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Ruth Wilson: ‘People know me as my characters. They don’t know me’
Ruth Wilson: ‘People know me as my characters. They don’t know me’
You seemed very cool in your acceptance speech – was that an accurate reflection of what was going on in your head? I’m very Zen about those things, weirdly. I’m really panicky before. I hate those events because I can’t breathe usually...
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It was called Ruth Wilson: ‘People know me as my characters. They don’t know me’ | Stage | The Guardian
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‘I’d fight any scene that wasn’t justified’: Ruth Wilson photographed in California last January. Photograph: Maarten De Boer/Contour by Getty
uth Wilson, the 33-year-old British actress, has made a pretty well unimprovable start to 2015. In January, she won a Golden Globe for best actress in a TV drama for her role in
’s Claire Danes and Viola Davis among them – but Wilson came through for her harrowing depiction of Alison, a waitress dealing with the death of her son who begins a liaison with an older writer played by Dominic West. Then, a couple of days after the awards, she made her Broadway debut in New York in
, a two-hander opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. The reviews couldn’t have been more glowing if she’d written them herself.
. An adaptation of Irène Némirovsky’s bestseller, set in Nazi-occupied France, she plays Madeleine, a tough and principled farmer’s wife. Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson, following her recurring role as Alice Morgan in BBC1’s
. And, on the phone from New York, she is every bit as smart and formidable.
Has life changed since winning the Golden Globe?Ha! It doesn’t quite work like that. It’s been amazing, but no, I’m in a bubble of doing the play: you’ve got to wake up and do that job everyday, get on stage and perform in front of 800 people. And it’s a culmination of everything I’ve done so everything feels quite steady. I’m more prepared for it, so it didn’t shock me in some ways.
You seemed very cool in your acceptance speech – was that an accurate reflection of what was going on in your head?
I’m very Zen about those things, weirdly. I’m really panicky before. I hate those events because I can’t breathe usually – well, I was wearing a very tight dress and it was very hot in that room. You just want to get it over and done with, because ideally you don’t want to go up there and speak in front of all these people I’ve looked up to...
So you’d almost rather lose and not have to do the speech?
Probably. I vaguely planned something, just in case, but the moment of actually winning, it was a major surprise. This show is in its first year and when we were making it, we didn’t know what we were making or whether it was any good. And I was convinced Viola Davis was going to win.
I’ve no idea. Maybe sexual content? I don’t know, it’s not that bad. In some ways, I’m quite happy because it means that my friends and my family don’t have to watch me doing sex scenes. But it’s got two Brits in the leads, it’s won two Golden Globes, so I don’t really understand.
You’ve been outspoken about sex scenes – specifically that it’s invariably women who have to do the “orgasm face”. Are men and women treated very differently in the industry?
I was just making a comment generally that there’s an awful lot of sex on the TV and it sometimes is not necessary. And what I’ve learned from reading lots of sex scenes is there’s a tendency to rely on the female a bit more to provide that sort of stimulation. A good sex scene is really difficult to do and we’ve seen them all done, so many times, good and bad. So I feel like there has to be justification for why a sex scene exists – just as every scene should exist for a reason. They shouldn’t just be put in there for titillation. That’s my argument and that’s as a woman but also as an actor. I’d fight any scene that doesn’t feel justified.
, is set in the second world war but the most interesting and richest characters are women not soldiers. Was that part of the appeal in doing it?
Yeah, I thought the female roles were very strong and had agency. They are the driving force of the piece. When I first read the script, it felt really visceral and languid; very romantic but against the backdrop of war and the brutality behind it. The atmosphere came out of the page, which doesn’t often happen when you read a script.
The novel was written during the war, but Némirovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942, aged 39, and it was lost until 2004. Did you know the story?
I was blown away by the book. So much of it I hadn’t thought about before – it deals with refugees coming out of Paris and of course the film deals primarily with the love story. I just love that period. I studied history at university, so I’m always quite fascinated by the second world war and France. That’s one of my interests.
What’s so interesting about this film – and the book essentially – is that it’s about the class division that was so rife in France. And it didn’t really come to the fore until the Nazis occupied, then you really saw how divided France was. Madeleine and her husband Benoît [Sam Riley] in a way represent the lower-class peasants and how they had to deal with occupation and how they had to either resist or conform or adapt. Usually the rich and wealthy maintained their power or their money and the peasants had no choice. So, in that way, it’s very political as a piece.
Theatre is like nourishment for the soul. As an actor, it\'s the place you have most control. No one cuts or edits you
has been commissioned for a second series. Are you under pressure to move to America now?I’ve just bought a place in London. That’s my home, that will always be my home, that’s where my family and my friends are. I might have to start living in America permanently, but I’m slightly in denial about doing that.
How does Broadway differ from the London theatre scene?
Not a great deal, really. It’s a major community in New York, which I don’t know exists in London so much. There’s a few bars everyone goes to, and there’s a real energy around the shows that are being put on. Ticket prices are more expensive and the audiences are generally a bit older here [in New York] because they’ve got more money. The fact that I’m away from home means I’m indulging probably more in that after-show kind of thing, while in London you just go back home and make yourself a soup or something. And there’s only two of us in
. It’s not like doing a usual play where you have at least a cast of five. So it’s a different experience, full stop, but it’s great fun.
Reviews have complimented your chemistry on stage with Jake Gyllenhaal and news reports have suggested you’re an item offstage. Is this a case of the work being confused with the reality?
OK, yes. Are you asking if I’m dating Jake Gyllenhaal? No. I’m not dating Jake Gyllenhaal. And yes, every man in any show I do, I get aligned with having a relationship with. It’s just people bored and trying to create a story. So if that’s what you are asking, just ask it. But no is the answer.
Are you concerned that maintaining privacy will be harder as you become better known?
Yes, and you just have to deal with it. The only reason I get papped is because Jake is incredibly famous and so you get papped alongside someone having a sandwich at Dean & DeLuca and it’s suddenly something romantic. And yes, you have to get used to that. But I value my privacy so much, and I value that people know me as my characters, which is the best thing about it. They know me as Alice or they know me as Alison or whatever. They don’t know me very well and that’s the best way to keep it.
At this stage of your career, why is it still important to do theatre?
I come from theatre and I feel like I have to go back to it every few years because it’s like nourishment for the soul. And, as an actor, it’s the place you have most control, no one cuts or edits you and you get to tell the story each night. It always boosts my confidence and my choices in the film and TV work I do after that. I tend to make bolder and more interesting choices after I’ve done theatre.
Ruth Wilson with Jake Gyllenhaal in her Broadway debut, Constellations. Photograph: Joan Marcus
Your grandfather, Alexander Wilson, was an MI6 agent, wrote spy novels and it recently emerged had four wives and multiple children who knew nothing of one another. Are you still planning to make a film of his life?
Yeah, that’s still in the works. It will take a while, because it’s such a huge, enormous story and we need to follow the right part of it. He’s sort of a mythical figure, but what’s amazing is that my dad’s found all these new half-brothers and half-sisters and they are all amazing people. They are very strong – brought up well, basically. And they all have enormous affection for their father and incredible memories of him. How he was a great dad.
So there’s something he passed on obviously, through his example or how he brought them up, to be imaginative, to be generous and loving of their kids. In that respect, for all his faults – and he had many faults, he betrayed many women, the man was complex – he brought up these amazing children who still value his role as their father. So you’ve got to give him that as well.
I find him really fascinating. We still don’t know the complete truth of him, and I feel slightly removed from it because I never met him. But the more we dig, the more we find. And for me it’s interesting knowing exactly where my acting comes from: it comes from him. I didn’t know anyone in my family who acted; no one in my immediate family did any acting. So it’s amazing to just suddenly discover that one of your new uncles was an actor and your oldest new uncle, who is 93, has just had his first poetry book published, that he wrote during the war. So there’s a real heritage and history of creativity and writing and acting and that’s all come down through him. Without me even knowing it, I’m following his path a little bit.
: “He loved not wisely, but too well.” What quote would sum up your career so far?
My God, I’ve got no idea. “She tried her best.” No, “She had fun.”
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