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‘The world was much smaller when I started. I’ve been lucky to have an amazing film career’: Lindsay Duncan on the roles and relationships that made her a star

© FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/EPA-EFE/ShuterstockLindsay Duncan.
Lindsay Duncan.

For several decades, Lindsay Duncan has been one of the most respected and lauded actresses across British stage and screen.

As a multiple Olivier and Tony award winner, she has lit up theatres across the world while also starring in some of the most important British TV shows, from Alan Bleasdale’s 90s drama GBH to Doctor Who, Sherlock and Channel 4’s hit relationship drama Truelove earlier this year.

But now the Edinburgh-born performer is enjoying a new wave of success in Hollywood following an acclaimed turn in Oscar-sweeping modern classic Birdman, alongside Michael Keaton and Emma Stone.

New opportunities

The Best Picture winner helped propel her to new opportunities in the US, and even 10 years on from the quirky smash hit, has won her new fans all over the world and parts in some of the biggest films and TV shows.

The success of Birdman was followed by her role in HBO series The Leftovers and she’s gone on to work in high-end telly such as Prime Video’s Wheel Of Time with Rosamund Pike, and Apple’s The Morning Show alongside Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston.

Now she’s bringing together both her theatrical works and streaming success by helping support the National Theatre’s online platform, NT at Home, through an on-demand performance of Dodie Smith play Dear Octopus.

Having acted since the 1970s, Duncan loves the fact that she keeps being discovered by new generations of audiences. And, now 73, she couldn’t be happier at having such a wide range of interesting work on offer, with new voices such as the play’s director, Emily Burns.

“I think that is a great thing about the arts in general – what keeps it alive is that we’re all, whatever medium you work in, exposed to people with more experience, less experience, different ideas, different backgrounds, all the time.

“When I was younger, I wasn’t self-conscious about that. But now, I am so grateful for that. I love working with younger people, with a mix.”

And she’s enjoyed her circuitous route through her career.

Lindsay in her latest role as Dora in Dear Octopus.
Lindsay in her latest role as Dora in Dear Octopus.

Lindsay added: “I suppose I come from a generation where the expectation was you were going to do stage work. We have streaming now but the world was much, much smaller when I started.

“People of my generation have gone on to have amazing film careers, but relatively few compared to young people now. I’ve been so lucky to form relationships with either theatres or with writers and I didn’t think, ‘Oh, it’s about time I did some TV or whatever.’

“I haven’t structured a career. I think young actors now are much more strategic about what they do. Because they are very plugged into the whole world, not just to being an actor in the UK or whatever. I just sort of went from one thing to another.

“But also I’m really proud of the work I’ve done in television, because I’ve done that work with some people like Alan Bleasdale and Stephen Poliakoff.”

Lindsay’s career

Lindsay was born to Scottish parents who had met in Berlin – her father was in the Scots Fusiliers during wartime and her mother was in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. When her dad entered the civil service after the war, the family were posted down south, to Leeds and then Birmingham.

Lindsay loved acting and performing, and trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, before embarking on her stage career, and going on to enjoy great film and TV roles down the years.

While she has never chased the Hollywood lifestyle, raising son Cal with her fellow actor husband, Hilton McRae, from Dundee, Lindsay has enjoyed it when it comes calling.

Some of her highest-profile projects include working with Captain America star Chris Evans in family drama, Gifted, and playing Al Pacino’s wife in 90s political thriller City Hall, while she enjoyed a long-running part in HBO’s epic series Rome. But for one of her most enjoyable roles, she didn’t even have to show her face.

When her son Cal was a wee boy in the 90s and a huge Star Wars fan, Lindsay sought out a role in George Lucas’s prequel The Phantom Menace, hoping to play the young Anakin Skywalker’s mum. When that part didn’t work out, she took a voiceover gig as a quirky protocol droid TC-14, much to her son’s delight.

Lindsay with her Scottish husband Hilton McRae. © Dan Wooller/Shutterstock
Lindsay with her Scottish husband Hilton McRae.

“That was great fun, and it’s something that gets me incredible feedback and comments from fans to this day – they all remember the droid,” she laughed.

But it’s safe to say that Birdman had the biggest impact of her movie work, playing a brutal critic.

“Oh, I still get such a buzz that I was in Birdman. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was in it because it’s exactly the sort of film I watch and love, and I had so many friends getting in touch after watching it.”

At the moment, she’s getting ready to return to hit TV drama The Morning Show for Apple TV+. She loved playing the mother of Billy Crudup’s charismatic network executive in season three, and is thrilled to return.

“I really loved working on that, and most of my time has been with Billy, and he’s a real talent. He’s a wonderful theatre actor and it’s great to get to work with him again,” she said.

While she’s been busy discovering new audiences with a range of projects in different corners of the industry, Lindsay is thrilled to be helping bring her beloved stage work to all-new audiences.

She starred in Dear Octopus, about a privileged family struggling with various squabbles and dramas on the eve of the Second World War, earlier this year and it makes its streaming debut on the NT at Home online platform next month.

Lindsay said: “I actively wanted to work with Emily Burns because she’s really interesting and smart, and when I read the play, I realised the company went from people in their 70s to kids – that felt so exciting. This family seems to have plenty of everything, but there’s been loss and estrangement, all the stuff that families deal with.”

Theatre streaming

The new theatre streaming system is designed to help open up drama to wider audiences across the country, and Lindsay is delighted her work is part of it.

“The National is a good place to work and it’s genuinely on a mission to reflect the world we live in and accessibility is very much part of that. NT at Home came out during the pandemic and they were just thinking, ‘We’ve just got to give people something.’

“One of the key things is that people are having a hard time. Even getting on a train or getting in your car to come to London is expensive. And even with all the outreach programmes and everything, they can’t give these live performances to absolutely everybody.

“So I think it’s brilliant that there is NT Live [in cinemas] and NT at Home. The National Theatre has an obligation to do that. They are heart and soul behind that and with technology advancing, they can deliver an experience that is pretty good. It’s wonderful to see it,” she said.

Lindsay Duncan. © CAMERA PRESS/Ellis Parrinder
Lindsay Duncan.

Although Lindsay admitted she might not be tuning in herself.

“I haven’t watched it myself. I did a play called Hansard for NT Live, and I remember seeing [the actor] Billy Paterson after it, and he told me that ‘It was very good but it’s quite close.’

“I thought he was talking about the cameras but then I thought, ‘Oh, he’s trying to tell me that I look quite rough in it.’ So that was another very good reason not to watch it,” she joked.

‘I still love Oor Wullie and The Broons’

Lindsay Duncan jokes about being whisked out of Scotland as baby, when her parents had to relocate down south from Edinburgh for work.

But while she grew up in England, the actress is incredibly proud of her Scottish roots and has never lost her connection to Scotland – thanks in part to The Sunday Post’s Oor Wullie and The Broons.

Her Glasgow-born dad and Edinburgh mum kept in touch with Scotland thanks to copies of the paper being sent down every week.

“As a child the sounds in my ears were voices of Scotland, and it’s things like Scotch pies and mince n’ tatties that are so deep in your childhood – and we had The Sunday Post every week.”

When Lindsay married Dundee-born actor Hilton McRae, they continued the tradition, giving their son, Cal, a similar Scots lifeline.

“All through his childhood, we got him The Sunday Post annual for Christmas, because we wanted him to have the experience that we’d both had. He’s still got all of those.

“We were big fans of Oor Wullie and The Broons, and we’re all brought up with them, even though I was in England, and it just never fails to bring a smile to my face. They’re just fantastic, aren’t they?

“Even a 21st-Century kid gets it, it’s genius. The characters are so honest. That’s quite a Scottish thing, isn’t it? You know, no bull. And so you get these really rounded, complicated, original characters who speak with a true voice, and you just dive in.”

Dear Octopus is launched on National Theatre at Home via from July 12. The platform features single titles to rent, a monthly subscription for £9.99 or an annual subscription for £99.99, offering exclusive access to over 80 productions with new titles added every month.