Glenda Jackson talks about Obama, Hillary, and Trump
In EW’s profile of Glenda Jackson (on stands now), the two-time Best Actress winner shared her opinion on the Academy Awards and the value of movies as a transformative force in culture.
But that’s only one area in which Jackson is qualified to speak. At the height of her celebrity in the 1970s, the actress expressed her desire to quit the performing arts for social work. And in 1992, she ran for a seat in the British government. She was elected and served her London constituency as an MP (Member of Parliament) until just last year, when she decided not to run again. “We are talking about when I will be nearly 80,” she told her local paper about her decision to retire. “Get a grip!”
But Jackson’s age has not diminished the sharpness of her mind. Or her wit. She’s a keen observer of the political zoo — as the conversation below will demonstrate — and speaks about current events with the conviction of someone who knows how to stand up and deliver an argument. Her voice increases in volume (and sometimes profanity) when she’s making a point. But while speaking to her, you can also tell how she considers all the nuances of every issue, examining from both sides, always angling for that sometimes-non-diplomatic position on the side of the disenfranchised.
Jackson is a smoker, though she only enjoys two or three puffs of her Dunhill before stubbing it into the gravel. Because she’ll talk about virtually anything, I begin by asking about her fellow politician from across the pond, Barack Obama, and his struggle to kick the habit. (According to the President’s 2014 physical, he has successfully quit smoking and now chews Nicotine gum.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When Obama was a smoker, you could never find a photo of him doing it.
GLENDA JACKSON: Oh no! The bloody Secret Service would be on you before you could breathe. Meanwhile, it’s probably the Secret Service who bought the cigarettes for him. Isn’t it interesting?
Do you miss being an MP?
I don’t miss Parliament. Don’t even get me going on the lighting in there. The acoustics are even worse. Though it’s been vastly improved in the years I was there, it’s still in desperate need of basic shaking up in every way. I do miss the constituency. I miss the people and organizations that I worked with. Because that’s the reality of what politics are, far more than this “Westminster bubble,” as we call it in this country. It is a society that, in the main, does believe that we should help each other. Everybody bitches about taxes, but nonetheless, we are looking at big issues that are facing this country and they’ll only be solved in one sense by finding more money for them.
How was your political identity formed? Or how was it honed?
Well, I was born into a working class family, working class as far back as time had been recorded. The kind of social changes brought in by the Labour government in 1945 simply didn’t exist when I was born. I’m of the generation that knew what it was like before we had a functioning welfare state. Certainly before the NHS [National Heath Service] had been introduced; medical help was for you only if you had the money to pay for it. Equality as far as education. Some of the building blocks of creating a civilized modern society came as the result of that social dream.
And you were aware of the political forces that had caused those changes? That they didn’t just change on their own.
Yeah. I knew what life was like before and what it was like after. That aspect of A) believing there is such a thing as a society, and B) that we are stronger when we acknowledge our responsibilities to each other. I was about to say that it came with my mother’s milk but my parents were not political in that sense. They were floating voters. They voted depending on where the government of the day had done well or badly.
So if not from your parents, where did you ideology come from?
Oddly enough, I got much from reading American novels. Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos. That whole genre — you can’t call them socialists, can you, because they’d be condemned as traitors — but that whole left-leaning view. That trench of American writers that were examining the realities of the world. And FDR and my hero, Harry Truman. There was a lot that informed my idea of how a free society could function. Of course, you have the building block, which blows everything out of the water, which is your Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
Why was Harry Truman your hero?
I found his conduct so admirable. The story of how he became president is fascinating. I know it’s apocryphal, “The buck stops here.” And to be selfish about it, it was his presidency that said okay to the Marshall Plan. And if he hadn’t done that, my country, not to mention Europe, would have fared a lot worse.
So you had spoken, even in interviews during the 1970s, about your desire to leave acting and run for a political seat.
I’d been doing stuff for the Labour party since the mid-70s, certainly of a more public nature. And having been approached by the party in the late-80s, there were two years before the next general election. That was 1989, ’90, ’91. I still had to earn a living, as well as getting to know the constituency. I was working in theater right up until the election time. Mourning Becomes Electra, the Eugene O’Neill play, was the last performance I did, in Glasgow.
Did being a woman act as a motivating factor?
I’ve said before, the playing field is absolutely not level. Women are underrepresented in the arts, too. And underacknowledged, be it painting or music or performing arts. That’s been the situation for my entire life. And I’ve seen little change in that. I find it staggering that creative writers still find half of the human race so uninteresting. Men are always invariably the driving energy of stories and women are merely adjuncts.
I’m assuming you think that’s true in politics, too?
In this country, it’s automatically harder for a woman to be selected. When I was talking to my female colleagues in 1992, I gathered anecdotally that a woman would not be treated as well by her employers as would a man. It was always a struggle. Employers regarded men as being more of a plus for their companies. You work that one out.
But there’s a certain irony in all this, since it was a woman that you loathed who really lit your fuse about running for office.
I suppose. Anything legal I could’ve done to get the stink of Margaret Thatcher out of government, I’d have a go at.
Did Thatcher being a woman somehow feel like a betrayal to you?
No, I wouldn’t say it was on the level of reverse gender bias. I had seen the damage that she’d done. I heard her discount society. The terrible, terrible seams that one saw, the homeless and mentally ill in our streets. But I will say this: Women are looked at as a homogenous group. Every time a woman fails, we’ve all failed. If a woman succeeds, then she’s the exception that proved the rule. Until she dies and then she’s regarded as the quintessence for all women.
That brings up this very famous moment of yours from 2013. Margaret Thatcher had just died and you stood up at the House of Commons and delivered a seething eulogy. Did you enter the House that day determined to do so?
Of course not. I didn’t expect to be called upon to speak. But I sat and listened to history being rewritten and I attempted to redress the balance a little. I didn’t go after her as a person. I went after her government and I stand by what I said and I always will. And I was much exercised by what was being asserted. The idea that her election should be regarded as the epitome for all womanliness, I strongly reject. Certainly the women who raised me were the antitheses of her philosophies.
The men in the conservative party began howling within minutes. Did you hear them yelling “Shame on you”?
Yeah. It was very predictable. And thus very easy to ignore.
Do you know that the YouTube video of you delivering that speech has 1.6 million views?
No, I’m an IT illiterate. I have none of the technology, so that stuff never occurs to me. No mobile phone, no email, I don’t have any of that.
What do you think about President Obama?
In 2008, I stayed up all night, sitting on my sofa, and I started crying when I saw those marvelous American flags in Chicago. It was a wonderful time. I don’t accept this argument that it’s all his fault that America is so polarized, because I think the Republican Party has behaved disgracefully. This is Lincoln’s party and they allowed themselves to be taken over by the Tea Party. Questioning his birth certificate? Pathetic.
Did you watch his most recent State of the Union address?
I saw parts of it. The Speaker of the House [Paul Ryan], sitting next to the Vice President, I found him so fascinating. He’s got this not-really-a-smile and not-really-a-frown on his face and he didn’t move. There’s your president standing there in front of you and you cannot, hardly even once, give him a temporary clap of the hand?
What about Hillary Clinton? Do you have any complicated feelings about her?
I have no complicated feelings about her as an individual. I would like to see her become the first female president. Where I worry is — well, listen, whoever the Republican candidate is, they’re going to dig up all of her baggage. Every email, Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky of course. They’re gonna beat her with Bill. And that’s because the Republicans don’t have anybody who can take her on politically. So it’ll be very ugly.
It’s funny, I’ve heard people say that’s she’s too old, though she’s younger than Donald Trump.
If she were 18, they’d still be criticizing her. And Trump, by the way, is gonna get the nomination if the Republicans are not careful.
Well, for the media, Trump is just irresistible. You’ve spoken before about how so much of the drama in politics is generated by the media.
Let’s cut to the media’s bottom line. Newspapers are virtually out of the game now. Sorry, but they are. Their bottom line is filling empty pages and filling empty airtime. But now, airtime is 24/7 and multiplied by social media. So even if the media said they weren’t going to touch Trump, he’d still be major on social media. It’s going to come down to what people are prepared to back with their votes, in terms of the status quo, and whether they’ll still go with that nutcase with the worst hair in the world. All that money and you think he could buy himself a decent wig.
You mentioned that you’re parents weren’t party political. But your son, Dan Hodges, he is. He’s a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, more from the conservative position. Do you argue?
Yes, we exchange differences of opinion. I live with his family, in the basement, which is very good for babysitting. But if we disagree, it can always come to the point where I can say, “How dare you speak to your mother like that!” No one’s got a comeback to that.
He wrote a sweet op-ed about you after your Thatcher speech, which he begged you not to deliver. But he said, “The House of Commons assembled on Wednesday to honor a woman of conviction. And like it or not, a woman of conviction was what it got to see.”
Hmm, yes. That was very nice of him, wasn’t it?