Anne-Marie Duff: “No-one’s allowed to be an enigma any more”

The Shameless actress discusses her new role in From Darkness, the draw of the theatre and the downside of being married to a movie star

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I meet Anne-Marie Duff at the National Theatre, during her half-hour lunch. Slim with a big smile, she’s dressed for the occasion. It seems only fair to let her talk us through her stunning outfit. “Ok, then… T-shirt, corset, full-length hoop-skirt and an apron. And mucky boots. Get me.” It’s actually a rehearsal get-up for her part in Husbands & Sons, the National’s new adaptation of DH Lawrence’s three mining plays (previewing from 19 October).

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Duff is playing Lizzie Holroyd, the title role of The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, which is being performed alongside A Daughter-in-Law and A Collier’s Friday Night. The plays are set in a mining community in Nottinghamshire in the early 1900s and were written as separate works, “but we’re plaiting them all together,” says Duff. There are still three stories, in different houses, but in this version, adapted by Ben Power, the audience will see them unfold at the same time. “There’s a Lars von Trier feel,” says Duff. “Sparse sets. It feels a bit like you’re in a rehearsal room.”

Duff appeared in A Daughter-in-Law 15 years ago at the Young Vic – and loves playing Lawrence’s women. “They’re fiery and sparky and aspirational in an interesting way, not just materialistically” she says. “There’s an acknowledgment of their sexuality, which is refreshing and exciting. They feel modern. Whenever you watch British new-wave movies, you feel like, “God, they must have read Lawrence..”

Duff with husband James McAvoy in Shameless

Lizzie is part of a love triangle, but she’s the main character. This suits Duff, who is happy to be part of a team – essential in theatre – but isn’t interested in playing what she calls “a facilitator for somebody else’s story”, which can too often be the case with female roles. “Characters should be all seasons,” she says. “It’s important that you play people who are all kinds of things, because that’s how we are… And I think that’s what people want to watch. It’s certainly what women want to see in female characters.”

Duff came to national attention in 2004, winning awards as Fiona Gallagher in Channel 4’s Shameless and later as John Lennon’s mum in Nowhere Boy, as well as being nominated for an Olivier for her stage work. She’s played roles as varied as Queen Elizabeth I, Joan of Arc and Margot Fonteyn and will soon be seen as Violet in the film Suffragette, with Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep. “There seems to be a nice shift in the atmosphere at the moment,” she says, regarding feminism and how women are portrayed in the movies and theatre.

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She’s far from being typecast, although each part involves a woman overcoming circumstances. Duff also never plays her characters utterly straight, instead bringing a complex mix of toughness and vulnerability to them. And in person, you feel that complexity too. She’s warm and friendly, with an endearing habit of calling you “mate”; but there’s also a sense of fiery energy and stillness combined. You don’t know whether she’s going to suddenly bolt or pull an unexpected ninja move.