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.

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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.”