Portrait

From a sheepdog in Babe to Dickens’ women, Miriam Margolyes’s voice work is known throughout the world.

By Romy Ash.

Actress Miriam Margolyes channels voices from within

“Tonight I’m really quite bushed, actually,” Miriam Margolyes says. “I really am. It’s nice for me to be able to talk in an English accent because the whole fucking day, I have to talk like this, because that’s the voice of my character – so to be able to get rid of her and just be Miriam for a change is kind of nice.

Her character is “foul-mouthed, blasphemous, shrewd” Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. We’re sitting in a serviced apartment, her temporary home for the duration of the one-woman Melbourne Theatre Company show I’ll Eat You Last

“It’s hard on this part,” she says, reverting from Mengers’ harsh American accent back to her soft English speech, and pointing to her cheeks. “I’m always going like this” – she opens and closes her mouth, bares her square teeth. 

Margolyes has big eyes and a halo of grey hair that’s a little askew. She leans forward on the couch. It’s the kind of apartment that’s all black leather, steel, glass tabletops and sharp angles. Margolyes herself is the only colour in it. The 73-year-old actor is wearing New Balance sneakers and a floral dress made from T-shirt material. The colours are faded. The dress must have once been garish, but now it looks soft and comfortable, like it’s been washed one too many times.

She says, “Part of when you’re creating, you have to find a voice, and I had to find a voice for Sue.” She slips back into an American accent, “Now Sue learnt her accent from the movies. She was from New York, but she doesn’t use a New York accent – it’s a very generic American accent, like that, but quite ballsy.

She demonstrates what a New Yorker would sound like, she gives me that strong, nasally accent, “which is a very uneducated sound”. “It’s not very nice to hear all day,” she says, laughing.

I ask her if there’s a favourite voice she’s played. With a full career traversing the past 50-odd years, she has a great deal to choose from: the sheepdog Fly from Babe, every female character in the dubbed Japanese TV series Monkey bar Tripitaka herself, the nurse from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. She’s played every voice in Dickens’ Oliver Twist. The list is exhaustive, but she says she hasn’t a favourite, what she does have are voices she enjoys performing more than others.  

One of them is Mrs Gamp,” she says, a Dickens character. She changes with the change in her voice, slouching down into her chair. Her mouth makes a downward turn. Her voice slurs just a little. “She’s slightly drunk – she’s quite – she’s not a nice person, Mrs Gamp. She says, ‘Leave the bottle on the chimney please, and don’t ask me for a glass, let me put my lips to it, when I’m so disposed. And I will do everyfink I’m engaged to do, according to the best of my ability.’ ”

She explains the machinations of the voice, still in character, “The things you have to listen for, first of all, clearly lower class, clearly, that is you know, a rough London accent like that, you know is quite emphatic.” For the last word she emphasises the ph and there’s almost a spit with the ic. “There’s an energy behind it. And obviously I’ve met lots of people like that. There was a woman who used to live next door to me like that.”

Margolyes grew up in Oxford, her father was Scottish, and when she talks about him, she slips in and out of the idiosyncratic accent of a Scot. She says, “I’ve always been able to change my voice, and when I was a little girl walking to school – because my father made me walk to school – I used to make up plays and play all the parts. So I always knew that I could do different voices.” 

To voice the other character she enjoys playing, she sits up very straight, like her posture must be perfect, she must sit physically higher to sound so posh: “There’s a very upper-class person, slightly old fashioned because people don’t talk like that anymore, but when I was at university, a lot of people talked like that, and you just get used to it after a while. It’s quite extraordinary really.” 

To an observer, changing her voice so dramatically looks as easy as if she’s just swapping from hat to hat. She describes the process of arriving at a voice, a character, “You start with yourself, and you have in your mind’s eye, a picture of the person you want to arrive at, and gradually you build the bridge towards that person, using the bricks of your own personality, and gradually transforming them, or transmuting them in order to match the image that you’ve imprinted in your mind. I know how I want Sue Mengers, my Sue Mengers to be, and I’m working towards it – towards her.”

Of her own soft English accent, which has a voice-over, soothing quality to it, she says, “In a sense I’m old hat – my kind of voice is not particularly needed anymore – they like the more ‘estuary’ English [an accent from south-east England spoken especially along the River Thames and its estuary] which I don’t really speak. That’s a class statement. Anyway, I’m old now, and people need younger voices.”

In the next moment she’s telling a rude joke, throwing her head back laughing, and then seguing into a breakdown of the current political climate, before discussing literature and its importance in “helping a person to be”. There’s nothing “old hat” here.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 8, 2014 as "Voices from within". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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