Liz White interview
Liz White Plays Lizzie Mottershead
How would you describe Our Zoo?
It’s about one man’s grand idea against all adversity or fear to open a zoo without bars. And he finds solace in animals and I guess he wants to share the joy and share the love of that, so he drags his family from their little two up two down behind a little grocers shop to this place in Chester to open Chester Zoo.
Could you describe Lizzie?
She’s George Mottershead’s wife, Lizzie Mottershead, and they’ve got two children. And for a long time she’s lived with her mother and father-in-law and her husband and kids, and her husband went away to war and lost the ability to walk because he had an injury in his spine so he had to teach himself to walk. That took three years. So she’s got great patience and loyalty and stability and, you know, she’s a dedicated wife and mother and daughter-in-law. She lost her own mother three years previous and also lost her brother at the same time because he ran away and cost the family lots of money. So she had to keep up her resilience and strength and go and live with her in-laws. I’ve got a great admiration for her.
How does Lizzie initially feel about George’s dream?
Initially she doesn’t know what he’s trying to do. Initially he starts accumulating these animals and, on top of everything else, it’s just too much. George is not very communicative about what he’s trying to do, so she doesn’t understand. Because his post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t recognized, he struggles. She already knew his behaviour could be sometimes erratic, so she doesn’t know if it’s just another symptom of that. At first she doesn’t know what he’s trying to do – and then when he manages to articulate himself and then for the family what he’d like to do, his dream, obviously at first she is fearful. I learnt through working with Anne (Reid) - particularly herself because Anne is such a strong character and she plays Lucy so brilliantly and full-bodied that you realise that, if you had to live with a mother-in-law like Lucy in this tiny house, if your husband said ‘Let’s open a zoo and live in this big house’ I’d think well yeah why not! So Lizzie’s made that leap of faith.
What’s Lizzie’s relationship with her brother Billy?
Billy just arrives out of the blue. In the story Billy was going to get married, but he bottled out of it at the last minute. Our mother spent all their money on the wedding and he leaves his fiancé standing at the altar, and none of us knew what to do. But we had to pay for the wedding and, in the script; it says that our mother was so distraught that it led her to an early grave. She was obviously ill already then with all the strain and worrying about the money, she died whilst Billy was away – so then Lizzie had to cope with that, the grief of losing her mother under such extreme circumstances, and unnecessary circumstances. And, in my mind, perhaps Lizzie, George and the kids were going to move in to her mother’s house after she’d died but they couldn’t do that because there was no house left as all the money had been spent. So Billy has really cost Lizzie; her mum firstly and then a bit of freedom. So when he arrives back on the scene with no apology she just thinks ‘you’ve got no idea what you’ve cost this family’ – and she tells him so. As the story goes on, he tries to ingratiate himself towards her and then he helps with the move. He helps with the house and he does odd-jobs and the kids really love him because he’s a great character and I suppose slowly she has to start to accept that he’s around again, but I think always with guardedness to her relationship with him.
What attracted you to Our Zoo?
Well it’s a great script. It’s a lovely story about the family and all these things that I’ve come to realise about the character were never fully-formed when I read the script. You see something in it that you think oh that’s really interesting. It’s like no part I’ve ever played before. I see this woman’s uniqueness and there’s something in me which speak to her. Plus, you’ve got the things that you never imagined when you read the script like you’ve got the animals, you’re working in a zoo, you’ve got this great big house, you’ve got a fabulous team behind it, it’s a big BBC production, so you know it’s going to be of a certain quality. Andy De Emmony, the director, I worked with ten years ago, and I’ve wanted to work with him ever since and, unfortunately for me, I’ve never had the chance to. So when I got the audition and I knew it was Andy there I was just thrilled, and I’m so lucky to be able to work with him. I think he’s brilliant.
What’s it been like working with the other cast?
It’s been really good working with the family. It’s been better than I could have imagined. The kids – I say kids but Amelia is actually 17 – she’s a brilliant new actress and Honor is extraordinary as well. Peter, Anne and Lee, they’re all brilliant. I sort of knew Lee a little bit, but I’ve enjoyed working with him so much and when we have scenes - it’s really great. We feel that we’re both on the same page, as it were, about the couple, our George and Lizzie. Peter, I’ve loved his work for a long time and I had a little scene with him last year in something called The Paradise but I’ve never got to work with him over an extended period of time- this is lovely. He’s just one of the nicest men you could ever wish to meet. Anne Reid is well thought of in theatre and TV and it’s just great listening to her stories, the way she works and her presence in the room. It does feel like a family.
What has it been like working with the animals?
The first scene we shot I was working with the camel and the incongruity of this two humped camel in a backyard in Bolton was brilliant. That was one of the times where you go ‘Oh my God I think this is going to be something special.’
Did the animal handlers give you much training in working with the animals?
Honor’s had a lot because she has to work with the monkey a lot. She’s so fearless – she’s just got a handful of worms and if the squirrel monkey - as I now know him - goes anywhere he’s not meant to be then she just tempts him with a worm and he’ll come down the arm and nibble that. The real Lizzie, was brought up on a farm so she’s much more well acquainted with animals than I am.
What’s been your favorite scenes to film?
I think they’ve all been the one-on-one scenes. I’ve had a couple with Lee where George and Lizzie have been having a disagreement, and it’s just really nice to be able to work on the dialogue in the scene. One with Anne that I really enjoyed working on; it’s Lizzie standing up to Lucy and saying this is now my house and this is my space, I am running this now. And Lucy wanting to hold on to her power as the matriarch of the family and that little power shifts in the scene were really nice to play.