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News > Alumnae > Old Queens Series: Susannah Wise

Old Queens Series: Susannah Wise

We interviewed Susannah, actress and author, about her career in acting and how her love of dialogue influenced her books. Susanah's second book 'Okay That's Great Then' will be out in July 2022.
17 May 2022
Written by Elly Broughton
Susannah in Our Wilderness at The Young Vic 2015
Susannah in Our Wilderness at The Young Vic 2015

We recently welcomed Susannah Wise (OQ 1984 - 1991) back to Queen’s. Susannah’s varied career has encompassed acting on TV (including in Eastenders and Peep Show) and on stage.  She’s now published two novels; her most recent book “Okay Then That’s Great” is inspired by her time at Queen’s. Susannah sat down with current I Senior, Alena K and Emma Wyles (OQ 2021) to discuss her career so far. 


AK: So what led you to pursue a career in acting? Did you take part in any productions at Queens? 

SW: Both my parents were in the film industry. My mother, an actress and my father, a TV and film director. They told me under no circumstances was I allowed to go into the same industry as them as it’s a horrible industry and I would be poor and miserable. So, of course, I just completely ignored them.  

At Queen’s, we used to do these talent shows, and I just loved making people laugh, I particularly liked playing Caliban in our production of ‘The Tempest’. In Sixth Form, my friend and I directed a play called ‘Funeral Games’ by Joe Orton. I remember on the day of our first performance, the main actress fell off the stage and broke her leg! My co-director took me out for a whisky at the pub around the corner, then I came back and had to play the main part! 

I had a place at UCL to do Philosophy, but while on my gap year, I auditioned for drama school and I got into LAMDA, to do their 3-year diploma, which is where I ended up studying. After I graduated, I started working professionally in theatre, TV, radio. Literally, whatever, anything anyone would pay me to do, I would do it.  

A Doll’s House at the Young Vic 2012

EW: I have seen you have worked in different genres, has any particular one been your favourite or the most challenging? 

SW:  My favourite is probably comedy, I love making people laugh; even going back to the things I did here, it’s just one of my favourite things. It gives me such a buzz, so probably any comedy, but I couldn’t name a specific one. The one I get recognised for all the time is Peep Show, even now, and I filmed it almost ten years ago! 

The most challenging I would say I have done is Chekhov, I absolutely love it and there’s nothing like the feeling of being in an ensemble. The challenge comes in the ability to make it sound like you aren’t speaking translated Russian, and as the Russian culture is so different to England making your lines sound embodied and real.  


AK: Acting and writing have certain links between each other, are there any skills you have learnt within your acting career that you have carried over into writing? 

SW: Yes definitely; the main one is writing dialogue. Generally, if you are writing novels, they tend not to be dialogue heavy, though weirdly, the book that’s set around Queen’s is very dialogue heavy. I love writing dialogue and I do think that’s because of my background in acting. I would spend all day working with other people’s words, so I learned to listen to rhythms and the way people use speech patterns and accents.  


EW: I was thinking about how your parents were really against you going into this industry, as it is renowned for being quite a tricky one to succeed in. Were there any key pieces of advice that they gave you? 

SW: “Don’t do it!” When I finally told my parents they were horrified. I could have said literally anything else, and they would have preferred it if I’d done that. However, once I got into drama school, my parents were very supportive - very critical - but very supportive.  

They definitely gave me a healthy attitude towards the industry; I didn’t go in with starry eyes. I think that has really helped me, as you do get a lot of rejection. I also definitely wasn’t scared to be on a film set as I had spent my childhood growing up on one. We never went on holiday, our holidays were about sitting on my dad’s film set watching him work; he was always working abroad.  

ES: Is there anyone else in the industry that has given you good advice or that has been influential? 

SW: I’ve worked with a couple of actors who I think are amazing. I’ve worked with Stephen Dillane, who does a lot of TV, film and theatre. Six months after working with him, I was doing a play that I thought was badly written, I wanted to apologise to the audience it was so bad. I remember going into his dressing room and explaining how I felt, he just reminded me that you can’t be good all the time. You just have to accept that you are not always going to be doing your best work, that’s what being an artist is. The other person was Henry Goodman, he is such a wonderful actor, he inhabits his roles and his body when he works and I really got on with him, I loved watching him work.  


AK: Given how acting is such a competitive industry and comes with such a high level of rejection, which can sometimes be really discouraging and off putting, how do you recommend dealing with it? 

SW: I think everybody has their own way of dealing with it. You do feel rubbish and my way of dealing with it is: you have to allow yourself that time to feel rubbish, whether it’s a day, or a week, depending on the scale. There’s like a sliding scale of how much you wanted the job, the ones you really wanted, those losses feel sore for quite a while.  

EW: Speaking about your new novel, I saw in the synopsis you’ve got quite a few references to Queen’s and Katherine Mansfield. How did your time at Queen’s influence this? 

SW:  Absolutely - Queen’s influenced the novel in every way! I remember my years at Queen’s really fondly, more so than my years at Drama School, and much more fondly than large swathes of my twenties. I remember feeling this sense of the world opening and just seeing endless possibilities.  I had a wonderful group of friends here, who I am still friends with today. I think that the teachers here inspired the girls to feel really empowered, become independent thinkers and to feel very optimistic about the future. The lack of uniform also meant we also had self-expression and individuality. 

The book was inspired by something someone said to me about how a friend of theirs was seeing a therapist who was losing his memory. So every time she goes to see him, she's unsure if he can remember what she said the last time she saw him. I just thought what an amazing idea for a book. However, the book itself is dedicated to some friends of mine who are no longer with us, two of whom went to Queen’s. One of them I didn’t know that well, but she was in the year below me. We left for summer break, but when we came back she wasn’t here anymore; she’d been killed in a hit and run. I couldn’t get my head around the idea that one day she was there and then the next she wasn’t, so that’s in part what inspired the plot of the novel. The second girl sadly took her own life when she was 23, so it’s partly about things gone and lost, but also people who are gone and lost.  


EW: Does it feel like much has changed here at Queen’s?  

SW: The uniform for the younger girls is a big deal, as we wore our own clothes, so that is quite a change to see. You would never have known a girl was at Queen’s unless you ‘knew’, now you can tell because of the uniform. The other thing is the staircase, as on pain of death we were never allowed to use the stone staircase which you are allowed up now! 


ES: Do you prefer doing on-screen or stage work? 

SW: I don’t really have a preference, but you do get much more control performing on stage, as you know you’re not just going to get edited out. For example, I have been to screenings where I’m sitting there thinking “well, where’s my scenes?” and they’ve just been edited out, without anyone telling me. On stage, you also get much more ensemble rapport which is great. Saying that, it’s also really hard work and extremely tiring as you’re working at night. TV is much better paid and less scary. You get treated well, driven around, someone holds an umbrella over you if it’s raining. Sometimes I would actually get annoyed as I would be like ‘I can make the coffee myself!’ It’s like being held in cotton wool, but the pay is great.   


EW: And finally, what’s your favourite memory of Queen’s? 

SW: Sally Stopford who was my English teacher, was just great and I loved everything about her! My favourite memory was just being here and being part of an institution that had confidence in you was amazing. 


Susannah's second novel 'Okay Then That's Great' is out in July 2022. Pre-order here:


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