'I felt I was too plump, too wholesome for the part of Miss Daisy' says Gwen
First wordNORMALLY, actors prefer to emphasise the characteristics — height, physical appearance, background — which they possess which makes them suitable for a particular part.
It's rare you meet a performer who feels they aren't quite right for the role. However, it seems actress Gwen Taylor had some private doubts when the offer to play Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy came her way.
She'll be playing the role when the production comes to the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, from February 25 to March 2.
She says: "Oddly enough, I thought Daisy should be played by a tall, gaunt woman, like Jessica Tandy who won an Oscar for her performance in the film of Driving Miss Daisy, or like Vanessa Redgrave who recently played her in the West End production which I saw without knowing I'd soon be playing the same part. I felt I was too plump, too wholesome for the character.
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"Yet there is no reason why Daisy can't be played by somebody of my height and build and features."
In the closing weeks of rehearsal, Gwen was feeling she'd made good progress with the character, although there was one quality she sensed she was still missing.
"I haven't quite got Daisy's refinement," she confessed. "Although Miss Daisy has come from very humble, poverty-stricken beginnings, she has done well. By instinct, I am drawn to playing warm-hearted, motherly characters, which I think reflects my own family background so I have to be careful not to sentimentalise Miss Daisy. She isn't remotely motherly: I don't think there has been much hugging and kissing from Miss Daisy for her son, Boolie."
Perhaps Miss Daisy has re-directed her limited capacity for human warmth from her son to the generations of children she has educated during her years as a teacher.
"I certainly think that the school is where she's been happiest," says Gwen. "It's where she's felt most needed. She wants to cling on to her independence. After all, it must have been quite something for a 72-year-old woman to be still driving in 1948, the year the play opens.
"She simply pretends she's not getting older. She is racially prejudiced, although she is comfortable with black people, provided they know their place, like Idella. But when her Temple is bombed, even though it was Reform, Miss Daisy starts to realise the sands are shifting under her feet."
Since the three actors in Driving Miss Daisy have to speak in the accents of the Southern States, Gwen has been working closely with a dialect coach.
"She's been wonderful," says Gwen. "She started by emailing us a selection of sounds and letters with which to practice. I was very frightened when she came in to watch a bit of rehearsal, but she was kind enough to say she believed what I was doing. At the same time, you don't want to get too hung up on accent. If you worry too much about it, it can destroy your confidence."
Gwen was a late starter in her chosen profession and so did not graduate from drama school until she was nudging 30. She'd spent most of her 20s climbing the corporate ladder of the National Provincial Bank in Derby, her birthplace.
Does she feel she's had to make up for lost time?
She has managed to achieve an ideal balance of drama and comedy in her television work, matching such long-running sitcoms as Duty Free and Barbara with guest appearances in such drama stalwarts as Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders. More recently she made an explosive impact in Coronation Street.
She said: "My contract to play Anne Foster was only ever going to last six months and so I knew I'd be moving on, but I had no idea of what was planned for the character. Anne has supported Frank, her son, against the charges of rape brought against him but when he's acquitted and she overhears him admitting the crime, it is too much for her and she strikes out at him without meaning to kill him.
"Nobody knew who'd be chosen to bump off Frank, but Andrew Lancel, who played him, tipped me the wink. I was flabbergasted. 'You're joking' I said to him."
A glance at Gwen's CV reveals a surprising connection with the Monty Python troupe — either with individual members or with the whole of the team — and her Python credentials include Ripping Yarns and The Life of Brian.
Yet she declined an offer to appear in the Python film, The Meaning of Life, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that she did not want to be covered in vomit in the notorious scene when Terry Jones as the gluttonous Mr Creosote spectacularly erupts.
"It sounds as if I was being very grand," says Gwen. "But I had been asked to do something else and since I didn't wish to be sicked upon in The Meaning of Life, I took the other job offer."
Since period drama seems to be all the rage on television at the moment, Gwen is hoping to get in on the action.
"I'd love to do more period work and I enjoy getting into a corset, but I'm very rarely asked. I'd love to be asked to join the cast of Downton Abbey, but I know where I'd be sent — way down below stairs, cooking and washing."
Book tickets to the Theatre Royal performances by visiting www.theatreroyal.com