Keeley Hawes on The Durrells, turning 40 and learning to take more risks

The Line of Duty actor on filming in Corfu, working with children and animals and leaving darker roles behind

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Keeley Hawes isn’t one to be put off by the old adage that one should never work with children or animals. Her latest role, as Louisa Durrell in ITV’s six-part drama The Durrells, sees her dealing with both.

“Yes,” she says drily. “And now I would only work with children and animals, given the choice.” The Durrells has been adapted by Simon Nye from Gerald Durrell’s trilogy of much-loved novels including My Family and Other Animals. It tells the story of Gerald’s widowed mother (Hawes) who ups sticks after her husband’s death and takes her family from drizzly England to sunny Corfu in search of a better life.

The year is 1935 and Louisa must contend with a foreign climate, culture and language – as well as her foppish eldest son’s desire to become a writer, her daughter’s obsession with boys and sunbathing and her youngest son’s mania for bringing creatures home at inopportune moments. Episode one sees Gerald bringing a pelican home on a leash in order to study it. (As an adult, Gerald Durrell went on to become one of the world’s most famous conservationists, so perhaps his time with the pelican wasn’t entirely wasted.)

Anyway, says Hawes, when we meet in the ITV offices on a windy day on London’s South Bank, the children and animals in question were “just terrific. And there is that thing of just having to relax about it. There’s nothing you can do when you’ve got seagulls and pelicans and things flying around. You just have to give yourself over to it… If there’s any sort of controlling aspect in you as a person, that’s gone out of the window by about the second day.”

The cast and crew had six weeks’ filming in Corfu and “apart from being bitten by mosquitoes it was just glorious”. The result is a charming, gentle piece of Sunday evening television. Hawes is a delight in the role. Her Louisa Durrell is infectiously no-nonsense, beloved of her children despite her inability to keep her wayward offspring under control.

“She’s quite extraordinary,” Hawes says now. “When you think, in the 1930s, to take your four children as a single mother halfway across the world – because there’s no easyJet and there’s nothing to make that journey simple for you. And you’re carrying all your worldly possessions… It’s an enormous undertaking. She’s really, really brave.”

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Hawes turned 40 in February and celebrated with a quiet dinner with friends. In Louisa Durrell’s day, she points out, being 40 would have been considered distinctly middle-aged. For Hawes, however, entering a new decade has proved something of a liberation. 

“All anybody talks about is how old I am,” she says, laughing. When she speaks, Hawes seems forever on the brink of poking fun at herself. She frequently stops and restarts sentences, hesitating to find the right word or phrase, and half-expressed ideas are often left falling into ellipsis. For someone so self-possessed on screen, Hawes seems sweetly rather unsure of herself in real life. “People have talked about how old I am since I was about 29… Sometimes I have to stop and think: ‘I’m not actually that old.’

“I still don’t think of myself as a grown-up. But [getting older] is great. You do care less. You’re more prepared to take risks. You’re sort of… you sort of think, ‘Well, what’s the worst that can happen really?’” 

It’s an attitude that has led to her taking more creative risks. In her early career Hawes, with her delicate features and precise English accent, was often cast in period dramas (Our Mutual Friend, Wives and Daughters, Tipping the Velvet) before her breakout role as Zoe Reynolds in the hit spy drama Spooks. She met her second husband, Matthew Macfadyen, on set. The couple have two children, Maggie, 11, and Ralph, nine, and Hawes has a 15-year-old son, Myles, from her first marriage, to cartoonist Spencer McCallum.

“I started having children when I was 24, which, for an actress is young,” she says. “I just chose to go for it because I knew there’d never be a right time.” 

Does it help being married to an actor, who can understand the peculiar pressures of the job? 

She guffaws. “It’s not helpful when neither of you is working and you wonder how you’re going to pay for your life [but] you can be sympathetic in a way that other people can’t. You understand the sorts of horrible hours that you have to do.”

After Spooks, Hawes went on to play Alex Drake in Ashes To Ashes and starred in the 2010 BBC revival of Upstairs, Downstairs. But it wasn’t until she took on the part of corrupt detective Lindsay Denton in the second series of police drama Line Of Duty two years ago that we really saw her flex her dramatic muscles.

Hawes was a revelation in the role: stark, unsentimental, deliberately unlikeable and utterly devoid of vanity (she says one of the worst things was that Denton’s blunt and unflattering fringe took ages to grow out).

I wonder what it was like for Hawes – who is ridiculously, improbably beautiful in real life – to portray a woman who refused to play by the rules of conventional femininity?

“On the one hand, I loved it. It was so exciting and I was so thrilled to be given the opportunity to do it. Nobody had seen me like that before,” she says. “On the other hand, she was pretty dark. I mean, it was fairly hard going.” She’s about to take on another meaty role: that of a mother whose child disappears in the sequel to the gripping BBC thriller The Missing. She’s currently reading Kate McCann’s autobiography as research and is finding the preparation process “very, very dark”.

How easy is it to leave such characters behind?

“I think it’s much easier when you have three children. You go home and… it’s inevitable that you have to be there for them, in a totally different world. When you’re doing something like The Missing, it’s important to keep things light off set, because otherwise it would be torturous.” 

Besides, she says, it’s good that there are more multifaceted parts for women beyond the usual “wife” or “girlfriend” roles. There are still not enough, but, “It’s not going to happen overnight.Butthemorewe give people the chance to know that there are those opportunities, the more women will stand up and take them up.”

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When Hawes was a child, the notion of playing make-believe for a living was as far-fetched as being an astronaut. She didn’t know any actors. Her father was a black- cab driver, her mother a housewife, and she grew up on a council estate in London’s Marylebone.

“Everyone thinks I’m –” she breaks off and adopts a Dick van Dyke-style cockney accent, “like that. It’s really weird. Why? I mean, I only come from London.”

But then the Sylvia Young stage school opened across the road from her house and Hawes was intrigued. Without that happening, she says,

“I wouldn’t have known drama schools existed.” She badgered her parents to let her go. At Sylvia Young, Hawes’s best friend was Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton. She had elocution lessons (hence the cut- glass vowels). And it turned out she was pretty good at the whole acting thing. She left home at 17, did some modelling, then got her big break: a role in Dennis Potter’s television mini-series Karaoke.

“I had no idea what was going to happen to me,” Hawes says. “I’m still wondering what I’mgoing to do for a living.”

She thinks we still have an issue with class in Britain: “There are a lot of posh actors… I don’t really know what that’s all about. People from different walks of life are given different opportunities and that’s some- thing we have to look at.”

Her father is still a cabbie, as is her brother. Does she use Uber?

“Yes.”

But aren’t black-cab drivers furious at Uber for undercutting them and stealing their custom?

“I don’t think it’s a discussion that I’ve had with my dad. Uber is just a part of life.” She pauses. “But then I do use London taxis a lot and they’re brilliant,” she adds hastily.

Her dad probably doesn’t mind too much. His daughter hasn’t done too badly, all things considered – even if she still isn’t sure what she really wants to do for a living.