October 2002 was an October much like any other; the days got shorter, the nights got colder and the end of the month saw a rise in pumpkin sales and ghostly sightings. In addition to the usual autumnal fare, the BBC hit the headlines for screening Tipping The Velvet, possibly the most controversial costume drama in the history of push-up corsets. As a result Rachael Stirling, who led the cast, was shot into the limelight. Nearly a year on she is taking to the West End stage, playing Hester Worsley in A Woman Of No Importance at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Matthew Amer caught up with her at the end of rehearsals…
“We’ve just done our second run through and, of course, it’s panic because you realise just how much you’ve got to learn. But that’s normal and all in the quest to be better, so it’s a good thing.” Stirling, who has been rehearsing all day, sounds remarkably upbeat about her panic-inducing rehearsal, but is also slightly out of breath as she walks through Regent’s Park back to her car whilst conducting an interview on her mobile.
“It's about absolutely real emotions and real human beings.”
Although A Woman Of No Importance is full to bursting with the wit and one-liners expected of Wilde, it also has a darker and more human complexion: “It becomes about absolutely real emotions and real human beings.” The play’s plot follows the strained relationship between a mother and her son in which much has been hidden, especially about his father. Stirling plays Hester Worsley, the son’s puritanical love interest whose strong moral views come under close scrutiny through the course of the plot.
After the media furore that surrounded Tipping The Velvet and the pressure that went with acting in almost every scene, a supporting role opposite Rupert Graves, Prunella Scales and Samantha Bond sounds like an ideal way to return to the public eye. With other well known actors leading the cast, the spotlight is removed from Stirling, a position she relishes. “It’s a wonderful part but it doesn’t carry the play. I am able to stand on the sidelines and watch and learn from actors who’ve been in the theatre, working on stage for years”.
An extended period of time on the stage, performing in front of a live audience again, is just what Stirling was looking for after her TV exposure. “What I needed was to get my head down and do some proper, serious, day in, day out work where you analyse a piece time after time and get to know a character much better than you do when filming.” Although the majority of her previous work has been in film and television, there is clearly a theatre-shaped soft spot in her heart. “I absolutely love the theatre and it’s something that I would like to dedicate a large part of my life to. There is no cutting or shaping or editing, you are utterly answerable to an audience who see you on stage. Every move must be thought and considered and then made to look as if you haven’t thought about it at all.”
"I needed to get my head down and do some proper, serious, day in, day out work."
Stirling did not take the same route as many of today’s actors, attending stage school or drama college, but instead chose to go to Edinburgh University to study History Of Art. It has been her own talent and drive to learn from those around her that have made her one of the hottest young actresses in the business today. “I want to learn from other people who’ve been in this profession for a very long time. I think it is vital to understanding and becoming better, which is all I want to do. As an actress you learn more from going to the theatre every night for five months, to speak the same lines and do the same things, than you do driving in a Mercedes to go to a film set, doing a scene once and moving on.”
and Stirling’s stage debut came in 1997 when she played Desdemona in the National Youth Theatre’s production of Othello. She went on to make more stage appearances including seasons at the ArtsDonmar Warehouse. She played supporting roles in films including Still Crazy, Maybe Baby and Another Life and on television she played Lulu in ITV’s updated Othello. But it was not until Tipping The Velvet came along that she took a lead role. It was a brave choice of show. “What I’ve always done is take parts which are supporting in order that I was able to learn, until eventually the right script came along at the right time, which happened to be Tipping The Velvet. I believed I was absolutely right for that part and I knew the baggage that was going to come with it in terms of press. By that time I felt I was prepared for it”. That anyone could have been prepared for quite what happened is a minor miracle. The show told the story of a young lesbian living in the 1890s and the bedroom antics of Nan Astley and her various lovers caused controversy in many camps and drew attention away from the story of a woman grappling with her feelings and trying to find herself. “It was absolutely blown out of all proportion, but then that is the English prudish response. In America, when it came out, it was received with nothing but wide-eyed curiosity and a willingness to enjoy this rather different piece of drama. In England it was all about the dildo!”
For many the experience of being thrust so quickly into the public arena could have been too much. It would have been easy to get caught up on the media merry-go-round, unable to get off. But Stirling was fully prepared for the publicity circus – where journalists are either bumbling clowns or lions waiting to snap their jaws tightly shut – which came with her performance. “You’re suddenly whizzing from radio studio to TV studio to publicise it. You go off on this trip which I found kind of extraordinary but also overwhelming and dangerous because you can suddenly become a real little media brat and I thought ‘that’s the one thing I don’t want to do’.” Not wanting to get swept away in a sea of hype Stirling is also very concerned with keeping herself grounded in reality and not becoming a parody of herself. When all the excitement surrounding Tipping The Velvet had died down she filmed a low budget movie in Ireland before buying a house and “doing a bit of housewife-work. I painted a few shelves, stuff like that.” For one so young, with so many temptations around, she holds a very mature outlook on show business. “The fact is I don’t want to be a flash in the pan. I want to be around, working, when I’m 70 and I don’t think you get there by flying.”
"I don’t want to be a flash in the pan."
Stirling’s concern abut working her way up through the industry cannot be illustrated better than in her decision not to use the name of her famous mother, Diana Rigg, to help her land parts. In fact, at an early stage in her career she kept her parentage a secret. “When you’re young and you’re an actress and you get your first part, if you’re somebody else’s daughter quite often that is attributed as the very reason you got the part in the first place. I didn’t hide anything. I was just careful. Now I’d shout it from the rooftops gladly. I feel entirely responsible for whatever it is that I’ve achieved, which is important for one’s confidence.”
There are many great actors famed for the lengths they go to getting into character. Daniel Day Lewis recently spent months working in a butcher’s shop preparing for his role as Bill “The Butcher” in Gangs of New York and Dustin Hoffman famously, when filming a scene in Marathon Man with Sir Laurence Olivier, ran round the block before every take so that he would be out of breath like his character. Sir Larry was not amused, suggesting very politely that he should ‘try acting’. Stirling has her own special way of finding her way into a character; “It’s a little secret. Each girl I play and each woman I portray has a different scent about her. Sometimes when I’m walking down the street I suddenly come across Nan Astley from Tipping The Velvet because somebody’s wearing Clinique Happy.” A technique such as this would surely make the lives of Day-Lewis and Hoffman a little easier. But what will be the scent of Hester Worsley? “It’s got to be something rather simple and pure, maybe based on a single flower like Lily of the Valley or Jasmine. I’ve got a feeling it might be Issey Miyake.”
"Some of the best actors in the world are in this city."
Once the run of A Woman Of No Importance has drawn to an end in January, the future is unclear for Stirling. Although there are rumours abound of a possible film with her mother nothing has been set in stone, leaving Stirling footloose and fancy free for a while. “I think I might need a holiday and bit more foot adhesive to the floor, if you know what I mean.” A stab at Hollywood maybe? “If a great script comes through the door and a great opportunity with it, then yes, but I’m slightly loathe to go out to LA looking for work when actually some of the best actors in the world are in this city.” For the moment she is simply concentrating on the here and now and enjoying performing to a packed auditorium every night. “It’s great. I’m so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the moment, I can’t tell you.”