Lydia Wilson won a part at the National Theatre before she’d even graduated from drama school and already has projects with theatrical stars such as Katie Mitchell and her current co-star Juliet Stevenson under her belt. Not bad considering she left RADA in 2009. The 26-year-old actress talks to Charlotte Marshall about her current part in the Royal Court theatre’s The Heretic, juggling her love of art with acting and dying in Never Let Me Go.
CV in brief
October 2009 Stars in Katie Mitchell’s Pains Of Youth at the National Theatre
October 2010 Plays Cate in Blasted at the Lyric Hammersmith
November 2010 Appears in Channel 4’s drama Any Human Heart
February 2011 Currently appearing in The Heretic at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court theatre
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Queen’s Park in Kilburn, north-west London.
What first got you interested in acting?
I’ve wanted to be an actor since I was five, it was completely preconscious, there was no choice, it was quite weird! My grandparents were both stage actors and I just remember at drama class, that was the best thing.
You trained at RADA. Did you go straight after secondary school?
No, it was kind of a wandering route. I went to art school after A-levels and then I went to university and did English and then I went to RADA. I think it was always a long plan to just get a bit of nerve up really, a bit of confidence and a bit of self-possession. Straight out of school I wasn’t the most confident of young people so there was logic to it I think; to grow up a bit.
It’s something now that I really cherish, having had those four years of art school and uni to consider things. It’s a luxury really to be able to study and it gave me resources. Being a leaf in the wind in some ways in this industry, because you’re so reactive to what’s available, having that quiet space inside yourself and having been away studying is really useful.
Do you manage to balance art and acting?
I haven’t balanced it for a few years and I’m sad about that but I’m really hoping this year to get a studio space and start painting and making things. It’s just difficult to pick up something where you left off. It’s a strange endeavour because I don’t want to be nostalgic about how I make things; I want to make things that feel relevant now. All the old art I used to make, all the ideas and influences, I think they’ve retired now and it’s time to think about where to take off from.
Tell me about your character in The Heretic.
She’s brilliant! She’s 21-years-old, she’s been raised by her mother exclusively. For the last 11 years they’ve been living in a converted barn in the middle of nowhere and she was home educated for six years, so she’s really smart, really precocious and well read but she grew up in a vacuum with no outside influences.
It’s quite hard to play her because she’s not like anyone that I know, except maybe certain comedians – I think she reminds me of Jack Dee! Because she’s not grown up in a normalised, young person’s environment, she’s kind of a one off, she’s cool.
What’s it like acting opposite Juliet Stevenson?
She’s amazing. I think when people are really, really good they can be really generous and kind because they’re not trying to protect anything, and that was my experience with Jules. She’s incredibly warm and loving, and it’s very inspiring to work with her. She’s bought a lot of heart into the character. She’s really funny as well!
As a young actress do you learn from working with more experienced actors like Stevenson?
Massively. The questions that she asks of herself when we were first working on the play, and the integrity that she adds to each moment, making sure that she’s connected, by osmosis I get a method often and it’s really priceless.
Do you get stage fright?
I get a feeling of separation sometimes. I still grapple with it because it doesn’t come out in normal ways; stage anxiety comes out in certain odd little things [laughs]. I guess it comes under technical stuff, like at drama school they’d probably say your breath control, or your commitment to the end of the line or making sure you’re affecting the other person, those short cuts that you sometimes make in order to protect yourself and not be so vulnerable, those are the areas where stage fright come in. I’m working on it. I don’t get really freaked out before the play, I’m quite calm.
Before The Heretic you were in Sarah Kane’s Blasted at the Lyric Hammersmith. Were you scared of doing such a controversial play?
On an emotional level I suppose I was because when you read it there’s something really primal about it, I think that’s why it’s so cult and why people feel so protective of it or are so revolted by it. But everything about it seemed like it was going to be safe; it was just a month run, it was a month rehearsal, the director was a really good guy who knew Sarah personally, so it seemed like if I was going to do it, this was the production I wanted to be in.
It was almost academic, I thought ‘I want this, I think this play should be on and I want to witness it, I want to be there’. So it was from that point of view rather than relishing the idea of jumping into these dark, emotional places. I’m interested by the play and I think that it should be witnessed.
How did you cope with playing such an intense role every night?
It’s funny, I can’t even really remember! Actually the performance in it became quite physical; Cate has these fits, and laughs hysterically and cries. I had to leave that academic appreciation outside the rehearsal room and just be quite physical with it. It was almost operatic in the end, the practice of doing it, you breathe deep and you tap into that primal thing and then Danny, the person I was on stage with, was really great, so it was almost pleasurable to do it.
It’s quite cathartic. Sarah Kane gives the characters quite a journey and by the end I feel like you’ve almost come 360 to where we started, in a sort of f**ked up way and actually it’s harder for the audience to watch than for us to do because we get to process it through the play and move on.
You once shaved your head for a play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Do you like to fully transform yourself when playing a character?
Yes, I really do. For me that’s where the hit comes! Playing men, in my experience, has been the best, purist, most fun acting moments because I think we all have the opposites to ourselves inside ourselves and that floats my boat.
I like being unrecognisable from part to part, which is kind of hard when you’re in the proper profession because often you’re playing your own physical type but hopefully in the future I’ll do a one-woman show as an animal or something [laughs]!
Which stage production that you have seen do you wish you had been in?
When I was younger there were certain plays I remember seeing where you come away knowing little chunks of the text, it almost went in intravenously, and certain performances. There was a woman called Paloma Baeza and she was in a play in Hampstead theatre called Flight Into Egypt. I must have been about eight or nine when I saw it and it’s just burnt on my retina, she was really amazing and haunting.
You make your film debut in Never Let Me Go this year…
That’s quite funny, I was still at drama school when I did that, it was literally two days and I feel a bit embarrassed it’s on my CV because I’ve got one line in it and one scene! I had to lie in a bed and say my line to Carey [Mulligan] and then die. It’s pretty tragic but I guess it’s an initiation, a rite of passage [laughs].
What are you most proud of so far in your career?
Getting a job at the National was an amazing moment for me. I did the meeting and then I went to see a play afterwards at the National and the director [Katie Mitchell] came up to me in the interval and said ‘you’ve got the job’ and I just didn’t believe it. I kept looking around behind me because she was pointing in a way like she’d seen a ghost and I couldn’t believe it. That was when something happened that I just didn’t think was possible.
What’s the best thing about being on stage?
It’s like being in water or something, it’s like you’re in a different element but it feels good. Paul Gascoigne the footballer said ‘I feel safest when I’m on the pitch’, it sounds so w**ky but you just feel this very zen calm because you’re someone else and you’re living their life. It can be really lovely from time to time.
And the worst?
The worst thing I suppose is when you have this huge almost platonic ideal of a character and trying to activate it is really hard. The pain and frustration of not being able to get to this person that you can see outlined in your imagination, it can be very painful and all your own s**t gets in the way of you and getting to that place, so that process can be difficult.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’ve been lucky since I left drama school and I’ve worked pretty much straight through, but I think this art studio and the writing is going to be good for looking after downtime.
I go to the countryside a bit. I’m a London girl, I’ve never lived outside of London, but I’ve got friends in the country and I’m loving getting out and going away. My mum’s family are in America as well so I went out a couple of times last year to see them.
If you weren’t an actor you would be….
I’d probably be a performance artist, I’d be trying to live in East Berlin and have a much happier life!
What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?
My grandfather said it. We were in a car park somewhere, I was doing Peter Pan and I was just a kid and he turned around and touched my shoulder and said [adopts a deep American accent] ‘trust yourself kid’. It was amazing because I think that’s the one thing I do the least so it’s good to have his words in my head.
The Heretic runs until 19 March.