Fall Preview: Joanna Lumley: The Gypsy Woman

8.31.2010

By Aaron Hicklin

Joanna Lumley once found herself on a desert island somewhere between Madagascar and Africa. She had no soap or toothbrush, no bed. She had to build her own shelter. 'It was fantastic,' the actress gushes. 'It was tough, tough, tough. It was fabulous!' The image of the permanently sozzled, coke-snorting, Christian Louboutin'wearing Patsy going without such basic amenities as Bolly and Botox is incongruous to say the least, but Lumley insists any resemblance between her and her famous Ab Fab creation is coincidental. 'I'm actually quite a hair-shirt person at heart -- I love the rough life,' she says in her elegant diction (one interviewer referred to it, aptly, as 'smoked cut-glass'). 'Not having books -- I thought I'd die. And no music! But what happens is that your mind just goes wandering free, and you remember all those books you read. We push so much down every day by putting more stuff in that sometimes it's good to be completely solitary.'

Wandering free, it turns out, is Lumley's default mode. She was born in Kashmir in 1946, a year before India gained independence, and has hopscotched her away across the globe ever since, frequently in the service of her art. The desert island sojourn was the basis for Girl Friday, a TV show and book. More recently, she embarked on a five-nation, 4,000-mile journey along the Nile, during which she got baptized at the source of the river, bonded with a camel named Charlie, and marveled at hippos ('unbelievable, fabled creatures -- and they get to that size by eating grass!'). She has followed her grandfather's steps through the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan (where he worked as a diplomat in the 1930s)and traveled across the Arctic Circle to Svalbard to see the northern lights. 'I just did a documentary about cats all around the world,' she says. 'I've done documentaries on giraffes, on orangutans of Indonesia, on the white rajas of Sarawak. And I've got more planned for next year. It comes from a complete lack of ambition, no sense of where I am aiming or what I want to be. It's nice to wake up and think, What's the journey going to be this time? It's the life of a gypsy.'

Now the gypsy is headed to New York City for her Broadway debut -- playing a princess in 17th-century France in a revival of David Hirson's La B'te, a pastiche of Moli're written entirely in rhyming couplets. It has an inauspicious history, having closed after just 25 performances during its original Broadway run in 1991, but Lumley is unfazed. 'It's just marvelously clever, deeply funny, and Mark [Rylance] and David [Hyde Pierce] bring so much energy to it,' she says. 'Working with them has been just brilliant.'

Brilliant is a word that peppers Lumley's conversation. She talks in a great torrent, all gusto and oomph. Things are invariably 'staggering' or 'terrifically good' or 'simply amazing.' I casually inquire into what book is on her nightstand and get sucked into a tornado of hyperbole. She has just finished Hilary Mantel's 'staggering' Wolf Hall and is in the midst of a 'staggeringly interesting but dull book' about the financial crisis: 'It's my late-night reading -- after about five pages, I'm away and asleep.'

And on she adorably goes, brimful of enthusiasm, from her experience as a Bond girl in On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- 'Oh, sensational, I couldn't have loved it more' -- to dating Rod Stewart in the early '80s: 'Such fun. We went down to Marbella to see if he wanted to buy a boat, and he didn't, so we went back again.' She won intense admiration in the U.K. last year after taking on the government over the sensitive issue of settlement rights for Gurkhas -- a storied regiment of the British Army drawn from Nepal and India, in which her father served. A subsequent visit to Nepal turned into a national celebration for a homecoming queen. 'It was just extraordinary,' she says. 'They showed me such generosity.' Yet, no more, you have to believe, than Lumley must have shown them in return.

La B'te opens October 14 at New York City's Music Box Theater.

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