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Miriam Margolyes on playing Sue Mengers in 'I'll Eat You Last'

Miriam Margolyes on playing Sue Mengers in 'I'll Eat You Last'
Actress Miriam Margolyes as Sue Mengers in the play "I'll Eat You Last" at the Melbourne Theatre Company in Australia. (Jeff Busby)

"Well, aren't you a punctual one?" The voice at the other end of the phone line belonged to British actress Miriam Margolyes, who for the occasion has reached into her bottomless bag of accents and delivered her greeting in the upbeat, sunny inflections of a longtime Southern Californian.

"I'm perfectly fine doing the whole interview like this, in fact. But I'm really doing it to freak you out."

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The choice of accent was not haphazard. Margolyes is playing the role of the late Hollywood talent agent Sue Mengers in an Australian production of "I'll Eat You Last." It's the same part that Bette Midler originated on Broadway and later brought to the Geffen Playhouse in 2013.

Margolyes has lived in Australia for years and last year became an Australian citizen. She hadn't seen John Logan's play when the Melbourne Theatre Company contacted her agent about taking on the role of Mengers.

"I wish I had seen it -- I'm a huge fan of Bette Midler," recalled Margolyes, reverting to her native English accent. "I thought, 'Wow, this is a challenge.'"

The 73-year-old Margolyes has played numerous supporting roles on stage and screen, and her facility with accents both posh and earthy has made even her briefest roles memorable. She played a New York society lady in Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence," a Latina nurse in Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo and Juliet" and a teaching witch in the "Harry Potter" movies.

Margolyes said that the task of finding the voice of Mengers was eased somewhat by the fact that they have rather similar personalities.

"She was a foul-mouthed broad as I am too. But she also had a baby quality -- a little girly," said Margolyes. "Her voice has to be warm because she was someone who lived in her contact with people."

To get Mengers' precise way of speaking, the actress said, she watched a "60 Minutes" interview that aired in 1975, and consulted with a dialect coach.

Margolyes considers herself to be a bit of a natural when it comes to accents. "I was born gifted with an ear, so perhaps it's easier for me than others," she said. But she said dialect coaches are essential because "there's no point in doing it on your own. You can't hear yourself."

The actress said she never met Mengers, who died in 2011, "but I had a wonderful American agent, Susan Smith, who was not dissimilar and I keep thinking about her while doing this part because there were many similarities. I wanted more than anything else to play a real person -- you have that responsibility. I wanted to honor that. I never do anything just for effect."

During rehearsals, Margolyes often spoke in an American accent even when she wasn't performing, said Dean Bryant, the play's director.

"Miriam has one of the best work ethics of anyone I've worked with, with the exception of Geoffrey Rush," he said in a separate interview. "They both build on such a detailed level and are willing to work and work and work past the point of everyone's endurance."

Margolyes lived in Los Angeles for 16 years and, like Mengers, she's a voluble storyteller of bad behavior among Hollywood's power set.

"Most of them are unprintable, especially the ones about Warren Beatty," she said, adding that Beatty is a friend. She described her own time in Hollywood, which was mostly in the '90s, as "a great time in my life" but added "they're all horrified of failure -- they don't want to stand next to you, like you might catch it."

In recent years, Margolyes has unleashed her well-known bawdy side in guest appearances on the BBC's "The Graham Norton Show." Her appearances, during which she has shared sexually explicit stories, have become popular clips on YouTube.

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"I am extremely salacious and every word I've said is true. Sue Mengers often said she borrowed stories. ... I don't do that."

In one appearance, she claimed that Arnold Schwarzenegger once passed gas in her face while they were shooting a scene for the 1999 movie "End of Days."

"Absolutely true!" said Margolyes. "He was extremely professional in every other department. I think he was helping me to be a stunt actress, which I'm not. I think he heard me farting ... and so he did too. I know most people don't fart on set, but I do."

The remark raised a related question: Has she ever experienced flatulence while acting on stage?

"I have farted on stage frequently but not so audiences could pick up any vestige of it. Look, it's a human thing. I'm just a windy person," she replied.

Margolyes has returned to the stage frequently over the years and has traveled with her solo show "Dickens' Women," in which she plays multiple characters from the novels of Charles Dickens. In 2006, she played the role of Madame Morrible in the West End production of the musical "Wicked," despite the fact that "I'm not a singer," she said.

When she was offered "I'll Eat You Last," she consulted "Wicked" director Joe Mantello, who staged the Mengers play in New York.

"I did write to him, asking should I do this? And he said, yes, go for it," she recalled.

Margolyes said one of the biggest hurdles playing Mengers was the late agent's smoking habit. The play calls for the actress to enact smoking both cigarettes and marijuana.

"I've never smoked anything in my life," said Margolyes. "Well, that's not true -- at Cambridge, I smoked a pipe for six weeks just to get noticed. I've never smoked marijuana. I'm anti-drug of all kinds. I don't think I've even seen marijuana. I'm terribly virginal in some respects."

In the near future, Margolyes will debut another stage show, somewhat cheekily titled "The Importance of Being Miriam," that is expected to tour Australia. The actress described it as a "passionate discovery of words and music. I'm going to do poetry, Dickens, talk to the audience and sing."

She will also play the role of Mary Tyrone in a future Australian production of "Long Day's Journey into Night," a play she first performed as a university student.

"The only point of going on at my age is if you're getting better," she said. "I don't want to go gentle into that good night."

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT

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