It’s a little bit surreal, going from an episode of the new season of Atlantis – which, by the way, has turned rather dark and brilliant – to meeting its star, Sarah Parish, in a deli in Hampshire. In real life, she is intensely human, warm, beautiful but unselfconscious. There is something adventurously conspiratorial about her.
Meanwhile, back in the primetime land of myth, she can crush a mountain by looking at it in an angry way. That’s acting, I guess. Or part of it. “Recently, I’ve done a lot of parts that have been quite po-faced, I think,” she says, self-critically.
“No, that’s way too harsh!” I protest. “They’re strong women.”
“Of course! Strong women. It’d be nice to play somebody who’s a little bit more cheerful.”
She describes her 20s as plagued by self-doubt, and is so natural and open, one has to believe it – but it’s really hard to square with the 46-year-old Sarah Parish of today, who’s about to go on and give frank, often hilarious opinions about everything from men and their muscles to the humiliating process of securing a Hollywood break.
Parish’s career started straight out of drama school with eight years of pub theatre and theatre-in-education, but for the nation it began with the Boddingtons ad of 1994 when she was 26. That’s when the country noticed the arresting expression in her eyes, the perfect English actor: gorgeous, scary-clever, loves a pint. She never, in the 90s, thought of herself as a star of anything.
“I had no confidence. I think because I started so low. I had quite low expectations. I felt one step behind, and it’s always been, ‘I can’t believe they actually chose me’. I went for small parts because I thought that was probably the only thing I would get. I never auditioned for leads. I just assumed I wouldn’t get them.”
That is said with so much self-parody that I feel like I’m allowed to ask: “Do you think you missed out because of that?” Huge eyebrows: “Well… ya think? But you live the life you’ve lived, don’t you? I didn’t have that God-given confidence you get from going to a public school and going to Rada. I went to a comprehensive and felt lucky if I got a job in the chorus. But the upside is I was never disappointed.”
She’s very open. I decide that the only show-bizzy thing about her is that she drinks peppermint tea. Then I decide maybe it’s time I got over my prejudice against peppermint tea. In 1997, she got a part in Peak Practice. She has a peculiar nose for the mould-breaking next show, whatever that would be. If someone tried to pitch Mistresses to you, you wouldn’t be able to imagine it: a bit like Sex and the City, except English, with a surreal sense of humour that’s often on a knife edge of whether or not it’s deliberate, all about men and yet the men are curiously irrelevant.
“Everyone always talks about Mistresses,” she laughs. “It was a great female-led bit of telly, before you really had female-led telly.”
How different is the industry now, for women as people, rather than as 18-year-old love interests? Her characters don’t seem to be sidelined or smaller as she gets older. I wonder if that would have been true 20 years ago.
“I did hear something alarming the other day,” she says. “I bumped into a friend at an audition, another girl my age. I asked if she was still doing this show – I can’t tell you what it is – and she said, ‘No, it was cancelled. The reason they gave was that they already had a female-driven programme.’ Wow. Because you can’t have two female-led dramas on telly. How awful would that be! So we’re still not there. I don’t know if we’ll ever be equal. We’ve still got an old-fashioned way of receiving female characters. They’ve got to be the wife, or they’ve got to be nuts.”
Steering such a varied course across telly must surely have required a bit of planning, though she denies any strategic thinking. She has been married since 2007 to the actor James Murray but she’s never done the non-acting performing that seems to go with the job, the standing on carpets outside venues in borrowed jewellery.
“We’ve never been papped, or followed around or anything like that. I just think we’re really boring. We go to the pub a lot. We made a choice to leave London and not be in the world of going to the opening of blah. I can’t be bothered with the rigmarole of getting dressed, having your photo taken. We would definitely let ourselves down, as well. So it’s best that we’re kept in the corner somewhere, away from prying eyes. Otherwise they’re going to see my knickers.”
The couple have also, more than ever in the past year, had work outside acting, in the form of their charity, the Murray Parish Trust. “It’s in memory of Ella-Jayne, our first daughter.” She died of congenital heart failure at eight months old, in 2009, and they’re trying to raise a million pounds to build a children’s intensive care unit for the new hospital at Southampton.
“It’s a terrifying and traumatic time [when your child is ill], you just want to be there all the time. They really, really need this hospital. The accommodation they’ve got for parents at the moment is so sad. £70 million it’s going to cost. Our charity is the little Jack Russell that goes down the hole and scoops everybody out. The big money will
come in afterwards.”
Their second daughter, Nell, is now five. Loves Frozen. Totally messes with the career path. “My agent will say, Darling, you’ve got to do a play’. I don’t want to do a play. Why do I have to do a play? You have to go off and do your time in a play to remind a certain genre of people that you’re still an actor. It’s a ball ache. I don’t want to have to leave my daughter and go to London every night.”
But that doesn’t mean she’s shelved her ambitions: if anything, she’s become more determined, getting that brilliant part in BBC mockumentary W1A (above) – Anna Rampton, the Head of Output, who says “I don’t want that” to everything.
“I really had to work for it, because it was something that I really wanted to do. It’s the only sort of comedy that I find remotely funny. I’ve got a real in-built hatred of that set-up sitcom stuff that we do quite a lot. I find it really exhausting to watch, because it’s just not funny.”
Parish has an endearing habit of making acting sound like just another regular scrape you might get into. She tells me about pilot season in Hollywood, where actors converge on Los Angeles, all looking to be cast in the series
that might make their career – the process that landed her a role in the drama Hatfields & McCoys (below) opposite Kevin Costner.
“If there was a little room you could go in beforehand where you checked in your dignity, your soul and your pride, that would be fine. But unfortunately you have to go into pilot season as a whole person.”
“Every day you drive around with your clothes in the back of the car, you sit in rooms full of people as sad and as desperate as you are, with so much make-up on they could sink the Titanic, tiny little thin people. Sometimes casting directors might look at you, sometimes they might be on the phone, sometimes they’ll talk over you. And more often than not, you’ll hear nothing.”
“I have got jobs out of it before, but it’s just not worth it. We tape all our [audition] stuff in our garden shed, now. Having a shed in our back garden has made us a lot of money, me and Jim.”
She describes an insensitive, hardknocks, close-scrutiny world, as horrible for men as it is for women. “You have to have a six pack, you have to have a pair of glutes, you have to wax your chest. You have to sign a contract saying you will show your bum. You see these poor guys right before a scene, doing press-ups, when they should be thinking about their character. That’s what we’ve come to expect from men on screen now. It’ll be from up there [she gestures to some nameless authority]. Hot, young people with perfect bodies. That’s what people want to see.
“And of course it actually isn’t what people want to see. I want to see interesting faces. I want to see different bodies. I want to see people I can relate to. There’s nothing attractive about knowing a man has been flexing in front of a mirror five minutes before a scene. When did that become sexy? And I don’t want to see a woman looking starved to death. When did that become sexy?”
“These are first world problems,” she says later, wryly. “It’s very easy as an actor to live in a bubble and think that life is about acting, and of course it’s not. It can turn you into a bit of a monster.”
It can do, but 20 years of it only seem to have made Sarah Parish more excellent.
Atlantis returns today (15th November) at 8.30pm