As Madame Hooch in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Zoe Wanamaker teaches Harry how to fly on a broomstick. But the magic she works in that popular film is paltry compared with the magic she works on the stage performing in the works of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, David Mamet, Arthur Miller, and other playwrights. Her starring role in the Sophocles play Electra won her the 1998 Olivier Award as Best Actress. It was her second Olivier in that category, the first coming in 1979 for her role as May Daniels in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of the Moss Hart/George Kaufman play Once in a Lifetime. Wanamaker also earned a 1984 Critics' Circle Theatre Award for her performance in Mother Courage, a 1986 Drama Desk Award for her performance in Loot, a 1992 Broadcasting Press Guild Award for her performance in Countess Alice, and a 2002 Olivier nomination for her performance in Boston Marriage. In addition, she has earned a Golden Globe nomination, two Tony nominations, three British Academy Award nominations, and a Royal Television Society Award for a TV series.
Wanamaker was born in New York City on May 13, 1949. She became a Londoner at age three after her father, American actor Sam Wanamaker, moved to England to avoid testifying before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee during Senator Joseph McCarthy's communist witch hunt. Because her father was a passionate Shakespeare fan, Zoe Wanamaker grew up with Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Cleopatra as playmates while attending the King Alfred School in London. After Sam Wanamaker, a method actor, tutored little Zoe in the subtleties of the performing arts, he sent her to London's Central School of Speech and Drama to perfect her talents, where she studied until 1970. Meanwhile, Sam Wanamaker spearheaded the project to rebuild the Globe Theatre on the South Bank of the River Thames. Although he died before the new Globe was finished, his daughter stood in for him when the playhouse opened in June 1997. In a performance before Queen Elizabeth II, she recited the famous prologue to Shakespeare's Henry V.
Most of her acting has been for the stage or television playing a truly diverse collection of characters, including a dog, a leprechaun, Miss Murdstone in David Copperfield, Emilia in Othello, and Lady Anne in Richard III. When she was 45, Wanamaker married actor Gawn Grainger, a native of Ireland, inheriting two stepchildren. Living and acting off and on in England and the U.S. and holding citizenship in both countries, Wanamaker has posed a writing problem for critics: whether to refer to her as an English-American or an American Englishwoman. Probably the best solution is to refer to her as one of the world's finest actresses, and let it go at that.