Finty Williams

Interview: Finty Williams

Interview: Finty Williams

The actor tells us about growing up in Surrey, playing in Woking for the first time and life as the daughter of two national treasures – Dame Judi Dench and the late Michael Williams…

Although Finty Williams has spent decades in Surrey, she has never performed in Woking. She will now – as she comes to New Victoria Theatre with the tour of The Ocean at the End of the Lane in late January. When we speak, she is in Kennington rehearsing for the last week before the tour begins in Salford. “My mother still lives in Surrey, near Reigate. I love the fact that it’s so close to London and yet it feels like you’re in the country. I love the British Wildlife Centre and Godstone Farm, I used to take my son there when he was younger. It just feels like going home.”

Finty is in love with the play and refers to it as “epic”, “magical” and “incredible.” Based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman, it tells a story of a man returning to his childhood home as he finds himself transported to his 12th birthday when his friend Lettie claimed the pond where he used to play is really an ocean – a place where everything is possible. “It’s about one boy’s journey through grief and loss. Puppets, and magic, and music – all is extraordinary,” says Finty. “My character is called Old Mrs Hempstock and she’s a billion years old. She’s also quite a character – connected to the land, the trees, the animals and the moon.

“I’m really looking forward to playing in Woking. I have heard it’s a beautiful theatre. I’m also going to be staying with my mum that week. So it’ll be really, really nice.”

This is probably every adult child’s joy – but Finty’s mother is no ordinary mother. Finty is the daughter of Dame Judi Dench, one of the UK’s (and the world’s) most successful actors of all time, and her late husband Michael Williams.

Finty, who has her mother’s eyes, admits: “It’s a huge privilege to be related to somebody who you think is so wonderful at what they do. I think, from the outside looking in, it would seem a very privileged position to have. But it’s also quite hard. Especially when I was younger, it was very difficult to forge out your own path, particularly if you don’t want to be accused of nepotism. The thing is, I’ve never, for one single second of my career, thought that I would ever be as good as my mother. Ever. And sometimes you want to say – I’m trying to be my own person. She’s amazing. But try and separate the two of us.” I ask Finty if her mother’s career meant she couldn’t spend as much time with her as she perhaps wanted to. “When she was at the Royal Shakespeare Company – I was very young then – we used to live very near Stratford upon Avon. So, if she wasn’t at home, I’d be in the theatre with her. And when she was at the National, I used to spend a lot of time backstage there. But fortunately, she was never away for hugely long periods of time. And if she was away – my dad would be there. They took it in turns.”

Finty virtually grew up in the theatre so it’s no surprise she became an actor, but what would have been her second career choice? “If I could have my time over again, I wouldn’t change anything. But now I’d also love to be a forensic psychologist,” she laughs. “Or a criminologist. I’m fascinated with all of that. The number of times I’ve looked at Open University courses! But I think I’ll leave that up to the experts.”

As well as true crime, Finty has one more unique interest – tattoos. She even convinced her mum to get one herself a couple of years ago (a little “Carpe diem” on her wrist). Finty has eleven. “They’re really hard to cover but you’ve got to before you go on stage,” she admits. “But I wouldn’t get rid of any of them. I love them. My favourite is an acorn tattooed on my left wrist – because my son’s middle name is Oak.”

His first name is Sam and apparently, he doesn’t intend to continue the family tradition. “He’s a social media person. And he’s very good at that. He did some TikToks with my mum over lockdown – that’s what got them through it!” These got quite popular, as Sam got Dame Judi to dance and play silly games on camera. “They are extremely close with each other. Even now, when he’s 25.”

Finty also loves musicals but hasn’t thought of acting in one herself. “I absolutely can’t sing! And definitely not like the amazing people that I go and see. I’m completely in awe of them. I go and see Six every now and again, and I have such a huge respect of these people on stage. My son was also obsessed with Dear Evan Hansen. Sammy and I sing a lot in the car. A lot. I’m not sure that that counts for anything. But we turn it up very loudly to drown out our own voices and pretend we can do it,” she jokes. “I’m a big Sondheim fan. Also Hair, Hamilton. They’re all up there. They’re all just brilliant.”

It was a musical that sparked one of her most beautiful memories. “I remember when I was four, I think, my parents did a musical version of The Comedy of Errors in Stratford. And they sang this wonderful song at the end. My dad came on stage, ran down into the audience, picked me up and took me back on stage. I just remember myself thinking, ‘oh, this is quite nice. I quite like this.’ And I can remember everything about it. I can remember what I was wearing, what the smells were, what it felt like so vividly. It was beautiful.”

And what about stage memories when it was her who was acting? “It’s really hard to find only one. But I think the first time I ever did a play at The Globe. The end of it. When I subsequently did plays there, I’d always find the people who’d never done it before and say the sound and the reaction you get at the end of the first night is something that you’ll never forget. It’s extraordinary. It makes you feel a bit like a rock star.

Having hit 50 in September, Finty feels that the situation for middle-aged actors – particularly female actors – has significantly improved over the past few decades or so. “There are a lot more opportunities now than when I was growing up. There’s still this element that you’ve got to be really exceptional to follow that line of your career from your early forties through your fifties. I also think there’s a huge element of luck. But it has gotten a lot better than it was when I was in my twenties.”

Her perfect weekend is a simple one: “Cook a big lunch. A roast, preferably. If my son or my boyfriend or my mother didn’t offer to do it first, that is. Take myself for a walk somewhere near Reigate. There are such beautiful hills there. And then just sit on the sofa and spend time with people I love.”

She admits that leaving her family is the hardest part of her job, the harder that The Ocean…’s tour is long and demanding, spanning ten months and almost 30 venues. “You’re away from all the things that make you feel safe and secure. It’s a different way of being. Our schedule is also quite heavy. We really only have one day off a week – meaning, we only have a show to do in the evening. Otherwise, we’re doing matinees every day. But honestly, I have never been involved with a play that I think is so exciting. And I’m lucky enough that I get to watch quite a lot of it. And I genuinely can’t wait for more people to see it. Because it’s epic. It’s huge.”

“It’s a real privilege to get to go to these places and work in them. To feel like you’re part of the infrastructure of that place for a bit. I love it. I don’t like being away from home, but I do love acting.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, 24 to 28 January, New Victoria Theatre, Woking

New Wimbledon Theatre, 11-15 April and touring.