Emilia Fox, Aliston Steadman, Sarah Solemani on how far women have come

How far have women come in the acting world? The Secrets stars discuss how the industry has changed

Emilia Fox: Silent Witness, Merlin 

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I often get asked if my family sits around the table talking about acting [Fox is the daughter of actors Joanna David and Edward Fox, her cousin is Lewis detective Lawrence Fox and her younger brother Freddie is also an actor]. Never! Yet it is like a family business where you know a language and you have seen the great highs – and also the great lows. My childhood was so far from glamorous. My parents really struggled to give me a great education at a certain cost to their own lives, so my rose-tinted spectacles were off. I didn’t want to act; I wanted to carve an independent path, to use my Oxford degree.

It was a coincidence of life. I normally waitressed in university holidays but I got asked to audition for Pride and Prejudice by a director who had worked with my mum and known me as a little girl. My next job was Rebecca – opposite Charles Dance, Diana Rigg and Faye Dunaway. My biggest worry was that people would say I got the part because mum had played Rebecca 20 years previously. In fact, they took my name off the audition so that I could never have accusations of nepotism thrown at me. 

I look at my mum and I think she’s found it harder as an actress because there were fewer and fewer roles as women got older. Times have changed. Nor need women resign themselves to playing the ingénue or the love interest. I have been especially lucky because I’ve had Silent Witness, which has been such a strong female role. 

Job description is not important to me; whatever anyone wants to call me as long as I’ve got work. It’s the same when people say, “Do you want to be called Millie or Emilia?” I don’t care!

My mum put her children before her career, which made things very difficult when she wanted to come back into the industry. I haven’t had to make that choice: I was able to work all the way through my pregnancy and I was back at work within three months doing Merlin and Silent Witness. I found it hard being away from Rose and so they encouraged me to bring her on set. She’s three now and very much part of the Silent Witness family.

Would I like Rose to follow in my footsteps? Judging by her performances at home, it’s almost inevitable! If she does want to, I will support her all the way, through the good times and the bad. 


Sarah Solemani: 
The Wrong Mans, Bad Education, Him & Her 

I was lucky. I did the National Youth Theatre and got an agent there, so I worked professionally right from school age and through university. It’s financially nearly impossible for young actors because property prices have gone up and wages haven’t. I was talking to an actor of Alison Steadman’s generation who said she bought her first flat with the fee from one episode of television. Now a lot of actors will never be able to buy a house.

Are the roles drying up now I’m in my 30s? No, just the opposite. I think we’re entering the golden age of television. The BBC in particular is taking risks and supporting talent so it’s a very exciting time and I’m excited to be part of it [Solemani also wrote her episode of The Secrets]. One area that is under-represented is directing; certainly the only female director I have ever worked with was one I hired for a comedy I wrote for Sky. And as in most professions, equal pay is still a real fight.

People responded to my Him & Her character Becky because she wasn’t a typical sitcom “feed”: feeding the lines to funny men. The show won a Bafta this year, which just shows that when you have good writing, you don’t have to follow convention – you can do your own thing. 

Alison Steadman: Abigail’s Party, Pride and Prejudice, Gavin & Stacey, Boomers 

My first professional job was playing Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at Lincoln Theatre Royal in the late 1960s. I had a nude scene – much to the shock of the audience! It was during my final year at drama school and all the other girls were aghast. I was given a nylon, flesh-coloured body stocking; it was like wearing a see-through swimming costume or an enormous pair of tights. I tried it on in my digs, thought “you look awful in this thing” and threw it aside.

My parents were encouraging. One of my sisters was a hairdresser and the other worked in an office, so acting was different… thrilling. Liverpool Education Committee paid all my drama school fees and a living allowance. I feel so sorry for kids today who are borrowing money to go to drama school with no guarantee of work when they finish.

Hitting 40 used to be a very dodgy time if you were female in the business. That is no longer the case, particularly for women in their 60s – just look at Boomers and Last Tango in Halifax. The downside is that filming is much more intense and exhausting than it used to be. You’re expected to work much longer hours, you have fewer breaks and the money has been reduced.

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I’ve just turned 68, and you do tire more easily as you get older. The job might retire me in the end! I’ve been working with June Whitfield, who’s 88, can still learn her lines and looks fabulous. That’s encouraging.