facebook play-alt chevron-thin-right chevron-thin-left cancel location info chevron-thin-down star-full help-with-circle calendar images mail whatsapp directions_car directions_bike train directions_walk directions_bus close spinner11

Ruth Wilson

First Published 22 July 2009, Last Updated 18 March 2010

It is an odd sensation, chatting to Ruth Wilson; part admiration, part jealousy, part self-loathing and part-dumbfoundedness, writes Matthew Amer.

Every other sentence the actress, who leapt to fame in the BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre and is currently playing Stella in the Donmar Warehouse production of A Streetcar Named Desire, reels out a story, an anecdote or an idea that she has somehow managed to cram into a life so packed it makes a tin of sardines look as spacious as Wembley Stadium three hours after the end of a Take That concert.

Whether it be freeing leopards or quadbiking in Namibia, chatting with Wilson makes me feel slightly inadequate at every turn. If she had the merest hint of complacency or a self-congratulatory air about her, I could revel in disliking this charmed existence. But she hasn’t. She is, of course, a delight, and slightly confused as to why each successive story brings a wide grin to my face or draws a laugh.

In preparation for her role in Tennessee Williams’s most famous drama, for example, she took a trip to New Orleans to research the area in which the play is set.

“Wow, what a place,” she reminisces. “[The locals are] all like something out of a Coen brothers film; everyone speaks slowly but thinks quickly, so it’s very funny and very quick-witted but done in this very poetic way.

“And there’s so much soul, there’s an enormous amount of soul in that city, and it comes through in the music and the attitude of the people. They’re so lovely and welcoming and they love their city. They’re very protective of it and protective of the people in it. I don’t know if that was what it was like 50 years ago, but certainly it is what it’s like now, post-Katrina.”

The devastation of the hurricane, she says, is still very apparent four years after the disaster, though not so much in the French quarter where A Streetcar Named Desire is set. Being one of the city’s highest areas, it remained relatively safe above the flood waters. “There are houses that still have trees through them,” she explains, her demeanour less caught up in the moment, more reflective “and there are still crosses where they went round and checked how many dead were in each house.”

“They’re like something out of a Coen brothers film”

The New Orleans she experienced – 60 years on from when Williams wrote the play and following the effects of Katrina – at its core may resemble the city of old, but will undoubtedly have changed from the city of Blanche, Stanley and Stella. So have views about how men and women should live together. Stella’s relationship with the abusive Stanley has never appeared the epitome of a healthy marriage, but under modern scrutiny it looks more and more untenable.

“It’s hard to take away the modern attitudes towards a violent relationship,” Wilson explains, as we talk about her process for delving into Stella’s psyche. “It’s very hard to look at it from her point of view. But, I think, Stanley and New Orleans represents a certain kind of freedom for her; she felt much more oppressed in her old life, in the life with her sister on the plantation. There’s actually a kind of freedom and independence that comes with [her relationship]. Yes, it’s brutal and violent but they’re also deeply in love. It seems normal in that environment where everyone does it. It’s only when her sister comes down that she’s made more aware of what that relationship is, whether it’s right and whether she wants to be in it.”

Wilson sounds a little like the women she has spoken about with her probation officer mother who find themselves locked into abusive relationships, trying to justify the actions of their partners. The difference, of course, is that she is trying to justify the actions of her character; she must, to play the role convincingly.

From a distance Wilson, with her delicately arching eyebrows and soft features, could resemble a meek character, easy to dominate. In person, she is anything but. Already in her short career she has a history of taking control and making things happen. As we talk, her eyes occasionally shift to my interview crib sheet in an effort to be prepared for whatever comes next.

When she won her breakthrough role as the BBC’s Jane Eyre for the new millennium, she was prepared not for instant stardom but for the long slog of the struggling actress. BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations, and being touted as the next big thing, were not part of her plan.

“It’s brutal and violent but they’re also deeply in love”

“It’s quite shocking and it’s quite hard to deal with, actually,” she says, “being given so much praise early on. I’d always thought you had to climb a ladder. You should do; that should be the course of things really. Suddenly I’d gone up loads of steps that I felt I hadn’t taken yet.

“Obviously you get more choices of work that comes your way, but then it’s about choosing the right thing. That’s quite difficult too because you’ve just come out of drama school and been told to just take whatever comes and get experience. It’s very hard to make those decisions when your mindset is to do whatever comes your way.”

Though she would never complain about the boost given to her career by the popular costume drama, Wilson admits to spending the following years worrying about living up to that early precedent and feeling the need to prove there was substance behind the hype.

Only now, with Steven Poliakoff’s Capturing Mary and A Real Summer, the National Theatre production of Philistines and two soon-to-be-released projects, Small Island and The Prisoner, behind her is she “relaxing back into being an actor”.

It was while working on The Prisoner, alongside a cast full of British talent including Ian McKellen, Hayley Atwell and Lennie James, that Wilson took the quad bike trip around the Namibian sand dunes, went on safari and, along with Atwell, took an unnaturally close look at a shark’s teeth, separated from their flesh-ripping points by a cage. “It was quite frightening, very funny, but brilliant.”

While the Namibian pastimes sound enthralling, the shoot itself, Wilson says, was “difficult; I can’t lie”. Changes in directors and unfinished scripts made the process fraught and Wilson is still unsure how the series will end. She says that she thinks the photography “will look amazing” and that, though she is unsure entirely how the plot will play out, she should still be in the final cut as she recently recorded additional dialogue.

“I’d always thought you had to climb a ladder. You should do; that should be the course of things”

I get the feeling that the sense of confusion surrounding the shoot and the inability to rectify that problem would have grated on Wilson, her natural motivation driving her to crack on and organise things, rather than struggle in a dissatisfying mire. She is one of nature’s doers; in fact, I am surprised she sits for an hour while eating lunch. Having already built a reputation for performance, she is thinking of branching out. “I love acting, I absolutely adore it, and there are so many ways I can keep challenging myself, getting better and taking more risks, but I like to feel the other sides of it as well, the other sides of the coin.”

Part of that process will be her next project, scheduled for any time she has off in the coming year. She is the driving force behind a film festival that will bring together six or seven short films written and directed by women. Though she can’t quite pin down the role she is playing – “I’m Executive Producer… I suppose” – she has already enlisted the help of her role model Emma Thompson as mentor for the writers. “I’ve got no idea really what I’m doing,” she smiles, “I’m just pushing the idea forward. I want other people to do the nitty gritty, I’ll just push the idea. But through it I’ll learn how to do the nitty gritty as well. For me, it’s learning new skills and learning to be adept at loads of different things. I don’t want to just single out one thing that I want to concentrate on, but keep it varied.

“I want to direct and I want to produce. What I’ve found is, if you focus too much on the acting it becomes the be all and end all of what you want to do. It’s not in your control, what comes is what comes, so you do what comes well and you hope it leads to other things, but you really can’t control how it’s going to go.”

It is a lesson she learned from her Golden Globe nomination for Jane Eyre. The role, as it had in Britain, launched her into the consciousness of the American public and, more importantly, the American producers. Yet the show’s success coincided with the screenwriters’ strike and the cancelling of the Golden Globe ceremony; her momentum in that market place was lost.

At the time she was understandably upset, her chance to rub shoulders with George Clooney snatched from her. But she is philosophical about her chance coming round again. With Small Island, The Prisoner and Capturing Mary all due for a US airing, it could come in the near future, though Wilson assures me “I’m not going to pass up good work here for rubbish work there.”

If Wilson wants to crack America, move into films, direct, produce, even write – though she is less convinced about this particular avenue: “Writing means sitting down. As you know, I’m not very good at that” – I have no doubt that it will happen. It will happen because she will make it happen. “I won’t wait for it to come to me,” she beams. “It’s much better that way. It’s more fun. You get involved in all the areas of the industry and the creative world that you’re in. I want to try everything.” I’m worn out just thinking about it. All I can do is sit back and laugh in admiration.

MA

Share

Sign up

Related articles

If you click through to seat selection (where you'll see either best available or a seating plan), you will be seeing the most up-to-date prices. If this differs from what we've written on the calendar, please bear with us, as those prices will update soon.

We now sell our famous TKTS Booth discounts online here at Official London Theatre.

We are now cancelling all performances up until and including 31 May 2020 to help us process existing bookings whilst we wait for further clarity from the government in terms of when we will be able to reopen.

We are so sorry that in these testing and difficult times you are not able to enjoy the show you have booked for and hope the following helps clarify next steps in respect of your tickets .

There is nothing that you need to do if your performance has been cancelled, but we do ask for your patience.

If you have booked directly with the theatre or show website for an affected performance, please be assured that they will contact you directly to arrange an exchange for a later date, a credit note/voucher or a refund. If you have booked via a ticket agent they will also be in contact with you directly.

We are processing in strict date order of performance, so you are likely to be contacted after the date you were due to go to the theatre. However, we want to reassure you that you will be contacted, and your order will be processed, but please do bear with us.

We’d like to thank everyone who has been patient and kind in dealing with their ticket providers so far and we are sorry that we cannot process your order as quickly as we would like.

Please do not contact your credit card company as that will slow the process down and put an additional burden on our box office and ticket agent teams.

In order for us to serve our audiences the best we can, please do not get in touch with your point of sale if you have booked for performances after 31 May. Please be reassured that if we have to cancel future performances you will be directly contacted by your theatre or ticket provider. Our producers continue to plan for all eventualities dependent on the individual needs of their shows and we will provide further updates on specific shows as and when they become available.

We look forward to welcoming you back into our theatres as soon as we are allowed to resume performances. In the meantime stay safe and healthy.

While theatres are currently closed, various venues and productions are making announcements for their individual shows, including cancellations and rescheduled performances. Please check with the individual shows for details.