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What’s it like to play Ophelia? Six actresses talk about it

CA.Hamlet4
Bill Murray and Julia Stiles in Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film “Hamlet.”
(Larry Riley / Miramax Films)

What’s it like to play Ophelia? Six actresses shared their memories of the character:

“Ophelia can sometimes be portrayed as a generic damsel in distress, and I wanted to avoid that. I enjoyed being able to be very detailed in a relatively intimate theater. Ophelia is a rather subdued character until she is ‘released’ into madness, and therefore it was the subtle gestures and looks that helped build the person.”

—Harriet Walter, 1980 Royal Court Theatre production directed by Richard Eyre

“The key [to Ophelia’s madness] for me was in Claudius’ line, ‘O, this is the poison of deep grief! It springs all from her father’s death.’ […] I intentionally chose lucidity — a state beyond tears, speaking with clarity and connecting deeply to each person onstage rather than choosing confused mumblings or the clichés of ‘crazy.’ ”

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—Diane Venora, 1990 Public Theater production directed by Kevin Kline and Kirk Browning

“My first role ever onstage was Ophelia, at age 15. It was a very healing experience for me to play it again at 21. … The director, Andrei Serban, decided that it was about all of these men trying to control her, manipulating her, and that is what led her to madness. She has to go to another level to sustain her life, and then she takes her life when it’s unsustainable.”

—Lynn Collins, 1999 Public Theater production directed by Andrei Serban

“I loved playing her demise, oddly. Michael allowed us to embellish the text because of the modernity of the film, and I got to scream at the top of my lungs in the Guggenheim. That said, we had also discussed the truth behind her craziness, her sentience, so it was not just playing hysteria. … We filmed the drowning in a fountain in New York in November. I passed out after the third take, but it was a badge of honor for me to be re-creating that iconic image.”

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—Julia Stiles, 2000 film directed by Michael Almereyda

“One of the production’s composers ([Neurosis band member] Scott Kelly) and I collaborated on writing the melodies of Ophelia’s songs. They come from such a primal and deeply vulnerable place in her, and we wanted to make sure the music reflected that. It was an incredible experience and really cemented that sense of ownership of the role.”

—Jennie Greenberry, 2016 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production directed by Lisa Peterson

“I said to [director Simon Godwin] very early on, ‘I don’t believe in the idea that people just go crazy.’ Everyone that I know that has been referred to with the term ‘crazy,’ it’s always been because of a miscommunication. So when I was approaching Ophelia, it was about finding the triggers for her that meant that she couldn’t communicate effectively. Simon was very generous in saying to me, ‘Run with that!’ ”

—Mimi Ndiweni, 2018 Royal Shakespeare Company tour directed by Simon Godwin

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