Harriet Walter: I spend my life pretending to be someone else

Harriet Walter describes how reading Germaine Greer empowered her, discusses how Dostoevsky helped define her moral compass and explains why she loves acting.

Harriet Walter’s distinguished acting career, both on stage and screen, spans over 30 years, and she was made a dame in the 2011 New Year Honours for services to drama. She plays DI Natalie Chandler in ITV1’s Law and Order.

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer

Following the sort of socially acceptable life that was expected of me by my parents—and finding myself thinking it was all rather dull—I couldn’t believe how exciting it was to find a book that turned everything upside down. Although I was never a natural rebel, it showed me that there were different ways of thinking about a woman’s place in society. It gave me the licence to pursue my career—rather than a husband. In 1970, when this was published, women were looking for a shift in their lives. The old “rules” were cultural rather than natural, and we realised we had the ability to change things. This book empowered me, and many others, in a way that’s hard to imagine now.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

My love of words, both written and spoken, came late in life. As a rather deep teenager somewhat in turmoil myself, the plight of Raskolnikov intrigued me. I’d been a religious child, and so to find myself questioning how much one could get away with before God pointed His finger through the thunderclouds helped define my own moral compass. We’re all interested in right and wrong and what we’d do in different circumstances—that’s why there are so many crime dramas on TV today. Do we all have a conscience? What does it mean to be human?

The Empty Space by Peter Brook

When I was at drama school, this famous director’s book defined the profession. The opening lines include, “A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” Brook showed acting can be profound, and not just about the pay cheque and basking in applause. It’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed in drama so long; I’m always digging to find deeper reasons why I spend my life pretending to be someone else.

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