Helen McCrory

For the third time in five minutes, as we sit drinking coffee under an awning in Brick Lane, London, Helen McCrory and I are interrupted by the same man. That he is the owner of the café doesn’t make him less distracting. This time he wants to show us his new mobile phone. He disappears again only to reappear with two mugs of mint tea we haven’t ordered. He wants us to try them. See what we think. He disappears again and re-emerges to tell us that, though we can continue sitting outside, he is going to have to close the café down for ten minutes because there are ‘some nutters around’. The actress and I give each other the sideways glance. When he returns it is with a family photograph he wants to show us. The photograph shown, he potters back inside the café and, out of the corner of her mouth, McCrory says: ‘Quite high-maintenance, isn’t he?’

Her sense of humour is pleasingly dry. When she found out she was pregnant two years ago she delayed her wedding to the father, the tall and brooding actor Damian Lewis, because she said she would rather walk down the aisle ‘skinny and drunk than fat and sober’. But she didn’t get round to it then, and is now fat and sober again. Well, not fat exactly, but she does have a noticeable bump. This time, this pregnancy, she decided not to wait. In fact, when I meet her, barely two weeks have passed since she got married. Shouldn’t she still be on her honeymoon? ‘I did have a honeymoon. It lasted an evening. It was very short, but very lovely. We got married in the Kensington and Chelsea registry office, then walked down the King’s Road and had lunch in a nice restaurant around the corner with 11 people. A very romantic day.’

 

The couple had met when playing lovers in a 2004 production of Five Gold Rings at the Almeida. The play suffered vicious reviews but, as ever, McCrory was singled out for her ‘electrifying’ performance. Her career is littered with award wins and spans an extraordinary dramatic range (she has played everything from Margaret Peel in the comedy Lucky Jim to Anna Karenina). But, though she is lauded as one of the best Chekhovian actresses of her generation, and is a fine interpreter of Ibsen and Shakespeare — her Lady Macbeth made one critic write, ‘I wish Shakespeare had written her more scenes’– she is probably best known for playing opposite Sienna Miller in As You Like It at the height of the Jude Law nanny scandal, and for Cherie Blair in The Queen (2006), the film for which Helen Mirren won an Oscar. She captured not only the slightly scurrying walk and the adoring gazes up at her husband but also the feistiness. The way she backed out of her audience with the Queen was a masterclass in repressed sarcasm. ‘Cherie cricks her neck because she feels defensive and vulnerable,’ McCrory says. ‘It’s also because she feels she has to smile constantly, an odd mix of awkwardness and confidence.’ McCrory demonstrates the contracted neck and the letterbox smile. ‘When she cricks her neck like this you realise that she is trying to keep things in. She often has tension down her arms because she wants to react physically to what is going on. It’s all about repression. I found some footage of Cherie before Tony Blair became an MP and she was a different person: so direct, the opposite of simpering. It was clear she was the more politically committed and driven of the two, so I tried to capture some of that as well.’

Has she bumped into Mrs Blair since making The Queen? ‘No, she must have seen it. I hope she wasn’t offended. When I first read the script [by Peter Morgan] I thought we were in a broad comedy, and I was horrified when I saw the rest of the cast being subtle in their interpretations. Stephen [Frears, the director] kept shouting ‘Less, Helen, less!’ All my Norman Wisdom moments were taken out. I tell you, I was robbed.’

 

Presumably, being actors, she and Lewis didn’t get nervous about the exchange of vows and the speeches at their wedding? She rolls her eyes in mock incredulity. ‘That’s right, actors and actresses have sensitivity bludgeoned out of them at birth. We are that rare combination of vanity and self-obsession.’ She gives a short laugh and dunks and re-dunks her bag of herbal tea in her cup. Actually — at least today — vanity is not something she can be accused of. She is not wearing make-up and, in defiance of the hot weather, is wearing a heavy, shocking-pink coat-cum-jacket. As she is also wearing flip-flops, I’m guessing the coat was the nearest thing to hand as she was leaving the house in a hurry. While McCrory is not tall — only 5ft 3in — she does have considerable presence: dark hair and equally dark and expressive eyes. She also has a disarming way of pronouncing the letter R as W, ever so slightly, a trait I have never noticed in her performances.

‘Actually, I don’t know about Damian,’ she continues, ‘but I do get nervous, especially when speaking in public without a script. I had to present the prizes for an under-12s poetry-reading once. I was performing in three plays at the Olivier Theatre, back to back, 17 hours with no nerves whatsoever, but I stood up to say a few words and my voice wavered and I became self-conscious.’

How curious. Why does she suppose that is? ‘Well, my trouble is I make no connection between myself and what I do on stage or in front of a camera, so when I am being myself I get very, very nervous and take tranquillisers.’ As she says this it occurs to me that her relentless jokiness today may be to do with nerves, too. So did she fluff any lines at her wedding? ‘No, but it did make me nervous, even though there were only a handful of people there, because Damian and I are very private people. I think I would have found it hard to do it in front of a lot of other people.’

 

They had a ban on children at their wedding, a ban that included their own daughter. ‘She came for the meal instead. It was more a matter of not wanting babies there. You see, the way I figured it, it always looks bad if you start staring daggers at a screaming baby. It gives the wrong signal to your future in-laws. Besides, I wouldn’t want to be distracted, because they were the most serious vows I had ever exchanged.’

A church wedding was ruled out because it would have felt hypocritical. ‘When we told people we were getting married in a registry some said, ‘Why not a church?’ and we thought, ‘Hello? When have you ever seen us in a church?’ I would have felt hypocritical saying I meant the bit about staying together but not the bit about the Holy Spirit.’ She sounds unusually earnest for a moment, but her droll side cannot be suppressed for long. ‘That said, an atheist who gets married in a church does have a get-out clause. You are practically not married. You can say, ‘Ah yes, because I meant that bit, but obviously didn’t mean that bit, that means the whole contract is invalidated.’’

Does being married to someone who does the same job make for rivalry? ‘It gives you a shorthand about your job — makes it easier to relate. Also, you know the realities. Some people think acting is all about laughing as you sip champagne from a slipper at a premiere. But actually most of it is unglamorous.’

Unusually, McCrory is an actress — she doesn’t use the PC term actor — who manages to avoid sounding pretentious when talking about her trade. Perhaps it is to do with being pregnant, but she talks about her latest role — as Victoria in Frankenstein — in a frivolous way. In this gritty two-hour ITV drama she plays a scientist who is conducting controversial work in the field of stem-cell research and biotechnology in an attempt to cure her dying son. ‘I play a stem-cell researcher who is obviously meant to be a female Dr Frankenstein.’ Again McCrory says, ‘I thought it would work best if I played it as a broad farce. I see it as a look at the funny side of electricity and stem-cell research. It wasn’t easy but we managed to find the humour.’

 

Actually, there isn’t a laugh in it. They filmed on location near Dungeness nuclear power station — all grey seas and pebble beaches — while she was in the early stages of her pregnancy. ‘Do you think that was wise?’ she asks rhetorically. She imagines the news stories: ‘And eight months later her own Frankenstein’s monster arrived. …’

Despite the repeated dunking of her herbal tea bag, she seems far from being your stereotypical neurotic actress. She blames her parents. ‘They were always very encouraging. I never felt unloved. They gave me great stability. I think that is why I am so relaxed as a parent myself; they gave me a great blueprint. Besides, parenthood is only a seven-day-a-week job and apparently in 18 years you can stop worrying so much. I’ll have a nice nap and a shandy then.’

Her father, a Scotsman, was a Foreign Office diplomat, which meant that McCrory had a peripatetic childhood, moving between postings in Cameroon, Tanzania, Norway and France. She has described her younger self as ‘a Mowgli’ and still bears a scar from the day she was chased by a rhino and split her chin on a tree. To give her stability she was sent to board at an English school, and later turned down a place at Oxford to go to drama college in London. ‘Coming here to board taught me a lot,’ she says. ‘I learnt that in England as soon as you open your mouth you are judged. In Italy it is all about your shoes.’

She also remembers learning the meaning of patriotism from her father. ‘When I was in my teens I was dragged along to some function with him in Brussels and when the national anthem struck up I rolled my eyes and sat down. He took me to one side and said, ‘Never do that again. The man standing next to us is the head of the SAS. His friends die for Queen and country, so show some respect.’ It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.’ To this day, she reckons, her perspective on the world comes from her parents, who are still alive. ‘Because we moved around a lot when I was a child, my sense of home and belonging was with people rather than places. My whole identity was grounded in my parents and brother and sister. I don’t think having a daughter altered me enormously in that respect.’

She and Damian Lewis live with their daughter, Manon, who is now nearly two, in Tufnell Park, north London, near to their friend Sienna Miller — or rather they will when they return from Los Angeles in the New Year. Lewis is working on a film there. ‘So we’re going to have the baby out there in November,’ she says. ‘Should be interesting. LA is a city that makes you wash your hands before you go to the supermarket; just imagine how clean the hospitals will be. I’ll have to find out how soon I can bring the baby back on a plane. Is there a minimum age? I don’t want its ears to explode.’

As well as the ITV drama, McCrory was also working on Flashbacks Of A Fool, a film in which she co-stars with Daniel Craig, six months into her pregnancy. But she is planning to take five months’ maternity leave after giving birth. ‘Then I’m going to be doing another Ibsen at the Almeida in April. They delayed it for me.’ Sadly for her they didn’t also delay the filming of Harry Potter V. ‘I was supposed to appear in that but they couldn’t get the insurance because I was pregnant.’ The part went to Helena Bonham Carter instead. ‘They said I can be in the next one, though,’ she adds. Dare I ask which role? Pause. Grin. ‘I play the old Harry, who is 72 and on steroids.’