*** DEBUG END ***

Interview: Suzanna Hamilton, actor

05 April 2024

‘I’m not a natural do-gooder, if I’m honest’

My acting career began while attending Anna Scher’s drama club, after school. It was all about fun, discipline, respect, and communication. She was a genius. She made you feel you had a voice and something to say. A huge amount of fantastic actors came through her school. She was teaching English in a school off the Essex Road, Islington, which was not then as it is nowadays. She just lifted the barriers between us as children; so we made friends with people who you wouldn’t normally make friends with, without even noticing it.

A good film role can be huge fun, being a cog in a wheel. Stage work is exhilarating and reaches the parts that nothing else does. I enjoy all three media — film, stage, and radio — very much.

My favourite roles were playing Karen, a damaged woman in David Hare’s film Weatherby, which was fantastic; and the Russian Christian poet Irina Ratushinskaya in a BBC film called Small Zones. I couldn’t believe she was put in a labour camp because she believed in God.

We were very cold and miserable during the filming, with a lovely group of women in an old textile factory up north; so it made you really think about the reality of what you’re doing. Playing her influenced my own journey.

There are all these political prisoners all over the world now, and I am sad about the way we’re running the prison system here. The idea of forgiveness seems to have gone. Of course people do terrible things, but, if you’ve had a terrible life and done something terrible in your twenties as a mistake, you shouldn’t be put in a high-security prison to fester for the rest of your life.

Playing Julia in 1984 was hard, shocking. Orwell was writing about what was going on already in 1948. I hope politics has got much better, but I don’t see it that much. We were brought up to have free education and health care in the ’60s. Was that just a blip after the wars? Who says you’re entitled to education and health?

I went to drama school, which was paid for, and had a little grant to live off. We had freedom, and you didn’t get arrested if you went on a demonstration. There seemed to be more freedom of speech.

I don’t know what the answers are, apart from feeling increasingly that I have to pray and be grateful for what I’ve got. I find it very difficult to watch the news. I try, but don’t often succeed. My husband reads his newspaper on the phone, but it’s complete propaganda. I’m staggered at the extent of it.

Big Brother isn’t necessarily watching us, though you could have fooled me. Your mobile phone is almost like a version of Big Brother. It goes with you everywhere and links you with whatever you want, giving all kinds of information about you. And, as an actor, I’m aware that a lot of standard contracts now contain an AI clause saying we’ll be able to replicate your face and your voice. I know that AI can be amazing, and give us all sorts of things, but it’s still pretty terrifying.

The desire to hear stories is the seed of faith, because imagination is a spiritual thing. There was a good tag-line for the lovely film The Miracle Worker: “The greatest story ever told!”

When I listen to a story, I can’t help wondering what’s going to happen. Listening nudges me on towards something else, something other. It’s been a slow realisation that acting is a sort of intermediary thing in other people’s spiritual lives, and as such there is a weight to it at times.

I work sometimes as a bereavement volunteer with a national bereavement charity. I lost my brother in 2012, and he was a big influence on me; but, from a child, I realised that we don’t talk about death very much, and that interested me, because we’re all going to die. I don’t want to die soon, or for anyone I love to die soon, but it’s a fact.

There’s a gift in death, sometimes, unless it’s particularly shocking or traumatic. When death happens, naturally there’s a presence sometimes — not macabre, but something of grace and of God.

I remember thinking as a child that the prayer at the end of the Hail Mary was a bit harsh: “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death”; but it makes sense. Even a child can see that. Some Christians meditate on their death every day, and I think some nuns are given a candle on the day of their profession which will be lit at their deathbed. I hope I will have a good death.

I got asked by my priest to be our parish Caritas rep, the global Catholic charity for ending poverty, promoting justice, and restoring dignity. Some of the ideas are probably too ambitious for our parish, like starting a foodbank, but we’re trying to fit in with what’s already going on. I was able to help the refugees and asylum-seekers who’ve come to our church get a grant for necessities, like clothes and food.

I’m not a natural do-gooder, if I’m honest. Finding how to fit in and help other people is a really exciting thing to do, but it’s not necessarily as easy as it sounds. It’s a nice idea, but how do you actually do it? I need to listen to other people.

Nowadays, I have two different schedules. When I’m acting, that generally consumes most hours. When I’m not acting, I stay as healthy as possible with various projects and hobbies which come and go. I learnt Hebrew for a year, and French more recently. I do sewing classes. Also, I have ongoing periods of learning St Mark’s Gospel. I see friends and family. I look to find ways to give back what has been given to me.

I grew up in London, one of four children, went to a Church of England primary school. and then on to a huge comprehensive. We had fantastic summer holidays on the Scillies. My first experience of God was as a child on holiday, feeling the wind on my face. I thought “Where has it come from? And where is it going?”

A while after my granddad died, I walked in on my grandma, who was crying, which shocked me. She hugged me and said: “He is in heaven.” And I thought, “Yes”.

By 2000, I was ready, and — to my own horror, actually — took an Alpha course at Holy Trinity, Brompton, London. Several years and churches later, I went over to Rome.

Unemployment makes me angry, especially for the young. Corporate greed.

Sharing good food and laughter makes me happiest, and peace of mind, worship — especially singing, and time with family.

There’s nothing in the world like camping. One of my greatest achievements was walking the West Highland way — 120 miles from Glasgow to Ben Nevis — carrying my tent and cooking things on my back. I don’t do it enough. I like exploring. You can wild-camp in Scotland. I just love that freedom. Midges were a problem: you have be in that tent by 8 p.m. with your zip done up; but you’re so tired by then it’s no problem.

My son, Lowell, Greta Thunberg, and rainbows — they are what give me hope for the future.

I pray for guidance, for an awareness of God, with me, now.

I would choose to be locked in a church with Mary, the Mother of God. I like praying using the rosary, and would love to listen and sit with this woman who changed the world by saying yes.

Suzanna Hamilton was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)