Young British actress Clare-Hope Ashitey came from nowhere in 2006 to be cast opposite Clive Owen in Alfonso Cuarón’s film, Children of Men. Three years and one BA in Anthropology later, Ashitey is now making her theatre debut in Origin of the Species at the Arcola Theatre. A topical new comedy by Bryony Lavery, who wrote the Tony award-nominated Frozen as well as Kursk at the Young Vic, the play is the latest in a long line this year to mark the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Ashitey, 22, who stars opposite Shameless actress Marjorie Yates in the two-hander, joined us during a break in rehearsals to tell us more about her move from screen to stage.

We’ve seen a lot of Darwin-inspired plays this year, but this one is a bit different, isn’t it?
If you’re thinking about evolution, it’s easy to take Darwin’s life as a starting point. Bryony has gone the more difficult way, writing a play about evolution that’s nothing to do with him. I think because she’s a feminist that was important to her. Evolution as told by Darwin is the evolution of man. She said: "I don’t want to tell it the way it’s always been told." It’s an incredibly well-written piece.

Tell me about your character Victoria.
She’s a prehistoric woman who comes back to life when an archaeologist, Molly, digs her up and takes her home to her nice little house in Yorkshire. Although she is older than Molly, she is far less developed and Molly basically brings her up to where we are today. You get Victoria rolling around as if she’s really simple but you realise – at least in Bryony’s version – that our ancestors were actually very smart and inventive people. We might have evolved, but does that necessarily mean we are better? Progress is not always a good thing.

This is both your theatrical debut and your first job since graduating from SOAS in anthropology. Are the two connected?
By the start of university, I already knew I wanted to act even though I’d have to put it on the backburner. I graduated this summer with a new vigour for it and this is one of the first scripts that I was sent. It’s a very short play and being a two hander and a small theatre, I felt there wouldn’t be a massive amount of pressure. All through university, you’re thinking ‘Am I ever going to need this stuff again?’ It’s been nice to talk through the issues with the cast and realise I haven’t forgotten it.

You chose not to go down the traditional drama school route. Why?
It never really appealed to me. What worried me is that you become incredibly insular. First you go to stage school, then to drama school and then everyone you know is an actor. I’ve met a lot of drama school types who don’t have any other strings to their bow. I didn’t want to get to the point where that was all I knew.

How were you discovered and cast in Children of Men?
I used to go to a Saturday drama class where I grew up in north London and the women who ran it set up her own agency. I didn’t think anything would come of it; perhaps some adverts. Then my agent said: "There’s a film – here are some bits to read." I did it like an advert audition, got a call back and the next day I flew out to Kigali in Rwanda to start filming.

Was your lack of experience a benefit or disadvantage on set?
It had its ups and downs. When you want something badly and get it, in a way that’s a good thing because you appreciate it. But you can also want something too much and try too hard. I had not expected this and didn’t know what I was doing so it was a steep learning curve, picking up the terminology and learning how films are shot. I was relying on my co-stars to hold my hand. And they did.

What were Alfonso and Clive like to work with?
They were great. All the films I’ve worked on, there’s been a real family atmosphere. Alfonso is a fantastic director and technically amazing at what he does. He has real vision. He will see the tiniest things that other people haven’t noticed in shot and ask for them to be changed. And it’s only when you see the finished film that you realise why. He’s also a lovely person, the same with Clive.

And what about your co-star in this play, Marjorie Yates?
It’s been amazing. For my first professional theatre role, it’s very comforting to have someone who’s been doing it for such a long time. Marjorie just gets on stage and does stuff. There is a lot of physical acting to my role, which isn’t my favourite thing. But she has no inhibitions, which means I don’t mind pratting about so much. She also has lots of wonderful theatre stories.

Do you have any screen projects in the pipeline?
Not that I know of. I plan to muddle along as best I can and see what comes in. I’m really open. I had a great time making films and there were huge perks with all the travelling. But I love doing theatre and I’d be perfectly happy to do great theatre for as long as I happen to be on this earth. I’m prepared for whatever comes my way.