Helen McCrory’s dressing room is a grotty bedsit high up in the National Theatre. She says that, on first nights, the actors in the other bedsits rattle their windows, which sounds terrifying, as if they were all in prison and protesting against Chekhov. I reject the cage as an interview venue, so we slope onto a balcony. She looks odd in sunlight, because she is so gothic, a dark Bambi with huge eyes and a huge mouth, sitting on the body of a small, frenetic doll. Mostly she is still. Sometimes she vibrates.
I have seen her twice before. Once on stage in The Last of The Haussmans, where she glittered, pulsated and stole the play; and again in a sluggish Q&A about the play, where she was nervous and prickly, out of her comfort zone. She seemed to fold into her chair, intent on playing a cushion, as the elderly female audience cooed over her co-star Rory Kinnear and semi-ignored her. She said things like: “It doesn’t matter to me how other people view my career.” When a woman asked her if she had received a gift she left at the stage door, she replied “Yes”, very coldly, and turned back into a cushion.
She is not like this today. She is excitable and joshing, playing my best friend. I am here to discuss her role in Skyfall, the new James Bond movie, although we don’t get far with that. She teases my tape recorder, booming like a refugee from Malory Towers — “Nice and loud and clearly, shall we?” It quickly becomes obvious that McCrory, who prepares obsessively for every role, chose acting, at least initially, as an act of control. I decide it is this Helen, the pilot Helen, who is in charge of all the other Helens — the cross Helen, the principled Helen, the funny Helen and so on. As a child, she moved around: her father was a diplomat. Storytelling, she says, helps “to make sense of your childhood — Africa compared to Norway compared to Paris. Everything is logical in that world of the play”. She has the otherworldliness of the British child brought up abroad, a kind of tidy cleverness that sometimes collapses into swearing, or shrieks.
She knows how good she is, which pleases me. I’m sick of actors saying how grateful they are, and how fame fell on them like a surprise boulder. “I often read articles where actors say, ‘I know I’m a fake, I’m just waiting to be found out,’” she says slowly. “I’ve never thought that.” Her voice changes, slurring from estuary when she is excited to RP when she is making a serious point. She swears constantly. Sometimes she sounds like Celia Johnson, sometimes like Ray Winstone. A waiter asks us to move, because there is a private party. “Okay,” she says. “We’ll move in a minute.” Exactly one minute later, she does. I wonder if she timed it.
She is principally a stage actress. After graduation, she did Chekhov, Ibsen and Shakespeare; then, later, a fairly awful TV drama about Charles II, called The Power and the Passion, in which she played Charles’s mistress, Barbara Villiers, and ran around in piles of rouge, screaming and biting corpses. She was a witty, sexy Cherie Blair in The Queen and The Special Relationship, and in 2007 she married the actor Damian Lewis, with whom she has two children, Manon and Gulliver. They live together, fairly normally, in Tufnell Park when he isn’t in America, filming the second season of Homeland.
Her grandfathers were a Scottish welder and a Welsh lorry driver; this explains, I think, her left-wing politics and feminism, which, although probably an act of survival for any actress who isn’t completely stupid, is very sincere. When she began, she says, “I would read these scenes, and it’s like, ‘She’s in bed’, and I would just say no.” Why? “Because I think you can’t on the one hand say you’re a feminist, but then on the other hand walk around giggling at every joke you’re given in a film with no clothes on.” When she was offered The Power and the Passion, “All of it was naked. Why has he got a f***ing robe on and I’m naked?”.
Why did it matter? “One, because it has become so commonplace.” She says this languidly, like notes bobbing on a child’s xylophone. “Two, because you are not in control. Three, because I think until women say they don’t want to do it, you can’t necessarily blame people for asking. Four, because mostly it really isn’t necessary.” Except she has changed her mind; another Helen is emerging, like a rude butterfly, from the old one, who was simply a nerd. “I really want to take my kit off more,” she says. “Now my body is 43 [she turned 44 soon after this interview], I can call it art.” She screeches. “I wanted to become less prudish. I think I was very prudish.” She pauses on “prudish”, and stops.
Now she plays an interviewer; she is most comfortable speaking in dialogue. “Have children really changed you?” she asks herself. “Do you think you have really become much less [she means more] selfless?” I think she is being Woman’s Own. She pauses and shouts: “No! I’ve lightened up! Because you see the world through their eyes, and being married to Damian has given me huge confidence. I’ve married a man who likes tighter dresses than I’ve ever worn before. It might just be as simple as that. Everybody wants to look hot for their man.” So, if she used to be tense and obsessive, now she can strip to play an adulterer in ITV1’s Leaving, another astonishing performance, this time a lonely control freak sinking into lust puddles and chomping on a 25-year-old boy: “I did every scene in a bra and knickers!” Is this to show her husband she is beautiful? I’m not sure, because McCrory also played A Fish from Space.
“I did a Doctor Who,” she says happily, “and I f***ing loved it. I had no idea how big it was!” She looks amazingly pleased, as if something so ridiculous had never occurred to her Chekhov-eating younger self. “I used to rather scoff at all that. Now I’m fascinated by it.” Obviously, she read a pile of proper science to prepare for A Fish from Space. She acts being offered the part. “They phoned up and said, ‘We’d like you to be in Doctor Who.’ I said, ‘To play what?’” She is Celia Johnson now. “‘To play a half sea creature, half vampire.’ ‘Who lives in what?’ ‘In a nunnery!’” She pauses, inhales, and Ray Winstone screams out: ‘F***, yes!’”
Her feminism must make it easier to rationalise an industry where homogenous beauty is more important than skill. I wonder if she minds, or feels overlooked. She lost the part that could have made her famous, Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter, because she was pregnant. It went to Helena Bonham Carter, who ate the scenery so hungrily, I thought she had a tapeworm. McCrory eventually played a smaller part, her sister Narcissa Malfoy. Typically, with one word — “Dead” — she stopped the film.
“There are fewer and fewer chameleons in cinema,” she says. “They are out there, but they have less and less place within film.” This is because, I say, they do not have huge boobs and don’t consider the primary rule of acting to avoid saying “wibble, wibble, wibble” into the camera. (I think that is Keira Knightley’s pre-shot mantra.) “It’s symptomatic of a lot of other things,” McCrory says coolly, zoning away from being rude about other actors. “If you are going to be bankable, you need to do certain things and be in films that make a certain amount of money. Hasn’t it always been thus?”
There are definitely characters she continually turns down, she says. She plays them for me in an imbecilic monotone: “Darling, I’m home. Your thing is on the thing.” (That is my favourite line in Helen’s “play” about her career.) “What did you find interesting about your job today? You look very stressed.” She looks, briefly, angry; all her facial expressions are brief, although sometimes, especially when talking about her husband, she does a long shot. “Those parts where they go, ‘It’s brilliant, she’s in every scene.’ And you go, ‘Yah, she asks questions in every single scene.’
“I don’t even think fame is a double-edged sword,” she says quickly. “I think it’s a fly jacket stuffed with gunpowder. I’ve seen how it’s destroyed people. I’ve seen how the people it’s destroyed have also wanted it enormously. And I realised I was different.” She enjoys the premieres — “Of course, it’s lovely when Damian is suited and booted.” Her eyes melt slightly and the “lovely” comes out as very posh, very actressy; she sounds like someone talking about a baby. “But it’s completely irrelevant to the job. We’ve got a Holloway Road Odeon. It’s perfectly all right.”
What about Skyfall? McCrory took it instantly: “It’s a Bond movie. Everyone wants to be in a Bond movie.” She cackles. “People who aren’t actors want to be in Bond movies.” Otherwise, she tells me nothing, because she doesn’t want to get into trouble. “They are more secretive than the real MI5,” she says, and fantasises that she will be abducted if she tells. I know she plays an MP called Clair; I got it off Twitter. And the character’s surname? She says she can’t remember.
Her future is a mystery, so I ask, idly, if she will do trash when she gets old — like Bette Davis, the actress she most reminds me of, who did The Nanny, playing it as a corpse on wheels. “Might be sooner than that for me!” she says, falling back into dialogue. “She seems to want to do the trash! She wasn’t forced to! The remake of Dynasty was a choice!” She turns back into herself, possibly angry now — who can tell? “I might not be playing the lead in a multimillion, but I do have a fake tweeter and a stalker.” She turns to me, opens her eyes and asks: “Does that count towards being a bona fide actress?”
Leaving ends on ITV1 tomorrow at 9pm; The Last of the Haussmans is at the National Theatre, London SE1, until Oct 11; Skyfall opens on Oct 26