Three encounters with the great actor who has died at the age of 52
April 19, 2021 |The Arts Desk
Each generation is given an actress who can do everything – be intimate with the camera but also coat a back wall in honey from 100 paces. There was Judi Dench, and then there was Imelda Staunton, both loved by all. Helen McCrory – who has died at the age of 52 – was the next in line, and she was destined to be as great for as long.
Even in her late twenties, when she was barely known, she was already and obviously different. She had a face that seemed prematurely mature and wise. She didn’t look like anyone else, nor sound it. Her voice was a husky instrument that moved between romance and rage. It could seethe and seduce, conquer and coax.
There was a nomadic quality to her, a sense that she could never be pinned down, that grew out of her childhood. The daughter of a Glaswegian diplomat and a Welsh physiotherapist, she was moved from Scandinavian pillar to African post and didn’t live in England properly until the age of 13. Her accent became pure English girls boarding school with a nicotine flavouring although a report suggested that “Helen is not one of nature’s schoolgirls”. With her wide dark eyes and four-square Celtic bone structure, you could never picture her wielding a lacrosse stick. It added to a singular aura of not quite belonging in anything as limiting as a pigeonhole. Helen McCrory was never a type.
She trained at the infamously austere Drama Centre, also known as the Trauma Centre. The college turned her away at first, instructing her to go out and live a little, which she did with a boyfriend in Italy. She came back a year later armed with photocopies of the rejection letter she had sent to the five other schools who had offered her places. She described her time there as “sliding down a razor blade. They are just really blunt. They don’t lie. I thought, it’s better to find out at that age if I have the stamina for it or not. I didn’t want to end up as a 50-year-old alcoholic because I can’t take rejection.”
She got through most of her 20s without playing the love interest, aside from Nina in The Seagull (at the National with Dench). “If you’re willing,” she told me in 1997, “to have the same expectations of yourself that many male actors have and many women actors deny themselves by wanting to look sexy or pretty, which I find really quite dull, then there are a lot of parts that are open to you. If there’s one interesting thing about acting it’s trying to lose your ego in the character.”
Over the span of nearly a decade I interviewed on her three occasions. The first time, when she had been in a few independent films and appeared in a lot of good theatre, she exuded a hopeful confidence that greater challenges and excitements beckoned, for which she was evidently more than ready. She’d already acted with Tom Cruise by then, albeit as whore number one in Interview with a Vampire.
“I wanted to see how a studio film works. It literally is, ‘Mr Cruise will be on set in 60 seconds, Mr Cruise will be on set in 30 seconds, Mr Cruise is walking on set.’ He said, ‘I hear you’re doing The Seagull, I’ll try and come and see it.'” (He didn’t.) As any journalist would tend to back then, I asked her how tall he was. “Taller than me,” she said. “But most seven-year-old children are taller than me.”
There wasn’t just acting. McCrory jointly started The Foundry, a company which helped mount plays by the likes of Phyllis Nagy and Gary Mitchell. She described it as “a backlash against this new wave of young playwrights… you go and see their plays and say, ‘Yeah that’s what I thought when I was 16. But I’m 28 and I don’t really want to cut off half my brain in order to understand your writing.'” Even if the company didn’t last, it embodied her ambition to do more than wait by the phone, to have a hand in shaping the culture.
Five years later, in 2002, she was in the Sam Mendes double bill of Chekhov and Shakespeare at the Donmar Warehouse. The cast contained other headliners in Simon Russell Beale, Emily Watson and Mark Strong. McCrory brilliantly captured the voracity of Olivia in Twelfth Night as she falls in love with a boy she doesn’t know is a girl. But the memory that shimmers is her Yelena in Uncle Vanya, dressed top to toe in white lace and, with no dialogue to distract, at one point walking slowly and very very sultrily from stage left to stage right. She knew that to play the role she had to convey absolute hotness and, not seeing that quality in herself, she treated it as an acting challenge.
“I think I’m very lucky not to be beautiful,” she claimed. “I know more actors unhappy about being beautiful than the other way round. I find it really baffling, this modern obsession with people wanting to look good on screen or on stage. Why? Why?” She spat out the words. “I’m an actor, not a model.”
As she surged through her thirties, it was very clear that the work on stage and screen would not be drying up. When she was starting out this was a fearful prospect that haunted women much more than it does now. In two of her most memorable performances – as Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre and Leaving, an ITV drama about the forbidden affair between an older woman and a younger man – she portrayed the fire burning in women who are no longer young. She had that extraordinary gift for conveying raw passion and vulnerability, but equally another of the boldest colours on her palette was villainy. The roles that made her famous enough for her death to be the second item on the BBC’s 10 O’Clock News were in Peaky Blinders and Harry Potter.
However brilliant those manifestations on screen – see also The Queen, Fearless, Quiz, MotherFatherSon, Anna Karenina and so many more – McCrory tended to see the stage as her first home where she accepted the dare of making the audience suspend its disbelief. “Our job is to deliver the facts,” she said. “You are being asked to believe in the real thing. It has to happen onstage. Unless you believe in that moment that that person’s heart is breaking, the audience doesn’t care.” With her onstage, in Rosmersholm or The Last of the Haussmans, as Lady Macbeth or Medea, the audience always cared.
The third time I met her she was to play Rosalind at Wyndhams Theatre in 2005. It’s the Shakespeare role that classical actresses are measured by but McCrory tended not to fall in with such conventional thinking. “I didn’t really know this play,” she told me the day before the first preview. “It’s not a part that I wanted to play. I couldn’t understand why she dressed as a man.” And yet she talked of Shakespeare with a deep connection. “You really understand that this is an actor writing these plays. What matters to him is what’s onstage in that moment: is it playable? We as modern actors will find previous circumstance and character backgrounds because that’s the way we’re trained. I don’t think that’s relevant to Shakespeare. As long as you make it sing in the moment that’s all he cares about.”
She made all her characters sing, whatever the tune. A lot of the press attention on that As You Like It derived from Sienna Miller’s stage debut, but the only indelible impression that anyone could take away from it was the bewitching sight of McCrory delivering Rosalind’s final prose monologue. Wearing a dress and a fedora, and wielding a copy of the Arden edition, she beseeched the audience’s applause as only she could, sassily and heartmeltingly, and bade us farewell.