Ruth Wilson is talking about how to castrate a lamb. “You take an elastic band and you put it over the balls,” she explains. “Then you just let go. The elastic band works its magic, and they shrivel up and drop off.”
She says all this in a no-nonsense sort of way, sitting on a sofa next to a table full of croissants in the offices of a central London PR agency. It’s a fairly surreal mismatch of setting and subject, but Wilson seems unflustered.
As an actress, the 36-year-old Wilson is nothing if not versatile. On the small screen, she won plaudits as Alice in the BBC’s hit psychological crime drama Luther and, since 2014, has played Alison, the “other woman”, in Showtime’s acclaimed The Affair. For the latter, Wilson put on a note-perfect American accent and won a Golden Globe – she returns in the fourth season later this year. On stage, Wilson’s riveting portrayals of complex women – from Anna Christie to Hedda Gabler – have won her two Olivier Awards.
Her latest role sees her starring in Dark River, the third feature film from The Selfish Giant writer/director Clio Barnard. Wilson plays Alice, who returns to her home village in Yorkshire following the death of her father (Sean Bean) in order to claim the tenancy to the family farm she believes is rightfully hers. Alice is haunted by the sexual abuse she endured as a child, and her homecoming is plagued by post-traumatic flashbacks and outbursts of violence from her troubled brother, Joe (Mark Stanley).
Sheep break their legs, rats infest the farmhouse and the weather remains relentlessly bleak throughout. It’s a bit like The Archers, as rewritten by a terminal pessimist. But the film is lifted by Wilson’s performance, in which every nuance of emotion plays across her features. She has a very expressive face: clear blue eyes that seem to stare right through you, eyebrows perched like a couple of circumflex accents and a mouth that appears to be on the brink of doing something dramatic. Her beauty has a certain intimidating quality to it. “Yeah, I have had people on the street saying, ‘Cheer up, love,’” she says.
Wilson prepared for the role by shadowing a farming couple, Hazel and Malcolm, who live and work near Skipton, where filming took place. She woke early every morning and was taught all about sheep-dipping, shearing and livestock. One scene required her to skin a rabbit [note: the rabbits weren’t killed for the purposes of filming]. The action was due to be shot the day after the Brexit referendum. “I was furious,” she says. “And I took it out on those rabbits. I was sort of imagining it was Nigel Farage that I was skinning.”
Aside from politics, the subject matter of Dark River (in cinemas from Friday 23 February) now has a deeper resonance. Wilson was filming before the Harvey Weinstein scandal erupted and the rise of the #MeToo movement, but there are many parallels between Alice’s silence in Dark River and the sense of shame many of Weinstein’s alleged victims felt. Wilson, who consulted therapists and survivors as part of her research, thinks that “the core, often, of why people don’t talk about abuse is because they feel that somehow they’re responsible for it. To feel that you haven’t got a voice… for me, that’s one of the most frightening things.”
Dominic West and Ruth Wilson, The Affair (Sky)
Wilson has not, herself, been subjected to any “casting couch moments” but has been aware of “more systemic, general misogyny” throughout her working life. “I definitely get less money than a male in my situation would. Definitely,” Wilson says, looking directly at me. Her eyebrows seem to arch a little bit higher, as if in protest.
Does she get paid less than Dominic West, her co-star in The Affair? “Yeah. I think so. Certainly when I signed up to that project, I would have got paid less. Then they [the producers] might argue, ‘Well, he’s already done a major American TV show [The Wire] so he’s already got a level.’ But even after a Golden Globe I’m not going to be on parity. So he definitely gets more than me. I mean, I don’t know what the figure is, but I’m sure he does.”
Has she ever talked to West about it? She squirms. “Ah, well, I mean, no. It’s sort of funny. It’s quite hard to bring that up in a way. But it needs to be an open discussion and men need to help us out,” Wilson admits. “I don’t want more money, I just want equal money. Which means men have to take less.” Despite her nascent celebrity, Wilson still lives in the UK, in a loft apartment in Bermondsey, south-east London, and is generally able to go about her business without drawing attention to herself.
“I had someone here who saw me in Borough Market and she said, ‘Oh my God, you look just like that American actress on The Affair.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, do I?’” Wilson laughs, delighted. “I quite like that.”
The Affair (Sky)
Besides, what she really enjoys about acting is being able to disappear into different characters and work out “the puzzle” of why they act the way they do. And yet there were no actors in her immediate family: her father, Nigel, is an investment banker, and her mother, Mary, raised Wilson and her three older brothers before retraining as a probation officer.
When she decided to go into acting, after a history degree at the University of Nottingham, Wilson as baffled by her passion until her grandmother died and a startling family story emerged. It turned out that Wilson’s grandfather, Alexander, had been a bigamist and a spy.
“We realised there were four wives in total,” Wilson says. They discovered he had fathered several other children, including a son who was an actor and another who was a poet. Suddenly her desire to act seemed more understandable.
“There’s this whole creative streak that came from my grandfather and his storytelling and the many versions of himself that he played,” she says. “It all made sense in a slightly frightening way. I was like, ‘Wow, maybe I’m a bit like him.’”
In a neat little twist of art imitating life, Wilson is going to play her own grandmother in an upcoming BBC drama based on her family’s story, called simply Mrs Wilson. She’s looking forward to it, she says, and not just because there’ll be less call for skinning rabbits or castrating sheep.
Dark River hits UK cinemas on Friday 23rd February