Claire Bloom at 90: a new interview with the veteran of British stage and screen

Discovered by Chaplin as a young actress, Claire Bloom has had a long and varied career taking in work with Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton, Doctor Who and one of the great haunted house movies. As she turns 90, Bloom spoke to us in an exclusive interview to reflect on a lifetime of stardom.

Brideshead Revisited (1981)

Few careers in cinema can boast as illustrious a start as that of Claire Bloom. Born in Finchley in 1931, Bloom was a young actress starting out in theatre when she was spotted by the playwright Arthur Laurents, who suggested her to Charlie Chaplin for Limelight (1952), in which she was cast as the dancer Thereza. 

Bloom’s star-making performance opposite Chaplin kickstarted a career that has encompassed the classical and the contemporary, taking in everything from Shakespeare to kitchen-sink realism, the high peaks of the European and American stage (Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey into Night) to a Sylvester Stallone actioner (Daylight), prestige TV (Brideshead Revisited), socially conscious 1980s cinema (Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), Doctor Who (as the Doctor’s mother, no less), and most recently Stephen Poliakoff’s ambitious 2019 BBC series Summer of Rockets. 

Across such diverse projects, Bloom is a mercurial, memorable presence. In her first memoir, Limelight and After (1982), the actress expresses her preference for a performance that is “in control of uncontrollable emotions” rather than one “that displays everything, that overwhelms.” Bloom’s own acting possesses precisely this kind of subtlety, economy and control.

Though rarely cast in comedy, her performances are characterised by what critic Pauline Kael shrewdly identified as the “wit in her acting”: a quality closely connected to its intelligence and clarity of emotion. The particular charge and intensity of Bloom’s performances comes from a tension between her emotional directness and the suggestion of something undisclosed, held in reserve, awaiting discovery. 

Your story in cinema commences in the most incredible way with Chaplin’s Limelight. But I wanted to start by asking how your interest in acting began. You had an aunt who worked in theatre – was she an influence?

The greatest influence on my life and career was my mother. But with her, yes, was my Aunt Mary, my mother’s eldest sister, who had been a famous actress in the 1930s. Mary was a great inspiration to me, as an actress but also as a most amazing woman. She seemed to know every play that was ever written in every language, and she would advise me on what parts I should play and the direction I should take.

Did you go to the theatre and cinema much as a girl growing up in the 1930s and 40s?

Well, it was expensive, and I don’t remember going that much. My great memory, as for many girls my age, was Snow White, which I utterly adored. I also saw the Leslie Howard/Norma Shearer Romeo and Juliet directed by George Cukor. The film inspired me, and my great dream became to play Juliet.

You studied at Central and Guildhall for short periods. Did you learn anything useful there? 

Not a thing (laughs)! Well, it’s possible that from Gwynneth Thurburn, the head of Central, I learnt some rudiments of speech, projecting my voice in the theatre etc. I think I owe that to her. But as for any inspirational moments about acting or art, I can’t say that I owe anything to the schools.

So it was really a case of learning on the job with the guidance of your colleagues in the theatre. And you were appearing in Peter Brook’s production of Ring round the Moon in 1949 when you heard that Chaplin wanted to see you for the role of Thereza in Limelight. 

Yes, I was 19, and out of the blue I received a telegram saying: “Will you send photographs? Charles Chaplin.” Arthur Laurents, the playwright and a friend of the Chaplin’s, had seen me on stage and suggested me for Chaplin’s upcoming project, which was Limelight.

I was terribly scared, it was just too much, and at some level I didn’t quite believe it, so I ended up not replying to the message. Then 2 weeks later I got another telegram saying – this is typical Charlie! – “Where are the photographs?!” So I thought: I’d better do something about this, and finally sent them.

The thing was that in the photos Oona Chaplin and I looked amazingly alike, and since the film was in many ways dedicated to her – well, to her spirit if not her actuality – this obviously caught Chaplin’s eye. So I was invited to America to test and to my amazement I got the part.

Did you spend much time with Chaplin before shooting started?

We had 3 weeks of rehearsal. We were in the garden of their estate, the weather was beautiful, and we worked on these scenes. Due to this preparation, when we came to shoot on the soundstage I wasn’t as frightened as I might have been. I still was, of course, but that process made things easier. I trusted Charlie completely and I adored him. 

Limelight (1952)

Was Chaplin very specific in his direction of you?

Yes, he knew exactly what he wanted – which wasn’t always necessarily what I wanted, but I didn’t really know that at the time. Having seen the film very many times over the years there are moments in my performance that I find highly embarrassing, where I seem to be reciting almost. But then there are times when I’m quite free and I’m much better. But that was the effect he wanted and I did as he asked me. 

You had some stage experience and had been in one film, The Blind Goddess, before Limelight. Did acting for the camera come naturally to you?

I’d had a couple of nice stage parts, but you could almost say I’d never seen a camera before because I didn’t really notice anything on The Blind Goddess – except how awful the film was! So I didn’t know anything and relied on Chaplin’s guidance.

I’ve never developed any theories about differences between stage and film acting but I remember hearing Diana Dors on the radio once and she was asked about it. She said: “Well, on stage you overact and on screen you underact!” And I do know what she means. But I’ve never felt a great difference between stage and screen, even now, at the end of my career. You act from yourself, with your partners, and you rather forget the camera – or at least I do. 

Charlie Chaplin and Claire Bloom in France for a screening of Limelight (1952)

What are your memories of seeing Limelight for the first time?

I thought it was beautiful, I cried nearly all the way through. I wasn’t able to go to the premiere, as I was on stage that night, but I saw it at a press screening at the Empire. After the screening, Chaplin and I came down the stairs, and the audience – mostly journalists, I suppose – applauded us. I threw my arms around Charlie and kissed him, the first and probably the only time I’d been so daring. But it was such a wonderful moment. 

I guess the immediate reception of the film was complicated by Chaplin’s political problems at the time.

Oh God, yes. The film wasn’t distributed properly. In the US, I think, it was only seen in a few of the major cities, as people wouldn’t show it. I wasn’t aware of all this then. I was doing my thing in theatre in London, doing Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic, and – selfish little beast that I was! – I had such a narrow vision at that age. Of course eventually the film has been given its due, and accepted as one of Chaplin’s masterpieces. 

And as quite a start to a young actress’s career…

It was like a miracle and to this day I still think of it as such. I was so lucky and in some ways I still can’t believe that it happened to me.  

After Limelight you were contracted to Alexander Korda.

Yes, I had a personal contract with Korda, not his company, but with him. He might have helped build my career in ways that my mother and I couldn’t, but he died, alas. I did make The Man Between (1952) with him, which was pretty nice. Although Carol Reed making another spy film set in middle Europe straight after one of the great film masterpieces [The Third Man] seemed a strange choice, and was regarded as such at the time. 

The Man Between (1953)StudioCanal

The film suffered from that comparison but it stands up very well now. Your scenes with Hildegarde Neff are particularly good. It’s a great dynamic: you as this English innocent abroad, she as this worldly German woman with secrets. How was it to work with her – and of course James Mason? 

James Mason was a kind, generous colleague. I had little to do with Hildegarde Neff off-screen and I think I found her a bit daunting. She was very beautiful and elegant, with amazing green eyes. But I’ve never been mad about my performance in that film. I’m so terribly, terribly English in it that I think: “Oh dear!”

So what did you think of being labelled an “English rose” by the press at this time?

Well, being Jewish, I always found it the strangest description I’d heard in my life!

In 1955 you made Richard III in which, as Lady Anne, you have that extraordinary scene with Olivier. What was acting with him like?

The best way I can describe it is that it was like being caught up in an electric current. He had that power on stage and on screen. I’d seen him on stage a lot but I never dreamed of playing opposite him. Still, it felt comfortable, and the scene really took on a life of its own. 

Richard III (1955)

You’d been in a lot of Shakespeare and period drama by this time. Was it important for you to start engaging with modern work and the Royal Court revolution with your part in Tony Richardson’s film of Look Back in Anger?

Absolutely, it was very important and I knew it at the time. I needed to break out of this particular cage that I was in. I’d seen Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court, as we all did, and was very impressed by it. But the offer to play Helena in the film came out of the blue from Tony Richardson. I wanted to play the wife, a part played brilliantly, as it had been on stage, by Mary Ure, for whom it was written. So I turned Helena down… for about 2 hours! Then I thought: are you crazy?! This is what you’ve been waiting for: to get out of the corsets and long skirts, to have modern reactions and interactions. So I called back immediately and said I’d do it.

It was great because I was free of anyone telling me what to do. Richardson couldn’t have been freer or more open in the way he worked. If you said: “What should I do with this teapot in this scene?”, he’d say: “Well, I don’t know, what do you want to do with it?!”

Look Back in Anger (1959)

Helena is such an interesting character in that she’s initially the only one to stand up to Jimmy, but ends up getting seduced: a bit like Lady Anne with Richard, in fact. Did you find that transition challenging?

Not at all! 

You could relate?

Certainly! Especially with Richard Burton at his most magnetic… it wasn’t hard to imagine.

Your career and Burton’s intersected from an early age, on stage and screen. How was it to reunite with him for a final time on The Spy Who Came In from the Cold?

It was interesting. We hadn’t seen each other since the filming of Look Back in Anger and those late-20s to mid-30s years are very formative. I’d married Rod Steiger, he’d married Elizabeth Taylor… Our relationship off screen was really non-existent by then but we did our scenes very well together, and remained good colleagues. After all, there were so many years of history behind us. I think that does show on screen and the film is still very powerful, one of the best Le Carré adaptations. 

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)

You were always getting some strong roles on TV around this time, such as Anna Karenina, opposite Sean Connery as Vronsky. 

I consider that I discovered Sean Connery, though others might disagree! I was in a play with Diane Cilento at the Royal Court and she said that she had this very handsome actor boyfriend who couldn’t get any work. One day I went into her dressing room and there was this vision sitting there… of course, it was Sean. And I did suggest him for Vronsky. Whether he tested for it or not, I don’t know. But he was cast. I particularly felt that it shouldn’t be an Englishman as Vronsky: that a Celt was closer to a Russian. He was excellent in the part.

Anna is such a great role, but with a novel you’ve loved more than any other, it’s difficult to bring it to life as you imagined it and this was a highly condensed version. But Rudolph Cartier was a very fine director: perhaps forgotten now, but he did things on TV that had never been done then. It was a big production for them at the time. 

You mentioned that the Cukor film of Romeo and Juliet was a great inspiration for you. How was it to work with him on The Chapman Report in 1962?  In a tonally odd film, your scenes stand out as the most intense: this self-destructive character, going through these encounters with men, has a touch of Blanche DuBois about her, a role you later played to great acclaim in the theatre. 

Firstly, I was really delighted to be offered that part, which was so different from anything I’d done up to then. I was thrilled to play this kind of sexy role. I found Cukor to be kind and very intelligent. He said: “I want a lady playing a whore” … so that’s what I did. And yes, looking back it was a bit of a rehearsal for Streetcar. Without blowing my own trumpet, I can say that I’m proud of my performance in The Chapman Report.

The following year brought another memorable film in the shape of Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Did you enjoy this foray into horror?

I liked Robert Wise enormously. But my part is very linear. It doesn’t go up or down or sideways, and so for me it’s not that interesting. The character’s lesbianism was made more obvious in the original script… But I know that the film is highly appreciated. Personally, I think Psycho (1960) or The Shining (1980) are much more frightening.

The Haunting (1963)

I understand that Julie Harris kept her distance from you during the shoot. 

Yes, not for any malevolent reason. But she was a studio actress and that’s how she worked. Still, I thought it was strange that she wouldn’t speak to me. Later she brought me a gift and said she was sorry it was like that but that she couldn’t be friendly with me due to the part she was playing.

What’s your view of the method? 

Well, having been married to Rod Steiger…! Oh, I don’t know what the method is, really. Good acting is good acting. We each have our different approaches but it’s all to get to the same result in the end.

A Doll’s House has been an important work for you on both stage and screen – and you titled your second memoir after it. Tell me about your connection to Ibsen’s play. 

It was an unexpected triumph, quite honestly. The play hadn’t been done for so many years but when I read it, I knew how wonderful it was, and how timely for the 1970s in its exploration of female independence and the relations between the sexes. Performing it was everything that I thought it would be and the audience reaction was very intense. We did it in New York first, then on an American tour, brought it to London, and then made the film, so it had a long life. 

How was it to transfer your performance to film?

I don’t think I changed all that much. When there’s a deep understanding between you and the part, things really do take on a life of their own. The part fitted me like a glove and spoke to me deeply: the conflict for a woman who wants a domestic life and children, but independence as well, which doesn’t apply to Nora exactly in A Doll’s House but is reflected in her journey towards freedom. Nora leaves her children, which always seemed to me a difficult part of the play, but she does it and goes off to start a new life – something that I’ve done a couple of times, though never abandoning my child. 

Clash of the Titans (1981)

And from Ibsen to… Clash of the Titans!

That was great fun. I generally hate it when people ask if making such-and-such a film was fun: usually it’s hard work. But Clash of the Titans really was fun. Susan Fleetwood, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress and I stood around in beautiful robes adding in the odd line to answer Olivier. The dry ice made all this fog around the studio and we could hardly see each other sometimes. Ursula Andress was heaven to work with, and Maggie Smith is so funny, we all had a good time. 

In Brideshead Revisited you’re opposite Olivier again, playing Lady Marchmain. I believe you turned that part down initially.

Well, for a moment, I’m ashamed to say. I was so vain that I thought I wasn’t old enough to play a matriarch. Well, a) at 49, I was, and b) it was a wonderful role. It was a very central experience for all of us, and we’re all friends still. After Michael Lindsay-Hogg had to depart, it was directed by Charles Sturridge, then 24, who did a remarkable job. And if you were ever in doubt, you had this brilliant book to fall back on. 

After Brideshead, Stephen Frears’ Sammy and Rosie Get Laid brought you right up to date in a racially diverse and turbulent contemporary London setting. The film is hard to see now but feels so relevant these days. What attracted you to the role of Alice, which I think Hanif Kureishi wrote with you in mind? 

I believe he did, which is very flattering. It was a good part and a good film, though very much ignored, sadly. It was almost as if it had never been made, which was odd because Frears is such an admired director. I enjoyed working with him, and with Shashi Kapoor. Our scenes together were very interesting to play. 

The film is upfront in its politics yet there’s a mystery to Alice that makes her one of the most compelling characters.

That’s exactly what attracted me to the part. Any character who’s full of questions which may or may not be answered, who’s a bit mysterious and who you can’t quite get a grip on… I absolutely love that kind of role.

How was your experience on Doctor Who, in which you were playing the Doctor’s mother, apparently?

So I was told. I was very pleased to be in it, though I didn’t really know what was going on there. I’m hopeless with those kinds of plots. But one nice thing was that a little girl I know was having some problems at school, being teased because she didn’t have the money to dress up like the other girls. I said to her: “Just tell them that one of your best friends is Doctor Who’s mother!” Apparently that worked like a charm! So it was worth doing for that alone. 

There was also some mystery to your most recent role, in Stephen Poliakoff’s Summer of Rockets.

I’ve always admired Poliakoff’s work greatly. The project was daunting at first… these 6 big scripts arrived, and my eyesight is very bad, so it took me forever to read them, but they were very kind and sort of extracted my scenes. It’s a strange piece but a remarkable story. Poliakoff was specific and careful and attentive in his direction, and having written the script it’s his vision. He’s a very good director and an interesting man… not so usual at the BBC these days.

Do you have any other projects yet to be released?

No, I don’t. At 90, I suppose, it feels like time to be signing off. That said, there has been a very interesting film dangled my way, but whether they’ll ever make it now, I don’t know. It was supposed to shoot in Prague, but with the current situation with the virus… These are such strange times.

It’s a strange time to be celebrating a 90th birthday. How do you feel about the future of the creative industries at the moment? Are you optimistic that audiences will return to theatres and cinemas when they can, or are people just satisfied with watching at home now?

I hope to god people will go back. I’ve seen some very good plays and opera online, which I’ve enjoyed enormously. But I do think there is still a deep need to be together, to experience and be moved by something together. You can’t quite recapture or manufacture that through a screen at home.