Q&A with Cathy Tyson

We speak to the film, TV and theatre actor on taking an undergraduate degree in her forties at Brunel University London

April 23, 2015

People underestimate what it takes to be an actor. Business owners have said that young people are academically qualified but can’t hold a conversation. Acting offers all these things

Cathy Tyson is a stage, film and television actor who came to prominence via the film Mona Lisa, for which she received Bafta and Golden Globe nominations. In 2013 she completed a degree in English and drama at Brunel University London and will return there on 4 November to star in She Called Me Mother, a play written by Michelle Inniss, her friend and co-founder of their theatre production company, Pitch Lake Productions

Where were you born?
In Kingston upon Thames.

How has this shaped you?
Not at all, because I moved to Liverpool [and that city] shaped me. Three generations of my family come from Dingle; it’s part of my family heritage. I went back and visited that neighbourhood last year; I stayed there for two months, and that was really healing – laying ghosts to rest. It was quite racist when I was growing up, and I had attitudes to people living there who called me and my mum names. It was good to go back and not harbour too much resentment any more.

Society affords greater esteem to science degrees than those in arts subjects, and particularly in drama. Should acting be given greater status in higher education?
I love science now, after playing Marie Curie [in Alan Alda’s play Radiance]. I’ve got no “us versus them” [mentality] regarding the STEM subjects because I’m a fully paid-up member! This is what acting can do. People undervalue and underestimate what it takes to be an actor. The interpersonal skills involved are valuable. Business owners have said that young people in schools now are academically qualified but can’t hold a conversation. Acting offers all these things.

What were your reasons for taking up a degree in your forties?
I just felt jaded. I wasn’t getting great parts in acting; they were drying up in my late thirties and early forties. I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something – I’m losing the will to live!’ I always liked to study…I needed to kick-start my passion and desire.

What was it like to be an undergraduate when most of your fellow students were 18 or 19?
It was good, but fearful. I felt really self-conscious. The drama students were very gregarious and loud, and the English students were introverted; it was a nice mix. I thought the talent in both areas was amazing and I was so uplifted by the balance of young people and the commitment to their studies.

Would you recommend being a mature student to others?
Absolutely. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It really engaged me and opened up my world. It was bloody hard; maturity on its own was not going to help me write an essay. I had to learn, and that was a rude awakening.

Have you had a eureka moment?
When I was 16 and read William Shakespeare. I read a speech from The Merchant of Venice. My mum showed me this speech by Shylock – “to bait fish withal” – and I just went: “Oh my God. This is like me; this is what I feel.” And from that moment I’ve just devoured it.

Tuition fees of £9,000 are seen by many as prohibitive. If you were 18 again, would you apply to university or go straight into work?
I would go to university again, but I want to bring those tuition fees down and I think Labour has promised that. But [even] if it were £9,000 I’d go, because it was worth it. But this is me; I’m a bit crazy, and do things that possibly other people wouldn’t. I want something and I’m going to do anything to get it.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
My mother and father. They were both professional people from working-class backgrounds. My dad went to school with no shoes on his feet and he ended up being a barrister. My mother was very poor and became a senior social worker, and had a great heart.

Which acting role have you enjoyed most?
I loved Marie Curie; I miss doing her. I probably enjoyed Cleopatra when I did her years ago.

What do you do for fun?
I love to run, read, have dinner parties…I love looking at maps! As a child, the dictionary that my mother had had loads of maps in the back, and I used to look at them all the time. I just love them – it makes you feel as if you’re travelling when you look at one.

What’s your biggest regret?
Probably I’ve spent too much time on work and not enough on developing relationships in a way I could’ve done. That’s a work in progress. My mum died before these happy times in my life. That’s one of my regrets – that she couldn’t savour what’s happening in my life at the moment.


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