The Affair’s Ruth Wilson on finding her feet in the US and ending the stigma behind adultery

The Luther star has gone stateside for her latest role - but is it her greatest performance yet?

The summer of 2012, Ruth Wilson and I sipped zingy beetroot smoothies in Hollywood, debating her perhaps impending Stateside stardom. She was at the tail end of filming The Lone Ranger, produced by the enormously successful Jerry Bruckheimer (of The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), having been cast as The Girl opposite Johnny Depp. Hollywood was attempting to anoint its next Brit Girl, but Wilson demurred.

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“It might be a complete bomb. There’s no guarantee it’s going to do anything for me career-wise,” she said. The Lone Ranger did indeed bomb, not necessarily hurting Wilson but not helping, either. And then she was offered The Affair.

A ten-episode US Showtime series airing on Sky Atlantic on 13 May, The Affair had barely begun in the US when a second series of ten episodes (also to air on Sky) was commissioned last November. By mid-January, Wilson’s American life had changed for ever. The Affair, the only newbie of the bunch, won best TV drama at the Golden Globe awards, beating Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, The Good Wife and House of Cards. Equally unexpected was Wilson’s individual best actress win, defeating Claire Danes (Homeland), Viola Davis (How to Get Away with Murder), Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife) and Robin Wright (House of Cards).

Wilson had her Stateside stardom at last, for a project not even a twinkle in her big blue eyes three years earlier, and with good reason. This double Olivier Award winner gives the performance of her already lauded career.

When we talk this time, Wilson is starring alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in Constellations on Broadway. Her enthusiasm for The Affair is immediately obvious. Starring Dominic West as her lover, Noah, and Dawson’s Creek and Fringe star Joshua Jackson as her husband Cole, the drama is set in Montauk in the Hamptons and quickly captivates its audience with a singular style of travel “porn”. This isn’t superstar-style Hamptons, replete with flashy stars/mansions, but a slightly scruffy seaside town with a lighthouse, lobster shack and a tiny close-knit community.

Noah and family (he’s a New York City teacher and wannabe author, wife Helen is the daughter of a wealthy successful writer) encamp to a family compound for the summer and meet Alison – played by Wilson – waitressing at the diner in town. When one of Noah’s children suffers a choking scare, the series’ signature device – a he said/she said approach that shows two different interpretations of the same events – is employed to excellent effect.

With half of the hour-long programmes devoted to Noah’s perspective and half to Alison’s, The Affair is an articulate metaphor for what we all suspect is true: men, if not from Mars, think differently from women. With the audience a silent participant in its own game of separating truth from fantasy, The Affair also gave Wilson a challenge – “I got to play two different versions of my character, if not three, because there is also the present day.”

While fantasy and fantastical elements abound, morality plays do not. “When I first took this job, I was quite keen on trying to upturn the stigma of affairs,” says Wilson. “I wanted it to be a love affair, the greatest love story between two people who happened to be married to other people. I don’t judge people for having affairs because there are two sides to every story, if not more.”

In one side of the story, Alison and Cole have suffered a catastrophic loss; she is enveloped in grief, while he is apparently uninterested and devoted in equal measure. But nothing is (almost ever) as it seems, nor is it black or white. Noah pictures Alison stripping off her clothes and revelling in her nakedness under her outdoor shower. Alison instead pictures Noah walking her home, smoking a different cigarette brand than he recalls. “I’m not sure the whole thing is even gender-related,” Wilson says.

“I think everyone has memories and remembers things differently, depending on the context of the moment. I will repeat memories and they become bigger, more extravagant and dramatised. Human beings create their own narratives, either to justify or put themselves down or to think they have done the wrong thing.”

The wrong thing is indeed a component once it becomes clear that the affair, while integral to the story, is not the whole story. Besides raw human drama, The Affair is also a murder mystery that pays homage to the likes of Damages. Men may identify with the men, women with the women, and more women with Alison than Helen – played by ER’s Maura Tierney – who is, like Cole, an unsympathetic character at times. Even the sex is debatable – consensual to some, rape to others.

And it is good sex, as in convincingly real, thanks to unflattering lighting, smooshed faces and sheets that fail to neatly cover bodies. American drama has long seemed more unnerved by nipples than bullets but here, safe in the embrace of progressive US cable channel Showtime, the sex is awkward and real. “It wasn’t something that jumped out at me because it felt like a real portion of the script,” says Jackson. “I mean these are married couples and sex hopefully is a part of marriage. We present sex and sexuality in all its varied and sometimes ugly forms and I thought that was compelling.”

That the series central characters are both played by Brits seems a coincidence, though Wilson is unsure. “Maybe it works because we’re British, because there’s something a bit different about us. And maybe we’re cheaper to hire. Perhaps it’s the theatre, too. Maybe our training makes us more malleable and versatile.”

She didn’t know West beforehand but knew his work on The Wire. “I’ve also seen him on stage and thought he was brilliant. When I knew he was attached,I knew there was a quality element to the project. He’s funny, charismatic, and always playing the buffoon.”

She bemoans only his failure to stay in character, accent included, between takes. “I try to stay in it, but Dominic makes me feel like a fraud: ‘What are you doing speaking in your American accent?’ It was quite difficult! It was a risky job to start with, but I’m a risk-taker. I like to be challenged and I like to feel scared.”

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The Affair starts on Sky Atlantic tonight (Wednesday 12th May) at 9.00pm