My Sunday nights would not be the same without MyAnna Buring. Okay, the BBC may have moved Ripper Street – or CSI Victorian London as it’s known in my house – to Mondays now, but it’s previous end of the week time slot, and the similar airing time shared by the beautifully mannered behemoth that is Downton Abbey, mean that I inextricably link those last moments of work-free relaxation with Buring’s glacier-blue eyes.
The British actress – she was born in Sweden, grew up in Oman but has lived in England for more than half her life – appears in both, playing manipulative servant Edna in Downton and brothel-owning Long Susan in Ripper Street.
Though trained as a stage performer, and previously an Associate Director with MahWaff Theatre Company, Buring has had so much screen success in recent years that the new stage adaptation of Strangers On A Train marks her first toe-dipping in the world of theatre for some years.
As we chat on a windy afternoon, before the cast receive flu jabs to keep them fit and healthy for the thriller’s West End run, Buring, who boasts cheekbones that should come with a health warning, is excited, nervous and full of praise for the rest of her cast, who wave, smile or make the odd suggestive remark as they pass by to find sustenance.
Buring’s role in the thriller made famous by Hitchcock’s film adaptation is fleeting but pivotal. She plays the manipulative wife of Guy, played by Laurence Fox, a man who innocently meets Bruno (Jack Huston) on a train journey. The two gents swap tales of family members they’d like to see the back of, but when Bruno takes the chit chat a touch more seriously than expected, Guy’s world begins to fall apart. It’s probably not giving too much away to suggest it will take more than the flu vaccine to save her.
As the cast were preparing to move the film noir-inspired show from the rehearsal rooms to the Gielgud theatre, we chatted to Buring about her thrilling stage return, always being a performing monkey and playing manipulative women.
CV in brief:
2005: Led the cast of horror film The Descent
2011: Starred in horror film Kill List
2011/12: Played Tanya Denali in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 & 2
2012: Joined Downton Abbey as the scheming Edna Braithwaite
2012: Stars in historical BBC crime drama Ripper Street
2013: Returns to the London stage in Strangers On A Train
Where did your love of performing come from?
I was always a bit of a performing monkey.
I had dinner with some friends a few years ago and said “I don’t know why I ended up being an actor because I get quite shy.” These three girls that I grew up with burst out laughing. They said: “Myanna, what are you talking about? You used to ring on our doorbell, force yourself into our living room and force our entire family to sit down so they could watch you do some play or do the splits or something.”
How are you finding your stage return?
It’s a long time since I’ve rehearsed a play. I’ve had far more rehearsals for this than I’ve had for pretty much anything I’ve done in the last seven years. This whole project feels like a bit of a treat.
I’m theatre trained. I did plays all the time. I never thought I’d do film and TV. I’ve missed it but developed this fear that I might not be able to do this anymore. This job came along and it ticked all the boxes. It’s a lovely little part, it’s great fun, something for me to sink my teeth into, it’s in the West End, it’s at the Gielgud. I used to work at the Queen’s theatre [next to the Gielgud] when I was 18 and living in London. I would never have believed I’d be on one of those stages. It feels like a perfect gentle reintroduction to theatre.
Would you like to take on larger roles in the future?
I think I would enjoy the challenge of something more. This has been fantastic and exactly what I wanted. It’s funny, sometimes when you articulate what you want all of a sudden it appears before you. I said I wanted to go back to the stage, I wanted to work with interesting people and creative people on something that was creative and new and exciting, but I wanted it to be gentle enough for me that it didn’t terrify me or give me stage fright for the rest of my life. All of a sudden this part came up that I loved reading. I loved the audition, it really excited me and it allowed me to get the taste for theatre back.
Once your courage grows I think your desire to be challenged grows alongside it. This is a real challenge for me. I’m nervous and excited. The next thing would have to be another challenge.
Have you read the book or watched the film?
I made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to go back to the film or the book. As I understand it this isn’t a faithful transcription of the book or the film. This is its own thing. I think [writer Craig Warner has] been faithful to certain elements, but not been a slave to ones that don’t help the story on stage.
It’s not like the film, it’s something new, which is exciting. It offers something for audiences with nostalgic memories of the book or the film or Hitchcock, but at the same time they can also see it from a very fresh perspective.
How are the rest of the cast?
They are lovely. Laurence [Fox] who plays Guy, my husband, he’s fantastic. He’s been a real treat. And Jack [Huston] as well. Sadly Miranda [Raison] and Imogen [Stubbs], I don’t really get to do much with them, apart from have giggles.
If you’re not having fun, what are you doing it for? There’s so much hardship and difficulty in the world. This is a privileged place to be in. We work very hard to tell stories, they’re important, but it must have joy in it. We’re not in Syria, this is entertainment and escapism and it must be fun.
How was working on Downton Abbey and its army of fans?
It was such a blessing to work on such a great show with such great actors.
I had a couple of Tweets saying “Will you please leave Branson alone, you’re horrible”. I replied “I’m not horrible. Branson’s not real, he’s a character. So I, MyAnna, cannot be horrible to Branson. It’s not possible. And I think if you ask Allen Leech I’ve always been perfectly lovely to him.”
But if Edna’s got a reaction, that’s good. That’s what you want. She’s meant to be a very manipulative character. It would be quite heart-breaking if people didn’t react to her; we wouldn’t be doing our jobs right.
Somebody asked me: “You’re playing a manipulative character here as well, is this an element of your character you want to explore?” The answer is no. The parts I play and me are not the same.
But looking over your CV we do associate you with strong females…
I think they’re strong in different ways. Edna’s got a weakness and a naivety to her. She’s got steel inside her, but it’s not like Susan’s steel. That’s what makes it fun for me to play them because I don’t feel like I’m regurgitating something I’ve done before. I feel that here as well. Again, she’s a strong manipulative character, but I feel she’s different to other strong manipulative characters I’ve played.
What’s the best thing about performing?
I really do love the rehearsals. I love telling stories. I love when stories connect. There’s something undeniably magical about that. There is that moment of connection between complete strangers and storytellers, and it’s magical.
What’s the worst?
There are not many things that are really awful and everything that you can say is awful you can flip it and make it positive.
It forces you to be very inventive with how you live your life. You have to embrace fluidity and change and create a calm routine for yourself within that change. It’s not nine to five, there’s uncertainty about it. There are days when it’s tough, especially doing a play. It’s all consuming.
I always think acting’s funny. Most actors decide that they want to be an actor when they’re five, 10, 15. They hold onto that dream and pursue that dream. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and you find yourself hanging on to it when you’re 45. But every time I thought “This isn’t really what I want,” my career launched forward. It’s never felt like a slog. It’s never felt I was suffering for my art. I’ve always felt it was a fun adventure whatever stage I was at.