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Q&A: Hattie Morahan

Published 29 July 2013

Last year saw Hattie Morahan tackle one of the most famous roles in theatre, playing Nora in playwright-of-the-moment Simon Stephens’ hugely successful adaptation of A Doll’s House at the Young Vic. Receiving not only an outpour of acclaim – “superb”, “intelligent” and “enthralling” were just some of the adjectives decorating her glowing notices –  the actress was declared Best Actress at both the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Awards, with an Olivier Award nomination to boot.

Naturally, then, we were thrilled to hear the news earlier this year that more audiences will be given the opportunity to watch her captivating performance as Ibsen’s – in her words – “slippery fish” when the show begins a West End run next month at the Duke of York’s theatre.

As Morahan prepares to step back into Nora’s – constricted – shoes, we spoke to the actress about revisiting a role, the importance of embracing yourself for who you are and the joy of a feral childhood.

What is your fondest childhood memory?

Hanging out and playing in the woods with my sister and cousins, and creating little worlds in the undergrowth for our toys. We used to escape from London most weekends. It was a chance to be totally free, almost feral, and I loved it.

What sparked your interest in performing?

I can’t remember anything in particular, it was just always there. I could be quite shy as a child and looning about or making people laugh was a way of connecting. Also, my family is in the business, so I’ve been exposed to theatre right from the start, for which I feel very lucky.

Who or what has inspired you?
I recently read the autobiographies of the painter Laura Knight in research for a film, and was bowled over by her spirit, humour and tenacity in the face of, at times, astonishing hardship. Her fierce love of life and art, and determination to learn from everything around her were contagious, and also a reminder of how easy we have things now in comparison.

What do you consider your big break?
I think there have been a few game-changers, either personal ones or in terms of reaching a wider audience. I’d say the first job I did with Katie Mitchell, Iphigenia At Aulis, which opened my eyes to a new way of working; then playing Elinor Dashwood in the BBC Sense And Sensibility, and A Doll’s House.

How has the last year been for you with the award-winning success of A Doll’s House?

Very lovely and busy, thanks! I think Ibsen’s play is phenomenal – and it feels an important story to be telling now – so if the awards attract more people to come and see it, then I’ll be thrilled.

What was your initial response to Nora as a character?
That she has a great deal of complex and contradictory impulses going on beneath the surface! She’s as slippery as a fish, infuriating and devious, yet also courageous and highly intelligent. And she has an extraordinary arc to get to grips with – that was a huge draw.

Has that view changed as you’ve played her and returned to her?

Not in any fundamental way, but it’s been great having the chance to reassess the original choices we made, and I think her journey has become clearer to me.  And I remain in awe of her bravery and resourcefulness, even if they can be misdirected.

What do you think has caught the imagination about this production in particular?
I think the combination of Carrie Cracknell’s rigorous attention to rhythm and detail, Simon Stephens’ nimble and deviously funny version, and Ian MacNeil’s extraordinary set has really brought the play to life. It was written over 130 years ago and yet still seems to be genuinely shocking and emotionally potent for an audience – it’s a complete thrill to perform.

What do you look for when taking a role?
It’s hard to categorise – and you’re very lucky if a project ticks all the boxes – but I’m always drawn to things which frighten me a little, when you know you’re going to have to take a leap somewhere new and out of your comfort zone. There’s also got to be some humour or comedy in it.

What is the finest performance you have seen?
It’s impossible to name just one! Off the top of my head, Andrew Scott in Sea Wall, Anastasia Hille in The Effect or Jamie Ballard in Thyestes at the Arcola. Or virtually anything I’ve seen Mark Rylance do!

If you could create a fantasy production to star in, who would you cast, who would direct and what would it be?
I think I quite enjoy submitting to the random nature of the industry – being thrown together on a project with people you don’t know, to work on a play that’s new or that you’d never thought of doing, and seeing how the different elements come together. It feels a ripe time for collaboration at the moment [and] there’s a wealth of amazing emerging writers and directors and actors who I’d love to work with. But I couldn’t name them, it would mean a sod’s law guarantee that the production would never happen!

Do you have any theatrical superstitions?
Make sure your costume’s not tucked into your knickers before you go on stage.

Have you made any sacrifices for the sake of your career?

The patience of friends or partners when you have to cancel a plan at the last minute because of a job or audition. That can feel pretty lousy.

What ambitions would you like to fulfill?

To keep doing work which stimulates and excites me for as long as I can.

What will always, without fail, bring a smile to your face?
My two-year-old Goddaughter dancing to David Bowie.

What book, film or album would you recommend to a friend?

A few years back, I seemed to give Edmund De Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes to most people in my life – it’s an utterly astonishing book. On film, I have a very soft spot for Harold And Maude.

What could you not be without?
Comfy shoes. I love making my way round London on foot and lose patience with tottery heels or scrappy flip-flops pretty quickly.

What would you choose as a last meal?
Roast chicken. With apple crumble for pudding.

Do you have any advice for young actors?
Have fun. Work hard. Be flexible and keep learning. Embrace what you are, don’t waste time trying to be someone else, or comparing your career to someone else’s, it’s a pointless exercise that only leads to madness!

If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
I’ve no idea.

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