Anne-Marie Duff became instantly recognisable when Channel 4 comic drama Shameless became one of the biggest television hits of the last decade. But before the world knew her as Fiona Gallagher, Duff had already made a name for herself on the London stage and, in particular at the National theatre, where she had already appeared in four productions. After a few years away she has returned to the South Bank venue to play the iconic role of Saint Joan. Matthew Amer spoke to Duff in a break from rehearsals.
"You are aware that you've become a member of a club that's quite… distinguished," says Anne-Marie Duff as she sits in the tiny press 'snug' of the National Theatre, munching her way through a snatched sandwich before heading back into rehearsals. "When you look at the actresses who've done it, there aren't many, certainly not in this country." Duff is talking, of course, about playing St Joan, the French peasant girl turned military commander who, having ravaged the English and crowned the Dauphin king, is deserted by those she thought were her friends and allies, and left to burn as a heretic.
It is a testing role. Joan begins, brimming with the confidence of youth, believing that with God on her side she could not fail. By the show's climax, she has come through war and betrayal to face the Inquisition with the vulnerability of a small child. It says a lot for Duff’s standing within the theatrical world that she was earmarked for this part, and offered the role, rather than auditioning.
"She's vital, and if you can't find that vitality then you've lost it"
The production sees Duff working, for the first time, with Marianne Elliott, a director who, with productions such as Thérèse Raquin and Pillars Of The Community under her metaphorical belt, is one of the hot theatre practitioners of the moment. The chance to collaborate with Elliott is one of the reasons Duff was so eager to be involved with this production, and the experience has not been a disappointment. "[Elliott] just has this amazing capacity to create this space," she explains, "in which you all feel really safe and there's an absolute sense of ensemble."
So much has Duff enjoyed the preparation for the show, that she will be sad to see the end of the rehearsal process and the start of the performances proper. "The whole objective," she says, "is to get it on stage, but there's something so incredibly enjoyable about the rehearsal process and watching everybody develop. It's really special."
Duff as Joan the peasant Duff laughs when she talks about how relevant Shaw's play is to today's theatregoers, almost refusing to explain herself, the parallels are that obvious: "Joan's like a young Palestinian or a young Israeli saying 'This is my land'. It's very clear, it really is." Joan is a religious freedom fighter, inspired by voices of saints who speak to her, imbuing her with the confidence, zeal and vigour to inspire almost everyone with whom she comes in contact; soldiers who have lost their fight are reenergised, follow her and are victorious. The slight-framed Duff is not your archetypal Valkyrie, certainly not dressed in a pink cardigan as she is when we meet, but as Joan, her fervour is infectious. "She's vital," Duff explains, "and if you can't find that vitality then you've lost it. You have to – body and soul – you have to really go for it."
Talk of Duff’s last London performance in The Soldiers' Fortune produces an eye-rolling, grinning response of "oh aye" from the actress. The restoration comedy, staged at the Young Vic and directed by the Young Vic's Artistic Director David Lan, did not do as well as everyone associated with it had hoped. Lan, at the launch of the Young Vic’s 2007/8 season, went so far as to joke that he would not be employing the director again.
"I wouldn't expect someone who works in Barclays Bank to be forced to talk about what they had for tea"
Although the process was clearly a struggle, it seems to have left Duff unscathed: "It's a difficult play; it's such a difficult play. We tried every night to make it work, all of us. That was the brilliant thing about that company; an astonishing group of actors who all came in every night and worked so hard, and because of that we were actually a really happy cast and got on really well. It was a sort of blitz spirit in us all. We all just went for it and I can honestly say we had such a good giggle backstage. It was fascinating actually; it was a real learning curve on how you just go for it and keep being a good storyteller."
"Those are the jobs you learn on," she continues, "those are the quest for the kingdom. These ones are great and it's brilliant and it's easy, but those are the jobs where you learn more about acting, probably, because you're learning about what you need to come up with, how resourceful you might need to be, how you can fix moments."
Duff as Joan the believerWhen you have had the success that Duff has, it is a touch surprising that you worry about learning any more about acting. Since leaving the Drama Centre in 1993, she has never struggled for work. On stage she has appeared as Cordelia to Ian Holm's King Lear, played the Donmar Warehouse in Days Of Wine And Roses, and received a Laurence Olivier Award nomination in 2000 for the National Theatre's production of Collected Stories. Her films include The Magdalene Sisters and Enigma, while on television she appeared in historical dramas Charles II and Elizabeth – The Virgin Queen, Dr Zhivago and The History Of Mr Polly. But it is for Manchester-set comic-drama Shameless that she is best known.
In her early thirties, Duff surprised herself by winning the part of Fiona Gallagher, the eldest sibling and substitute mother of a council estate-dwelling family. The series, penned by State Of Play's Paul Abbott, was a huge hit, yet Duff admits that when she first read the script, and even while they were filming, she had no idea about how people would react to it or even what genre it fell into.
She actually seems a little bored of talking about the show, which she left after two series in 2005. Two years on, there are probably more recent projects deserving of chat time, but none that have made such an impact as Shameless. Though she says it was not a wrench to leave the show from a professional point of view – "It was time to move on" – she found it hard to leave her onscreen family behind.
"I'll just shave my head"
Working with "the littl'ns" left Duff in a situation where off screen as well as on, she felt a sense of responsibility towards the young actors. "We were working with them a long time," she says. "It wasn’t just six weeks; it was months and months and months. You think, you've only been on this earth 12 years; it's a long time, it's a big chunk of your life. So you have to be very careful with feelings, little nerve endings. You get very intimate because you're having to play scenes as if you were family, so a wee bit of you becomes family. I saw them all recently and I'm so proud of them."
Possibly, the wariness towards talking about Shameless is due to the fact that it was while filming the show that she met her husband, actor James McAvoy. In other interviews, Duff has been portrayed as, at the very least, spiky when it comes to talking about her relationship with McAvoy; today she gives an eminently understandable explanation: "It's called a private life for a reason and we all should have one, but we live in this strangely confessional environment and I'm not sure how good that is for people. I don't want people being nosey and wanting to know everything. I'll talk about my work until the 12th of never, but anything that's precious to me; no. Just like I wouldn't expect someone who works in Barclays Bank to be forced to talk about what they had for tea with whoever they live with."
Duff as Joan the soldierInstead, we talk about playing iconic characters; Joan is not the first such character Duff has played. The Virgin Queen saw her wear the crown of arguably England's most famous monarch, Elizabeth I. When the opportunity to play such a role presented itself to the actress, she couldn't turn it down, though she did feel an enormous amount of pressure, both due to portraying the icon and because she felt out of place, coming from a working class background.
In order to play the role convincingly, she made the decision to have part of her head shaved for the duration of filming. While to me that sounds like a step above and beyond, Duff barely gives it a second thought: "You have to, don't you, really? It's just my job, you know; women don't have to do that very often. She had a very iconic look. If you're not prepared to commit to that, then you can't really play her, can you? I didn't enjoy it, in terms of me, Anne Marie, but hair grows back. You deal with it, like anything. I suppose it does address those things within yourself you have to address; your ego and your sense of yourself, how you view yourself physically, but I suppose I just thought 'it's Elizabeth I, what am I going to do, have to get up two hours early every morning to have a bald cap put on? Nah, I'll just shave my head.'"
Duff, who grew up in Southall, the daughter of Irish parents, found her way to acting through a local youth theatre. "It was a safe place for a kid who wasn't a 'shuffle, ball, change child' to actually begin," she says. After failing her first audition to attend the Drama Centre, she was admitted at her second. So began a very successful career.
Having seen Drama Centre contemporaries fall by the wayside, Duff refers to how lucky she has been to have had such a successful career. Others may point more to her talent as the source of her success. Either way, she still has the same passion for performing that drew her back to the Drama Centre for that second audition. "We crave it, don't we, as human beings? We need to be told tales. We need it," she smiles. "And so, just to know that you're fulfilling something weirdly innate in human nature is, I don't know… it feels brilliant."
Saint Joan is playing at the National's Olivier theatre as part of the Travelex £10 season until 25 September.