Kate Fleetwood’s career started early. At the age of just four to be exact when her Liverpudlian parents moved her and her six-year-old sister to a farm just outside Stratford-upon-Avon, an event that she calls an “absolutely huge influence” on her career. It might seem odd to attribute a moment at such a young age to be a key moment in your professional life, but when you’re one of Britain’s most respected Shakespearian actresses, her dad’s decision to choose a job in Stratford over Lincolnshire was pivotal.
While it may be her critically-acclaimed depictions of Shakespeare’s leading women that she’s best known for, when I meet Fleetwood in the Bush theatre’s cosy library café it is to discuss her role in Nancy Harris’s latest play, Our New Girl, a thriller about a woman whose seemingly perfect life falls apart when a new nanny arrives unexpectedly on her doorstep.
“There’s no reason why I haven’t done more new writing,” Fleetwood explains when I ask her if the play was a deliberate move to take her out of her comfort zone. “I think you just get into a groove and people think you just do classical or whatever. I really wanted to investigate more new writing as a performer and when this script came in I knew I wanted to do it immediately.”
“As a mum of two kids, trying to juggle all of that and be an actress, it really spoke to me as a piece about modern parenthood.”
As a mother to a seven-year-old and an 18-month-old, playing a role where she both had to be pregnant – “100-years pregnant! I’ve got a very big bump, I rehearsed with that from day one” – as well as bring her own experiences of motherhood to the script were important factors in choosing to do Harris’s play: “It deals with issues that I suppose are present in my stage of life, I’m in as a mum of two kids, trying to juggle all of that and be an actress, and it really spoke to me as a piece about modern parenthood.”
Since becoming a mother, Fleetwood describes her career as having been “much more fruitful”. Whether this is Fleetwood’s sunny attitude which never dips over the course of our interview, or the fact that having children has actually made her more ambitious, is impossible to tell. Fleetwood has her theories: “You become a bit more choosy about what you do. I’m very lucky that my husband works so he can support those choices as well. I don’t suffer fools in a way that I used to.”
Given that at the tender age of four Fleetwood made her decision to be an actress, later making her debut aged 11 on the RSC stage, ambition is not something that comes as much of a surprise. Her first experience of the theatre came the day she moved to Stratford and her father charmed the woman on the box office into letting them watch a famously controversial production of The Taming Of The Shrew for a fiver.
“The lights didn’t go down on that production for 25 minutes. Jonathan Pryce” – who she has since told the story to – “comes in drunk, f-ing and blinding and pulling the scenery down… I remember theses American audience members standing up and going [adopts whiny, American accent] ‘We’ve come all the way from America; this is the RSC, what’s going on?’ And my dad looking down at his daughters thinking ‘Oh God, I’ve really ballsed it up this time’.”
But for Fleetwood a toddler-sized showbiz light bulb went off: “Immediately I was like ‘I want to do that, I want to be part of this world which is magical, where anything can happen.’ I went on to perform there as a child. I gave my Mustardseed and that was that.”
It’s this love affair with Shakespeare that has taken her from the dressing rooms of Stratford – where as a child she claims the plays were piped out of a tannoy into every room “Whether you’re in the loo or the dressing room or the green room” and straight into her blood – to playing her most prominent role to date, Lady Macbeth against Patrick Stewart in Goold’s hugely successful 2007 production that took her from Chichester to the West End and Broadway. Playing Lady Macbeth in your 30s is a daunting task but Fleetwood admits she would be lying if, with 10 Shakespeare’s under her belt, she found it so: “When you’re in a rehearsal room it’s like getting into a car and going on a long journey with everyone’s stuff in the back. If you keep stopping the car and going ‘are you sure we want to go?’, and think ‘this is really daunting’, you will get frightened, so you just have to keep ploughing through it.”
“I ended up going to Tiffany’s to get my earrings pushing my Bugaboo buggy, wearing Crocs and some socks”
As straightforward an attitude as this might appear, the enormity of the role didn’t escape her: “I remember my first performance in the West End, after the sleep walking scene I went to my dressing room and I just wept. I was so overwhelmed by how fortunate I was and that I’d just played that incredible role in that incredible production with those incredible people.” A Tony Award nomination followed, something she hesitantly admits to being a career high – “I’d be pretending to be blasé if I said it wasn’t,” she confides – though she is characteristically down to earth about the experience.
“In America they take those things incredibly seriously. ‘You’ve got to go to Tiffany’s and you’ve got to get your diamonds’” she says, adopting a demanding American voice. “I ended up going to Tiffany’s to get my earrings pushing my Bugaboo buggy, wearing Crocs and some socks because I don’t live that life! It’s only when I’m on stage I look remotely glamorous.” Sitting there laughing and looking every inch the off-duty film star, I can’t say I agree with her, and, as I point out, at least a Bugaboo is surely the most glamorous of buggies.
While Fleetwood might not be easily daunted, her role in the National Theatre’s London Road last year would have shaken the nerves of even the steeliest of women. Alecky Blythe’s piece was not only a musical about the Ipswich murders, which she admits “sounded incredibly insensitive”, but Blythe’s verbatim style meant learning both the music and text precisely, ‘ers’ and other stuttering’s included, and in this case without the help of Blythe’s usual earpieces on stage. “It was just a slog,” Fleetwood admits, with a pained look, “three or four sentences that would normally take 15 minutes to learn took four hours. But it’s still there, I could do it for you now it’s so engrained. Most of [the music] was learnt together, so we became a tight, tight family. Someone would get a bar right and everyone would leap in the air and do high fives in a really annoying manner!”
A snap decision to give one of her charaters, Julie, a limp led to a bizarre coincidence when Fleetwood met the woman after a performance. “The first thing she said was ‘Well you got my walk, you got my limp’ and her husband said ‘How did you know that?’ Then she hobbled out and Alecky said ‘I know I didn’t want to tell you, you just found it from nowhere!’”
Discussing London Road is just one of many points during my half hour with Fleetwood when she waxes lyrical about language, joy apparent on her face whenever the topic comes up. When I ask whether she might perhaps like to turn her hand to writing, she laughs in horror: “No, definitely not! I’d find the solitary nature of writing [grimaces]… I’d quite like to direct. I don’t think it will happen but my urge is that way inclined.”
When your husband is one of the names touted as being in the running to be the next Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, this statement becomes more loaded than she’d perhaps want it to be. The pair first met in 1998 when Goold directed her in a production of Romeo And Juliet and while professionally they have achieved great things together, it’s reassuring to know the pair aren’t too perfect with Fleetwood admitting “He very rarely tests me on my lines because I get shirty with him! ‘No, you’re doing it wrong, be quicker’ or ‘not too quick!’”
“Things are different, things are very different but we still have lots of fun.”
Our New Girl’s director Charlotte Gwinner may also be relieved to know that the theatrical pair rarely discuss their work when they’re not working together, as Fleetwood explains: “Partly I can get quite insular and just want to be in the thing I’m doing, but also he doesn’t investigate it out of respect for the director I’m working with. He tries not to see it too early if he can help it either because he knows what it’s like when directors come and see previews and it’s like ‘I’m not finished yet!’”
As the café fills up with members from the show’s cast and crew ready to start the morning’s rehearsals, I tell her I’m curious about one thing, a reference she made to having been a bit of a raver. Is there a wild past we don’t know about? Her first boyfriend was a techno DJ – “Not Rupert” she assures me, should I get confused – and in a past life she was a singer with bands: “reggae, techno, gospel whatever. I went to university and it was the time before the criminal justice bill and there were lots of free parties.” She pauses, with a slightly wicked glint in her eye, “And I enjoyed them.”
What about now, I ask? “I think the last time I went to a club was 10 years ago. New Year’s Eve was very low key. I was rehearsing that day and so Rupert said ‘I’ll sort it out’ so he did all the cooking with his friend and we had their kids in our bedroom in travel cots.” She pauses to laugh, “Things are different, things are very different but we still have lots of fun.” I don’t doubt it for a second.