Byline: Eileen Daspin
In a word, Amanda Donohoe’s understanding of Yelena, the unhappy professor’s wife in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” is that she’s…earthy.
“I think she has had a terrible sex life and is extremely horny,” says Donohoe, who plays the role (with Tom Courtenay as Vanya) at New York’s Circle in the Square, where previews begin on Friday.
“I feel terribly sorry for Yelena,” the actress continues. “She’s trapped in a life with a husband she can’t stand. Then this handsome creature [Astrov] walks into her life and wants to seduce her. We’d all love to throw ourselves into a hot, sexy affair, but because of the constraints of society at that time, she can’t. This is a woman I don’t know very well, it isn’t a woman I’m close to.”
Arriving for an interview after a long day of rehearsals, Donohoe is armed with two bottles of wine — “for drinking, massive quantities of,” she says — and plenty of disarming opinions. She starts with Louis Malle’s movie “Vanya on 42nd Street,” in which Julianne Moore plays an unconventional Yelena.
“I don’t mean to be dismissive, but I tried to watch [the movie] and didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t like the interpretation,” says Donohoe, “It’s not the way I’d play it. In fact, I didn’t watch the last two acts because it was cluttering me with information I didn’t feel was accurate.”
Donohoe, who can also be seen on screen these days in “The Madness of King George,” goes on to dis Dennis Hopper in “Speed”(“he phoned in that performance — you could see him taking the money and running”) and movies and movie directors in general.
“In Chekhov, there’s so much subtext, you have to search for the meaning,” says Donohoe, who started her career on stage in England. “You very rarely get that in film, and frankly, there are very few directors who bother to analyze the text that much.” (That characterization, she points out, doesn’t apply to Nicholas Hytner, who directed her in “King George” and is someone she calls “extraordinarily talented.”)
The actress is probably best known to American audiences from “L.A. Law,” where she was C.J. Lamb, perhaps the first lesbian to be featured in a prime-time series on commercial TV. “I have a wonderful, loyal lesbian following,” says Donohoe. “They send me flowers, invite me out. Playing that role allowed me to show the public that lesbians don’t have horns and tails and can be sexually flexible, if they choose. I was pleased to do that for the gay community.”
Donohoe is equally committed to making films about other socially sensitive issues, like abortion and the death penalty. With her production company, Enlightened Witness, she’s made “Shame” for Lifetime Cable, about a woman lawyer fed up with the justice system. The sequel, “Shame II: The Secret,” addresses capital punishment. Can politically charged films change public opinion?
“I bloody well hope so,” says Donohoe, “I can’t just do fluffy movies.”