Remembering an Inspiring Encounter with Helen McCrory
by Gustav Temple | Summer 2021 Issue | The Chap
I interviewed Helen McCrory in the summer of 2019, during the build up to the screening on the BBC of the fifth series of Peaky Blinders. The main interview was done over the phone, during the whirlwind press junket she was on with all the cast, which undoubtedly would have involved dozens of similar interviews. When you interview a big star like McCrory, there is a press officer breathing on the line, ready to step in and halt the conversation if something said isn’t to their liking. You have already been briefed, usually, only to ask questions about the show they are promoting and not to stray from the approved script.
The first thing I expected, from experience with such interviews with actors, was a lot of ‘darlings’, lofty talk about “the craft” and quotes from Shakespeare, added to a refusal to discuss anything that didn’t promote the current project. So it took me by surprise when Helen immediately showed interest in the interviewer.
“Where are you – you sound like you’re in a bucket!” she laughed.
“It is more or less an enlarged bucket that used to be a garage, Where are you?”
“I’m actually in a cupboard. I had a meeting with money people this morning, who tried to explain to me what I should be doing, and for some reason I’ve been given a cupboard to think about it. So cupboard to bucket – we’re well suited.”
We launched into the interview which was published in the Autumn 19 issue and is now on The Chap website. There was a lot of talk about the costumes Helen wore as Aunt Polly, and how she constantly gathered accessories and knick-knacks from antique shops to add to the outfits that had been designed for her by Alison McCosh. I was immediately struck by how much she seemed to care about the character she was playing, despite some observers believing she was only using a tiny amount of her considerable acting skills for Polly Gray, compared to when she played, for example, Medea or Lady Macbeth on the stage.
She also got rather emotional when discussing the sorts of comments she received from members of the public who had watched her in Peaky Blinders.
“I can’t tell you how often I’ve received letters, or people come up to me in the street, and women tell me these extraordinary stories, and what they felt when they saw Polly talk about it. I’ve even had young girls come up to me and talk about terrible rape stories… one girl came up to me and said that when she saw that episode, it was the first time that she then talked to her husband about it. “There is a slight gap on the recording at that point, where Helen tries to stop herself, unsuccessfully, from crying before continuing. That was the only time this has ever happened to me during an interview.
Helen then spoke about the fact that not only is Polly Gray a realistic, accurate character from the 1920s = “Those women like Polly absolutely existed. So there’s nothing modern about women holding it together, and striding down the street. We know that the police were called to Small Heath more often for fights between women than between men” – but the character also, she felt, chimes with the contemporary world: “As far as being a streetwise alleycat and being tough and facing it, I see those girls all the time. Every time I get on a tube at 2am, I think, there’s another little Polly sitting over there.”
She expressed the duty she felt to the audience to portray a realistic person more than just a cool character in a TV series: “I’m so aware that when you play these parts and play those moments, there is a triangle of ghosts behind you, of people that have never told their stories. When you speak to them, you have to immerse yourself into it as much as possible, because you’ve got to get it right.
After the telephone interview, I was lucky enough to have a brief encounter in person with Helen, at the premiere for the new series of Peaky Blinders at the National Film Theatre. After the screening of the first episode, there was a small party in the bar. When Helen walked in, with husband Damian Lewis, everyone immediately forgot about the other actors in the room and gathered around her to touch the hem. We had a brief conversation, not about Peaky Blinders but about children and camper vans, and how , if Damian and her were at a party and they couldn’t find each other, one of them would request a certain song to be played and that would be their cue to find the dance floor and find each other again. I didn’t note the title of the song down, but it wasn’t that kind of conversation.
Helen was curious about my outfit, a linen ensemble hastily thrown together to get to the screening on time in the middle of summer. She glanced up and down the outfit and simply said, “That’s not really working, is it?” My attempts at journalistic integrity were met with a wave of the hand. Had we got the right brand of the cigarette in the interview, which was about to be published? “Oh, who cares?” she said airily, “Let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
Meeting Helen McCrory was nothing like the usual celebrity encounters. She was witty, sharp, cynical and direct, and speaking to her was like meeting one of those rare people you encounter who immediately make you think, ‘I have found a new friend.” Sadly, this will now not prove to be the case.