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Leanne Best

Now in its final weeks, Leanne Best chats with 1883 about The Hills of California and reflects on creating such a mammoth character and finding real-life sisterhood within the small company of actors. 

In a career spanning two decades, Leanne Best has carved a name for herself as a beloved actor on British television and film. From Casualty to New Tricks to Line of Duty, when audiences see Leanne’s name appear in the title credits, they know they are in safe hands. It’s her latest role, though, that is seeing her soar to new heights. For the last 5 months, Leanne has been stunning audiences in Jez Butterworth and Sam Mendes new play The Hills of California. Set in Blackpool in the 1970’s, the play tells the story of the Webb sisters who have returned to their childhood home as their mother lies dying upstairs. From the moment she steps onto the stage, Leanne’s character Gloria is a whirlwind of emotion, it’s hard to believe that you are watching an actor play a part as she pours her entire being into bringing this character to life 8 times a week.

Now in its final weeks, Leanne Best chats with 1883 about The Hills of California and reflects on creating such a mammoth character and finding real-life sisterhood within the small company of actors. 

Firstly, congratulations on this brilliant run. The Hills of California is a piece of theatre that has really stuck with me, I found myself needing to go back and watch the play again for a second time 

Jez’s writing is so beloved, he has a real following of people who just love theatre and his theatre. People have spoken about the endings of his previous works, like Jerusalem and The River having these big bold stories that shake the walls, and someone said this play is his story that shakes the walls inside, so they wanted to come back again. They’d seen it, they’d been moved by it, and they needed to come back so that they could reprocess it – that they wanted to come back and revisit this moment or that moment, those smaller moments have planted seeds in the audience’s minds. Can I ask what made you specifically want to come and see it again?

I just found that the performances, the writing and the pacing were just so excellent, it felt like a disservice to only visit the piece once.

Brilliant. Thank you. That really makes me feel like we’ve done our job properly. Even just reading it when we first started working on it and being in rehearsals, I would find or feel something new about some bits, every single time we did it, I was feeling more and finding more both in the writing and the characters. 

I think that’s such a testament to the writing that you can continue to find things in there. 

I do think it’s great writing. I really do, in the truest sense of the word. I’ve got an infinite amount of respect for writers, it’s not easy. I think when writing isn’t so great, it’s a bit like a threadbare rug. But when it’s good? It gets richer and deeper and fuller and more textured the more that you do it, and this is what we’ve found with The Hills of California all through the run. 

Other than how well written and acted it is, what do you think it is about the play that has made it so well received both critically and from audiences?

I genuinely think this family has every family within it and the dog fight can be the love and hate between people who have to spend on and survive their childhood together.

Completely, I think because the characters are so well written and so multidimensional, audiences can see themselves or their own family dynamics shining back at them. The characters are so strong, and each actor embodies them so incredibly well. Your character, Gloria, is a whirlwind from the moment she steps on stage – there is so much physicality there with so much happening for her both on the surface and below it, it truly doesn’t feel like you’re watching someone act, how did you bring about bringing Gloria to life and fleshing her out? 

You’re very, very lucky when you have a roadmap that has been written for you by Jez Butterworth! I always say that from the first page, she’s written in capital letters. Every single line in the text is in capital letters when she enters the stage and it stays like that for a good while. Obviously, we have Sam Mendes directing us, who is one of the greatest ever to do it on stage on screen. I’ve said this to lots of people but Sam’s intellect is only outstripped by his empathy. He’s so dazzlingly intelligent but in lots of different ways; it isn’t all cerebral, he has a real boon of emotional intelligence. 

It is a really fascinating thing and it’s one of the things that I love that Jez has played with in this play. From people looking at them from the outside, when the women are the way that they are; they dress flamboyantly, their voices are loud, they are all fully fleshed out in the world and they take up space. I think people can interpret that as ‘the big gobby loud northern woman’ and I was never frightened of Gloria feeling like that. There’s nuance and depth to which Jez had written the amount of pain she was in, but also the confidence – she arrives on stage like a whale breaching the water and there’s a joy to be having that, it’s a brilliant thing to play as an actress. But also, I’ve never felt sensitive about it being ‘too much’ or too embodied because she’s written in such a way that I recognise the kind of woman she is; the kind of woman that is joyous to be around on a good day, and terrifying to be around on a bad day.

These girls, the four of us, we really, really, really care about each other. It’s a proper sisterhood, so everything that we do has been so fully informed by what’s happening with the other sisters on the stage. Then there’s Joan, our absent sister who is just as present for us in absentia as she is when she strolls in the room, so allowing myself to really key into the energy that we were all creating it really was, not to sound to ‘live, laugh, love’ about it, it was so real in rehearsals getting to flow with it – and Sam would just trust us and then from this energy we would start brewing and we just roll with it and then he would shape and fine-tune and he’d plant an idea or two.

The Webb girls move like seaweed, they move with the tide but what’s interesting is what is actually pulling the tide? What is this energy that is over all of them and pulling them into these places. I really love Helena Wilson’s character June, on paper she’s the very meek and mild younger sister but she’s got steel. When the storm comes she is the one who battens down the windows and is like, “We are waiting for Joan.” Then Ruby in the middle has found this almost ethereal quality and moves the energy between the sisters to just buy them a bit more time. We’re then able to go in that little bit further and just invite them to think about the past. Then there’s the confrontation, this sort of tectonic plate shift and every time Gloria has an eruption when anyone mentions Joan’s name – that sort of destructive energy, creates something like an opening for them to talk, it’s all it all feels very elemental. 

I think that that’s a very, very good way of putting it actually. Something that I liked about the play is that we meet the characters later in life but then we get flashbacks to their childhood and we as an audience get to see this pivotal moment instead of it being told to us by a character. You each have a younger actor playing the younger versions of the characters, the work that has been put in by all actors is extraordinary, how did you work with the younger actors in rehearsals?

The casting is just amazing, I think all of our cast is just perfect, they somehow managed to get all of the right people in the room. I don’t want to sound like Miss Congeniality, but there are some jobs that have a little bit of magic sprinkled on them. I’ve said this before but it just feels like everyone was supposed to end up on it, that we were all supposed to be in that room together. 

You’re in slight danger when you’re rehearsing a play of two different parts – you’ve got the 1950s and the 1970s. I think Sam was quite aware that we were in danger of having a split company because other than a couple of scenes where we overlap with the young cast, we don’t really see each other. Sam did a really lovely thing and he opened the rehearsal room so anyone could drop in at any time. Also, what was really beautiful is that there were very very few days where we didn’t all just come into work and we just wanted to watch everyone else’s work and want to be around each other to see how it was all unfolding, so the older Webb girls spent a lot of time watching the younger Webb girls rehearse and vice versa. Having that dynamic, and through having us actors watching the other actors go through the play, a lot of stuff rubbed off on us without it being a case of “Nancy does this with her hair” or “Leanne does this when she’s upset.” We rubbed off on each other in so many subtle organic ways. It is actually hilarious because every now and again in rehearsals, we’d all come in wearing similar outfits unintentionally. I think being around each other and getting to be in the world of it together and watching each other in rehearsals really helped with all of that.

As the show enters its final few weeks, your next project Insomnia has started airing on Paramount Plus

You know, weirdly enough, this is another project about sisters. It’s about one of the sisters but there’s a really strong, sort of through line of a relationship with her sister. Emma who is played by the astonishing Vicky McClure, who we all love and is a national treasure. She plays a really successful lawyer, has a beautiful home, beautiful family, seemingly everything is perfect. A week before her 40th birthday, she stops being able to sleep and then she’ll find she’s done things that she can’t remember doing and it’s really starting to bother her. Quite early on in the story, her sister Phoebe, played by yours truly, re-emerges from the past. They’ve had a really difficult, slightly fractious relationship over the years and don’t see lots of each other – we find out later that they had an incredibly difficult childhood and Emma went one way, and Phoebe unfortunately went the other way. It really is like a Hitchcock-style of psychological thriller. I’ve been doing ADR for it and I’ve been like, “Bloody hell, it’s blooming good! I would SO watch this myself” 

You’ve worked with Vicky McClure on a couple of other projects before, how was working with her again? 

We’d work together and we had an awesome time and whenever we saw each other, we would both just say, “you are so sound and brilliant” I think the reason that she’s so beloved by the public is that she is who they think she is. She’s got that warmth, she’s got that empathy. She’s the coolest girl you know and she’s just so brilliantly talented! I’d been really looking forward to working closely with her as sisters, and in a psychological thriller, it had so much emotional depth. A lot of the storyline between Emma and Phoebe is concerned with how your past… if things go unresolved, it will come back, it will come to court. The two of them are jostling and have different ideas about what is healthy and what is happiness. They may love each other but they’re so disturbed by their mutual experiences together that they can’t quite find a place to meet. Again, this was a really lovely project where the centrifugal figures are women and centres on really complicated dynamics within the family.

How was the experience of bringing Phoebe to life? 

Börkur Sigthorsson is a phenomenal director, I loved his work! We actually had a really nice cuppa before I started and we had lots of things that were similar. We talked about the literature and how we both thought that Phoebe might be because she’s someone who is a little bit in the middle, she grew up in care and it’s really difficult to kind of pin her down. There were lots of questions, like where did she grow up? Her accent is different from her sisters but where exactly is she from? Is it London? Is it not? She’s one of the people that you can’t quite make out, you can’t quite put your finger on. We talked a lot about this kind of invention of a personality because she hasn’t had a steady home life and she’s been on her own for such a long time. So there was a lot to explore there. He trusted me with it and said that that would work for him.

That sounds like a gift, to be able to trust your own intuition and have the director trust that, whilst also having this bond with the other actor that you can tap into 

Vicky and I talked about this. We both have close relationships with our sisters, we have always clicked whenever we’ve worked together. I hadn’t seen her for a good sort of few years and on the first day it was like, “hiya mate!” and we were off! There was no like having to cultivate a relationship when you could already believe that we have this sisterly bond, it was just there. I’m not saying it was effortless, it was very effortful, Vicky is in every scene and there were some days filming on the green where we were dealing with really big, heavy subject matters but the actual relation and fabric were very effortless, so it just meant that we got to really get in there and have a good kick about with this material. 

The Hills of California is playing at The Harold Pinter Theatre until 15th June. Insomnia is now available to stream on Paramount Plus. 

Interview Amelia Walker

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