Perhaps it’s because rehearsals haven’t been going so well — ‘It’s been one of those “two steps back” mornings’, Anne-Marie Duff says as she sits shivering in a warm breeze that gusts over the rooftop terrace at the National Theatre. Perhaps it’s because she’s insecure. She self-consciously tugs her sleeves over her wrists, flicks her blonde hair, plays with the tiny silver heart around her neck. This despite — or because of — the close ups of her strong-boned face that can be seen all over London on a poster advertising George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. ‘They do make you self-conscious, the posters. They concentrate the mind. Make you realise there is no going back.’
Either way, there is a tautness to the 36-year-old actress today. A fragility, too. She is 5ft 3in tall with thin, pallid skin and large, hooded eyes under mobile, questioning brows. Her voice is unexpectedly light too, floating like thistle down. It seems contrary to her reputation, as she is an arresting actress who likes to take on muscular roles. As one of her directors said of her: ‘She throws herself at parts as if bruising herself on them.’ And this, after all, is not the first time her face has been on posters all over town: the same thing happened when she starred as Elizabeth I in the BBC’s epic The Virgin Queen. With her shaved eyebrows, bleached eyelashes and white make up, she looked ethereal on those billboards: haunting and haunted, her vanity suspended, an actor of high seriousness. When I ask if she considers herself to be beautiful she snorts derisively, as if the suggestion were peculiar. ‘Of course not. Definitely not.’
Yet plays are sold on her face. ‘Look, I’m not a model, that’s not who I am. I’m all right looking. I’m good looking enough. But I will never be cast as Helen of Troy in a huge, multi-million dollar movie because that’s not who I am — and it’s probably a good thing because I get to play more interesting roles, such as Elizabeth I or Saint Joan.’ She shakes her head and grins. ‘OK I’d love to play a big old glamour puss in designer clothes but those offers don’t come knocking. I get the virgins and the slappers. I don’t seem to have a middle ground.’ She is laughing now. ‘Madonna Whore at your service!’
By slappers she presumably means Fiona Gallagher, the blackly comic character she played in Paul Abbott’s Channel 4 series Shameless. She was the big-hearted, hot-tempered elder sister who kept the dysfunctional family on the Manchester sink estate together, picking up after her wayward siblings and her alcoholic father. Duff left after the second series, but the memory of her pink velour tracksuit and bulky gold earrings lives on. James McAvoy played her on-screen boyfriend, and her off-screen one. In real life they got married last year. He has since been the co-star of the Oscar-winning Last King of Scotland and is currently on location starring opposite Keira Knightly in an adaptation of Ian Mcewan’s Atonement.
The couple have made a pact not to talk about one another in public, and though Duff gives a wide and artless smile when he is mentioned, her nostrils also flare slightly in indignation. She tells me how she loathes the public’s prurient interest in the private lives of celebrities. Not that she considers herself a celebrity, she is quick to add. Actually ‘repulsive’ is the word she uses. ‘I find it repulsive. It’s to do with good manners. I don’t think it is polite to go around telling everyone your business. It’s quite old fashioned of me but I really don’t see what purpose it serves, other than self-indulgence. I mean really, who cares?’
Well, the millions of people who read magazines such as Heat, Closer and Glamour, I imagine. ‘Yes they do, but they shouldn’t because it’s the equivalent of school bullying, you know, finger pointing, look at her. I saw a woman on the Tube the other day suited and booted ready for the office and reading one of these stupid cellulite magazines, staring like an animal at someone famous with spots and I just thought: Woman, what are you doing? What, really, is that doing for you, short of making you paranoid about getting a spot? What is that doing to you as a human being?’
Maybe, I suggest, this phenomena is just payback for years of ordinary women being made to feel inadequate when looking at airbrushed pictures of impossibly glamorous and confident stars. ‘So stars have to be humiliated because readers of cellulite mags feel inadequate? They are reassured when they see people aren’t perfect? Well that’s fine, but it’s cruel.’
A good point well made. She is articulate, this Anne-Marie Duff, and more friendly than this exchange suggests. More hand-on-knee-tactile too, oddly enough. ‘I suppose my view is: If I’m not respectful of my private life, why should anyone else be? The heart is a fragile muscle, you have to take care of it.’
So is she saying she herself would never read gossip about other actors? ‘I suppose I’m nosy in that I love to hear a good old bit of gossip: “Is she really sleeping with him?” But not too much because it kills the mystique. Anyway, as actors you are often in a position where you know who is sleeping with who and you just say…’ she shrugs. ‘“Really?”… We know what actors and actresses are like.’
We do indeed, I say, a bohemian profession if ever there was. ‘Yeah, it’s odd spending hours together with strangers and you have these instant relationships. Three year relationships are compressed into three months, which is why film sets are such sexually charged places. Another thing that puts pressure on your relationships at home is being apart so much. That’s why so many actors go out with people in the profession. Because they understand. You are able to say to your partner: “That’s the deal breaker. This is what I do. If you cannot live with that then it’s over.”’
Sex scenes, I say, snogging colleagues you might only just have met, how weird is that? ‘Yeah but you don’t really love em, and you are probably thinking about someone you really love. It’s just a job. It doesn’t mean anything away from acting. It’s just story telling. And trust me you sometimes have to kiss people and fall in love with people you would really rather cross the road to avoid. That’s the truth of it. There are no blurred boundaries generally.’
There may have been other famous Queen Elizabeths — Glenda Jackson, Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren — but Duff was the first to play a monarch who cried as hard as she fought. Sustaining that intensity of emotion despite the inevitable distractions and retakes on set, was that all down to cold discipline? ‘What you are forgetting is that most of the time actors don’t have the opportunity to flex their muscles. They might be able to flex three. We all want to be doing everything. When you are playing characters like that it is a opportunity to flex. Halleluiah. Let me be in all day every day to really engage with a character properly and engage with the full spectrum of emotions. Most of the time you might come on and say (she adopts a cockney accent): ‘Excuse me, serge’. You’re not taxed. Being taxed is what you dream about at 14.’
Is it? Blimey.Duff and her brother grew up on an estate in Hayes, a suburb of west London. Her father was a painter and decorator, her mother a former athlete who, as a young woman in Ireland, harboured desires to go professional. ‘My family are Irish. Great story tellers. My dad would always sing at a party.’ Anne-Marie was a shy child. She went to a comprehensive and then to London’s Central School of Drama. She worked as a waitress while studying but was, she says, ‘hopelessly clumsy’. ‘I have no idea where the desire to act came from. No one in my family went to the theatre — too expensive for one thing. And elitist. We didn’t watch trashy TV though. I think that helped. And there were always books around, and we were always encouraged to read. But I don’t know why I started reading Chekhov and Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen. I just did.’
The comment suggests a lack of curiosity about herself. After all, her literary preferences as a schoolgirl indicate not only a romantic spirit but also a keen intellect that needed nourishment. Surely the romance of the actor’s life would have had obvious appeal to that schoolgirl, for all that it made her feel insecure as an adult. ‘It’s true, acting does make you feel vulnerable, even though I’m one of the few who seems to be in constant work. Most of my college friends are hardly ever in work.’
That must put a strain on friendships. ‘Sometimes you are made to feel…’ She trails off. “Well, you are aware of the injustice of it. But I’m not twenty-one. I’ve done my time. And the whole notion of what makes a good actor is so subjective. A matter of taste. I myself can look at someone and say: “I know they are a really, really, lovely actor, but they don’t turn me on.” That’s part of it, too.’
Another strain, I suppose, is that actors are always being held up to public scrutiny, always running the risk of a duff review.
‘I’ve had lots of those.’
I look blank and say I must have missed them.
She spells it out for me. ‘Duff?… Anne-Marie Duff?’
Ah. Good one.
‘But of course I’ve had plenty of bad reviews. I don’t read reviews. Fuck em. They only make you self-conscious. If you go to a party and twelve people say you look great, you must have lost weight, but one person asks if you’ve been eating all the pies…‘ she prods my stomach as she says this. ‘Who are you going to believe?’
The pie person, Miss.
Although she describes herself as ‘a bit of a Pollyanna, overly buoyant and annoyingly sanguine’ she does admit to occasional moments of melancholy. ‘After Virgin Queen I didn’t work for a year and I felt very wee. Very frozen. I think it was a consequence of having to have so much confidence for three months. I felt like I had to be “on” the whole time. I had to be engaged with so many different personalities. I was knackered mental and physically. You’ve been breathing out, and breathing out, and breathing out.’
In some ways Anne-Marie Duff is your typical, lovable neurotic actress. Certainly she has her share of self-doubt. ‘The best moment was being told I had landed the role of Saint Joan at the National. Then it was downhill. The anxiety sets in. Am I up to it?’ And when asked whether, given her passion for literature, she has tried writing she says: ‘No, it’s hopeless because I’m such a self critic I never get started. Dreadful, delete. Dreadful, delete.’ And she tells me she dreads coming across as a ‘pretentious wanker’ when talking about acting. But she is more thoughtful than most, more inscrutable, more serious about her work. Interestingly, when pressed about why she is so guarded about her private life she admits it is partly because she feels she needs to be anonymous in her roles, so that audiences see Elizabeth I or Saint Joan, not Anne-Marie Duff. ‘That’s another reason for keeping your front door shut. If you know the actress playing Hedda Gabler has just split up from her husband you will think it is the actress crying, rather than her character.’
She finishes the sandwich she has been eating. Her lunchtime break is almost over. Just time to ask about her private passion, fell walking. ‘I mostly do it in the Lake District,’ she says. ’But I was in Patagonia not long ago and that was… It keeps you young. And it’s good to get grubby.’ That said, she is obsessed with having clean hair and always has shampoo and conditioner handy, ‘even if I’m halfway up a mountain.’ She sounds like she can look after herself, I say. ‘I’m good at lighting fires. And on that note I ought to get back to rehearsals.’
It’s another good joke. Get it? Joan of Arc? Fires?
As she is leaving she looks down over the Thames and says: ‘There’s often a guy playing Bob Marley loudly down there…’ She smiles wistfully. ‘It’s funny, I used to go out with a guy who…’ She remembers my tape recorder, shakes her head and says firmly, ‘No, I can’t say.’