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Dame Eileen Atkins, 79, a veteran of theatre, film and television acting, has won Bafta, Olivier and Emmy awards. Her extensive credits include Upstairs Downstairs, Gosford Park and Cranford. She was appointed CBE in 1990 and DBE in 2001.
What was your earliest ambition?
To win the egg-and-spoon race when I was five. I was competitive even then.
Public school or state school? University or straight into work?
State school: Latymer in Edmonton, London. I didn’t want to leave at 16, I cried and cried. My parents wanted me to go to work. I had to do a teaching course at Guildhall as that was the only way I could get the funding – but I did the drama course at the same time.
Who was your mentor?
A brilliant, very eccentric teacher at Latymer, E.J. Burton. Mother wanted me to lose my cockney accent and Mr Burton took me up in a big way, changed my accent and also took me to see my first play.
How physically fit are you?
I can dance for hours.
Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
Confidence and talent are the two things that are needed. My ambition has only ever been for good parts, never fame.
Have you ever taken an IQ test?
No, I wouldn’t dare. My husband has a very high IQ but it doesn’t seem to make any difference. He has a degree in nuclear physics but doesn’t know how to do the electrics around the house.
How politically committed are you?
I’ve voted all three ways – I vote for what I think might be right at the time. I’m a real floater.
Do you consider your carbon footprint?
It’s awful but I really don’t. I was a child of the blackout – we had no light, no one had any petrol and I’m buggered if I’m going to worry about it in my old age.
What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?
I wouldn’t mind a bit more money in the bank so that I don’t have to worry about which old persons’ home I might be pushed into.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
The obvious one: clothes.
Do you have more than one home?
No and I never have. I’ve wanted a cottage in Cornwall all my life. I’ve got the nearest thing to it by doing Doc Martin.
In what place are you happiest?
What ambitions do you still have?
To keep going and not make a fool of myself. I hope I’ll know, whatever anyone else says, when it’s time to stop.
What drives you on?
The work. A good script.
What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
Getting an honorary degree at Oxford. It’s been a life-long regret that I wasn’t a university person. I also think it’s a pretty good achievement that I’m still married, actually.
What has been your greatest disappointment?
You get very hardened to disappointment in our business, it’s almost continual.
If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would she think?
“My God, you’ve done well.” It was such a hopeless start for me, coming from a Tottenham council house, never having any money – I couldn’t imagine that I’d have done as well as I have.
If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?
I hope I’d be all right. One is extremely lucky at my age to still be asked to play parts.
Do you believe in assisted suicide?
Do you believe in an afterlife?
No. I’m an agnostic: absolutely nobody can know for sure. But when people talk about relatives greeting them in white nighties my heart plunges to the ground.
If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?
I’m horribly smug so I’d say at least eight, if not nine. I’ve been amazingly lucky.
‘Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins’, in which Dame Eileen portrays some of Shakespeare’s greatest female characters, opens at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on January 12.
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