In a locally-born actress whose career has ranged from a TV nurse to a Covid short shot on the balcony, THEO PANAYIDES finds a trained lawyer who puts discipline as the root of her success
Eight months ago, with Cyprus and the UK in lockdown, I reached out to interview London-based actress Daphne Alexander, but we ended up deciding to postpone for personal reasons: her dad back in Cyprus – Dr Kypros Chrysostomides, the prominent lawyer and former minister and government spokesman – had come down with Covid. Eight months on it’s a case of déjà vu, with Cyprus and Britain once again in lockdown (partial for us, full for them); thankfully, after a full month in hospital and a difficult time for the whole family – the worst part was no-one being able to see him, says Daphne – Dr Chrysostomides is now fully recovered.
Her family background hangs over this particular interview in a way it clearly wouldn’t for a non-Cypriot publication. Even now, decades after the days of ‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington’, it seems slightly startling that the scion of such a well-known family should be working in the fickle world of showbiz – and indeed she studied Law first, obtaining a 2:1 from Somerville College, Oxford and training as a barrister before performing what she calls “a U-turn” and moving on to Lamda (the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art), the oldest drama school in the UK and one of the most prestigious.
She wasn’t the only actor at her school to have done something else first, “it’s not as unique as it sounds”. Monica Bellucci – not at her school, obviously – also studied Law for a while, Rebel Wilson (the mouthy outrageous one from Pitch Perfect) also has a Law degree. That said, “it does feel like a lifetime ago,” admits Daphne, Zooming from her home in Fitzrovia on a wet Sunday morning, “as though somebody else in my body did that thing. It does feel like I’ve changed very much since then”.
Has she changed so radically? Hard to know, of course, but it sounds like she has and she hasn’t; her focus has changed, but the methods are basically the same. “I push myself,” she explains. “I like to push myself. And I’ve grown up in a family where it was important to do well – academically, too.” She was always working hard, whether it was A-levels, Oxford or now. “It’s just that now,” she adds pointedly, “I’ve discovered my vocation”.
The question of how (and why) a handful of people succeed in the acting profession – one of the world’s most chaotic and competitive – is an endlessly fraught one. “There’s no rhyme or reason to this job,” she admits. “It’s not like working for 10 years in a law office and then you make partner.” She still keeps up with her classmates from Lamda, but a lot of them – more than half, probably – are no longer actors, “and in fact that’s a very normal thing, 10 years on”. Some have shifted to writing or producing, some have left showbiz altogether; the profession is just too brutal. “But having said that,” adds Daphne, “I was incredibly fortunate. I graduated drama school and within a few months I was a regular character on a very well-known BBC series, Casualty, I played a nurse there for a couple of years”. She’s worked steadily since, equally at home in theatre, film or TV (her best-known movie – though not her biggest role – is probably Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer). She found an agent while still at Lamda: “You do public showcases at the end of your training, and people come to see you. And I was lucky enough to be signed”.
‘Lucky enough’, ‘incredibly fortunate’… At some point, of course, these stock phrases start to seem a bit inadequate; no-one succeeds just by being lucky – but then how? A handful of actors, the George Clooneys and Michelle Pfeiffers, might be able to make it on physical presence alone, but these are outliers (and even Clooney laboured for years on TV before becoming a star). Talent, of course, is important, but lots of people have talent; a sense of vocation – as she says – is important, but almost all actors (especially if they’ve made it to a top drama school) see it as their vocation. There must be something more – but what?
Patience, for one thing. A positive outlook. Above all, discipline. “I think discipline is really important for artists,” says Daphne. “There’s a misconception that artists are these disorganised, airy-fairy dreamers, which I don’t think is true.” Discipline means pushing yourself, working all the time to improve yourself; it also means learning to control and focus your talent. The ‘public showcase’ she mentions, to cite one example, is clearly a big deal; it’s where many young actors find an agent, as she did – but you have to perform on the day, you can’t let fear get in the way of your art. It’s a kind of mental strength, the same reason why Rafael Nadal (another artist, in his way, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that every actor is a kind of athlete) never has ‘an off day’ in a Grand Slam final. “Our lifestyle requires strong nerves,” is how she puts it. “And to try and be unflappable, as much as possible – because, you know, there’s a lot of rejections, a lot of sudden changes… So being able to stay above these constant swings – mood swings – is really important.”
We’re interrupted by a flash of grey-and-white fur in a corner of the Zoom frame. This is Monty, a big and fluffy Ragdoll cat (a breed noted “for their docile and placid temperament and affectionate nature,” says Wikipedia); he has a near-identical sister called Matilda, the two of them happily roaming the home Daphne shares with her husband, the playwright and photographer James Phillips. “They’re thrilled with lockdown, they love it!” she says of the cats – a minority opinion, of course, though in fact Daphne herself has also found some creative upside to the upheavals of 2020. I’m actually glad we spoke now, instead of at the start of the pandemic – because the way she’s negotiated the past eight months dovetails nicely with what we talk about, and perhaps reinforces the sense of who she is as a person.
For one thing, “I’m definitely more disciplined,” she asserts, unsurprisingly. People have reacted to the Covid crisis in all sorts of ways, “I’ve reacted in a kind of ‘I need to make this time somehow not be wasted’ way”. She’s become an early riser, getting up at 6am to do yoga for an hour before breakfast (yoga is important, being her way of ‘staying above’ the mood swings she mentioned earlier). She’s worked hard on her Arabic, languages in general being one of her passions (she speaks five, though her German is rusty and the Arabic a work in progress). Above all, she’s discovered – or rediscovered – the joy of acting for the sake of it, as self-expression, without the business side; her vocation, you might say.
Daphne does audiobooks and other voice work, bringing in most of the money at the moment (she’s set up a voice studio in her living-room, so lockdown is no obstacle) – but she and James also made a DIY short called Lullaby, “on our balcony, actually”, finding creative ways to tell a story with none of the usual resources; “It kind of made me reconnect to what it is I love about what I do”. She also took part in a project for the Jermyn Street Theatre, joining 71 other actors for a marathon reading of The Odyssey “from beginning to end, live over Zoom” – and she also decamped to Greece in late summer for First Swim, a short by a first-time director, set entirely on a deserted beach near Athens. This was not a ‘lockdown film’ but a proper movie with a proper crew, Greece – like Cyprus – being almost Covid-free at the time. “Frankly, it was such a gift in the middle of all this to actually film like normal,” she says with feeling. “It was like a little dream in the middle of this nightmare.”
Being in the Greek world, and acting in Greek, was presumably also part of the dream. Daphne seems so English – not just her accent, but also her air of self-deprecation and rather patrician delicacy – it’s a surprise to discover that she went to state school in Nicosia, learning her English through private lessons: “I had these two wonderful ladies who taught me English who I still remember, they were two ladies called Miss Toule and Miss Hawkes”. It was in the company of Miss Hawkes that young Daphne – also beguiled, at the time, by the lyrical lyrics of Pink Floyd – read Keats and Shakespeare, the ‘Scottish play’ supplying a road-to-Damascus moment. “When I was 16, I first read Macbeth – and that passion, and incredible visceral reaction, is at the root of what I do today,” she recalls. “I remember reading it for the first time and just being blown away by how brilliant it was, and learning the whole thing pretty much by heart.” So much for talk of teens not being able to appreciate art unless it’s ‘relevant’ to their own lives.
Clearly, the actress was there from the start – even as dutiful Daphne allowed herself to be steered into law, the family business. It could all have resulted in ill-feeling – but in fact she remains very close to her family, and also (more surprisingly, perhaps) her homeland. “The older I get, the more I realise how attached I am to Cyprus,” she sighs. “I feel like I get my strength there.” She visits often – though her pre-Covid life was hectic, with lots of travel – and indeed spent most of this summer here. “Like all immigrants, you remember the place in a different way,” she replies when I ask what the attraction is, “and you get things from it that people who actually live there don’t… I appreciate the smells, and the air, and the temperature. And the light. I miss the light.”
Cinema, of course, is the art of painting with light – yet she hadn’t made a feature in Cyprus until last year, when she co-starred in The Siege on Liperti Street for writer-director Stavros Pamballis (not just talented, but also “a magnificent human being”). Siege won five awards at last year’s Thessaloniki film festival, and was all set to open last month before being derailed by Covid – just one of many cancelled engagements in 2020. It’s been a rough eight months, for Daphne as for everyone – though also, in a way, educational, not just reconnecting her to acting but also illustrating the perils of trying to control what happens. It’s a valuable lesson for an artist, the readiness to relinquish control being perhaps the scariest part of acting – “to actually let go”, to give herself to the role and surrender to the moment.
And in daily life? Is control important to her?
“Um, yes and no,” she replies, a bit evasive. “I’m a hard worker, so… I tend to write lists, and want to tick the things I’ve got on my list. But then sometimes I’ll chastise myself, and I say ‘For god’s sake, stop being so tyrannical. It’s fine if you don’t do that!’. So there’s a constant dialogue in myself.”
Daphne Alexander is a serious person, that’s for sure; a disciplined person. “Sometimes I’ll rebel and have a day of just munching chips in front of Netflix,” she admits, with the air of a tortured vegan confessing to an occasional chicken wing. There’s a high-minded, slightly didactic side: she likes learning languages because of the insights they provide into different cultures, she says, and reveres acting for its power to “shine a light on what it means to be human”. The work is treated with tremendous respect in general – it’s fitting that she met her husband through the work, having written him a fan letter after seeing his play The Rubenstein Kiss at the Hampstead Theatre – yet the work is also an anchor, “a compass” as she puts it, a grand project (in brief, a vocation) which feeds on her capacity for hard work but also transcends it. To be good in this business you have to apply yourself relentlessly, never losing your grip for an instant. To be great, you have to let go.
So many of her drama-school pals have drifted away from acting. What about Daphne herself? Might she also make a sideways move someday – or is she a lifer? “Never say never,” she replies, her big eyes shining with amusement – “but I’m a lifer, for sure!”. She’s in it for the long haul, Covid included. “I mean, I hope to work till the end of my life, and – you know, there’s going to be lots of things. Low patches and high patches, and excitement and frustration, and you need to somehow ride all those times. And endure.” She smiles self-deprecatingly, adding a lawyerly caveat: “I think Nina says that in The Seagull, actually”. Not the worst role model for a high-minded actress, if we’re honest.