By her own admission, the actress Juliet Stevenson doesn’t much like the aristocracy. In fact, she’s got a bit of an issue with the whole class system. “England is so shaped by issues of class,” she says, sipping angrily on her mug of peppermint tea. “We’ve got a two-tier education system. How’s it ever going to be anything else? I’m not a fan of this government. The divide, it seems to me, between rich and poor has got more and more extreme, unionisation has crumbled, working conditions are worse than 30 years ago…”
She catches herself, then smiles apologetically. “Sorry, I’m babbling.”
The irony is that we are here to talk about Stevenson’s role as Lady Clem in the second series of BBC1’s Bafta-nominated drama series The Village.
Lady Clem is a haughty matriarch who presides over the big manor house and is much given to disapproving facial twitches whenever she catches the slightest whiff of modernity rising up from the servants’ quarters.
“She’s patently not always likeable,” says Stevenson. “Clem is very much a product of her class. She’s very, very frightened about change.”
Whereas the first series of The Village dealt with the outbreak of the First World War and its devastating impact on a rural community, the second series is lighter in tone and looks at the postwar period of radical social change. It is an ambitious project.
The writer and creator Peter Moffat has set out to tell the story of the 20th century through the life of one Peak District village and there is a large cast comprising of 28 speaking parts, including John Simm and Maxine Peake, who play the put-upon farmer John Middleton and his wife, Grace.
Lady Clem’s role in the second series is, says Stevenson, “to represent the old world of Edwardian values. Narratively, Peter Moffat needed all those people who are challenging the status quo to have something to pit themselves against.”
That sounds quite different from your own take on the world, I suggest. “I know!” Stevenson replies. “It’s so not me. But that’s fine. The last thing I want to play is me.”
At 57, Stevenson is one of our most versatile and respected actors. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1978 and then went on to play a succession of stage, television and film roles, garnering plaudits and a clutch of award nominations along the way. Her films include Truly Madly Deeply, directed by the late Anthony Minghella, Emma, Bend it Like Beckham and Mona Lisa Smile. On television, she has starred in everything from The Politician’s Wife to The Hour and, more recently, the BBC’s fantasy series, Atlantis.
She has been outspoken in the past about the lack of roles available to middle-aged women but clearly she hasn’t been doing too badly herself. In person, she looks almost exactly as she did two decades ago – that same curious gaze and striking, angled face. She barely seems to have been out of work since her 20s, I say.
“I suppose it is getting better, but not hugely,” she replies. “There are a few roles that are great and meaty for women in their 50s and I’m lucky that I sometimes get offered them. Nevertheless, I spend quite a lot of time playing not very interesting women… They’re not at the centre of the action. They’re not driving the narrative.”
You can see why this might be a source of frustration. In person, Stevenson is delightfully forthright and a veritable whirligig of energy. She arrives a few minutes late for our interview in north London because, she explains breathlessly, she has been collecting clothes for a local charity and her 19-year-old daughter Rosalind is just back from Oxford University for the holidays and vast boxes of teenage stuff are cluttering up the family home and her long-term partner, the anthropologist Hugh Brody, is away for work in Canada and she’s terribly, terribly sorry and can I find it in me to forgive her and so on.
Speech comes tumbling out of her like water from a tap. It’s one of the reasons why, despite her professed interest in politics, she says she could never consider standing for parliament.
“I prefer to say what I think and take the consequences,” she admits. Plus: “I loathe meetings.”
It’s certainly true that she has an innate need to express herself. When she was nine and at boarding school, Stevenson vividly remembers discovering a WH Auden poem and being bowled over the rhythm of the words.
She insisted on performing it at a school speech day although, at that stage, she had no notion of becoming an actress “any more than I would have of becoming a car mechanic”.
Until that point, she had experienced a peripatetic childhood. Her father, an army officer, was assigned a new posting every two-and-a-half years. Every time, Stevenson made new friends “and then, you’re on the boat and that was it. There was no phone, no email. That was the end of the friendship.”
It was only having her own children – Rosalind, 19, and Gabriel, 13 – that made her realise how strange it was. She remembers being at yet another new school, this time in Germany, and locking herself in the toilet at break-time thinking: “I know I should be out there making friends, but I just can’t.”
“It was difficult but it also had its advantages,” she says now. “I have a capacity to look around and say ‘OK, I’m going to make my world with these ingredients’ and I think that’s maybe why I can cope with that aspect of being an actress.”
Although she ended up going to private school herself, Stevenson sent her own children to the local state school out of principle. With acting being a notoriously fickle profession, I wonder if she worries that it is increasingly becoming the preserve of the independently wealthy – after all, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Damian Lewis all went to fee-paying schools?
“Well, the whole thing of tuition fees worries me,” she says. “As soon as you charge kids fees for tertiary education, of course that’s going to result in a class divide… How on earth are you going to pay back thousands and thousands of pounds of loans as an actor? So of course it [acting] is becoming class-related.
“Every week, I get a letter saying ‘Dear Mrs Stevenson, I’ve got a place at Lamda, I’m waitressing but I don’t have enough money. Can you help me raise the necessary funds?’ Most people in my position will get these letters. Of course there is a class divide.”
Stevenson considers herself one of the lucky ones, who got into Rada in the days when everyone was eligible for a grant. She had originally applied to Bristol to study English and drama because it seemed like the sensible thing to do, but then changed her mind: “I woke up one morning and thought ‘What on earth am I going to do with a degree in English and drama? I’m going to teach drama. No! I’d rather do something completely different or actually act.’”
At Rada, her contemporaries included Imelda Staunton (“even then she was staggering – she could do anything: break your heart, make you laugh. She was just wonderful”) and Stevenson learned the nuts and bolts of her trade. These days, it makes her cross when she meets young actors who just want to be celebrities.
“I think there’s a huge trend of ‘Get famous quick’,” she says, and the mug of peppermint tea starts being waved around animatedly. “When I started, no decent agent would let a young actor of 20 or 22 go into a television series. No. You go to regional theatres for two years and you learn your craft. It’s an apprenticeship and then, when you’ve got that stuff rooted in you, then you can become a TV star.”
She puts the tea down before it sloshes over the sides and runs her hands through her fair, trying to smooth it down. Immediately, it springs up again.
“I meet wonderful young actors who are really interested in their craft but equally, I meet a fair few who have become successful, who have earned quite a lot by their early 20s and who don’t see the point of training and they’re very difficult to work with,” she says. “They don’t see a scene as being between two people because it’s just them and the camera. And in my view, the whole thing is a collaboration…” And she’s off again, pouring eloquently forth until she runs out of breath or tea – whichever might come first.
The Village series two starts tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1