Helen McCrory arrives in the north London pub where we have agreed to meet wearing checked trousers and a peaked flat cap to keep the sun off her face. She speaks rapidly as if struggling to match the pace of her own thoughts. The whole impression is that of an energetic Victorian chimney sweep or an extra from Oliver Twist.
At first, I don’t even recognise her. But then, she has always been a chameleon, an actress capable of feats of transformation. At 48, her CV is testament to her range: she was Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, Medea on stage and is about to reprise her role as Aunt Polly in Peaky Blinders (the cap she’s wearing was actually borrowed from the set).
Her latest incarnation is as the lead in ITV’s new political thriller, Fearless, scripted by Homeland writer Patrick Harbinson. McCrory plays Emma Banville, a campaigning lawyer who fights to free a man she believes was wrongfully convicted of killing a schoolgirl.
RT: What drew you to the role?
HM: Patrick got in contact with me and said, “We’ve written something for you.” And I read it.
I loved the fact that you could tell he’d been writing in America for so long. It just eats plot, like the American dramas do: plot is king and you kill a storyline in 60 minutes that in British drama would often take six hours to do.
And I really like Emma. I like the fact that she cares about other things more than herself. And in such a narcissistic culture it’s really nice to read a character who actually does put other things in front of them.
Emma has no children and you get the sense she’s devoted herself so much to her work that she hasn’t found the right time for motherhood.
Was that an important part of her character?
I liked that Patrick wrote her as a person rather than necessarily as a woman. Through the series, she wants to adopt a child and there’s a vulnerability there. I know from friends of mine that it’s very hard to have children later in life.
I think we’re all pioneers as women now because there’s no blueprint. My generation – we weren’t quite told you could have it all. And of course you can’t.
Emma sacrificed things because of who she is and what she wants to do, and that’s her personal life, and I know that to be true for lots of women. Lots of really great writers, producers, directors, actors that I’ve worked with – they go home alone.
But you seem to have managed it. You had your children [Manon, ten, and Gulliver, nine, with actor Damian Lewis] in your late 30s once you’d established yourself as an actor. Was that a conscious decision?
No, it wasn’t. I was brought up in Africa [McCrory’s father was a diplomat and she lived in Nigeria, Cameroon and Zanzibar] and I was very much without the influence of advertising or being told what a girl should be or what I should aspire to be. I didn’t really ever have those images of being “the mother” or “the wife”.
McCrory with husband Damian Lewis at the 2013 Olivier Awards
Of course, everyone in life wants someone to love and be loved by, but I think I was always just engrossed and involved in work. And no, the timing was pure fluke, pure chance, it always is, isn’t it? That’s what’s so horrible.
You fell in love with Damian when you were both starring in a play at the Almeida in London in 2003. Was it love at first sight?
He just made me laugh a lot. And still does.
What’s it been like watching his success in the US series Homeland and Billions? Do people assume he’s an American now?
Yes, they’re so confused that he’s not. We get stopped in New York and he says [English accent] “Thank you very much.” And honestly, they look like you vomited on them! I’m so proud of him.
As we know, just because you’re talented doesn’t mean you’re going to be successsful. So I’m really, really proud of him and really pleased for him. And he wears it well.
Is he equally supportive of you?
Yes, he is. Much more so than I am. He was the one that persuaded me to do Fearless. He told me, “You have to do Fearless. You have to.” I pointed out that he was going to be in America filming Billions and in ten years I’ve always had the children when he goes away filming. But he replied, “Well, I’ll do it. Of course I can.”
Helen McCrory as Emma Banville and Jonathan Forbes as Dominic in Fearless
Fearless deals with the encroachment of national security on our everyday lives. Is that a subject that concerns you?
No. Because at the moment I’m not trying to topple a government. Who knows? Tomorrow I may be.
How did you prepare for the role of a campaigning lawyer?
Actually, I sort of hijacked someone on a train. I was playing The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre and I was going into rehearsal one morning on the Tube and I heard this guy chatting away, and he said, “and another thing is that human rights lawyers are constantly misrepresented”. So I earwigged on the Northern Line and then followed him off the train at Charing Cross and I was pegging it down Fleet Street and I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation…”
He looked quite alarmed as he held his bag closer to him. And I said, “I’m an actress and I’m about to play a human rights lawyer, what do you know about it?” The guy was called Adam and was a human rights lawyer… so I bribed him with tickets for the National and after a while he realised that I wasn’t crazy so we met and we talked a few times and I went down to the Old Bailey to sit in on a trial.
I also read books by people like [solicitor] Gareth Peirce and [barrister] Michael Mansfield… And you realise that these people are with their clients for two or three years often, before they even get to court. People like Emma Banville just doggedly don’t believe anything until they question it for themselves.
Emma has some telling character traits – she smokes roll-ups and drives around in an extremely battered old car…
Yeah, I brought in the liquorice rollies because I wanted her to have that old-school thing. And the car – she can’t be arsed to get a new one… It’s the car she bought when she left college. And why not? I get that. I’ve still got the same covers on my children’s bed that I had when I was 15. They look like s**t, but they work.
Comedian John Bishop plays your love interest in Fearless. What was it like working with him?
I love him. He’s just totally charming. He did the first read-through and Patrick Harbinson was there, and I think we did episodes one, two and three at the read-through. And the next day at ten o’clock, bing! the email went and they’d got another six scenes for him. I mean, he just worked so well, they wanted more of him.
You were awarded an OBE in December. What was that like?
I was really excited. I got a phone call saying, “Oh hello, this is so-and-so, just wondering if… We’re just phoning up to find out if you’re going to accept your honour?” I said, “Oh, thank you, what honour?” and they went, “Your OBE.” It was unopened! I thought it was a parking ticket.
Thank God they phoned because you have to say yes or no. And I was like, “Yes, yes!” I was really thrilled… I had a really great year. I got a doctorate last year, and I got an OBE.
Where’s your doctorate from?
York. It was the first time I’ve ever been into a university. I was overwhelmed.
Does Damian have an OBE too?
Yeah. He hasn’t got a doctorate though! We’ve got gongs, but not matching mortarboards.