By Joe McGovern
Updated January 25, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
JILLIAN EDELSTEIN for EW

Today’s younger audiences might not recognize this petite woman in the gray wool coat and the Tintin sweatshirt. Well, they should.

Glenda Jackson, 79, is a two-time Best Actress Oscar winner and one of the toughest, most riveting performers ever to become a major movie star. But she hasn’t appeared in a film since 1990 — and that’s because she decided to step away from Hollywood 25 years ago and run for a seat in British Parliament. In 1992, she was elected as a member of the liberal Labour Party, going on to serve her London constituency until her retirement last year.

And now, out of work for the first time since she was 16, Jackson is feeling lively and in the mood for a chat. For EW’s special Oscar issue (on stands now), she sat down for a profile on her life in movies and her life in politics. This year’s Academy Awards marks the 45th anniversary of her first Oscar win, in 1971, for Ken Russell’s florid erotic drama Women in Love. Her second Oscar came three years later for the romantic comedy A Touch of Class, costarring George Segal. (She was also nominated for her lead roles in John Schlesinger’s stunning bisexual love story, Sunday Bloody Sunday, and the Henrik Ibsen adaptation, Hedda.)

Over coffee in the kitchen of townhouse near Abbey Road in London, Jackson accepts that people are still fascinated by those two shimmering statuettes. But she doesn’t mince words when asked about what they really mean to her. “My mother polished them assiduously,” she says, “and it doesn’t take long for the gold to come off. Nothing but base metal underneath.”

Jackson, obviously, is a woman who says what she thinks. It’s a quality that distinguished her great performances: including her breakthrough as an asylum inmate in 1967’s Marat/Sade; 1971’s sensational The Music Lovers, featuring one of cinema’s craziest sex scenes, set in a shuddering train car; the landmark 1972 miniseries Elizabeth R, in which she astonished for nearly 10 hours as the Virgin Queen; a pair of cozy, enjoyable comedies made opposite Walter Matthau, House Calls (1978) and Hopscotch (1980); two outré films for director Robert Altman, HeathH (1980) and Beyond Therapy (1987); and a bittersweet 1978 biopic, ripe for rediscovery, of melancholy poet Stevie Smith, called Stevie.

On this day, Jackson is speaking her mind on any number of topics. After decades in Parliament, she still loves the scrimmage of debate. The Oscars, of course, come up. In the conversation that follows, she offers an opinionated, unfiltered reality check on the whole awards brouhaha, as well as her take on the limited power of movies to transform culture and why she thinks the best movies nowadays are on television.

(To read about Jackson’s life as a politician, plus her thoughts on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, click here.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What goes through your head when you think about the two Oscars you won?

GLENDA JACKSON: Well, I jib at the idea that I won them. I did nothing apart from what the job I was given. If there was a winner, it was the people who voted for me. My sardonic view is that they’re not as important as everyone thinks they are. I never went into a film thinking, “Oh gosh, if I do this slightly differently I might win something.”

What was the moviemaking experience like for you, especially in the beginning of your career?

I loved it. The camera is so obsessed with what you’re doing. It’s an amazing experience to be in the area around the light, surrounded by people in the dark, and they’re all looking and thinking, “Her hair, her mascara, her costume… Is the lighting right?” They’re not looking at you. But that concentrated energy into the area of light is a palpable force.

But it’s not a vainglorious energy, like for some ultimate reward?

No, it’s an energy you can use. But the idea you would do things differently because there was a prize at the end of it, like a gold medal or something, that I’ve jibbed at. They weren’t earned in that sense.

Though the films you were in, like Women in Love and Sunday Bloody Sunday, were small, intimate dramas. They needed and deserved the spotlight that they received from the Oscars.

I don’t disagree but that was in the early ’70s. The Oscars have been transformed into what they are now. They have much less to do with cinema. They are about frocks and the whole shebang of nonsense. Nowadays, it seems like the real competition is between the different award shows. The Golden Globes, back in my day, if you won you were lucky to get a notice in the next day’s Los Angeles Times. Now the coverage is ludicrous.

You didn’t go to the Oscars any of the four times you were nominated.

I was always working, but I happened to be in Los Angeles on the Sunday when they were happening one year and I was asked to open the envelope. And I was just so impressed. Two things. One was the efficiency with which they pulled it off. On both sides of the stage there was this colored tape for taking people to television and media. It was so well organized. And the other thing I found quite fascinating was the sense of excitement before the envelope was opened. It was really potent and intense. And you know what? The minute the envelope was opened, nobody gave a toss. “Right, fine, who’s next?”

What about the lasting cultural value? In the case of something like 12 Years a Slave, which won an Oscar for Best Picture a couple years ago. Wouldn’t you say that the award shined a light on social issues?

Prove it. See, you can’t. Who won last year? Who won the year before? Does it make one scrap of difference? At the time, it does, yes. But that’s not how human beings are. We enjoy the glitz of the moment, which is what it is. But how can you say that 12 Years a Slave or Selma has caused a fundamental cultural shift? And then you have these black guys being shot by policemen. Would that the Oscars could change the world but, I’m sorry, it just ain’t true.

Ignoring the Oscars, do you think movies have the power to cause cultural shifts?

Well, perhaps a couple of them have over the years. It would be nice to think, because film is such a powerful medium. But it is not transformative in a way that we’d all like it to be. Little by little, baby steps, it has been transformative over the years. These shifts are tiny, incremental, hopeful – but they can be wiped away so easily.

Do you see lots of movies these days?

Not as many. But I’ve always been obsessive about books. I’m of an age now where I tend to reread quite a lot. And quite interestingly I find that I read biographies. I never used to read them before, it used to just be fictional novels. I’m a big fan of detective fiction. David McCullough did a terrific book about Truman and I’m reading that again. He also did John Adams. And my interest in John Adams came entirely because of the television series, which was just marvelous, I thought.

Yes, that was on HBO. You basically helped invent longform TV with Elizabeth R in the early 70s.

That’s an exaggeration. But there was an audience, yes, especially since it had to do with dead long gone Royals. But it has changed. Both films and television are being made for Netflix and that’s the venue now, it’s not even cinemas anymore. Obviously Star Wars sold well, but certainly companies like HBO and Netflix can be much more adventurous about what they show. And the standards of many of those programs are very high, the writing especially.

What do you like on TV?

American television has been extraordinary. You name it. House of Cards, Breaking Bad, you name it. The Wire, of course. The Wire is absolutely extraordinary. The West Wing, for someone who’s interested in politics. I think it destroyed politicians because Aaron Sorkin presented politics the way we all want it to be, though it never is. That’s great drama.

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