Charlotte Riley believes in magic… but she’s not under Hollywood’s spell

The Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell actress on the supernatural, finding her feet with Captain Hook – and her marriage with Tom Hardy

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Charlotte Riley will never make a movie star. Three things movie stars never do: they never run out of a room mid-interview to make sure the journalist has a glass of water. They never share a bag of popcorn during the chat. And they never start an interview: “I’m sorry if it stinks of egg in here. I’ve just had an egg sandwich.” 

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She’ll have to up the diva quotient to fit into Hollywood – between them, she and her husband Tom Hardy are powering half the big- screen blockbusters this year. Hardy, of course, has Mad Max and is playing the Kray twins in Legend. Charlotte is shortly appearing alongside Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman in London Has Fallen, as well as Chris Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy in ocean-going epic In the Heart of the Sea. With a Stephen Poliakoff series also under way, it seems there’s nothing she can’t do. The girl is unstoppable.

Before she vanishes to America for good, she’s currently in one of the most anticipated TV dramas of the year – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Susanna Clarke’s 2004 bestseller is set in an alternative Regency England where magic once existed and two magicians summon their battle fairies in a bid to restore it.

She won critical praise for her arch literary references, wry style and faux-scholarly footnotes (although some found the pace too slow and the characters lacking passion). Wallander writer Peter Harness’s script has flipped this completely – and it’s Riley’s expanded role as Arabella Strange that injects the rambling epic with a crackling romance worthy of a 1940s screwball comedy.

In the book, Arabella is a dutiful wife. On screen Riley is at least the equal of her magician husband Jonathan (Bertie Carvel) and jousts happily with everyone from Regency politicians to dark magicians with murky intent.

“1940s romcoms are a good way of describing the Stranges’ relationship,” she agrees. “They’re both cheeky and nosey and they move together like a little shoal of fish. She chastises him but in a warm and caring way. She’s very modern in that sense. And Bertie and I had a supportive friendship during the filming – you have long hours and early-morning car trips and he was always upbeat and cheerful. He was great.” 

She found the drama fascinating in other ways. “I find – very weirdly – that I often get roles that reflect a little bit what’s happening in my own life, so I get to express that. There’s always some synchronicity.” 

There’s a pause while we consider her recent roles: fighting off a giant time-travelling alien, being kidnapped by evil fairies, battling to save London from terrorists. She grins. “Yes, you see, as I was saying these words, I knew the next question is going to be: what on earth’s going on in your life..?”

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She has a great interest, she says, in understanding the world beyond what we can easily see. “I find supernatural things exciting. I love the idea that magic could be real. It depends on your definition of magic really, doesn’t it?” She likens ancient fairies in the show with “nature spirits”. “Just because we can’t see, perceive and quantify things, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. This show is a nice metaphor for that.”