Helen McCrory only owns six photographs of herself before the age of 22. Or, at least, that’s what she says in the press notes that accompany her new ITV thriller, Fearless. But it turns out there may be a whiff of #fakenews in the air.
‘I think I probably just made that up, as I do most things that I say to the press,’ McCrory tells Weekend cheerfully. ‘And quite rightly. But it’s true I have hardly any photos of me when I was younger. I’m not sentimental at all, and not very navel-gazing. I don’t find me very interesting.’
Fortunately for our purpose today, the actress – equally at home on the stage of the National Theatre as she is in the TV hits Peaky Blinders and Penny Dreadful or mega-franchises like James Bond, Harry Potter and Doctor Who – is plenty interesting. Sharp and witty, with a wicked, throaty laugh, she’s not slow to offer an opinion – something she puts down, in part at least, to her mixed Welsh and Scottish heritage.
‘I’m a Celt with a cut-glass accent, which really confuses people,’ says the 48-year-old, who was educated at the independent Queenswood School in Hertfordshire. ‘I sometimes come across as very brusque, and quite blunt – it’s not just a no, it’s a no and bloody nose. But if I say the same thing with a Welsh or Scottish accent, it makes total sense. People go, “oh, you’re not brusque, you’re Celtic.”
She’s equally blunt about what attracted her to the role of Emma Banville, a human rights lawyer with a reputation for defending ‘lost causes’, in Fearless. ‘I like the fact she’s not a ****ing idiot,’ she says. ‘I like that she’s somebody who’s constantly led by her mind, not by her heart. In fact she tries not to let her heart cloud her judgment. And I like the fact she doesn’t explain herself – she’s courageous, quiet. It’s really interesting to have a thriller with an introvert as a central character.’
Set, according to writer Patrick Harbinson, ‘in the grey area where politics and law collide’, Fearless – which also stars Sir Michael Gambon, Catastrophe’s Jonathan Forbes and comedian John Bishop – starts with Emma setting out to prove the innocence of a convicted child-killer, and being inexorably drawn into a global political conspiracy that puts her at odds with the police and intelligence services.
With the plot touching on issues of terrorism, freedom and abuse of power, Harbinson found himself tearing up pages of script in order to stay abreast of global events, not least the election of Donald Trump. ‘We were supposed to have wrapped in December, but we were still re-shooting and tweaking scenes in January, to bring them up to date,’ says McCrory.
Harbinson covered similar territory as a writer on hit US dramas 24 and Homeland – a show McCrory admits she had to give up watching when it became clear that Nicholas Brody, the character played by her husband Damian Lewis, was set for a grisly end. ‘I have no desire to watch my husband be hanged, fictionally or non-fictionally,’ she says. ‘So that’s when I stopped watching.’
While filming Fearless, McCrory shuttled across the Atlantic every 11 days to spend time with Lewis, who was in New York with their daughter Manon, 10, and son Gulliver, nine, while shooting the Wall Street drama Billions. It sounds exhausting. ‘Well it’s a lot easier than looking after the children and working!’ she laughs. ‘So much easier. People go, “Oh it’s really, really hard to be on a six-hour-flight”. What? Where no-one can get in touch with you and someone will bring you your tea? Have you lost your ***ing mind?! It’s amazing! I’ve never seen so much television in my life!’
Fearless also raises questions around our modern culture of surveillance and permanent online connectivity – not an area that McCrory, a self-confessed ‘Luddite’ who’d ‘happily smash up’ much modern technology, can claim much expertise in. ‘Have you been speaking to my husband?’ she asks, when Weekend raises the subject. ‘Has he told you I’ve even managed to crash the heating system at home? And how our wireless music player now plays music in everybody else’s house but ours?’
She’s more at home with the drama’s political dimensions. ‘I was brought up in a household where we got every newspaper,’ she says. ‘We always used to argue at the table about politics. I was of the punk generation that felt we were responsible for changing the world. I’m so old I marched against apartheid.’
McCrory had a peripatetic childhood, her father’s diplomatic job in the Foreign Office taking them from Oslo to Paris to Tanzania. ‘I really loved it,’ she says. ‘It’s a great leveler. You realise there is no wrong or right society, it’s just how the culture you’re living in decides it is. You realise you’re in charge of your own narrative.’
Her father’s father was a Scottish welder, and her mother, a physiotherapist, was the daughter of a Welsh lorry driver. What does she think drove them to leave that world and join the professional classes?
‘Because no-one told them that they couldn’t,’ she says. ‘Similarly to me: there was no-one to tell me that a boy did this and girl did this. I was brought up in East Africa, where the girls wore the same clothes as the boys, and we all had short hair because we all got our hair cut at the same hairdresser.
‘My parents were lucky because they were intelligent, and intelligence is luck as much as anything else. They were lucky enough to be bright; education got them out.’
When her initial application to study acting at the Drama Centre in London was rejected, McCrory went off travelling again, returning a year later and winning them over with, among other things, offers from five other drama schools. Within weeks of graduating in 1993, she was offered the lead in Richard Eyre’s National Theatre production of Trelawny of the Wells, and has never looked back.
On stage, she’s been nominated for two Olivier Awards, and was named Best Actress by the Critics’ Circle for the title role in the National Theatre’s production of Medea, while notable screen successes include criminal matriarch Aunt Polly in Peaky Blinders, evil spiritualist Madame Kali in Penny Dreadful and Mama Jeanne in Martin Scorcese’s Hugo. ‘I just assumed he’d got the wrong Helen,’ she says of her first meeting with the legendary director. ‘But I didn’t care – I was going to have lunch with Scorcese at The Dorchester. It turned out he’d prepared by watching everything I’ve ever done. When he said, “d’you wanna come and play?” you could hear my screams from Peckham to Oval.’
She was also cast as the witch Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter films, but had to pull out when she got pregnant with her daughter. Helen Bonham Carter took the role instead, with McCrory joining the series later as Bellatrix’s sister, Narcissa.
Her performances as Cherie Blair in Stephen Frears’ 2006 film The Queen and its sequel, The Special Relationship, were particularly well received – not least by the former Prime Minister’s wife herself.
‘I was at a party, and someone said, “I’ve got someone to meet you”, McCrory recalls. ‘I thought, “this had better be good”, ’cos I was talking to Ronnie Wood at the time. So I turned around and there she was, and I went [sharp intake of breath] “oh my gosh”. Because you’ve got to be very responsible when you play someone on screen. Some people really do forget that Helen Mirren isn’t the Queen. They really do. But she was really warm and encouraging and positive, and I thank her for it.’
In January, McCrory was made an OBE – an honour also bestowed on her husband three years ago. So do their kids just think it’s normal to trot off to the palace and collect a medal every now and again?
‘Never taken them, love,’ she says, bluntly unsentimental as ever. ‘Well, we might this time, ’cos I haven’t picked it up yet. But it’s quite a long ceremony. I’ll probably just meet them for tea afterwards.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, June 8, 2017
(c) Waitrose Weekend