It’s noon in midtown Manhattan on an icy day in February and Dame Diana Rigg is in her hotel suite pouring herself a glass of rosé. “If I had my way I’d be drinking Armagnac and eating pate de foie gras,” she says. There’s something delicious about being in the company of accomplished British actors of a certain age where straightforward banter takes the place of political correctness.
A renowned Shakespearean actor, she’s performed extensively in London’s West End and in numerous Broadway productions for the majority of her professional life. Now at the grand age of 75, she’s relishing her career resurgence on the wildly popular TV show, Game of Thrones. Of course, this is not virgin territory for the multi-award-winning actor, who found herself ensconced in an equally huge television phenomenon almost 50 years ago. Despite her formidable talents for treading the boards and artfully shaping prose from the titans of literature, she is mostly fondly remembered as the witty, catsuit-clad, Emma Peel in TV’s The Avengers (1965-1969). Unsurprisingly, she straddled both mantles as a sex symbol and a feminist icon of the 60s, epitomising sophistication, wit and an understated beauty.
“Emma Peel was an absolutely fascinating part to play because that character became this great, great, great icon of female liberation; she could do absolutely everything a man could do. She was ahead of her time.” She smiles. “And years later I would receive letters from women saying, ‘You gave me the idea that I might be able to break out of the kind of life I’m in’. Of course it was the character; it didn’t have anything to do with me at all, but it was very sweet. And it’s not like the writers had any great foresight either because they had written the part for a male actor who dropped out. Then they cast Honor Blackman [another famed sex symbol who played the part of Pussy Galore in James Bond’s Goldfinger] and I took over from her in 1965. She had all the right appurtenances,” she explains, presumably referring to her colleague’s rather large breasts.
Does she look back on those heady days with nostalgia?
“If you’re a wise person you don’t buy into that. You need to live in the present and look forward to the future. I think being nostalgic about the past is one of the most boring things in the world,” she scoffs, rolling her eyes. “In my opinion, in order to stay active and healthy you have to be curious about life. I’m wildly curious about the world, about countries I’ve never visited, about people I haven’t met. It’s important to have fun and to have a great deal of laughter.” She pauses. “Old age, of which I am in the midst, is f***ing awful,” she roars, “unless you laugh at it, of course.”
Born Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg in South Yorkshire, the daughter of a railway engineer who took on a job in Bikaner, India from the time she was two months old (the family returned to England when she was eight). It was at 13, just after she’d starred in a school play, that Rigg decided her hobby should be her future career. On leaving school she was accepted into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and modelled on the side for some extra money. She went on to join The Royal Shakespeare Company and made her London stage debut in 1961 in The Devils. During her stint on The Avengers, she made her film debut in 1968 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but spent most of her professional life in theatre productions. She did famously squeeze in another of her famed sex kitten incarnations as James Bond’s wife, Tracy, in the iconic On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). “The Bond girls that came after me, I don’t look at. Good luck to them,” she says, dismissively.
Looking back to the present, as she says we must, Rigg is Lady Olenna Tyrell, a sarcastic political mastermind, in Game of Thrones. In this role she provides masterful comic relief alongside the graphic violence, sex and depravity. It is without a doubt a stroke of casting genius, and Rigg is evidently delighted. “I love the character I’m playing; I absolutely love her. And the naughtier she gets the more I love her. She’s literate, witty, labyrinthine and just wonderful.”
Now that the award-winning fantasy drama is in its fourth season, Rigg weighs in on the success of the show.
“I think the secret of it is its brilliant storytelling and a very human fascination for a story well told. The lighting is wonderful. The first time I stepped on the set to do a scene, I said, ‘It’s Caravaggio!’ All these wonderful shafts of light,” she gushes. “And there are a lot of brilliant English character actors in the show and each and every one of them brings years of experience to the series. It shows because it elevates the entire piece.”
She seems to enjoy fraternising with the cast, most of whom are many decades younger. “I teach them games like backgammon. They all have iPads and don’t know how to play actual games, so that’s what I do.”
How does she compare her fanbase of the 60s to her current legion of admirers?
“Well, the fans in the 60s were women and libidinous men. I don’t get the libidinous men anymore on account of my age, but now I hear from people who are interested in a story well told, which is what Game of Thrones is about.”
As with most TV roles, Rigg’s job on the show is of indeterminate length. Does she want to stay as long as she can? “Well, she’s going to croak sooner or later, isn’t she? She’s of an age and so I’m ready for that. I wonder what she’ll say as she’s dying, her final words. I beg the writers to give me some memorable last words.”
What does this esteemed actor watch on TV? She looks at me with incredulity. “Judge Judy, of course! She has absolutely the right attitude to all the idiocies that go before her. And I’m madly in love with Byrd (the Bailiff). Everyone needs a Byrd!”
Her romantic life includes a relationship with actor-director Philip Saville, with whom she lived for eight years in the mid-60s. She was later married to Menachem Gueffen, an Israeli painter, from 1973 to 1976, and in 1982 wed Archibald Stirling, a theatrical producer and officer in the Scots Guard. Their relationship produced a daughter, actress Rachel Stirling, born in 1977. They separated in 1990 after his affair with Joely Richardson was discovered.
Rigg was made a CBE in 1988 and a Dame in 1994. Presumably, she’s met the Queen on more than one occasion?
“Yes, I’ve met her several times. Occasionally the Queen opens the doors of Buckingham Palace and invites thespians in. So when I was made a Dame, her first question to me was, ‘Are you in work?’ which I suppose is a pretty safe question for an actress, because you either say yes or no,” she says, matter-of-factly.
Rigg lives between the UK and France. She says, “Oh I love France. But the only French I speak relates to plumbing, electricity, gardening and cooking.” She pours another glass. “And wine and Armagnac, naturally.”
She leans forward. “I have to tell you a good story. I bought this chateau near Bordeaux, from three people. It was an English ménage a trois. The villagers called it Chateau Jambes En Air, and the translation is Chateau Legs in the Air,” she howls with laugher. “You can’t get more perfect than that!”