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Unique, on the face of it

Whether an 'Earnest' Miss Prism or Potter's Professor Sprout, Miriam Margolyes is singularly suited to the part.

January 29, 2006|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

IT came as no surprise when applause greeted Lynn Redgrave's sweeping entrance as Victorian matriarch Lady Bracknell at last week's first preview performance of "The Importance of Being Earnest," the Theatre Royal Bath/Peter Hall Company production at the Ahmanson Theatre. After all, this is L.A., and Redgrave is a star.

It was perhaps less expected, however, when applause met the entrance of Miriam Margolyes in the second act, in the smaller role of the governess, Miss Prism. Veteran British character actress Margolyes, as short, stocky and outspoken as Redgrave is tall, slim and reserved, fits many colorful descriptions -- but star usually isn't on the list.

It may be assumed that Margolyes drew applause partly because of her whimsical appearance, her ample figure stuffed into a brocade bodice so snug that she appears not so much costumed for the role as upholstered. "I'm sorry to say it's all me," Margolyes, 64, admitted with a huge grin the following day. "The breasts are heaved up under my chin. It's quite a surprise to me, actually."

But more gratifying to Margolyes is that the audience reaction also contained, as she describes it, "a titter of recognition" -- slightly delayed, perhaps, but heartfelt all the same. The audience may not have recognized her name in the program, but they know that face.

To young audiences, Margolyes is Professor Sprout from 2002's "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"; to TV watchers, she's Peter Sellers' mother in "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," with Geoffrey Rush in the title role. She's also been seen in the film "Being Julia" and in "Ladies in Lavender" with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.

She has toured the world with her one-woman show "Dickens' Women," in which she portrays 23 characters from the novels of her favorite author. Los Angeles theater audiences may remember her from her role as the Nurse in Peter Hall's production of "Romeo and Juliet," presented at the Ahmanson in 2001.

Born in Oxford, England, Margolyes moved to the United States in 1989 after she came to play a role in the 1988 film version of Dickens' novel "Little Dorrit." The actress, who lives in Santa Monica, has enjoyed a successful career on both sides of the Atlantic.

She considers herself English and American -- in fact choosing midinterview to switch from a British accent to an American one, a sort of nasal Midwestern drone. "People react to me quite differently when they think I'm English, so I'm going to continue now with an American accent," she said -- a baffling explanation that perhaps only another character actor might understand.

Margolyes knows that being a "character" rarely makes one a star -- but she likes it that way. "I think stars sometimes have a very lonely time," she says. "Not that I don't want to be a star, but I don't think people react to you for real. I don't have that problem. A lot of people don't think I'm an actress because I look so peculiar."

Her distinctive looks have, however, made her more aggressive in pursuing the types of roles that often go to someone else. In fact, she was the one to approach Hall about joining his cast as Prism after a planned staging of "Earnest" -- by British producer Duncan Weldon and starring Diana Rigg as Lady Bracknell -- in which she had a role, was canceled.

"She was bursting with sexuality, and I don't often get to play roles that are bursting with sexuality because I'm fat," Margolyes says of Prism. "I've always looked like this, and you know what? I'm happy about it. I really want to lose weight, and I'm going to lose a bit, but I'm always going to be a fat woman with a round, chubby face and kind of untidy hair. I like myself. I don't think fat is great, but it's not a sin."

But, she adds a little wistfully, "I don't want people to recoil from me in horror, how ghastly -- like when Lady Bracknell says Prism has 'a repellent aspect.' I'm a little eccentric, but not repellent."

Director Hall and costar Redgrave would be the first to agree that the gregarious Margolyes is anything but repellent. If anything causes people to take a step back when they meet Margolyes, it's the sheer force of her personality. "She's wonderful to have in a company because she's both outrageous and terribly warm and human," Hall observes. "She shocks everyone into a kind of affection.

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