Next Sunday will mark yet another momentous milestone in Leonie Forbes's amazingly accomplished life. The legendary actress and broadcaster will launch Leonie: Her Autobiography, a tome that examines her life's journey from secretary to star of stage and screen. The vibrant, self-deprecating and spirited 75-year-old invited SO to her St Andrew home last Friday for refreshing repartee on the past, her thoughts on today's theatre scene, and the life lessons she's learnt from her profession.
What are you drinking?
Orange juice. I don't drink alcohol; I'm diabetic.
You're on the eve of launching your autobiography; how does it feel?
The feeling underlying it all is wonderful. It's almost unbelievable to think that I am at this point where they are going to launch something that I have something to do with. It's a marvellous feeling but it is also terrifying, because I don't know if folks will like it or if they will think I said too much or too little because I don't spell out anybody really, because that's not the object of the exercise.
So the book is not an exposé then?
No, it's not. The basic thing is the journey, and I have to start when I was born and deciding what I wanted to do. One of the things in the book that I share is that my mother was not at all pleased when I told her I wanted to be an actress. She thought she would have to give me a handcart and stock it with bananas and yams and those things because she thought an actress could not earn a living. That was her response to it initially.
What's in your handbag?
My purse, house keys, cellphone, lip balm, address book, coin purse, shades I got at a film festival in Toronto, my handkerchief, and the programme for a play I recently saw, Mr and Mrs Blacke.
When did you discover you wanted to act?
I knew I didn't want to be a civil servant, I have nothing against it. I didn't know what I wanted but I knew what I did not want. I didn't want to be a nurse or a doctor or any of those things because the first Sunday my mother made me cut up a chicken, that was it. I didn't want to be a teacher either, because I didn't think I was the stuff teachers were made of. But gradually I realised that I liked to make people laugh and make a fool of myself and be a poppy show, and my peers at the time in Sunday School seemed to enjoy it.
At what point did you realise acting was right up your street as a profession?
After I had tried it out, thanks to people like Lloyd Reckord, Errol Hill and a gentleman who passed a long time ago, Orford St John, who was working at the Extramural Department. They were all involved in plays. Orford used to put on plays at the cinemas like Majestic or Tropical and I used to go see them. I went to see a couple of them and after that I was a part of it too. Working at the University of the West Indies as a typist and secretary, I got the chance to type Barry Reckord's script Mr Unusual and I thought, 'Oh, that's interesting' and I ended up being a prompter and collecting props and all this business. After Mr Unusual, Lloyd was going to direct the pantomime Busha Blue Beard and told me to audition, so I went in and I got in, the same time as Trevor Rhone. Somebody else who was in the play at the time was Dr Keith Amiel and we got married.
What was the vibe of the theatre scene back then?
You did it because you loved it. It was not as demanding in the sense that it didn't have the long runs. If you played for three or four weekends, you were doing well. People enjoyed going and a lot of roots plays were being done at the time. But also you had the odd Shakespearean production, a piece of Chekhov or something, you had a fairly good cross section of theatrical productions.
You've had a truly impressive, we daresay, legendary career. What would you pinpoint as notable highlights?
In terms of productions, I've done some fabulous productions here and abroad because it gave me an opportunity to travel. I worked in Germany with Germans and that same group, including us from Jamaica, on plays titled Beyond The Horizon and I Thought We Were Gone As Well. We went to India to work for three months with Indian actors and actresses. It was fabulous as we learnt about the country and the people. Also, playing Portia in Merchant of Venice in Australia was quite something for me. I waited three months to hear if I had got the role after I auditioned and I kept telling myself, 'you can get it if you try, you can get it if you really want it', and the day when the call came and they said 'we haven't seen anybody else quite like you, we are going to milk you for publicity' because I had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. I was in Australia for two years. And then working in Germany with the fabulous director Yvonne Brewster in an African play titled The Gods Are Not To Blame written by Ola Rotimi.
Share with us who were your favourite co-stars.
I am thinking of the English performers, well, one very famous one... Dame Judi Dench. The first television work I got — Dixon of Dock Green on BBC — I was in a cast where she was the star. I found her tremendously helpful and generous and an open spirit. Anything she did, you could learn from it. That was my first big lucky break.
Millicent Martin was another favourite co-star whom I worked with on stage when Lloyd did my first paid professional production called Double Entry.
What are the important life lessons you've learnt from your career in the theatre and on screen?
Actually, a lot of things. If you want to do something, you have to go flat out, you can't go halfway, you can't be tentative, you can't put your toe in... you have to jump in or at least walk in. You have to be aware and make provisions for the sacrifices you have to make, and where that was strongest or the worst was with the children, because sometimes they were doing things at school and I want to go and I'm in the studio or I have a performance and I have to leave early. So I started involving them in rehearsals with me and they would check a play and if they didn't like it, I wouldn't do it.
Of the new generation of stage actresses, who are your favourites?
Sabrina McDonald, I have my eyes on her. I am looking at Rishelle Bellamy, I always like her work; Nadean Rawlins — I think she is tremendous, she vanishes into her characters; Noelle Kerr — love her very much; Keisha Patterson — just saw her in Mr and Mrs Blacke...fabulous.
Do you believe Jamaican theatre has advanced significantly since your time?
It has. We got writers, our own writers who can tell our own stories beautifully. We have young and old actors who can do roles justice. I am very pleased about it. I am sorry that because of cost we can't have more Shakespeare and Chekhov and Tennessee Williams and other people that we used to be able to take on, but now it is excessively costly, so I understand. Now, if you can't raise the money, what are you going to do? Sell their shirts? They can't do that, they have to live.
Who does your hair?
I do for the most part; otherwise when it needs to be cut, I go to a salon off Molynes Road where Dionne cuts it.
How would you describe your personal style?
What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?
One of the things I've always held onto from the day I heard it until now, 'Live and let live', I love it.
What is your fashion must-have?
I love long skirts and dresses. Mark you, I feel quite nice in a smart pantsuit. The only thing you'll never find me in is shorts or mid-calf clothing.
Flats or stilettos?
Can't deal with stilettos anymore...they said to me 'hello, you must recognise your age'. I enjoy my flat shoes and sandals now.
What was the last play you saw that you enjoyed?
Just last weekend I saw Mr and Mrs Blacke. I thought they did a wonderful job. I loved the set, the detailing, the subtleties... I had no fault with it. I just sank into my seat and drank it in. I believed the performances and the script were to the point and economical. I had a wonderful time.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
I would like to read audio books as long as the teeth are in place and the eyes are behaving and the tongue is under control. For a couple of years in Canada, that is what I was doing. I would like if I settle off doing that — books for the sight-impaired.