret of her support for Hillary Clinton – a figure, it is sometimes suggested, who was the basis for Abbey Bartlet. I ask if The West Wing now seems heartbreakingly optimistic.
“I hear that a lot,” she replies. “At the time, ironically, people would say it was a mirror of what was going on at the White House; now, they talk about it as if it was an unrealistic thing! But I would like to think there be could a return to civilised discourse, intelligent diplomacy, wit, grace…”
I try some questions about Rizzo; I watched Grease so often as a child, the urge to fangirl is strong. But what does she think is the enduring appeal of the film? “I’m the last person to ask about that,” Channing says witheringly. “I think it’s nice that people like the character and think I did a good job at her. That’s about it.”
But if it’s annoying to be asked constantly about past glories, that’s because her motto is “live in the present”, not because she takes having a successful career for granted. Indeed, she says she’s “amazed” she’s still working – and that the industry is appalling in offering opportunities to older actresses.
“It’s wonderful I’m working, selfish old me, but I don’t think it’s a norm. There’s just the odd exception – and at the moment, I’m very grateful I’m one of the odd exceptions.”
‘Apologia’ is at Trafalgar Studios, London until 18 November (0844 871 7632)