Playing a Mature Woman with a Youthful Lover
It’s a good thing in an actor to know how to make an entrance, and Helen McCrory does. She arrives late – dashing in every sense. It’s not possible to walk into a room unobserved wearing a coat like hers: the colour of wet sand, with fur cuffs and lapels. Nor can it pass uncommented upon. Is it as comfortable as it is beautiful? “Comfortable on me as it was on the fox,” she says, with an air of self-mocking defiance, shrugging inside it: “It’s from Paris,” she adds, settling into the red leather corner banquette in Colbert, Sloane Square – a cafe engaged in a more doomed attempt than hers at recalling Paris.
McCrory is dark, tiny and vivid. It’s interesting to see her as herself, having just watched her in Flying Blind, a wonderful new film directed by Katarzyna Klimkiewicz. She looks happy, young – at 44 – and thriving, unlike the character she plays. Frankie is an astrophysicist, erotically obsessed with an Algerian student young enough to be her son. Exactly who he is and whether he can be trusted is ambiguous and makes for tense viewing. McCrory plays Frankie dangerously – it’s acting of the highest order, thrilling to watch. Commanding in her high-flying career, Frankie is vulnerable in love although sometimes prim and ladylike, and uses her age to pull rank. The strongest thing about her performance is the look in her brown eyes that suggests she is elsewhere – able to be in two places at the same time. Even in intimacy there is distance.
McCrory is an Everywoman: she excels at classical theatre: Chekhov, Shakespeare (she was nominated for a 2006 Olivier for her Rosalind in As You Like It). And she does modern: she was phenomenal last year as the bohemian daughter of the house in The Last of the Haussmans at the National. Her films include Harry Potter (as Narcissa Malfoy), Skyfall, Scorsese’s Hugo, and she was a plausible Cherie Blair in Peter Morgan’s The Queen (a performance said to have got a thumbs-up from Cherie herself). And this is not the first time McCrory has played an older woman in love with a younger man: she was besotted with a 25-year-old in Tony Marchant’s ITV drama Leaving.
“Literature is reflecting what is happening in life,” she observes: “More and more women are having relationships with younger men. It’s partly that women are not losing their figures now. They no longer feel it inappropriate to be sexual at 40 in the way many did 50 or 60 years ago. In my own life, most of the attention I get is from younger men.” But there is still a taboo in this country, she says, “which is why these relationships make dramatic subjects”. She deplores the way in which eyebrows are raised about the artist and director Sam Taylor-Wood (whose husband, Aaron Johnson, is more than 20 years younger) when “hundreds of men are in a similar position and nobody draws attention to it; it’s deeply sexist”.
She points out that her character’s intellect is a stumbling block too: “People who are exceptionally intelligent are often lonely because there are few people as intelligent as them. I have two little children and everyone says: ‘I hope they’re doing well in school. I hope they’re bright.’ And I think: why would anyone want their children to be the brightest? Academia is a lonely world.”
As to age, she is cautious about the notion that it heightens vulnerability in love or introduces a potential for humiliation, although she concedes: “You’re not the same as when you’re 21. As you get older, you want longer relationships and more from them.” Against that she sets this: “I’ve become more confident as I have got older. I care less what others think. Yet you do need to protect yourself more.” She recites a line from Philip Larkin’s poem Wires: “Young steers become old cattle…”, and laughs.
McCrory is married to the actor Damian Lewis, who although middle-aged is not about to swap his steer status and find himself in the “old cattle” paddock. His performance as Sergeant Brody in the hit US TV drama Homeland won him a Golden Globe and has made him a household name here and in the States. Their children are Manon (6) and Gulliver (5). Manon, McCrory volunteers, is a Welsh name – Helen’s mother is Welsh-speaking. When work allows, home is Tufnell Park, north London.
As a Homeland addict, I have to ask: how did she feel watching her husband play Sergeant Brody? “Incredibly proud – because Brody is nothing like him. We don’t talk about work at home; I hadn’t discussed Homeland with him.” She was “disturbed” when Brody got “really upset”, to the point of choosing not to watch. Lewis’s understandable response was: “Oh for God’s sake, it’s acting.”
They’ve just had six months at home together – it’s wonderful, she says, when they overlap. Having said that, family has taken McCrory unawares: “Appallingly, I hadn’t thought about it one jot. I never daydreamed as a little girl of getting married and having children. I was as surprised to discover I was getting married as I was to discover I was up the duff. When I fell pregnant, Damian sold his house, I sold mine. We sold his car [she didn’t have one, and is only now learning to drive], moved into a new place, unpacked 87 boxes and went down to St Mary’s [hospital] Paddington – all in nine months. Oh, plus, I did a job and he did a film and produced it. So we didn’t think about it. I was lucky. I was a healthy woman and enjoyed my pregnancy. I walked around an entire golf course with him two days before I gave birth.”
Their children are still too young to have any grasp of what their parents do but there is plenty of treading the boards at home: “Manon dresses up as a knight, Gulliver gets to play a dragon. Recently they put on The Tale of the Cruel Rich Lady… “
I’m getting a mixed picture of McCrory. She’s lovely company, and at the same time I’m conscious of how easy it would be to think her an uncomplicatedly flighty thespian. The reality is more interesting. “Concentration” is one of her favourite words – and for a reason. With work she is “obsessive” bordering on forensic: “I think about every moment.” Throughout her career (she trained at the Drama Centre in London) she has made scrapbooks for each role, pinning down details like butterflies to a board. It has unnerved some directors to see her taking notes.
Does the look she has on screen reflect the way she feels in life – as if she were in more than one place at the same time? “If anything, I’ve tended to be too much in the moment,” she replies. She would love to be less tied down, especially by technology: “I resent the emailing, iPhoning culture, that you’re supposed to be available to people all the time.” Yet even this feeling is contradictory. She dislikes being persecuted by emails but the worst thing in the world is to be “away from family and uncontactable”.’
McCrory’s roots may explain the mixture of earth and air in her. Her grandfathers were working men: a Scottish welder and a Welsh lorry driver. But her father was a high-flier, a Glaswegian diplomat whose postings took him to Tanzania, Paris, Norway and Madagascar. “My parents were unneurotic, emotional and safe. Nobody ever pretended you were anything but what you were. We weren’t frightened of failure and were taught to laugh at ourselves. I was encouraged to trust my instincts. Your instincts become better as you get older and you act upon them.” Being a diplomat’s daughter made her aware that what you “put back in” matters. She was brought up, too, with an understanding of what it means to be a guest. She talks with a patriotic flourish – her mother worked for the National Health Service – but when I ask how British she feels, she places herself as “a European”.
She also defines herself as a feminist, finding it “bizarre” when women tiptoe around the word: “What about standing up for women who are not being offered an education because they’re women? What happened to sisterhood? We are nowhere near where we need to be.” It’s interesting – and a relief, in a way – to hear her jump tracks from light to militant. I suspect she can be exacting, and that she expects a high level of professionalism from others. There is more than one passing reference to how it is when you’re less than satisfied with a fellow cast member. For all her breeziness (she describes herself as an optimist), she’s a worrier.
When I ask how much her acting has changed over the years, she says: “It’s taste that changes. When I was 21 there was nothing I enjoyed more than darkness, smoke machines, plays in impenetrable verse including at least one suicide.” Then she’s serious again: “Now I want to see something effortless. I like watching people when I don’t know if they’re acting or improvising.” A frenzy of preparation has been replaced by the wish to attain “physical calm” as a starting point. She talks about how she has learned to listen and – the most interesting bit – “to give all the responsibility to the person you’re talking to – let them affect you”. And she tells herself: “If they don’t, don’t fake it – because the audience will sniff you out.”
We’re almost done. For fun, I ask her to describe a favourite article of clothing. “I have a big pair of red spotty bloomers I wear to breakfast that Helena Bonham Carter gave me, and which make me smile.” And then, before she goes, she fills me in on what’s coming up next: “So much – Peaky Blinders, a BBC drama, set in 1920s gangland Birmingham by Steven Knight. Little Chaos, a film directed by Alan Rickman with Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts, and then, I hope, The Seagull in Georgia.” The same play in which, as Nina, she took flight at the National in 1994, at the beginning of her career.
The day after our meeting I get a call from McCrory’s PR – there is a question Helen would like to have a second shot at. It seems characteristic she should be troubling herself over a detail. A time is arranged at which to speak – but when I call, Helen is unavailable. It seems pleasingly right for an actor who is – and is not – there.