Actor Ruth Wilson is a fresh-faced 25-year-old with few credits to her name but a promising future.
Wilson’s star has been on the rise since scoring the lead, straight out of drama school, in last autumn’s BBC One television adaptation of Jane Eyre, opposite Toby Stephens as Rochester. For her performance as the Bronte heroine, she has been nominated for Best Actress in this year’s BAFTAs, competing against the likes of Victoria Wood, Samantha Morton and Anne-Marie Duff.
Back on the small screen, Wilson stars opposite Maggie Smith, David Walliams and Michael Gambon in Stephen Poliakoff's upcoming TV drama Capturing Mary and has appeared as Jewel Diamond in ITV series Suburban Shootout.
She is now making her National Theatre debut, joining an accomplished cast including Phil Davis, Rory Kinnear and two-time Olivier Award winner Conleth Hill in Howard Davies’ revival of Philistines, Gorky’s darkly comic first play of 1902, which was banned from public performance under the Czarist regime. Wilson plays Tanya, one of several restless young radicals who hang out, have sex, dance, drink, moan and philosophise as the personal and political turmoil of pre-revolutionary Russia gathers pace around them.
Date & place of birth
Born 13 January 1982 in Ashford, Kent
Lives now in
London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) and I graduated in July 2005. I was at the University of Nottingham prior to that, where I studied history but I did a lot more theatre while I was there. I didn’t abandon my degree, I graduated. History has been really helpful – that knowledge of different times and places infiltrates every aspect of my work.
What made you first want to become an actor?
Watching my two brothers who went to a theatre club outside school. I joined it too later on. I remember watching one of my brothers in something that moved me so much I wanted to do it. Neither of them went into acting.
First big break
Jane Eyre. I haven’t done much, but playing Jane was without doubt my big break to the whole nation. It was huge. It’s so hard to have a big break early in any career but getting that opportunity was amazing. The producers auditioned across the board so it was a real lucky break. I think it was a Jane Eyre quality that I have: I can be quite plain, but I can also transform depending on my mood. I knew I could open her up even though she tends to be closed off and cold. The script came easily to me and sat well in my mouth.
Career highlights to date
Again I have to say Jane Eyre. I was in virtually every scene and there aren’t many parts like that for women. To film four hours of television in 13 weeks was an amazing experience with a great outcome, and the reviews were lovely too. I also really enjoyed doing Stephen Poliakoff’s Capturing Mary for the BBC.
Do you prefer working on screen or stage?
They each involve different techniques. While I love the immediacy of the stage and the audience reaction and performing every night, film is so detailed and about every second of thought. I also love the rehearsal process involved in theatre that you don’t have with film and TV. You make more friends.
What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become an actor?
I always loved the idea of opening a teashop with cakes and wine and some books to read. Maybe one day, when it all goes wrong, that’s what I’ll end up doing. I received fan mail from a girl of 14 who said she wanted to be an actor like me but would also like to own her own bakery. I thought, “That’s me!”
Toby Stephens was such a generous and funny co-star who made my life so easy on set for Jane Eyre. Rory Kinnear is so playful with everything he does and is someone you can really learn from. David Walliams was very funny and interesting – the perfect gentleman.
Stephen Poliakoff is very specific, knows exactly what he wants and will keep pushing until he gets it. Susanna White, who directed Jane Eyre, did so with such compassion and understanding of the plight of Jane. And working with Howard Davies now is a dream come true.
I really like Patrick Marber’s language, which is so sparse but with so much in it. I did Simon Stephens’ Port at drama school and loved his gritty, modern characters that were still really loveable.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the first?
Frost/Nixon at the Donmar because both actors (Michael Sheen and Frank Langella) were amazing. I saw a preview of The Glass Menagerie and thought the cast was so strong. The whole production seemed as though it could break at any point, which was perfect. I suppose the first memory of seeing theatre was a production of King Lear at the National when I was about eight. All I remember is falling asleep.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
The whole thing about the BAC suddenly having its funding cut (by £100,000) and at the same time now being forced to pay business rates (of £270,000) by Wandsworth Borough Council is outrageous. It’s got something to do with keeping council taxes low but will be devastating for the BAC, which supports young artists and encourages new ideas. Cutting funding for the arts is ridiculous: theatre is one of this country’s biggest income-earning assets.
I’m a big fan of Ian McEwan’s books, especially Atonement, and I love JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. As a kid Roald Dahl’s Matilda was always my favourite.
Favourite holiday destinations
I go skiing in the Alps, it’s a family tradition. I went to Italy for the first time last year and loved it. Once I’d finished Jane Eyre, I just had to get away. I was going to do a cookery course but was so knackered I just lay on the beach.
Why did you want to play Tanya in this production of Philistines?
Firstly it was at the National and directed by Howard Davies, thus fulfilling two dreams at once. But Tanya is so challenging and relentless in herself. She’s a nightmare to be around because she’s so oppressed by her situation and desperate for someone to drag her into the 20th century. The play takes place during a really interesting time in Russian politics and social development and is about how different people react to what’s going on – whether they go with it or resist it. Tanya loves radical ideas but doesn’t go with it and is always hoping someone else will drag her along. She’s quite stuck and crushed and bitter as a result and always looking for someone to blame. Audiences might not be able to sympathise with her, which is difficult but exciting for an actor. She doesn’t smile much either, so I’ll have to make an extra effort to smile off stage.
Philistines was written in 1902 about pre-revolution Russia. How does Andrew Upton’s translation refresh Maxim Gorky’s original?
It’s so modern in the way it reads and even better off the page. Many sentences aren’t finished and some chop over each other. It’s fast and the characters don’t feel like they’re from a distant past. They actually seem like people that exist today, making it easier to understand where they’re coming from.
The play is about unhappy families, with one character a student who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. Did you always know what you wanted to do in life? How happy was your family with the decisions you made?
I always vaguely knew I wanted to perform, but I haven’t got the greatest singing voice and my dancing isn’t up to scratch. Acting was really the only alternative. My parents have been really supportive throughout. I don’t think they always thought I would make it, but they were very happy to let me try. And they’ve been able to share the experience with me – they came on set while I was filming Jane Eyre. I think Dad found it dull but Mum loved it. She was asking everyone what their job was and offered to help out.
Do you consider yourself a young radical?
I would love to be but no. I have this romantic idea that if I lived in the Sixties or Seventies I’d be one of those revolutionaries on the corner giving my speech about the world’s injustices. I can definitely get a bee in my bonnet about particular things like the war. But that’s more personal: my brother is part of the TA so he’ll have to go to Iraq sometime, probably next year. They don’t provide enough support for our troops and you shouldn’t send them out if they haven’t got the right equipment and training.
What’s the oddest thing that’s happened during rehearsals of Philistines?
I was BAFTA-nominated (for Jane Eyre)! Otherwise, it’s been quite relaxing with no disasters. Though I have to learn the piano and play it on stage. I’ve never touched a piano in my life. What I love about acting is that you have to do things you’re not really qualified for. Toby Stephens told me that he was playing a vet on a farm for something on film or TV and every time a sheep was about to be born he had to lamb for the cameras. What if something went wrong? We’re actors, we don’t know what we’re doing! Sod the piano, I’ve got lines to learn and a character to sort out!
So no piano-playing musicals?
I’d love to do a musical because they look really fun to perform, but as an audience member I always find them forced and a bit annoying. There’s nothing genuine about most musicals. There are some great ones - Cabaret, Chicago - but otherwise I’ll stick to the karaoke bars singing Madonna and Kylie.
What’s your favourite line from Philistines?
I have a scene with Conleth Hill, who plays Teterev, Tanya’s soulmate. They have some beautiful scenes together where she’s at her most honest. He’s got some great lines like, “You never want to do anything”, to which I reply, “How do you know, maybe I really want to die?” It’s not very funny but I find it funny.
What are your future plans?
I’d quite like to do a film but I’d also love to do more theatre. I want to keep challenging myself with good roles. It’s harder for women because there aren’t as many challenging roles. I look up to Emily Watson: I think she’s amazing and her work’s always very interesting and emotionally connected.
- Ruth Wilson was speaking to Malcolm Rock
Philistines opens on 30 May 2007 (previews from 23 May), running in repertory in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre.