Actress Emma Cunniffe trained at the Webber Douglas Academy and, although still in the early stages of her career, has already built up an enviable number of credits to her name.
In theatre, Cunniffe has been seen in Major Barbara, Twelfth Night (Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester); Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Bristol Old Vic Theatre); A Buyer’s Market, Caravan (Bush Theatre); Tales from Hollywood (Donmar Warehouse); The Master Builder (English Touring Theatre for which she won the TMA award for Best Supporting Actress) and Hamlet (Oxford Stage Company).
Cunniffe’s small screen credits include Cherished, Silent Witness, The Genius of Mozart, Flesh and Blood, The Cry, Clocking Off, Love or Money, The Whistleblower, Plain Jane, Innocents, Blue Murder, All the King’s Men, Great Expectations, Underground, Maisie Raine, The Lakes, Dalziel and Pascoe, Life After Birth, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, A Touch of Frost and Cracker amongst others. She’s appeared in the films Rabbit on the Moon, Among Giants, The Ruby Ring, Tube Tales and Bring Me Your Love.
Cunniffe is currently starring alongside Lynda Bellingham and Alison Steadman in Simon Mendes de Costa’s Losing Louis. After premiering at north London’s Hampstead Theatre in January, it transferred last month to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios.
Date & place of birth
Born 3 July 1973 in Chester.
Lives now in...
In Wandsworth (south London). I’ve just bought a little cottage which is near the brewery. It was originally built for the brewery’s workers and it’s lovely.
First big break
I think it was a television job I did, Cracker. It came just after I left drama school and it was a good credit to have on my CV. I also worked with the director twice after that and, although Jimmy McGovern didn’t write the particular Cracker episode I did, I went on to be in his series, The Lakes.
I’ve had several really. I did a job, All the King’s Men with Maggie Smith and that was a highlight because she’s someone I’ve always really admired. Doing this show in the West End is a highlight too, because, although I’ve done a bit of theatre regionally, I’ve not done so much in London so this is great. Winning the TMA Best Supporting Actress award for The Master Builder with Timothy West was a nice high point because it was something I’d worked really hard on and it was a big surprise.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
I did productions of The Twelfth Night and Major Barbara, both at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and I loved those. I really enjoyed working at the Royal Exchange. I love the way the theatre’s run. It’s got a fantastic spirit about the building and the space is unusual – you either love or hate performing in the round and I love it. To do two lead roles there – Viola and Barbara – was a real challenge. Another of my favourites was Caravan, which I did at the Bush a few years ago. It’s a play by Helen Blakeman, set in Liverpool. Again, the Bush is one of those places you get a real buzz from working in. It’s such a small intimate space. And it was a brand new play, I love working on new writing.
I enjoyed working with Timothy West a lot. And David Horovitch and I worked together on Major Barbara and now we’re together again in Losing Louis. It’s funny because in Barbara I played David’s daughter and now I’m playing his mother! He seems to be one of my regular co-stars now. As I said, it was also lovely working with Maggie Smith - that was a real thrill.
Michael Grandage. I almost worked with him once but something else came up, I think he’s wonderful. I loved Lucy Bailey who directed Twelfth Night. And Greg Hersov from the Royal Exchange, too.
Arthur Miller is one of my favourites, I’d love to do some of his plays. Ibsen is another. Helen Blakeman is a very exciting young playwright. And I have to say Simon Mendes de Costa, who’s written Losing Louis!
What roles would you most like to play still?
In addition to Miller, I’d love to do some Tennessee Williams. To play Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire would be wonderful. It’s something I studied at school. And some more Ibsen roles, please, like Nora in A Doll’s House. There was a wonderful new play on at Soho recently, Colder than Here by Laura Wade. I’d have loved to have been in that, too.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre? Why do you think theatre is important?
More money. I think theatre reflects the community, what’s going on in society. That can be very interesting, it can make people question things. But theatre is also about escapism. The internet, TV and film all do those things, too, but they have become so advanced. It’s nice to go back to something simple, storytelling in its rawest form. You can’t beat live theatre. It’s wonderful for me being in this play because it’s funny and hearing people laugh out loud and respond to something that’s happening now is great. Theatre brings people together.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
Don Carlos. It was really thrilling. I just loved the simplicity of the production, you really could hear the words and you got all the emotions. It was also very evocative of the period and yet modern at the same time – Michael Grandage (the director) has a talent for that. The acting was wonderful too. I managed to get to see it in the few days I had off in between the transfer from Hampstead to the West End so I was lucky.
I’m just reading Arthur Miller’s Timebends and I’m loving that. Before that I’d read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which is wonderful, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, also definitely worth a read. But one of my favourite books of all time is Great Expectations. I played Biddy in a television version of that – another highlight for me.
Favourite holiday destination
Thailand. There’s a place called Railey Beach, which is one of the most idyllic spots I’ve ever been to. I went a couple of years ago. Sadly, it was affected by the tsunami. I love Rome and Paris. I spent new year in Paris this year.
If you hadn't been an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I think I would have been a teacher because I always had in the back of my mind that I’d quite like to teach. Maybe I’d do Drama and English, something like that.
Why did you want to accept your part in Losing Louis?
My character, Bobbie, is a mixture of several different things. She’s very vulnerable and yet very strong. She’s quite insecure because she’s in a situation where her husband is having an affair with her best friend. She suspects it but she’s not sure, and she holds it together very well. She’s a survivor and a fighter. She’s also good fun, buoyant and likes to make a joke. In fact, she hides her pain by making jokes, which is sad and very loveable. She doesn’t really feel sorry for herself for very long, she just gets on and makes the best of it. That said, she’s quite manipulative and does get her own way. She’s a well-formed character. It’s great not to just be playing the victim. The whole play is very well written because you empathise with all the characters. There are no goodies or baddies, just real people.
How different are West End audiences from those in Hampstead?
Losing Louis has a Jewish theme running throughout and I think more of the Hampstead audience got more of those jokes. Beyond that, there’s not much difference in the audience reaction. It was sold out every night at Hampstead, and although it’s not completely sold out here in the West End yet, I’m hopeful.
How would you describe Losing Louis?
This play is quite old fashioned in many ways. It’s not pretending to be anything other than what it is, which is a really well-rounded, touching, funny, loveable piece with serious undercurrents. So it’s full, funny and you’re compelled to laugh. It’s something everyone can relate to, everybody across the board. It goes back to the Fifties and up to modern day so older and younger people enjoy it. It’s a great combination when you’re made to laugh, and through the laughter, you’re made to feel sad. Also, the cast is really strong.
What do you think the secret is to good comedy?
I think you have to believe in the characters. What Simon’s created are very believable people in real situations. Because the jokes arise from real people in real situations, they’re much funnier.
What's your favourite line from Losing Louis?
I’m talking about my little boy being circumcised and I say: “I’m not having his little thing fiddled with!” Then, when my husband claims it’s a tradition, I reply: “I’ve seen your father playing cards on the Sabbath while eating a bacon sandwich. Is that tradition? No.”
What's the funniest thing that’s happened during the run to date of Losing Louis?
Lynda Bellingham - I’m sure she won’t mind me saying this - she lost her skirt one night during the show. It could have actually been in the play because there is another moment where that occurs. But in this instance, it was an accident. It caused a very funny reaction in the audience. They weren’t sure if it was meant to happen or not!
What are your plans for the future?
I’m going to go on holiday as soon as I finish, maybe to America to visit my brother. Then I hope to get some beach holiday in. Then I don’t know. I’ve got nothing lined up work-wise yet.
- Emma Cunniffe was speaking to Hannah Kennedy
Losing Louis continues its limited season at Trafalgar Studios until 25 June 2005.