Lindsay Duncan proudly proclaims she’s a long way from “hanging up her dancing shoes”.
In fact, the 63-year-old Scottish-born star of stage, television and film has a new spring in her step after completing one of her most enjoyable and important pieces of work.
That would be Le Week-End, her new bleakly comic drama. Directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill) and written by Hanif Kureishi (Venus), it’s the story of Meg (Duncan) and Nick (Jim Broadbent) Burrows, a married couple who decide to revisit their old Parisienne honeymoon haunts for their 30th anniversary in the hope of rejuvenating their marriage. However, things do not go as planned.
“They’re not extraordinary, they’re just people who have got jobs that meant something once (he is a recently sacked university lecturer, she a biology teacher), they’ve brought up kids and that hasn’t been easy, and now here they are in their 60s. There are millions of people like that, so we really wanted to make them really live for an audience,” says the Tony and Olivier Award-winning actress, married herself for a long time to fellow actor Hilton McRae.
It helped, immensely, she says, that she and Broadbent have been married before (as Lord and Lady Longford in the 2006 television drama Longford), so they knew each other a little bit, had mutual friends and of course that “Jim is such a wonderful, honest actor”.
“That’s a huge part of informing your own performance – being with somebody who embodies truth. We also work in a similar way – simply, but wanting to get it right. We needed to have a sense that they had been together for that amount of time and also really wanted to convey something believable about the length of that relationship and the way they are with each other.”
Duncan, who was awarded a CBE for her services to drama in 2009, also has nothing but praise for Kureishi’s script.
“Because he’s also searingly honest himself as a writer he’s managed to bring out the uncomfortable aspects of two individuals trying to hack it together.”
She says she, Broadbent and Michell spent five days in London before the shoot with Kureishi, reading through the script and thrashing out the finer points.
“He would come in and answer or not answer questions, depending on how he felt. It was nothing major, we just wanted to smooth over little bumps that might trip you up, because when you’re shooting a feature film in 21 days you haven’t got time to stand around discussing the finer points.”
Yes, Paris might have been the exotic location for Le Week-End, but Duncan insists there wasn’t a lot of time to drink in all the sights, with shooting beginning from the moment they arrived at St Pancreas station.
“We began shooting on the Eurostar and it was delightful and funny filming the reality of arriving at Gare du Nord looking at signs and wondering where you are. However, at the back of my mind I was constantly thinking: ‘I know I’m filming but I really hope someone is looking after my own suitcase’.”
Duncan says she enjoyed the freedom and flexibility that filming without lights, trailers or generators afforded.
“It’s also enormously helpful when a lot of the time it’s just the two of you literally walking in your character’s footsteps, especially as the pressure mounts on the relationship. It wasn’t exactly guerrilla filmmaking, in fact far from it, but it kept you close to the character and your energy levels up. It was a great way and I think the only way to make such an intimate film like this – and it certainly wasn’t a hardship to be glancing at Paris as you watch this marriage hobbling along.”
Another benefit of film-making in France was the catering, she says.
“Ah, yes, the classic plat du jour. Yes, we’d dive into the nearest bistro, be in and back at work within the hour. You don’t get that in England, where you either sit on a bus or in your trailer.”
But, gourmet lunchbreaks aside, did the intense way of working mean Meg was a difficult character to leave behind at the end of day
“Not really, because not living much of a life is the trick to playing the lead in a film. Here, I’d get back to the apartment, take a shower, wash my hair, learn my lines again and quite honestly it’s bed time. I’m not a method actor, I couldn’t, I’d lose my mind.”
When asked if she thinks Le Week-End is part of a growing trend of films made for older audiences (Hope Springs, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Amour), Duncan demures, before pointing out that this isn’t the first time Kureishi and Michell have tackled looking at what it’s like to be older.
“They were doing it way before the zeitgeist – just think of Venus and The Mother. They didn’t go ‘oh hello, there’s a movement’, they are just curious, intelligent people.
“I think, to some extent, you’re seeing more films aimed at older audiences because the creative forces behind things are getting older themselves. Then there’s the even more powerful economic issue – who goes to the cinema. I do – I don’t really want to watch stuff on devices unless I have to. My generation still believes in the shared experience of cinema.”
Still going strong more than 35 years after making a commercial for Head and Shoulders shampoo (one of her other recent projects, Richard Curtis’s time-travelling rom-com About Time, came out on DVD here last week and she makes an appearance in the new series of Sherlock), Duncan says she is still lucky enough to be thinking about what she is going to do with her life.
“And I think that’s what people of my generation want to see reflected now – that relationships and choices are still important.
“However, we’ve still got a long way to go to convince the people that make things happen to make those sorts of films, and that you can’t just keep making stories about very young people.”
Le Week-End (M) is now screening.