Diana Rigg doesn’t consider herself a warrior.
Although she may be known for portraying bold, outspoken — occasionally ruthless — women on stage and screens both big and small, and often comes to mind as one of the few female actors to demand a salary equal to her male screen partner in the ’60s, when such a thing was not just unheard of but disdained, Rigg doesn’t consider herself a flagbearer for female empowerment.
“I don’t carry a banner,” Rigg insists. “Not at all. No.”
As Rigg receives the Variety Icon Award at Canneseries, it is hard not to see a pattern in a career that includes playing the only official Mrs. Bond to date, Tracy, in 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” or the karate-chopping Emma Peel in “The Avengers,” not to mention her Emmy-nominated turn in “Game of Thrones” as Lady Olenna Tyrell, the woman who slyly took out Prince Joffrey and delighted in his excruciating demise.
Still, “nothing was planned,” says Rigg, maintaining she has been lucky in regard to the roles that have formed her career. “My ambitions were simply to work, and I think I worked my way through life.”
Let us for a moment pretend that Rigg’s career is happenstance — just one lucky break after another. Each of those breaks required the actress to depart a successful and comfortable job to make room for the next. Rigg, however, doesn’t seem to mind big swings. Coming from no artistic family background, she started her career at the Royal Shakespeare Company after graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Then, after five years of lauded performances, and with no job on the horizon, she decided to take her leave.
“Although I loved being in the company, I wanted to expand and learn,” she says, and was averse to “stomping in place.”
Her decision did not go unnoticed. “Peter Hall was head of the Royal Shakespeare at that time. He was very dismissive when I left the company. When I got the job of ‘The Avengers,’ he said, ‘She’s going to waste herself in television and silly movies.’ From the classical theater into television was considered a bit of a step down. They scorned you,” Rigg recalls.
If Rigg was bothered by Hall’s comments, she does not let on. “There was a world elsewhere,” she says. “I wanted to find out what it was like — if I was any good at it.”
Landing the role of Emma Peel, the sexy and capable female lead in “The Avengers” TV series that ran from 1965-’68 catapulted Rigg into a new world that didn’t just come with acting challenges.
“That was my first battle with male authority. I discovered after a while in ‘The Avengers’ that I was earning less than the cameraman. I made a bit of a song and dance about it and demanded more. I was ahead of the game, in that respect, because nobody backed me up. There was no sisterhood. In those days, you were on your own.”
Rigg admits she felt “lonely” during moments such as this, but because it was “just simply so unfair,” she knew she had to speak out. Her demands were met, and the respect followed. “Not only that, I’m happy to say — a touch of fear,” she says, evoking a little bit of her “Game of Thrones’” Lady Olenna Tyrell-like glee.
And when it comes to the HBO epic, Rigg is grateful to have been part of a popular-culture phenomenon, this time without paying the price of privacy, as she did during her “Avengers” days. “It was very, very intrusive in those days, because I was instantly recognizable,” she says. “I found it very discomforting, I really did. I was grateful to be a success, but there was a price to pay. I lived my life in London, very low key. Didn’t go to premieres and didn’t strut the red carpet ever. … It’s just boring, having to scrub up.”
With her biting humor, it is not hard to imagine why “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B Weiss approached Rigg for the role of political mastermind Lady Tyrell, the grandmother of scheming Margaery (Natalie Dormer). “She was an old bag,” chuckles Rigg, who revelled in the lines she got to perform from beginning to end of the five-year run. “[It was] so much up my street.”
Likewise her role on Season 2 of “Victoria,” in which the part of Duchess of Buccleuch was tailored from a woman closer to the Queen’s age to custom-fit Rigg.
“I think it worked, the balance — an older woman bringing the attitude of her age with her,” says Rigg. “She was quite forthright, wasn’t she? She didn’t suffer fools gladly. And at the same time, when it came to the episode which examined being homosexual in Victorian times, she had sympathy. She was very much ahead of her time in that respect.”
Rigg’s criteria for choosing work these days is that is has to offer something new and it sure helps if it’s fun. The joy of still having a vibrant career in her 80s is palpable, even after a fruitful six decades.
“I absolutely love it! I really do. My relish is for the job and hopefully to do it as well as possible,” she says. “I had a lot of fun when I was young and had nowhere to go but up. And I’m having a lot of fun now, because the critics can say what they like. I just get on with life and enjoy it.”