Ruth Wilson on sex scenes with Dominic West, female nudity, and those Jake Gyllenhaal rumours

The British actress refuses to play by the rules in her steamy, addictive new drama The Affair

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Oh my God,” says Ruth Wilson with a somewhat mortified smile when I tell her that I’ve been having a very “Ruth Wilson-intensive week”. I’ve not only seen her Broadway debut, Constellations, a love story during which she and Jake Gyllenhaal are the only people on stage for 70 minutes, but I’ve also been bingewatching The Affair, the gripping TV drama for which Wilson recently won a best actress Golden Globe, about loss, betrayal, grief, loyalty and a hot and heavy affair, co-starring Dominic West.

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Much ado has been made of the show’s sex scenes, and Wilson – today wearing an oversized fuzzy sweater, trousers, trainers with no socks and a messy ponytail – wants to emphasise that these are not your average bump-and-grind, mindlessly cheap TV thrills – they have been carefully choreographed and planned. “Of course, in The Affair, you have to have sex scenes,” says the 33-year-old actress, stretching her arm across the back of the chair next to her. “That’s a major part of the relationship. But it was about making it as interesting and important as the rest of it. I argue this stuff all the time; that these scenes need to be real and they need to have a narrative as much as any other scene. They can’t be purely titillation. They need to move the story and the characters forward.

So for Dominic and myself, every time it came up we asked, ‘Do we need this? What are we saying with it? How can we choreograph it so that it has something to say, so that we can act within it?’” She continues passionately, oblivious to the fact that the diners next to us have recognised her and are now not-so-surreptitiously eavesdropping. “I have a big concern about how women are treated in the industry generally, and how they have to provide the titillation because penises can’t be seen on screen but breasts can. It’s assumed that women will get their breasts out, and have to get their breasts out, and I balk at that. It’s unnecessary and it’s unfair. 

So I kept insisting, ‘Why have I always got to do the orgasm face? There should be a male orgasm face. Why is it always the woman who’s orgasming? Let’s analyse the male orgasm. Why aren’t we thinking about that a bit more?’ It’s hard to make good sex scenes work – there are so many crap ones out there.” Although the Golden Globe-winning series The Affair is huge in America, it only begins airing in the UK this week, meaning that, so far, the former convent schoolgirl from Surrey has avoided the awkwardness of her parents seeing the scenes. “When it does come out I’ll leave the country,” she says. “It’s vulnerable. You’re naked and you’re in this situation and you know your family is going to have to watch it. I can’t cope.”

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Wilson’s parents – Mary, a probation officer, and Nigel, an investment banker – have been witnessing their daughter’s vulnerability on stage and screen for more than a decade. Her early relationship with acting was one of love/hate. “I went to a drama club that my brothers went to, and I enjoyed it, but I also hated it because I was so shy,” she says. “There’s a real part of being humiliated, of facing up to shyness and overcoming embarrassment [with acting], so I stayed with it. And I loved performing.” Even though she was “completely clueless” about how to get into the entertainment industry, Wilson decided early on to pursue it.