Since leaving drama school in 1990, actress Helen McCrory has been seen regularly on the London stage, particularly at the National Theatre and, in more recent years, at the Almeida Theatre and the Donmar Warehouse.

At the National, her credits have included Trelawny of the Wells, Blood Wedding, Fuenieovejuna, Devil’s Disciple and The Seagull; at the Almeida, Triumph of Love, Platonov and, earlier this year, Five Gold Rings.

And, at the Donmar, McCrory has appeared in How I Learned to Drive, In a World of Our Own and in former artistic director Sam Mendes’ 2002 farewell productions of Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night. The pairing – which also starred Simon Russell Beale, Mark Strong and Emily Watson - transferred to New York after its sell-out London season. It also earned McCrory nominations for both the Evening Standard and Theatregoers’ Choice Best Actress Awards, adding to her chest of earlier accolades including an Ian Charleson Award, a Critics’ Circle Award and a Manchester Evening News Award for Best Actress.

This week, McCrory returns to the Donmar to star, alongside Jeremy Northam and Gina McKee, in Roger Michell’s revival of Harold Pinter’s 1971 three-hander Old Times.

Elsewhere, McCrory’s stage credits have included Les Enfants du Paradis, Macbeth, Venice Preserved, Keely and Du, Pride and Prejudice, Teechers and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Amongst her many screen credits are: on television, Anna Karenina, Lucky Jim, The Jury, Dead Gorgeous, Carla, In a Land of Plenty, Split Second, Spoonface Steinberg, Stand and Deliver, Trial and Retribution and The Entertainer; and on film, Charlotte Gray, The Count of Monte Cristo, Hotel Splendide, Dad Savage, James Gang and Interview with the Vampire.

Date & place of birth
I was born at St Mary’s Paddington in London on 17 August 1968.

Lives now in…
Spitalfields in east London.

Trained at…
Drama Centre, London.

First big break
Doing Trelawny of the Wells at the National Theatre, being directed by John Caird and working with people like Michael Bryant.

Career highlights to date
It’s very hard because I think whatever job you’re doing at the time is your complete preoccupation, and after it, you’re then on to the next one. I’m not particularly nostalgic. I don’t tend to look back and sort through which were my favourites.

What do awards mean?
Awards mean absolutely nothing until you receive one; then they become strangely meaningful.

Favourite co-stars
No, that’s too hard too choose, although the cast for Sam Mendes’ double at the Donmar really stood out. Oh, and my horse in the film of Anna Karenina! It always turned up on time.

Favourite directors
It’s really hard this. There are directors who you want to work with again and again, like Sam Mendes or Roger Michell (who’s directing Old Times) or David Blair (who directed Anna Karenina) or people you haven’t worked with but want to, like Howard Davies and Simon McBurney. I’m very lucky, I haven’t had a bad experience to date.

Favourite playwrights
That are writing at the moment? Joe Penhall, Abi Morgan, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Peter Morgan. Also Paula Vogel, Lanford Wilson and Harold Pinter. From the past, Chekhov, Pinter, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Racine.

What roles would you most like to play still?
Of course, the Miss Julie’s and Hedda Gabler’s and Beatrice from Much Ado. I’d like to do some more comedy. It’s technically more difficult and I enjoy the immediate response from the audience.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
Taught. I think probably something in the arts – I wouldn’t be very useful to anybody taking physics or maths! I’ve no idea why I wanted to be an actor. You know, I think you remember the reason for something depending on what you want to justify at the time. Where you are in the present determines where your past is. But maybe that’s because I’ve been rehearsing Pinter all day. Pause, silence. Pause, silence.

What was the last stage production you saw that you really enjoyed?
Simon McBurney’s Measure for Measure at the National. I thought it was absolutely fantastic. He’s a brilliant director. Why? Because you never go to see any of his plays and not know why he’s chosen to do them. You never feel anything but totally invigorated and totally alive and totally alert when you see a McBurney production. I think he is just the best of British theatre.

What would you advise would the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
I know it’s a cop-out, but I’m not a politician or an economist. I’m just an actress. I don’t know how to save the world.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I was going to say Groucho Marx, but actually I’d go for Harpo. No lines to learn.

Favourite books
Recently, in preparation for Old Times, I’ve been reading The Life and Work of Harold Pinter by Michael Billington. My favourites are probably James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the collected poems of Philip Larkin and Dorothy Parker. Also, the A to Z.

Favourite holiday destinations
I go to Italy quite a lot, anywhere from Capri to Rome, Florence, Venice. I lived in Paris for years and like to go back there too.

Favourite after-show haunts
Anywhere with good lighting.

Why did you want to accept your role in Old Times?
Because I didn’t understand the play. I thought it was brilliant, but I had no idea why. I’m still not quite sure I understand it, but now I feel that’s the audience’s job quite frankly. As long as I believe what I’m saying when I’m saying it, that’s my part of the contract fulfilled.

Tell us something about your character.
Anna is this strange kind of woman who wafts in from the veranda from Sicily with all her lobster sauce sophistication and these romantic ideals of her past. As the play progresses, you begin to understand the fragility of her love for Kate and her understanding of herself. It’s important to her that Kate recognises her and their friendship. The play really fascinates me. Really, it’s a brutal love story. It’s about trying to cling on to the past in order to justify where you are in your present. It’s very sad, very moving and it’s something that we all relate to. We define ourselves by our past experiences, but the past is transient, it’s as transient as the present.

What's your favourite Harold Pinter play?
Probably Old Times or The Caretaker. I didn’t actually know much about Pinter when I started doing this production. I’d never even seen one of his plays performed before. I don’t know why. I had a vague idea that Pinter was very intellectual and rather heady, but I don’t find that at all as an actress. He’s a very instinctive and emotional writer and very moving. I feel that Old Times is a love story. The wit and the cruelty and the barbarity – that’s reality. If you’re going to write a true love story, the truth is, that’s all part of love.

You clearly have a special affinity with theatres like the Donmar & the Almeida. Why?
The spaces themselves are fantastic because of the proximity of the audience and the acoustics. From the audience’s point of view - and I see most of the productions at both the Donmar and the Almeida - the best thing is when you feel vaguely embarrassed because it’s like you’re sitting in somebody’s bedroom eavesdropping on a conversation with a husband and wife or whoever. That intimacy is fantastic. Also what these theatres attempt to do distinguishes them. They have so much more freedom than a lot of producers in the West End who have to put bums – or coachloads of bums - on seats, but at the same time, they don’t have the money to make mistakes so they have to be really inventive and imaginative and to use their craft to the best of their ability. The people working at these theatres are just the best in the business. I mean that across the whole building. You’ll speak to someone in the box office and they will absolutely have seen the play, read the play, they know it. There isn’t that divide between front of house and the actors, there really isn’t that feeling at all. The fact is that everybody involved is very interested in theatre.

What’s your favourite line from Old Times?
“I was off centre and have remained so ever since.”

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened during rehearsals of Old Times?
There’s a lot of brandy and wine in the play and, at one rehearsal, Roger decided we might discover more if we were drinking real alcohol. I discovered that my character became drunk quite quickly. It was the strangest rehearsal we ever had. Poor Jeremy had five brandies in a row. I think he’s still hungover.

What are your plans for the future?
I’m going to do a film that Steven Soderbergh’s producing, with Stephen Gaghan, the guy who wrote Traffic directing. It’s called Syriana and stars George Clooney. That starts filming in September. I’ll always keep coming back to the theatre. I love the direct connection with an audience and the chance to sustain and develop a character anew every night. Playing live is much more exciting.

Old Times opens on 7 July 2004 (previews from 1 July) at the Donmar Warehouse, where its limited season continues until 4 September.