by Zoe Stagg
photography by Alison Dyer
Saffron Burrows is poised, and pointed; she’s a thoughtful muse who skips from 19th Century literature to her fondness for NPR, all the while punctuating her thoughts with a tinkling laugh that belies the candid ferocity of her thoughts. Smoothly transitioning the discussion from socialism to racism, her tone never wavers toward sounding didactic; it’s a hypnotizing trick that leaves nothing but unanimous agreement in its wake. From silver-screen roles in Circle of Friends, Troy, Frida, and TV’s Boston Legal, to current roles in NBC’s My Own Worst Enemy with Christian Slater and the film The Guitar, her intelligence is part of an arsenal rivaled only by the former-model’s striking visage. Born in England and currently residing in LA, the politically minded actor is hoping her US citizenship will be approved in time for her to cast a vote in her beloved new country.
“It’s a little presumptuous being British and everything, but I think who’s running either country is rather important,” she explains of her eagerness to vote. “I’m really quite enamored with America, I’m really quite passionate about a lot of America that I’ve grown up with.” This passion comes with a tough-love caution about how information gets disseminated here, especially in regard to politics. “If you care for somewhere then criticism is really worthwhile — I’m very critical of the things that occur in Britain and certain elements of that society that I don’t enjoy, that I really like so much more here. The class structure [in Britain] I don’t enjoy at all. I love the liberation of America and [I love] that you can try anything and be anything. But I must say that the press here is challenging because you have to keep seeking out more information.” This includes the information heard about the candidates themselves.
She cites close political friend Tony Benn while railing calmly against the politics of personality stating that the practice completely misses what’s important. “We have a potential Vice President who doesn’t believe in abortion even in case of rape and incest which to me is very worrying — and would be to many women if they knew that. To me all the personality stuff is a big digression, and is really not the point. How someone views the world and how they want the country to be run is really the only point.” Musing on the chicken-and-egg relationship of what media consumers want to hear and what they’re served, she says, “It’s very much aided and abetted by the press, but then you have members of society who are fearful because they don’t understand. There’s this series of assumptions they’re making, one after the other, and they’re all fear-based. It’s very easy to live in a fear-based way when the economy is in a terrible state.” She concludes, “It’s a beautiful country, but I think the public are underestimated, and I think they would like to know more.”
That quest for knowledge is central to both her childhood and current view on the world. “My mum’s an elementary school teacher, and you see where children are on the cusp of becoming who they’ll be in adulthood at a young age. They’re on the cusp of having their mind expanded. Without an education you’re not equipped to be adaptable, [nor are you able to] to live a good life without some sort of beginning that’s strong, stable, and resourceful.” Here, Burrows’ political acumen shines as she draws parallels between education and the state of want that’s prevalent throughout much of the world. “Until we face poverty and all those things poverty brings with it: lack of education, lack of access to school books, lack of childcare for mothers who want to go back to work — all of the things that poverty wreaks — I think [we] create fear and create misunderstandings and create the idea that you cling to the thing that you know. I think until you defeat poverty, I don’t think you defeat any of these issues.”
Burrows’ parents imparted their socialist worldview on her — one she’s believed in throughout her adult life, as seen in her friendship with long-time Member of Parliament Tony Benn, and her admiration of French Socialist politician Ségolène Royal. It’s a word and a viewpoint that’s often, seemingly, slandered and misunderstood in her adopted country. She makes sense of this observation in strong and measured tones. “I think philosophies can be wonderful things and maligned philosophies can be very dangerous, destructive things.” She relates her thoughts to the election reflecting, “I think with a man [like Obama] who’s young enough not to be jaded and cynical and have a philosophy that is about benevolence, that seems about a society where everyone is equally respected and living with a philosophy of that kind — I think is a beautiful thing.”
She points to the pejorative use of the word “socialism” explaining, convincingly, the folly of misusing the concept as, “people being very, very frightened of something they’re ignorant of.” Ultimately, the word “socialism” is neither the point, nor the enemy, she explains. “For me the language of a philosophy is not nearly as important. People claim to be all sorts of things and then don’t actually live in ways that are full of integrity.” Relating the concept of philanthropy to the current financial challenges gripping the globe, she says, “If the government is going to operate under a democratic sort of capitalistic system, then a little philanthropy is required — because ultimately I do think capitalism is destructive, and destructive to those who can least rescue themselves.” As with the issue of health care, destruction is intimately personal, and the government’s participation in denying care to so many incenses her convictions. “That’s a very frightening context to live in, that the country you’re in is not benign and is not gentle,” she eloquently exclaims.
Searching for that benign and gentle care while growing up in racially restive England, during the time of Thatcher, launched her political consciousness early. She joined an anti-racism group at age 11 to combat the intolerance she saw around her. “There was a lot of fear amongst the working-class British about what members of multi-ethnic communities would do to their levels of employment and housing and a lot a fear that was stocked up.” She then cites speeches and events she currently connects those notions to ,“It was very much a stirring of hatred and provoked levels of violence across much of Britain each time a politician made some kind of incendiary comment, as we’re witnessing now, but they’re just doing it with their gloves on because they’re more afraid of being accused of being racist.”
Puppy love may have spurred her interest in politics, as she relates a story both disarmingly adorable and impressively precocious. “When I was six or seven, I had a little boyfriend called Colin and he was Jamaican. Someone used the n-word against him, we told them to ‘f-off’ — and he was then sent out of the room for swearing, so I said, ‘that’s not right, they used this word and he should have told them to ‘f-off’’ so I’m going to go out of the room with him.’ So we went and stood outside of the room together for the whole day because he was being punished.” Again, drawing parallels from politics to education, she pegs children as the key to conquering intolerance in our world. “I remember incidents where the prevailing thoughts of society were not to explain things to children. If you just tell a child not to use that word, that doesn’t mean anything to them. You have to explain to them why and where it comes from, and what it can lead to and how destructive it is. And then they respond accordingly. You have to explain that if you insult someone on a racial level, there are consequences that are far reaching, that are historical, that affect the future, and then children understand. It’s gorgeous to watch.”
Her career is layered with the same intellectual precocity she devotes to her personal philosophies. In The Guitar, Burrows plays Melody Wilder, a woman diagnosed with a terminal illness who seizes the opportunity to live exactly how she’d always wanted to — including becoming a self-taught guitar player. The film debuted at Sundance earlier this year and her performance has been called “lovely and vanity-free.” She carries the spiritual journey of the character alone, a continuation in the trend of thoughtful and complex women’s roles she relishes. “In your early twenties, often there’s a girlfriend role that’s a little underwritten just because you’re of an age where not too much has happened to you, let’s face it. And I think with age, things become more interesting for both genders honestly.” In NBC’s My Own Worst Enemy, she plays a smart and interesting woman, a psychologist to Christian Slater’s duel role. The show she says is “wonderful because it’s someone who, like his character, we both have a history to us and we’ve clearly, in our story, known each other a long time, which just makes for that much more drama in the best Shakespearean way.”
So what does she see as the key to healing the seemingly Shakespearean drama in which our world is starring in? She points to a few key players. “You have some pretty good individuals right now, roaming around the world and affecting things. Al Gore is clearly one of them, and the work Bill Clinton has been doing with the Clinton Foundation and Bono. There are individuals right now who are taking up the roles that politicians traditionally would have done [while] still sitting in government. It seems now that once you’re released from government then you’re freer to bring about certain changes. If society was restructured and there was an emphasis on the benevolent and an emphasis on the importance of health care and education… the country would change accordingly.” And with stunning and persuasive simplicity, she sums up our conversation by making no secret of her promise for a long career in thoughtful roles (or a place in Parliament or Congress). “If a large pocket of our citizens lives in poverty we will not progress. If one person’s poor, we’re all poor, really. I think without that, there’s no freedom.”