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Joanna Lumley Takes Broadway, Talks Ab Fab Reunion

Joanna Lumley has been a model, a Bond girl, a New Avenger, and in real life, an officer of the Order of the British Empire and a globe-trotting activist. But it was her turn as the Champagne-swilling, chain-smoking fashion editrix Patsy Stone on Absolutely Fabulous that made Lumley, in her own character’s words, “fabulous on an international scale.” Tonight, the BAFTA-award-winning actress makes her Broadway debut in the opening of La Bête, a Moliere-esque comedy written by David Hirson in iambic pentameter that contemplates the consequences of pitting high art against populist dreck. Lumley plays an autocratic princess who threatens to replace her erudite playwright and actor-in-residence, Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), with an ignorant gasbag performer, Valere (Mark Rylance), if the two can’t agree to collaborate. Lumley talked with Vulture about the play and the likelihood of an Ab Fab reunion.

When La Bête premiered on Broadway nearly twenty years ago, it closed in 25 days.
There were problems: About ten days before it opened, the man [Ron Silver] that was going to play Valere, which is a monstrous part — we’re talking King Lear, we’re talking Hamlet — they realized he couldn’t remember his lines, and so much of the play is a monologue. They put in his understudy [Tom McGowan], who, although brilliant, was an understudy. Frank Rich got out his big ax and cut it down and it was over, and therefore earned this quite undeserved reputation as being a failed play. But the play itself won awards [Editor's Note: Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle for Best New Comedy, Olivier Award].

Isn't it risky to sign on to a play with a bad reputation?
It is quite a risk. But the [preview] audience has been just stunning. It’s been packed, and they’ve got it from the first syllable. And it’s changed so much. For one, the princess was originally a prince, so they recast that and added a bit of a frisson there, the fact that she’s delighted by this revolting, stinky little clown. Hirson worked with us all, watching whole pages of his masterpiece taken out — we were determined to play it without an interval because it’s important not to lose people.

You started your career as a model.
I didn’t want to; I wanted to be an actress. At 16, I was turned down by RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] — I did an awful audition. And I was so set back by this, I didn’t really know what to do. London was at its swinging time, I mean this is ancient history to you, darling, because you weren’t born. But it was the buzz, it was miniskirts, it was the Beatles, it was the clothes — it was boiling. Almost anybody who was the right height and had shoulders and a face you could roughly make right could be a model. But by 21, I thought, I’ve just gotta take the big plunge and get into acting through the backdoor. You had to have an equity card to do work, but you couldn’t do work without an equity card, so I whiskered my way into a film where I had two lines and then I started half-bluffing: That work hasn’t come out yet … I had nine years of absolute poverty, a piece of toast for supper. I wasn’t married, but I had a baby to look after, which made me drive forward, because it’s giving me a purpose to work.

You and Jennifer Saunders [Absolutely Fabulous creator and co-star] are comic icons here. TV producers have been trying to adapt Ab Fab for an American audience for years. Obviously it hasn’t worked.
Part of the show’s success was timing. It was when this ridiculousness of PR and fashion had reached its hype: The Princess of Wales was alive, Ivana Trump was still married to Donald, and the people at a fashion show were more important than the clothes. It was a windmill waiting to be tilted, and Jennifer tilted it so beautifully. The characters were so grotesque, and it’s hard to out-grotesque it now.

Patsy always managed to have her look together no matter how intoxicated she was.
Hair immaculate, face immaculate, clothes immaculate. There’s that Eurotrash thing in the sixties, where models like Carla Bruni speak many languages, sleep with many people, look fabulous, travel with just a purse and a passport and a clean pair of pants. There’s an element of that in Patsy. Edina was the opposite, a car crash. She bought everything expensive, put them on so wrongly — wrong size, wrong clashing colors. That’s the staggering, humorous thing about money. If you haven’t got taste, money doesn’t matter: You’ll always look ghastly.

Diana Vreeland said, “Money does horrible things to ignorant people.” There’s one incredible scene where you, in your heels, drunkenly walk on an airport conveyor belt. How many takes did that require?
One, I think. I nearly invented it then. We’d see what was available in wherever we were. Jennifer’ll fall out of cars, into pits. We were always falling into graves or gutters. Jennifer might write a special Ab Fab next year, because it’s the twentieth anniversary of [its series premiere]. It would be so brilliant, while we’re still all around [laughs].

Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images