Hattie Morahan talks to Caroline Bishop about following her mother into the National Theatre and the lure of roles that are something of a mystery.
I am relieved to hear that I wasn’t alone in not entirely understanding Hattie Morahan’s last stage outing, a production of T S Eliot’s eerie, strange, verse drama The Family Reunion at the Donmar Warehouse. “I’m going to say it right now,” Morahan admits, “I really didn’t understand everything when I first read it and even quite late on in the day, in performance… there were bits that my mind was stretching to comprehend.”
Phew. But then nor did I quite get my head around last year’s Martin Crimp play The City, a surreal drama in which Morahan played an unhappily married translator living in a topsy-turvy world that seemed to be a product of her own clunky attempts at novel writing – I think.
“I’m attracted by things where there are lots of question marks still,” Morahan explains. “When I start a job where I’m going ‘I have no idea how this should be done’, I think that’s when you really stretch yourself and really learn. If there’s a sense of ‘oh I know how this should be done’ then it’s less interesting to me.”
I am meeting the 30-year-old actress during rehearsals for her latest play, JB Priestley’s Time And The Conways, which poses a fair few question marks as it combines one family’s story with a meditation on the theory of time. Morahan plays Kay, one of seven siblings in the Conway family, on whose birthday the action is set, first when she is celebrating her 21st in 1919 and then 19 years later on her 40th, when events have radically changed the lives of the Conways for the worse. “It feels like a big play to tackle because there’s so much detail to get right with all the different relationships in it, and it happens in two different time periods so you’re not just researching or thinking about the background to one particular time, it’s two particular times and what happens in between in the world, to your character, to your relationships. So there’s an awful lot to get your head around.”
It sounds right up her street, and with Rupert Goold directing – in his National Theatre debut – it could be a match made in heaven. The director is known for creating bold, inventive productions such as his Laurence Olivier Award-winning Macbeth and last year’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author, while Morahan’s career to date has been heavily influenced by another experimental director, Katie Mitchell. “It’s all still being explored but there are some very exciting ideas that if they work I think would be amazing,” she says of Goold’s plans for the production, her face lighting up excitedly.
“I’m attracted by things where there are lots of question marks still”
Morahan doesn’t look like a trailblazer for innovation and quirkiness. She looks like an English rose, with ivory skin and large eyes hovering under a heavy dark blonde fringe. She grew up in Surrey, read English Literature at Cambridge University and is well spoken, her speech peppered with phrases such as “terribly funny”. You would expect her to suit the role of Elinor in Austen’s Sense And Sensibility, which she played for the BBC last year, and she did. But on stage Morahan has veered away from straight readings of classic texts towards productions that push the boundaries of theatre or radically reshape the classics, like Mitchell and Crimp’s cropped version of Chekhov’s The Seagull, in which Morahan played Nina, and …Some Trace Of Her, Mitchell’s film-theatre creation based on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.
Yet she seems incredulous when I say her choice of work suggests she may be positioning herself in something of an unusual niche. “God! That’s so bizarre. I’ve never even thought about it like that,” she laughs, before adding: “But yes, I’m far more interested in work that’s trying to do something new and do something freshly.”
Her performance in The Seagull may have won her an Ian Charleson Award, but the production itself divided the critics. Mitchell has continued to cause critical controversy with subsequent productions including ….Some Trace Of Her, but that hasn’t put Morahan off working with her. “I think I’m attracted to working with Katie because I really enjoy her working method. It really chimes with my understanding of…” she pauses choosing her words carefully. “Maybe that’s because I’ve grown up as an actor working with her, but she’s a really lovely person and fantastic to be in a rehearsal room with and I like the rigour and I find there’s real integrity to her work. It’s not that I’m saying other directors don’t have [integrity], but that’s why I have positively chosen to work with her. And because she’s offered the work!” she laughs.
Her working relationship with Mitchell, which began in 2004 with Iphigenia At Aulis, also at the National Theatre, has indeed been vital in shaping Morahan into the actress she has become. From a theatrical background – her mother is the actress Anna Carteret, widely recognised in the 1980s for her role in cop show Juliet Bravo, and her father the director Christopher Morahan – she chose not to train at drama school before following her parents into the industry. “They were very keen I train, which I didn’t do, which for a time was the cause of a bit of tension,” she smiles. Full of youthful confidence and itching to get going, Morahan trained on the job, first with a stint in the ensemble of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which she describes as “like being on this permanent activity camp or something; I can’t think of a better way to learn” before being taken under Mitchell’s wing.
“They were very keen I train, which I didn’t do, which for a time was the cause of a bit of tension.”
“Looking back I realise that the tools with which I approached the work were far more limited than they are now,” she reflects of her early days in the business. “I think probably when I started out having not trained, 90 per cent of it was instinct and watching and learning and trying to rise to the occasion and present what the play needed, and it was only working with people like Katie that I then gained a tool box of methods to get under the skin of things that little bit more, and I’d say it has given me a language or at least a structure around which to base my work, which I’m sure if you went to drama school you’d get.”
She says her decision to shirk parental advice and not formally train came from “great confidence about wanting to act and that I would be able to do it”. But the fact her years at Cambridge University were not the happiest may also have contributed to her decision not to shackle herself to another institution. “I’d say the one period of my life where I do have regrets or wish I could have over again would be university where I feel I was too immature to really understand how to handle what was asked of me academically and I sort of got myself into a terrible state of… feeling I didn’t know what I was doing, and why was I there,” she says.
Thankfully her decision paid off and with her work at the National Morahan has taken big steps towards emulating her mother, who worked prolifically in Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company in the 1960s and 70s and still works frequently at the South Bank venue. The young Morahan even met the theatrical giant at various summer parties during her childhood. Now, she attributes her early confidence about the profession to this familiarity with the theatrical world. “I suppose the fact that my family were in the business meant that there wasn’t a hurdle in my way of it being an unknown world, already I felt quite at home with [it] and I’d see a lot of theatre, so it certainly didn’t feel remote and something scary to break into in that respect.”
Rather than feeling any pressure to live up to her mother’s acting achievements, she only seems to have been spurred on by her parentage. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt daunted by it,” she adds. “It’s made me know that I certainly wanted to reach that level, but it’s been lovely to be able to share it with her, with both my parents. I think one’s very lucky if one can share what one does with one’s parents, and then for them to really understand what you’re doing.”
“[Theatre] certainly didn’t feel remote and something scary to break into”
Last year Morahan and Carteret shared a stage for the first time in The Family Reunion, squeezing into a dressing room backstage at the Donmar Warehouse with four other cast members, and they seem to have survived the experience without a jot of familial animosity. “She said to me, ‘I hope I don’t embarrass you’. And I felt very guilty, I was like ‘oh no, of course you won’t!’” says Morahan. “We are quite different creatures, different temperaments, and approach things differently. I’m far more analytical, she’s very instinctive. But it was lovely. I think it would be possibly quite difficult if you had a mother who was very forthright or protecting their position as the superior of the family. But she’s just the most loving, generous person in the world and great fun, a great giggle to be around and accompany.”
Despite her theatrical pedigree, her quiet confidence and a growing public profile thanks to Sense And Sensibility and film outings in The Golden Compass and The Bank Job, Morahan displays not a whiff of arrogance about her career. Playing Kay in Time And The Conways has made her reflect on herself when she was 21 – ill at ease at university and desperate to act – and what she has achieved since. “If I knew when I was 21 what I was doing now I would be so thrilled. I still now have to pinch myself that I’m working at the National; I used to come here all the time and have dreams of that. And just to be able to do what I love doing as a job, I feel incredibly lucky.” Who knows what she may have achieved by 40?