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A Woolf at Her Door

Susan Salter Reynolds is an editor with the Los Angeles Times' Book Review and a frequent contributor to Life & Style and the Los Angeles Times Magazine

It happens. A forceful person with unfinished business in this world dies and comes back in someone else’s body. You do not have to be gaga to believe this. You simply have to believe that the creative act has the power to make a person immortal. Prove it?

I went to London to meet Virginia Woolf, who killed herself in 1941 by walking into a river with stones in her pockets. For several decades she has been roaming around the world in the person of actress Eileen Atkins, who has played Virginia throughout her career, most recently in two plays that she also wrote, the one-woman show “A Room of One’s Own” and “Vita and Virginia,” which co-starred Vanessa Redgrave as Woolf’s friend and fellow writer, Vita Sackville-West.

Atkins, 63, the co-creator of the TV series “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “The House of Eliott,” adapted and read Woolf’s diaries for a five-part BBC radio series. Her most recent project is the film adaptation of Woolf’s 1925 novel, “Mrs. Dalloway,” opening this month.

Atkins bears an almost eerie resemblance to Woolf, and she wouldn’t be the first to be drawn to her spirit. Woolf has been an inspiration to generations of earnest schoolgirls and would-be writers who have tried to talk, walk and write like her. Everything about Woolf was sharp angles, her eyes molten pools of truth and scorn, down-turned and heavy-lidded high beams above the commonplace. She was terminally upper-class, terminally productive and terminally depressed.

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“Mrs. Dalloway” takes place on a single June day (much like James Joyce’s later novel, “Ulysses”) in 1923, five years after the end of World War I. Clarissa Dalloway (Redgrave) is the fiftysomething wife of a successful politician. On this day, she’s planning to give a party, and as she goes about buying flowers and fixing the dress she will wear, she thinks back to decisions she made 30 years earlier--mainly a safe marriage to Richard Dalloway, instead of the more romantic but unpredictable and possessive Peter Walsh who appears midday at her door, on an unexpected visit from India.

That morning she sees through the window of a store a young shell-shocked veteran of the war, Septimus Warren Smith (Rupert Graves), and their paths intertwine throughout the day as Clarissa plans her party and Septimus teeters on the tightrope between delusion and clarity.

“I really do hope there isn’t an afterlife,” says Atkins, all angles like Woolf but with only a fraction of Woolf’s sarcasm. As Atkins talks, she curls up on the sofa in the living room of her house on the Thames in one of the city’s most picturesque suburbs, Chiswick, where she lives with her husband, producer Bill Shepherd.

“There she’d be, waiting for me,” says Atkins of her muse, “saying, ‘Who do you think you were, trying to be me?’ For one thing, she’s an intellectual. I know she wouldn’t like me at all, a self-taught Cockney. I wouldn’t have lasted 20 minutes without boring her to death. Mind you, she might accept the fact that I’ve sold quite a few of her books. But as a performer, I’d have been one of the sillies in her life. I, on the other hand, adore her. For someone who’s committed suicide I find her one of the most life-giving people.”

Atkins was born in 1934 to a poor family. “My birth made it possible for the family to qualify for government housing. I was 5 when the war started and my brother and I were taken from my parents and sent to the country. I was pretty, so I was the first child in my school to be picked by a family. My brother was the last, so when the last family came for a child and the woman said she wanted a girl, my brother said, ‘Please, lady, I’m very clean.’

“We ended up going back home, where our house suffered a direct hit [in the blitz]. My mother saved us by insisting that we sleep in the garden shelter, even though it was so damp. She also sent me to a terrible dancing school, but the woman who ran it insisted that I go to drama school and paid for it.”

But it wasn’t until she was in her late 20s that she discovered Woolf, and as Atkins recalls it was “only because I looked so much like her that filmmakers and producers started asking me to play her.”

For all her love of Woolf, Atkins claims that she spent years convincing various producers that “Mrs. Dalloway” could never be a movie; she felt it was filled with too many confusing flashbacks. It wasn’t until Redgrave got the idea into her head and wanted to play Clarissa that Atkins’ resolve cracked.

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“You sort of don’t say no to her,” says Atkins with obvious admiration. Their acquaintance began when the two young actresses--Redgrave was then 19; Atkins, 22--went on a week’s holiday together after performing at Stratford-on-Avon as walk-ons. Decades later, they did “Vita and Virginia” first in London, then in New York and on a U.S. tour.

“Nigel Nicholson, Vita’s [real life] son said a terribly interesting thing,” Atkins tells me. “He’s seen five Vitas by now and none have been as good as Vanessa: ‘She’s how my mother would have liked to have been.’ ”

Atkins has absorbed what is left of Bloomsbury, visiting the houses and doing readings from the works of the three linchpins of the bohemian group of writers and artists forever linked to that neighborhood: Woolf, her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, and Vita Sackville-West.

She has done the walk, she tells me, from Woolf’s house to the river where Woolf killed herself.

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“She drowned in 4 feet of water, so you know she was determined,” says Atkins, who is convinced that the shock of the war to Virginia’s already sensitive nervous system was responsible for her death.

As she talks, neighborhood cats with names like Juliet wander in and out of the house. The room we sit in filters light from the Thames, which plays across the ceiling and around the room. “I completely understand her being overwhelmed,” says Atkins. “I understand what it means to get lost in the vastness of life and death, and to see faces on the street and want to ask them whether they think about the same things you do.”

Woolf had nothing but disdain for Americans, who ironically love her and study her far more than the British.

After Atkins wrote the script for “Dalloway,” Shepherd brought it to American Playhouse. When American Playhouse fell apart, they took it to Fox Searchlight, which didn’t want it. So Shepherd took on the production himself, arguing that Redgrave was willing and ready to do it.

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“We did the thing you should never do,” says Atkins. “We started shooting without all the money in place. It was ghastly. After three weeks we ran out of money.

“I was playing the wife of a bankrupt at the time in a London play. Vanessa was an angel. I broke down once and only because she was so nice to me. I couldn’t stop crying, and I was scheduled to perform that afternoon. Vanessa took me to the theater’s nurse to get some Valium and the nurse said, ‘Just tell them you can’t go on.’ I said, ‘Don’t be stupid, woman. It’s only going on that will get me through!’ So Vanessa took me in a cab to her doctor and got me something so I could go on. I have to say I was bloody marvelous that afternoon.”

After three weeks of filming “Dalloway"--mostly the adult scenes in London--Shepherd was able to bring in First Look Pictures and producers Lisa Katselas Pare and Stephen Bayly. Atkins is delighted with the end result, although she had a few disagreements with director Marleen Gorris, who also directed the Oscar-winning “Antonia’s Line.”

“She wouldn’t, for example, let the young actors watch the older ones filming,” Atkins recalls. “I also was very concerned that connections between the past and the present be utterly, visually clear.

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“Marleen, who is Dutch, insisted on much more voice-over than I would have liked. Europeans apparently like it much more than Americans or British audiences.”

And then there is the question of young Clarissa’s relationship with her best friend, Sally.

“Marleen couldn’t resist having the two girls kiss, which I thought was perfect and absolutely true to Virginia. People assume it is only because Marleen is gay, but Woolf was very interested in that tendency in adolescent girls, that undertow. Don’t we all feel it?

“Of course, Woolf didn’t particularly like lesbians . . . Sapphists she called them. Virginia has always seemed naturally asexual to me, with her little cricket-face, clumsy and awkward, all long, long arms and legs. We can only guess at people’s lives, nobody will ever really know anyone.”

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Despite her work on other projects, Atkins considers herself primarily an actress, not a writer.

“I love to do adaptations, but I cannot have the germ of an idea and write the script,” she explains. “I can’t carry a project to full pregnancy, which is quite interesting because I can’t have children. I don’t mind planting the seed and letting you have the baby, or taking the baby once you’ve had it, but I don’t want to go through the whole process.”

Clarissa, like Mrs. Ramsey in “To the Lighthouse,” is a familiar character to readers of Virginia Woolf--the socialite whose finest skill is giving parties, but someone who’s also generous and creative in her own way.

“There will be people who see this film because they know and love Woolf and those who don’t know a thing about her. My dearest hope is that it is accessible to both,” says Atkins, who overheard three early viewers discussing the film as they left the theater.

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“There were two men and a girl in their early 20s. ‘I thought it was going to be really hard to follow,’ said one, ‘but really it’s just about how people’s lives are intertwined.’ ”


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