Retta Scacchi, who is currently 63 years old, is an actor who has won an Emmy award. She was born in Milan, Italy but spent her early years in England. When she was a teenager, she moved to Australia where she first started performing in theatre. Some of her notable film roles include White Mischief, The Player, and Emma. Currently, she can be seen in the TV show Bodies and the recently released film Run Rabbit Run (alongside Sarah Snook from Succession), both available on Netflix. Scacchi is preparing to portray Mrs Hardcastle in a 1930s-inspired adaptation of Goldsmith’s play She Stoops to Conquer at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond.
What attracted you to the character of Mrs. Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, one of the most iconic older female characters in theatre known for her flamboyant, mercenary, humorous, and vulnerable traits?
I have a fond memory of performing in a play during my first year at drama school at the age of 18. Despite not appearing to be the type, I thoroughly enjoyed portraying comical characters. One role I had always desired to take on was Mrs. Hardcastle, and it’s amazing that I now have the opportunity, as I am now the appropriate age and size for the character. I’m reaching a point where I am excited to portray diverse roles that may be unexpected of me.
You portray The Lady in Bodies, initially a enigmatic voice. How does it feel to be part of a popular Netflix series?
I am pleased to hear that the audience enjoys it. I have great respect for Stephen Graham and the other talented actors involved, but my personal opinion does not hold much weight as I do not watch my own work. Unlike theatre, TV does not have the same sense of warmth, collaboration, and creativity. Only the camera crew and makeup artists, who are present every day, truly feel a part of the larger production. I only filmed for a few days out of five months, so it was difficult to even recall my character’s name, let alone anyone else’s.
Is theatre your preferred form of expression?
It’s like my sacred space. As you get older, life itself continues to throw more challenges and dramas your way, and doing theatre, with its pace, its timings of rehearsals and its rules, makes me feel a bit more in control.
How do you look back on your time as a major celebrity in the 1980s?
I understood early on that I was constantly being asked to fulfill a male fantasy. It took a lot of effort to inject some authenticity into the portrayal of women when I was seen through a male perspective. Although there has been progress, there are still many strange representations of older women in media, despite the increasing recognition of female directors.
In what way?
I have encountered an issue that I refer to as the “grey wig in the wardrobe” dilemma. In the past five years, I have portrayed five different characters that required me to wear varying quality grey wigs. To solve this problem, I had a custom-made wig that fits me perfectly and is always ready in my wardrobe at home. However, it is disheartening that older women are often depicted as grey-haired and unfashionable. Take for example Maggie Smith in real life – she remains stylish and youthful despite her age. Where are the modern and diverse representations of older women? Where are the women who were part of the women’s liberation movement, the flower power era, or the punk scene? Just because we are playing characters over 60, does not mean we should conform to outdated stereotypes.
Why did you only receive a British passport in recent years, despite having a British mother?
My maternal ancestors have been English for generations, but Margaret Thatcher did not consider that as a legitimate factor. My older siblings held British passports, but Thatcher’s legislation against foreign fathers’ children was implemented just before I reached adulthood. This still bothers me greatly. With the impending arrival of Brexit, I felt the need to address this issue before being forced to leave. While I have strong affection for Australia and Italy, London has always been my preferred place of residence. Despite its frustratingly wet and chilly weather, the city has a unique charm and endless opportunities that meet my standards.
What were your backup career plans if acting did not pan out?
I aspired to be a tour guide in thrilling destinations – like visiting the Valley of the Kings to discover its history, become a part of it, and share my passion. It was essentially a form of performance, immersing myself and exploring new places.
Who are the actors that currently inspire you?
The character of Matthew Macfadyen in Succession is a paradox – he appears to be virtuous, but is actually corrupt. The dynamic between Tom and Greg (played by Nicholas Braun) is also brilliantly portrayed. Jemma Redgrave’s performance in Octopolis at Hampstead Theatre was also exceptional. She has reached a point in her career where her talent and experience have merged into something extraordinary. Additionally, I highly recommend Monica Dolan’s portrayal in Carol Morley’s latest film Typist Artist Pirate King. She has been on my mind constantly lately.
Earlier this year, you and your daughter, Leila George, acted together in an Australian movie called He Ain’t Heavy. In the movie, you played her mother. Do you ever offer her advice?
No way. You soon learn not to give any advice! In our relationship on screen there was friction and blame, and, of course, allegiance and cooperation, all of those things that are just typical of a mother and daughter in real life. It was very strange, but in the end it was very good and really lovely.
What is it like to be living in Sussex again, just like when you were a child?
I continue to enjoy running on the Downs. I am fortunate to have a traditional garden in Sussex and my ancestors from Gloucestershire on my mother’s side had a knack for gardening, which I believe I inherited. I am intrigued by the wild plants, the fields of grass and flowers, and the unique growth patterns each year brings. I have a variety of herbs and vegetables in my garden, including basil, tomatoes, zucchini, and borlotti beans. These are essential ingredients for authentic Italian soup! If my beans do not thrive, I refuse to buy canned ones. Instead, I will make a trip to Italy in late summer or early fall and bring back a suitcase full of fresh beans.
She Stoops to Conquer is at the Orange Tree theatre, Richmond, Surrey, from 18 November to 13 January 2024