As Ruth Wilson lay on a bed in a film studio, in character as her real-life grandmother, going into labour with her father, it struck her just how unusual being an actor really is.
“The whole thing was completely weird,” she reflects. “Being inside the skin of my own grandmother was extraordinary. Who gets to do that? It’s very rare and I’m privileged.
“Sometimes I could just inhabit the part and pretend the script wasn’t about my family, try not to see the clapperboard that said Mrs Wilson. But there were definitely moments of going, ‘What am I doing?’ When you’re giving birth to your father, for example. That was absurd. But my job is absurd.”
The truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. And that was certainly the case when Ruth discovered a family history so extraordinary she knew it had to be turned into a TV drama. The result, Mrs Wilson, is a three-part BBC1 thriller with as many twists and turns as anything from a writer’s imagination.
It all began 20 years ago when Ruth’s grandmother, Alison, produced a typed memoir that revealed her husband, Alec, had been an MI6 spy as well as a bestselling author of 27 spy novels.
On top of that, Alison discovered after Alec’s death in 1963 that he had never divorced his first wife. She had to hand over the burial rites to the original Mrs Wilson, even asking the funeral director to change the inscription on the coffin as he had lied about his full name. He was called Alexander Joseph Patrick Wilson, but every time he got married he changed his middle names.
When she went to the burial with her children Gordon and Nigel (Ruth’s uncle and father respectively), she told them the other woman in black standing by the grave was Alec’s distant cousin, in order to protect them from the reality that their father was a bigamist.
Since Alison’s death, the Wilsons have been busy uncovering the full truth: that Alec had four wives, none of whom knew about each other, and seven children. The story was so incredible, Ruth has had it made into a drama with help from screenwriter Anna Symon. Ruth has taken roles as the lead actress and executive producer, while Alec is played by Iain Glen and his second wife, Dorothy, by Keeley Hawes.
“Halfway through I did think, ‘Why didn’t I get someone else to do this? Claire Foy?’ ” Ruth laughs. “But other women playing my grandmother might have been concerned about me watching over their shoulder! I didn’t want her white-washed; I knew I could show all sides of her because she was complex. She was guarded and I now know why. She used to live around the corner and come for Sunday lunch every week. It was a close relationship but it wasn’t intimate. It wasn’t a warm granny hugging you.”
Alec, who served as a colonel in the First World War, lived with Alison for 22 years until his death, but visited his other families periodically while away “on business”. There was Gladys, his first wife with whom he had three children, then Dorothy and their son Mike, then Alison, and finally Elizabeth and another child. The children all saw Alec regularly until his death, apart from Mike who was told he had died in the battle of El Alamein in 1941 when he was eight years old. That is what he believed for 65 years.
Ruth says, “It was profound for Mike to find new family members because he was an only child and only had eight years with his dad. It made him so happy after all those years. Sadly, he has now died but he was at the heart of all our reunions. He was an actor, so it was amazing for me and him to connect. His son is a writer and his daughter is a director. All these people I was unaware of are in the profession, so it makes sense of who I am. What’s come out of this is the unification of this enormous family. Everyone’s excited about the drama and I’m glad I’ve made it quickly enough that a lot of the family will be able to see it.”
It’s almost impossible to clarify Alec’s full career, as MI6 has refused to release his “case-sensitive” files and three of his wives had died by the time the Wilson family began to unravel the truth, while the fourth had Alzheimer’s. What is known for certain is that he served in the First World War, spent eight years in India in the 1920s, and was working for MI6 in 1940, if not before, as that is where he met Alison, who was employed there as a secretary.
In 1942, he told Alison he’d been sacked from MI6 so that he could work in the field as an agent and his subsequent misdemeanours – being arrested twice and being declared bankrupt – were, he claimed, a cover for his spy work.
We do keep finding out new things,” says Ruth. “We found out just the other day that Dorothy met Alec on a boat to India. In the drama we show them meeting out in India, which we now know is false. We still don’t have a full understanding of his role at MI6. Was he sacked because he was very dangerous or was he a victim of the system, as lots of spies were?
“The family would love him to be a hero but he might just be a fantasist. Even the marriages: could some of them have been for work, for a cover, or were they all for love? He was Catholic so he couldn’t divorce. I wish I could meet him. He was obviously amazingly charming. He knew seven languages and travelled the world. I never thought of him as a cad.”
Mrs Wilson marks the first time Ruth, 36, has been an executive producer. She loved lapping up information about everything technical behind the cameras and realised what a comparatively small role acting is in the context of the production of a whole series. But the nine-week shoot took its toll. She’s now planning a holiday before going to New York in January, where she’ll appear as the Fool in a Broadway production of King Lear alongside Glenda Jackson.
“It was in many ways the most profound experience of my life but it was full-on,” she says. “I was pulling my hair out with stress and I went pretty much straight on to His Dark Materials [a BBC adaptation due next year]. There was a time where I was like, ‘Oh God, I’m just exhausted!’ I needed to go off and do other things because you can’t get much weirder than doing what I’ve just done!”
When did she last belly-laugh? “Probably ages ago. I probably cry more often than I laugh. That is actually my plan for next year. More belly laughs.”
For someone fiercely protective of her private life – she’s never spoken about rumoured relationships with Jude Law, Jake Gyllenhaal or Joshua Jackson, and isn’t on social media – it’s surprising she’s opened up her family to public scrutiny, but it doesn’t worry her. “I’m going to America for six months so I’ll just disappear off the face of the planet again. People don’t know a great deal about me. I prefer to keep it that way. Mrs Wilson is quite personal and that adds an interesting dimension, but it’s not really about me. I’d hate for people to be distracted by that.”
Ruth’s work has ranged from small indie films and stage work to popular TV shows, but she has never hit the A-list and I wonder whether she’d turn down a huge-budget movie or aspires to work like Jennifer Lawrence, who cleverly alternates huge franchise movies like The Hunger Games with arthouse films. “Look, I did The Lone Ranger, which was destined to be a massive hit,” says Ruth of the Disney movie that starred Johnny Depp and lost millions at the box office. “You never know how things are going to turn out. I don’t think it makes sense to go, ‘I won’t take it because it’s going to make me massively famous,’ because there’s no guarantee either way.
“People that have been in those massive Marvel movies still conduct their lives normally, and I think I would. Maybe there will be something that could change that, but I don’t know what that would be. Mind you, Maggie Smith said Downton Abbey just made her life impossible. Which is amazing after all those years.”
Despite her striking face (voluptuous mouth, intense eyes, perfect skin), Ruth “rarely” gets spotted and still does yoga classes and catches the Tube. She even went incognito to a soup kitchen near her south-London home last Christmas to help out Crisis, the homeless charity, and intends to take along her parents next time. Her anonymity is perhaps helped by her ability to look utterly different from role to role. “I do get self-conscious when people come up to me,” she says. “It’s often kids studying Jane Eyre [her breakthrough role was in the BBC’s adaptation in 2006]. I’m getting better at it and I never want to stop doing things I do every day.”
Until she connected with her secret relatives, Ruth was the only aspiring actress in her family. She grew up in Shepperton, Surrey, with three older brothers; her father was an investment banker and her mother a probation officer, so her dreams of performing never seemed realistic. It was only when a drama teacher at college told her to give it a go that she thought it was a viable career; even then she wasn’t sure and went to Nottingham University to study history.
After graduating, she enrolled in the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda) and since then has been consistently busy. She won two Olivier Awards for her theatre work and a Golden Globe for US drama The Affair.
Most of her friends aren’t in the industry and when she goes to family get-togethers, her eight nephews and nieces keep her grounded. “The kids have no interest in what I’m up to. The family are very proud of me. They’re probably quite bored with the things I say in the press, but they’re supportive.” When it comes to the press, it’s probably fair to say Ruth is not the biggest fan. She’s polite and friendly but not quite the gregarious and energetic woman she was on stage the previous evening at a screening of Mrs Wilson, attended by her family, cast and crew.
But if she’s wary of saying anything controversial, it’s understandable. She left The Affair after four series for reasons that are shrouded in mystery: she was rumoured to have been fired after telling Radio Times she was paid less than co-star Dominic West, but has since denied that was the reason. When I ask about it, she says unapologetically, “I’m not allowed to talk about it”.
Ruth Wilson and Dominic West, The Affair (Sky)
Yet at other points in our interview she’s completely open. I hesitate to ask whether she wants to start a family, but surprisingly she talks about it honestly. “Every day I feel a different way about it. What’s interesting about women is that we’re conscious that time is running out and that some part of us is in a process of dying from the age of puberty. I feel like what happens, happens. We have more ways available to us to have kids later on. If I really want a child, I can adopt or there’s other ways. At the same time, if I don’t have a child, that decision is not judged as much as it used to be. Times are changing.”
So while a family of her own may not yet be on the cards for Ruth, what is? There may be an appearance in Luther when it returns to our screens in the New Year. Her character, Alice’s, death was off-screen and it’s rumoured she’ll return either for real or in flashback or dream sequences. She won’t speak about the rumours but talks about the role with huge fondness.
“I remember reading the script with this female Hannibal Lecter and thinking, who gets that kind of part? She’s a delicious kind of psycho. I never expected it to have the cult following it did. I think that’s down to Idris Elba and how unique the storytelling was.”
Before any of that, there’ll be a much-needed rest. She’s looking forward to Christmas with her family, although admits she gets annoyed at the number of “inane” Christmas presents and all the wrapping paper involved. When I suggest she swaps them for thoughtful homemade gifts, she gleefully latches onto the idea of baking cakes but, as the reality of making them hits home, looks exhausted. “Wait, now I’ve put it on myself to make a load of stuff!”
Mrs Wilson airs on PBS Masterpiece on Sundays at 9/8c
This article was originally published on 27 November 2018