Elizabeth Marmur is an actor known for her work on Peep Show, Coupling, Black Books, Doctors, and My Family. I spoke with Elizabeth about what drew her to a career in acting, portraying Toni in Peep Show, working on Black Books and Coupling, and her change in career path.
Did you always want to pursue a career in acting, and what initially drew you to a career in the performing arts?
I knew I wanted to be an actor from an early age - around five or six. Before that, I floated the idea of becoming a ballerina on a white horse (it must have been that trip to the circus that did it), but my decision to become an actor was far from childish fancy - it was filled with dogged determination and complete conviction.
The initial draw is hard to identify. There are no thespians in my family but my father, who is a rabbi, was a performer of sorts. Whilst I was growing up, he oversaw a large North London congregation and was very much a leading figure in the Reform Jewish Movement. I learned how to “hold” a room from him.
Dance was also a big influence on me, or more specifically, my ballet teacher was. Leonie Urdang (who went on to establish the prestigious Urdang Academy) taught lessons in the church hall two doors away from my house. There, in that cold room, leaping and twirling to the tune of the tinny-sounding piano, I discovered the joy of creative expression. Leonie (whom my daughter is named after) seem to appreciate my individual style; there was something fiercely compelling, even then, about being able to express this side of myself and having someone I admired greatly, admire me back.
In truth, there have been few decisions in my life that were as easy as deciding to pursue a career in acting. This is partly because the decision was made at a young enough age when logic and reason had no seat at the table, and it was all based on instinct and inner knowing. I remember lots of adults wagging their fingers at me, telling me what a hard profession acting was (as if any of them had the slightest idea what it entailed), but I also remember thinking how misguided they all were. I mean, honestly, if you can’t dream big as a kid when on earth are you supposed to do it? Furthermore, when you find something you love, something that inspires and delights you beyond measure, why would you choose to back away from it rather than lean in?
Is there anyone in the industry who has particularly inspired you?
I was never that kid who had posters of their heroes slapped all over their walls (but if I had it would probably have been Starsky and Hutch). There are so many actors I admire and who have inspired me, mostly by the sheer brilliance of their skill. I remember being particularly bowled over by watching Juliet Stevenson in the Mallens on television as a young teen, seeing Penelope Wilton in “The Secret Rapture” at the National in the early 90s when I was at drama school and, more recently, watching Laura Linney give a storming performance in “My Name is Lucy Barton” at the Bridge Theatre. I also get enormous pleasure from watching brilliant actors such as Patricia Clarkson and Alison Janney make something memorable out of not that much of a part. I am, equally, inspired by artists of all modalities (artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers etc) who have found a way to put their own mark on the world via their creative pursuit.
On a personal level, I find myself especially impacted by the individuals I have encountered along my journey who have been prepared to show up as they truly are – be they teachers, directors, or fellow actors. For example, I met a sweet girl when I was studying drama in Toronto called Merrill (I emigrated to Canada with my parents when I was sixteen and lived there, on and off, for a decade). She was a nice Jewish girl, like me, on track to leading a very conventional life. One minute, she was playing in a folk band and had a side-line as a children’s entertainer and the next, she had changed her stage name to “Peaches” and was performing to sold out stadiums as the iconic feminist musician, producer, director, and performance artist she was born to be. Now that inspires me!
You portrayed Toni in Peep Show, Mark and Jez's neighbour in the first few series. How did you prepare for the role, and was there a lot of room for improvisation for the character?
I had to audition quite extensively for the role of Toni which, in a way, was surprisingly good prep. I found myself repeatedly going into an audition room, filled with a bevy of men, concealing my vulnerability, and wearing my bravado around me like a cape of armour. It took a long time for them to settle on me, by which time I had become extremely attached to the idea of getting the part. By the time I actually did, I found I had created a character who was remarkably thick-skinned, purposefully slightly stupid, and completely wrapped up in her own story.
As I remember it, there wasn’t a lot of improvisation, at least on my part, on the show. The writing on this series, care of the excellent Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, was extremely strong so there was little need for improvement. Besides, when you are acting a scene wearing a camera strapped to your forehead (to get the “POV” effect of the show) or playing opposite another character with a camera stuck to theirs, it can lose the improvisational vibe.
Having said that, the mood on set was very light and playful and if any of the wonderfully talented writers/comedians on set wanted something changed because it worked better, there was always room for discussion.
You've also appeared in series such as Black Books and Coupling. Could you tell me more about your experiencing working on these shows?
Although I worked on those shows within a few months of each other, they were polar opposite experiences for me. In truth, Black Books was a little painful. Tamsin Greig and I, who had been close friends since meeting on BBC’s “NeverWhere” some years prior) were down to the last two actors auditioning for the lead role of Fran. She got it. I didn’t. Thems the breaks. Although I was genuinely pleased for her (she is a truly, wonderful performer and a terrific friend), I was pretty heartbroken for myself. In retrospect, I should never have accepted the role I played on that show. It was still too fresh for me not to have delicate feelings about the part I wasn’t playing (never a good way to approach the part you ARE actually playing). On the upside, I had recently discovered that I was pregnant with my first child at the time so I could blame my ill temper on the hormones but, really, I just think I was a bit sad.
I got the part on Coupling shortly afterwards. It was a fun role and I particularly enjoyed the rehearsal part of the process where we got to find the nuances of the script and play off each other. I knew Gina (Bellman) from my childhood, but we had never worked together, so it was great to reconnect. The live studio audience experience was also fun – like a hybrid of theatre and telly where you can feel the energy of the audience but get a chance to do it all again for the camera angles.
You took a step back from acting and you now provide communication skills training. What made you change your career path?
As I have mentioned, acting had been a huge part of my life since I was a young child. I studied drama at university (McGill University), went to drama school (Royal Central School of Speech & Drama), and had been a working actor since the age of 21. By the time I was in my 40s I was feeling burnt out. The fascination and passion for acting was still there but the practical implications on my life were starting to strain.
I am a blue sky thinker wrapped inside a very practical person and I felt, on a pragmatic level, that if I hadn’t made it into the pool of female actors “of a certain age” who were getting all the meaty roles (and you know who they are), I was looking at an artistically restricted future and potential professional dissatisfaction. My love affair with acting was too strong to have it tarnished by an industry that is only starting to scratch the surface of what is possible for women. More positively, I also started to get really curious about who I could be and what I could achieve outside the realm of acting so, after much deliberation and with the support of my family, I made the break.
After doing a two-year advanced degree, funded by the NHS, to become a qualified speech and language therapist and a further year of deep reflection and learning in an approach often referred to as innate health (also known as the Three Principles), I set up my own business as a communication skills consultant and coach. Ten years on, I now work with a wide variety of individuals and organisations and provide a range of services including interview/presentation skills, witness familiarisation, leadership presence/impact and story-telling in business.
The transition away from acting and into a new professional sphere was tricky at first but, increasingly, the joy and satisfaction I get from this career path is immense and my background in performance has been a very helpful skillset upon which to draw.
Can you tell me about any other projects you're currently working on?
I have always had a passion for art. Before I had my family, I would spend hours engrossed in some art project or another but slowly, over time, the business and busyness of life took over and my painting took a back seat - although it would be fair to say that I have gamely doodled my way through every academic and vocational training I ever done. After a 20-year hiatus and inspired by the enforced punctuation mark that has been Covid19 and lockdown, I have rediscovered art again.
My daughter set me up on Instagram (I mean, that IS why you have kids in the first place, right?) and I am having great fun finding my artistic voice once more through the medium of social media. For those who are interested, you can find me on Instagram as i_wear_my_art_on_my_sleeve.
I am a strong believer in letting hobbies just be hobbies, without the need to capitalise or monetise them. But, in the interests of following the nudges of life, I am working towards having an exhibition of my latest collection as soon as people can safely leave the house again and, ideally, embrace one another when they get there. After that…who knows…maybe after that I’ll put on a play.