Interview: Juliet Stevenson on Playing Mother Teresa in “The Letters

Posted on December 12, 2015 at 3:26 pm

Juliet Stevenson plays Mother Teresa in William Riead‘s The Letters. In our interview, I began by asking her about playing the famously tiny nun when she is a tall woman. “

Copyright Freestyle Releasing 2015
Copyright Freestyle Releasing 2015

You’re absolutely right and one of the first things I said to Bill Riead when he rang me and asked me to do it was, ‘I think you really may have got the wrong person here. I think you might’ve turned a couple of pages in Spotlight Actresses directory and got the wrong person because I’m five foot eight. I’m rather strongly built and I’m not a Roman Catholic.’ And he said ‘No, no I know exactly who you are.’ I’m physically quite wrong for her and that did worry me a bit, quite a lot actually because she’s so famously small. She is such a legendarily tiny person. The truth is that I think when you’re playing somebody who really lived, yes it’s great if you can find a look-alike but I think what’s more important than that is trying to find the quintessential center of somebody, the essence of somebody. When I started to research her and watched her in documentaries and interviews, her body language is so strong and so particular to her and I thought, ‘Well, maybe if I can really find that body shape, that body language, it wouldn’t matter that I’m a bit taller than her because the body will be very familiar, you know, the shapes. She has these quite tense hunched-over shoulders, her shoulders wrapped around her ears, her chest is quite concave, her head sort of stoops, and then she’s got these wonderful big, fluffy, tactile hands that are always stroking and patting and touching people when she’s talking to them, very tactile sort of touchy-feely hands but this body that’s quite tense and quite withheld and so there is this sort of very conflicting interesting story told in the body language. I thought that might be a route into her and it might mean that people didn’t mind the difference in heights very much as long as they could see that the body was sort of very recognizable, so that’s what I aimed for anyway.”

Stevenson spent a lot of time studying Mother Teresa, including watching her on film. “She’s a gift in a way because of course there is so much footage of her, there are miles and miles of documentaries, interviews, there was a vast amount of film to watch and I sat for long hours in the British Film Institute just watching this old footage. And I had tapes of her which I took in there with me when we filmed and had my little mp3 player on all the time on the set listening to her talking, and listening to her. So I got her rhythm of her speech into in my system. Her accent which is very strange and a real cocktail mix of Albanian where she came from and then India and English. It’s a really interesting, strange combination. So the accent and the patterns of her speech and her body language were my two sort of routes into her and then when eventually I felt they were coming, when they were sort if setting in I felt much more confident about being her.”

The movie makes clear that Mother Teresa had an unusual combination of determination and humility. “She includes great extremes,” Stevenson said. “She was very determined, very tough in a way. She demanded a lot of her girls, of her nuns. I spoke to nuns who had worked with her when they were much younger at the motherhouse and the working day was really tough, no breaks, no lunch hours. It started very early in the morning before dawn, they cleaned, they swept, they scrubbed, they went out to the sick and the poor and the students, they came back and they prayed. It was a really, really tough house and anybody who wasn’t quite up to it, well she was a taskmaster, or a taskmistress. On the other hand, she was extremely compassionate. You see great tenderness in her when she is with children or holding these orphans or with sick, the dying, stroking them, bathing them, talking to them, there is this tenderness and this compassion. So there is one contradiction, this wonderful sort of yin/yang quality. But there are many of those contradictions in her. She lived a very public life, she’s always surrounded by people, but she was very, very lonely I think in certain ways. She combined many opposites. We perhaps all do to some extent but she is quite an extreme version of it and I think that took great strength. I think it means that she actually understood a huge range of human experience and human qualities and I think the greatest paradox is that she had this great crisis of faith, this woman who seems to embody unflinching stalwart Christian values and steadfastness was actually privately in agony of doubt; thought that God had abandoned her, missed him keenly like a woman whose beloved husband has walked out the door and she doesn’t know why, she doesn’t know when he’s coming back or if he is coming back. Like such a woman she lived in grief and loneliness privately for over 40 years and that was what she wrote to the priest about, to her confidant, her spiritual advisor, Father Van Exem. I think in some way maybe she used this lowliness and disbelief to channel the work. She connected with those people more because they too were lonely and abandoned and she had something in common with them though she might not have known that she felt that. I am sure that might well have been what gave her some sort of strength. In the same way that when we are miserable in our private lives we often do plow ourselves in hard work schedules and whatever to escape and I think in a way you could see her as an example of that; now we know what she was privately going through.”

Stevenson also spoke about the experience of living and working in India, near the places Mother Teresa lived and worked. “India does change you, I have never been before and I was sometimes quite overwhelmed by the beauty, by the poverty, the otherness of it. I mean I have never been anywhere like it and I have traveled a lot in the world. I really got hooked on it. Then my children came out to visit for two weeks in the holidays and I think had a big influence on them. My son had never seen anything like it. We were staying in such a luxurious hotel and I am going out every morning to film in a slum and so he came from the hotel out to visit me with my husband and daughter. So he saw one extreme of India, the new wealth, very flamboyant wealth that India was enjoying in certain areas and then the extreme poverty in which is still experienced in other areas. And every day he went from one to the other and he found that very challenging. But he is very, very glad that he had that experience.”

And she talked about what made Mother Teresa an extraordinary leader, so inspiring to those around her. “I think we are in a world where we have to witness an enormous amount of poverty, bloodshed, destruction, malevolence, hostility, appalling stuff and we don’t know what to do about it. And it is the first time in history, just in the last hundred years when we we know what’s going on, perhaps we didn’t know much about what’s going on but now we have the media everywhere and we see all of this. We don’t know what to do about it. If somebody stands and says, ‘Hey, this is what you can do about it. It’s not difficult. You can do something and you don’t have to rely on the government. You can stand up. One person can make a difference. Just roll up your sleeves, pick up a bucket, go out and scrub or pick up somebody, lay them down, bath them, feed them.’ This idea that she personally picked up 40,000 people off the streets in a country where nobody at all paid any interest to them and — that is inspiring because you say, ‘I can do something, I too can do something.’ And it is not something beyond our reach, it is quite simple, practical stuff. She found an empty building, she cleaned it. She created mattresses that were clean. She had people that were washing everything, she bathed people, she loved them, she fed them, she stroked them, she prayed with them, she talked to them. These are all things within our reach, very easily within our reach and I think that’s what’s inspiring. You don’t have to have a degree, you don’t have to have a license, you don’t have to have anything to do that. It may not be so easy now but we can all do something. She is very practical, very realistic in a way. She fought the obstacles that were there and they could be overcome; obstacles in the church or obstacles in the community but she just believed in herself. She believed in what she was doing and she knew that she could make a difference. You could say that’s the message in the film — if you believe you too can make a difference, you can do it. And let’s make compassion something that we respond to by getting up and doing something not just talking about it or saying it is awful or it is terrible, do something, stand up, be counted. I love that idea.”

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