Arts December 16, 2019

Lioness in Winter

A conversation with actor Jane Merrow


The greatest joy of acting is creating another person—bringing a person to life, creating a character that people want to watch, someone that audiences respond to,” said British actress and Boise resident Jane Merrow, who has performed in over 80 film and television projects, as well as on stage.

Merrow knew she wanted to perform at age 8, and her family supported that passion. Educated at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, Merrow feels that one of her most valuable classes was fencing. “You learn to maintain balance and are in control of your movement. The voice courses at RADA were wonderful, learning the proper breathing, control, and projection. I’m not sure if they are taught in the same way now at drama schools.”

Jane Merrow today. Photo by Cary Judd.

One of her favorite stage roles was as Hilary in a James Kennaway play she did in London. “‛Country Dance’ was a wonderful play about three people: Hilary, her brother, and her husband. Brother, played by Edward Fox (who starred in “Day of the Jackal”), has an unhealthy love for Hilary and is jealous of Husband, portrayed by Stuart Mungall. He is witty and clever. Hilary loves that about him, but she loves her staid, steady husband. Their relationship is like a Scottish dance, intertwining and changing partners,” explained Merrow. The role of Hilary helped her get a chance to audition for the part of Alais in “The Lion in Winter.”

During her screen test with a full film crew in Hyde Park, she acted opposite Peter O’Toole, doing a scene from “Country Dance,” which she knew well, or so she thought. She performed and said the lines as she did on stage. “O’Toole shouted: ‘Stop!’ I thought to myself, ‘S***! I have blown this chance to work with him.’”

O’Toole told her, “I don’t believe a (expletive) word you’re saying.” Then he added, “Let’s try it again!”

“Peter was one of the finest actors of his generation, and I thought I had lost the opportunity to work with him,” Merrow said. “But he was generous, and I think he really felt I could do the role and carried on–-even to a second test on another day. He was without a doubt the most powerful and talented actor I have ever worked with.” Merrow learned then: “On film you’ve got to believe and make the audience believe everything you’re thinking and doing. The camera captures everything.”

Merrow landed the role of Alais, the mistress of Henry II, in the film “The Lion in Winter” (1968), in which she co-starred with Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn and Anthony Hopkins. The role earned her a Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actress.

“The film demonstrates the vulnerability of women especially in that age,” Merrow noted. “They were the useless sex except for having children or if they owned property. Alais convinces Henry that he has to kill his own sons if they are to have a son together. Alais is a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. She is in a weak and vulnerable situation. The only obvious strengths she has are that Henry loves her and that he and everyone else want a vital piece of land she owns. When the time comes, after being put upon by everyone, she turns and shows her teeth. Women historically have been considered the weaker sex. I have been lucky enough to show that flaw in many of the parts I have played. But times are changing fast, and it is our turn now, which is great!

“What made the film a success was the relationship the actors had with each other. That really made that film. It started with Peter. He loved acting. I got that. I feel the same way.”

O’Toole told Merrow: “Keep your eyes still. Focus your eyes on the center of the face or on one eye or the other.” Katharine Hepburn, who also starred in “The Lion in Winter,” taught her how to cry on screen. “There’s nothing like working with the best,” Merrow said.

One of her beloved TV projects was “Secret Agent” with Patrick McGoohan (titled “Dangerman” in the United Kingdom.) Working with McGoohan was “exciting, like a roller coaster. He had a powerful personality and lots of charisma. It was a fun part-–like playing tennis with someone.”

Merrow recently returned to the British stage portraying Lady Macbeth at the Groundlings Theatre. “You have to keep working on your voice and learn your lines. It took six months to learn Shakespeare’s words to make them sound like they are coming right out of your head.” Another role she’d like to play is Gertrude in “Hamlet” because a “mother/son relationship is always interesting.” Gertrude marries her husband’s brother. “Just because we get older doesn’t mean we can’t fall in love again,” she explained.

What brought this British-born actress to Boise 11 years ago? One of the best roles of her life: she is grandmother to Brynnli, almost 18, Kaden, 14, and Luke, 8. Besides London, Merrow has also lived in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and in Australia for three months while doing a movie, “Adam’s Woman,” with Beau Bridges. It was during this film that she met Dick, her husband, a pilot, and Idaho native, who shuttled the actors between locations.

Recognizing many people love horror films, Merrow created “New Chilling Tales,” a series of short films based on classic horror stories, including “The Yellow Wallpaper” in which she plays a woman overcome by fear.

“I am an actor and my career was somewhat stalled, [so] I decided that I would create my own work. I had fallen in love with the Internet and could see its potential for delivering films to an audience.” With many short classic horror stories in the public domain, Merrow found her niche and her new passion. Merrow’s four short Gothic horror films are available on Amazon Prime as “New Chilling Tales–The Anthology.”

To filmmakers, Merrow offers these words of wisdom: “Bear in mind your public. There is no point in making a film nobody wants to see. That’s why I’m tying into stories people love to read.”

Merrow discovered Idaho’s film community when she joined Idaho Media Professionals, which, she said, “has helped me meet many interesting people and get the new phase of my work going.” Merrow has starred in a silent short with a surprise ending called “Cougar,” is hoping to work with Idaho director Greg Green on his next film, and is performing in a horror film, shot in Wales. She is delighted to be working with Vernon Dobtcheff again (they did “Carmilla” and “1984” together) and with Caroline Munro, who starred in the Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Merrow has another U.K. film lined up in 2020 titled “Black Apple.”

Merrow has compiled some advice for actors in her forthcoming book “Being an Actor,” available online. Merrow advises aspiring actors: “Be prepared. Always learn your lines, build stamina and be prepared for disappointment and rejection.” She is also narrating some books for Audible, which feature “silly witches that live in modern life. It’s funny and tremendous fun,” she offered. While narrating “Hazel Raises the Stakes” and “That Crazy Witch” by M.Z. Andrews, she is using only one of her tools—her voice—and she has to quickly switch from one character and voice to another.

Merrow shared sage wisdom to attain success for all of us. “Surround yourself with good talented people. Stick with it. Keep your eye on the prize and stay in the race.”

This article appears in the Winter 2019 Issue of Territory Magazine.