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.