I know it’s been a while and I should’ve updated the site more often, but I’ve been pretty busy with studying for my final exams at university. Fortunately, I had my last one for this semester today.
I came across this interview, which was published by the Telegraph last month. Still wanted to share it with you though.
Helen McCrory is known for playing strong women. She’s the gunslinging matriarch in period gangster drama Peaky Blinders and her CV is full of meaty stage roles, including a heartbreakingly defiant Medea at the National in 2014, and big-screen appearances, notably as an intransigent Cherie Blair in The Queen. So it’s strange to see her sitting down and eating very daintily, pushing the food to one side of her mouth.
“Look at me, I resemble a little gerbil,” she says.
Personally, if I had to compare her to an animal, it would be a cat. She has a feline sensuality and a formidable emotional intelligence which have marked her out as one of the most compelling actresses of her generation. These qualities are being put to good use in her latest stage role as Hester Collyer, the tragic wife at the heart of Terence Rattigan’s smouldering 1952 master- piece The Deep Blue Sea. The unhinged, sexually infatuated Hester has abandoned her High Court judge husband and Eaton Square home for a chaotic, all-consuming affair with boozy, former RAF pilot Freddie.
It’s a play set in a stiflingly respectable England still shell-shocked after the war, a world of gentleman’s clubs and polite conversation in which horribly damaged people hide behind stiff upper lips. Yet McCrory is wary of preserving Rattigan in Fifties aspic.
“When you hear people talking in a clipped, fast voice it can be very distancing,” says the actress, who is the first to admit she has a pretty impressive cut-glass accent of her own. “Damian [actor husband Damian Lewis] says I speak like the Queen.” (It’s true: she does.) “So I’ve just done a rehearsal in which I played Hester as a Southern belle smashed out of her head, just for fun.
“I just thought: why not? Of course three quarters of it was rubbish but there is a danger of seeing Rattigan like Bruges or Paris, as a city that cannot be changed.”
Rattigan’s own unhappiness haunts The Deep Blue Sea – a play born from the wreckage of his disastrous love affair with Kenneth Morgan, who had left Rattigan for another man before killing himself with a gas cooker. “There are obvious similarities between a homosexual man in the Fifties who is unable to express his sexuality and a woman such as Hester whose sexuality is completely repressed by her marriage,” says McCrory. “At the same time Rattigan also describes Hester as a woman whose ‘problem’ is that she has never been needed by a man outside of the bedroom.
“We still have marriages like that. God, I know plenty. Wives who have the children but no career. Men who sign the cheques but can’t do anything else. Just look at the tiny number of men who took up the government’s recent offer of paternity leave. There’s quite a long way to go in that department.”
With her regal bearing and that commanding Home Counties accent, McCrory gives the impression of having just walked off the lacrosse pitch at Malory Towers. She has a laser-sharp focus, though, and a fearless capacity for accessing the darker recesses of humanity that has served her well in roles as diverse as Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise and Lady Macbeth. At 47 she’s in her absolute prime and clearly hasn’t read the memo that says female actresses are meant to slowly fade away once they near 50.
When I suggest as much, she gives one of those ambiguous sidelong glances of hers that could freeze a pond at 50 paces before crossing off the roles she has played in recent years: “a Birmingham gangster [Peaky Blinders]; an astrophysicist [Flying Blind]; a pox-ridden Elizabeth I [Bill]…”
“Of course women as they get older get offered less interesting roles than, say, my husband would,” she says with the faint weariness of someone who has heard this issue raised a thousand times before. “Historically we’ve always positioned women in terms of their sexual desirability. So it’s all about trying to rid yourself of these archetypes.
“Obviously I care how my husband finds me. But I’ve never wanted other people to find me sexually attractive. It’s not important to me. And I make sure I don’t talk to my nine-year-old daughter about how she looks.” (McCrory has two children with Lewis: nine-year-old Manon and eight-year-old Gulliver.)
The actress believes the best roles for women today are to be found in American television.
“TV is now America’s strongest art form, far stronger than film or theatre, I’d say. And it’s indisputably forging new paths. They have many, many women on TV in the US, whether it be Veep or Orange is the New Black.”
Would she like to work in America? “Actually, I really would love to do Broadway but London is where it’s at. I was recently offered a play and they asked me if I wanted to do it on Broadway or London and I said London. London is kicking.” London is also where McCrory lives, in Tufnell Park. She says that preserving a stable, normal home life for the sake of her family is extremely important to her. Yet she also describes herself as emotionally rootless.
Of course I back Damian to be Bond. I believe he could kill someone
“Honestly, I rarely get attached to places. I just move on.” She grew up the daughter of a diplomat and cites her peripatetic upbringing (as a child she spent a lot of time in Tanzania) as the reason why, as an adult, she has always felt like an outsider. This helps her take an objective view of the characters she plays. “I’ve never felt part of any system,” she says.
She and Lewis could be described as a Hollywood couple, often photographed together at film premieres and, on one occasion, en route to the White House. McCrory drops her husband’s name into the conversation with ease but says they are more private than their public image suggests.
“It would be foolish to pretend we don’t live together,” she says. “But what you read about us in print is the result of all the questions we won’t answer. Some of the questions I’ve been asked are truly shocking: about our sex life for example. I mean, what the hell? Are they mad?”
Both regularly turn down parts for the sake of the children. “My agent jokes I’m the only actor on his books who says, ‘Yes, the script is great but can I play the best friend?’ ” she says. “But I’ll do that if it means I spend more time at home. I’m finding my children need me more and more. The other day my daughter asked this quite big question about the world and I thought: ‘I’m so glad I was here in the house to have heard you ask this.’ We sat in the garden for 40 minutes and talked about it.”
Lewis meanwhile has spent the last five months not working at all. “He’s turned down many good films,” says McCrory. “I won’t say what they are because there’s nothing worse than some poor sod reading this and finding out he wasn’t first choice. But he turned them down because it would have meant two months in the Sudan or three months in Poland.”
Would she back him for Bond? “Yes, of course I would,” she replies. “He could do that clever public school boy thing and I also believe he could kill someone. As an actor,” she adds hastily. “He’s not at all like that in real life.”
McCrory is glorious company: forthright, fun, and fantastically upbeat.
“Getting older is lovely, isn’t it?” she says warmly. “There’s a line in the play when Hester’s neighbour Miller kindly advises her to get up the next morning and simply ‘go on living’. And that’s the thing I love about ageing: the understanding it gives you that life continues.”