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Ruth Wilson "Audience's don't know who I really am"

This gifted, versatile actress is the very antithesis of a celebrity, and that’s just the way she likes it. By Simon Evans

She may be one of our most gifted actresses but Ruth Wilson can be a nightmare for would-be profile writers

She has rarely spoken about rumoured relationships with co-stars Jude Law, Jake Gyllenhaal or Joshua Jackson and spurns social media, which is actually rather refreshing in our media-saturated age, when the very definition of celebrity has become so debased as to be almost meaningless.

All of which made the 37-year-old’s decision to present her family’s innermost secrets to the public gaze, in the recent TV series Mrs Wilson, all the more surprising. Ruth starred in and executive produced the BBC TV series, the startling true story of her grandfather Alec’s secret life. Not only did Alec work for the secret service (exactly what he did is still shrouded in mystery) and write best-selling spy novels, but he was also married to four women at the same time, none of whom were remotely aware they were not the only Mrs Wilson.

One of those women was Ruth’s grandmother, Alison, who revealed all in a typed memoir 20 years ago. She only discovered that her husband had not divorced his first wife when he died in 1963 and the original Mrs Wilson turned up on her doorstep asking for his personal effects. Alison ended up handing over the burial rites to Alec’s first wife, and even had to ask the funeral director to change the inscription on the coffin as Alec had lied about his full name.

It’s an astonishing story that Ruth made into a drama with the help of screenwriter Anna Symon. It was the first time she had taken on the task of executive producer and having to learn on the job, as well as the decidedly odd nature of her role in the series, playing her own grandmother, took its toll on Ruth during the nine-week shoot. One particularly mind-warping scene called for her to lie on a bed in a film studio, in character as Alison, going into labour with her father.

“The whole thing was completely weird,” Ruth told Radio Times. “Being inside the skin of my own grandmother was extraordinary. Who gets to do that? It’s very rare and I’m privileged.

“Sometimes I could just inhabit the part and pretend the script wasn’t about my family, try not to see the clapperboard that said Mrs Wilson. But there were definitely moments of going, ‘What am I doing?’ When you’re giving birth to your father, for example. That was absurd. But my job is absurd.

“Halfway through I did think, ‘Why didn’t I get someone else to do this? Claire Foy?’ But other women playing my grandmother might have been concerned about me watching over their shoulder.”

Ruth said she did not want her grandmother to be “white-washed” and felt she was the only person uniquely equipped to show all the different sides of her grandmother, who was a very complex person.

“She was guarded and I now know why. She used to live around the corner and come for Sunday lunch every week. It was a close relationship but it wasn’t intimate. It wasn’t a warm granny hugging you.”

Ruth was still a teenager when her grandmother’s revelations planted a timebomb at the centre of her family. She was born in Ashford, Surrey, and grew up in Shepperton, not far from the world-renowned film studios, with three older brothers, Toby, Sam (a BBC journalist) and Matthew.

Being the younger sibling, Ruth says, led to her being “thrown off things and pushed off things and beaten up on a daily basis”.

Her mother was a former probation officer and social worker, and her father an investment banker, so acting was not something she seriously considered as a profession until a drama teacher at Esher College, where Ruth studied for her ‘A’ Levels, suggested she give it a try.

At her Catholic girls school she had, if anything, excelled at sport, playing rounders and hockey and captaining the netball team.

“I didn’t do any acting then. The school show was always a musical and I hated musicals so I refused to be part of it.”

Ruth did some work as a model in her teens after a scout for a London-based agency spotted her working in a café during the school holidays.

She eventually ended up on the cover of teen magazine, Mizz “with my hair in bunches and an inane grin on my face, looking about 12 years old”.

It was only when she went to Nottingham University to study history that she became involved in drama. Her group of theatrical friends included Michael Longhurst who, 15 years later, would direct her in the play Constellations on Broadway. She graduated in 2003 and went on to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA).

One of Ruth’s main assets as an actress has been her unconventional looks and a remarkable face capable of expressing deeply repressed emotion.

“I think I’ve got quite a weird face,” she says. “It sort of moves a lot. People have always pointed out my distinctive features – my top lip or my eyebrows – even when I was very young. They’d call me ‘ski-jump lip’ and all sorts of stuff; my family as much as anyone else. So I was always aware that I had these features that I couldn’t do much about.”

Her break-out part came just a year after graduating from LAMDA in July 2005, taking the title role in a BBC production of Jane Eyre that earned a Bafta nomination for Best TV Actress.

Roles in Miss Marple, the re-make of cult TV show The Prisoner and comedy shows Suburban Shootout and Freezing proved Ruth’s versatility, but perhaps her most arresting television role has been that of the psychopath Alice Morgan in the detective series Luther.

Right from the start of the series, in 2010, Ruth relished the role of this deadly muse to Idris Elba’s troubled detective.

“I remember reading the script with this female Hannibal Lecter and thinking, who gets that kind of part? She’s a delicious kind of psycho.”

She took time out from Luther for the American television series The Affair, winning a Golden Globe for her role as Alison, a waitress dealing with the death of her son, who begins a liaison with an older writer played by Dominic West.

The series attracted attention not just for its narrative conceit – showing the same scene twice, from the two main characters’ points of view – but also for some steamy sex scenes, something Ruth says she was embarrassed doing, especially with the thought that her family might be watching.

“A good sex scene is really difficult to do, so I feel there has to be justification for why a sex scene exists – just as every scene should exist for a reason. They shouldn’t just be there for titillation. I’d fight any scene that doesn’t feel justified.”

She found The Affair grueling to make, especially the first series.

“About five weeks from the end I was exhausted,” she told the Telegraph. “I had been there for three-and-a-half months and we still had to shoot the last two episodes. Then the scripts came in and they were pushing my character to new depths of despair. I just thought ‘I don’t know if I can do any more of this’. And I began to feel desperate to come home.”

In the end Ruth’s mum jumped on a plane and flew out to be with her for the closing weeks of the shoot.

“She doesn’t get involved in my life at all much but in this case she was like, ‘You need your mum’.”

Ruth eventually left The Affair after four seasons amid rumours she had been punished for complaining she was not paid as much as Dominic West. That’s something Ruth has denied, although her reasons for departing the successful show have not, as yet, been explained.

“It isn’t about pay parity, and it wasn’t about other jobs,” Ruth said at the time, “but I’m not really allowed to talk about it.”

Ruth has also taken on high-profile film roles, in Saving Mr Banks and Anna Karenina, all the while accepting that cinema is a very different discipline to television or theatre.

“I have to pull down the amount of expression I make. Otherwise it would be too much for the screen.”

She is perhaps most at home in the theatre. Four years ago she was nominated for a Tony Award for her part in the New York production of Constellations, starring opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. Inevitably rumours started circulating that they were an item, something Ruth was happy to deny, in an interview with The Guardian in 2015.

“Every man in any show I do, I get aligned with having a relationship with. It’s just people bored and trying to create a story.”

She clearly finds the whole idea of celebrity and being ‘papped’ by photographers puzzling and rather irksome.

During that same Guardian interview she said, “the only reason I get papped is because Jake is incredibly famous and so you get papped alongside someone having a sandwich at Dean & DeLuca and it’s suddenly something romantic.

“And yes, you have to get used to that. But I value my privacy so much, and I value that people know me as my characters, which is the best thing about it.

“They know me as Alice or they know me as Alison or whatever. They don’t know me very well and that’s the best way to keep it.” Time and again, after a particularly demanding television or film role, Ruth has gone back to the stage, most recently travelling to New York to open in a Broadway production of King Lear, playing the Fool opposite Glenda Jackson.

“I come from theatre and I feel like I have to go back to it every few years because it’s like nourishment for the soul. And, as an actor, it’s the place you have most control, no one cuts or edits you and you get to tell the story each night. It always boosts my confidence and my choices in the film and TV work I do after that. I tend to make bolder and more interesting choices after I’ve done theatre.”

In 2012 she won a prestigious Olivier Award for her title role in Anna Christie (playing opposite Jude Law) and was nominated again in 2017 for Hedda Gabler. These regular forays into theatre have helped Ruth steer clear of ‘A’ List celebrity status and all the problems that can bring. Not that she has consciously steered away from the limelight.

“I did The Lone Ranger, which was destined to be a massive hit,” says Ruth of the Disney movie that starred Johnny Depp and lost millions at the box office. “You never know how things are going to turn out. I don’t think it makes sense to go, ‘I won’t take it because it’s going to make me massively famous,’ because there’s no guarantee either way.”

That said there is an upside to her remaining relatively anonymous. Despite her striking looks Ruth says she is rarely recognised in the street and is still able to attend yoga classes and catch the Tube without being spotted. She even went incognito to a soup kitchen near her south London home one Christmas to help out Crisis, the homeless charity.

Most of her friends aren’t in the industry and when she goes to family get-togethers, her now greatly expanded extended family keep her grounded. “The kids have no interest in what I’m up to. The family are very proud of me. They’re probably quite bored with the things I say in the press, but they’re supportive.”

She finds award ceremonies especially irksome. “It’s awful; that is where I get the most anxiety, finding an outfit for an event. There is a risk that you end up fitting the mould that everyone else has created of a Hollywood star: girls that go into the industry are quickly made to look like all the other girls in the industry. I can’t really stand gowns, never have liked them, so I try my hardest to keep individual, but I don’t find it joyful looking for an outfit. It freaks me out.”

The actual process of acting, however, is not a problem; in fact she says it allows to express emotions she might not feel able to reveal in real life.

“Sometimes (in acting) you are being more truthful and more open and more honest than you would ever be in the same situation in your own life. I think in my own relationships I am probably less expressive in some ways. I am quite straight, quite Zen, not particularly dramatic. I kind of save it for my work. That’s why our job’s quite weird, you have to make very intense relationships quickly. And then they break and you don’t see that person for years.”

Mostly Ruth says she opts for roles that are totally unlike her real self, that she can hide behind. “I can be quite shy if attention is put on me when I am not expecting it,” she says. “I find it hard sitting round a table with a group of people when someone might suddenly say ‘Ruth, what do you think’?”

Only when Constellations came along and Ruth recognised something of herself in the character of Marianne, a socially awkward theoretical physicist, did she feel able to expose more of her real self on stage.

“I resisted it for a while because it was more ‘me’ than I had ever let myself be before. She was unapologetically brash and loud and that is a side of me, too. Often I am playing psychologically damaged or quiet outsiders or manipulative and intelligent people, but for once I got to play a real goofball.”

The last 18 months have been especially busy for Ruth. There was the fifth series of Luther and both starring in and executive producing the film The Little Stranger. And coming up soon is the TV adaptation of His Dark Materials.

Nothing quite matched Mrs Wilson, however, for full-on stress and weirdness.

“It was in many ways the most profound experience of my life,” she says. “I was pulling my hair out with stress and I went pretty much straight on to His Dark Materials. There was a time where I was thinking, ‘Oh God, I’m just exhausted!’ I needed to go off and do other things because you can’t get much weirder than doing what I’ve just done!”

The series did however give her the chance to lap up information about everything technical behind the cameras and to realise what a comparatively small role acting is in the context of the production of a whole series.

And Ruth loves the fact that Mrs Wilson brought her family closer together. “It’s amazing to suddenly discover that one of your new uncles was an actor and your oldest new uncle, who is 93, has just had his first poetry book published, that he wrote during the war.

“So there’s a real heritage and history of creativity and writing and acting and that’s all come down through my grandfather. Without me even knowing it, I’m following his path a little bit.”

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