Actress Charlotte Emmerson came into the theatre relatively late, coming from a non-artistic family background. She made her West End debut playing the lead Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll, which transferred to the Albery after a run at Birmingham Rep and the National Theatre.

Since then, Emmerson has appeared in several shows at the National, including The Cherry Orchard, The Good Hope and The Coast of Utopia. Her other stage credits include major tours of Our Song, The Crucible and Playboy of the Western World, as well as Great Expectations (Manchester’s Royal Exchange), and The Seagull (directed by Peter Stein at the Edinburgh International Festival).

On film, Emmerson has appeared in The Last Minute, Smile, Weekend Bird, Food of Love and Wangle. Her television credits include Sarah de Silva in Vincent, and parts in Outlaws, Foyle’s War, The Alan Clark Diaries, EastEnders, Holby City, Peak Practice and The Bill.

In Emmerson’s current role, she plays Cora, the American wife of a Greek immigrant roadside diner owner, in the stage adaptation of James M Cain’s 1930s-set erotic thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice. The play had its world premiere in Leeds last October when Emmerson played opposite Patrick O'Kane as Cora’s drifter lover Frank, a role now taken in the West End by Hollywood star Val Kilmer.

Date & place of birth
Born 10 May 1971 in Welbeck Street, London.

Lives now in
Battersea, south London.

I didn’t go to drama school. I left home when I was 16 and was supporting myself so there was no way I could afford it.

Why did you want to become an actor?
I don’t know where it came from. My parents had nothing to do with theatre or the arts. My dad lived in Spain, running a car hire company. My mum brought my sisters up doing whatever job she could. She really encouraged us to follow our dreams and to live every day to the fullest. My twin sister is an athlete. She does duathlons. She won a bronze medal at the world championships.

First big break
Baby Doll. I had been trying to get into telly, but then the girl who was originally cast (in the title role of Baby Doll) dropped out two days before rehearsals began and I got the job. The show was only meant to go to Birmingham for two weeks and we ended up at the National and then the West End.

Career highlights to date
The Seagull, directed by Peter Stein at the Edinburgh International Festival. We went to Russia to rehearse and then to Peter’s house in Italy. It was an extraordinary time. Another television highlight was Vincent with Ray Winstone.

Favourite co-stars
Fiona Shaw, who was in The Seagull with me. So was my boyfriend, Iain Glen. He got offered his part first. I wasn’t jealous exactly but I do remember thinking, “but that’s one of my favourite plays”. Then I got a phone call a few days later from the casting director. It was also great, when I was in The Cherry Orchard at the National, being able to work with Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, a sister and brother from this incredible acting dynasty. They were both very generous people.

Favourite directors
Peter Stein. People thought Peter would be this complicated character and that we’d be working every hour of every day. It wasn’t like that, although it was physically demanding. You have to just get up and do it – and it works. Also Lucy Bailey, who I’ve now with worked with on both Baby Doll and The Postman Always Rings Twice. She’s very honest.

Favourite playwrights
Tennessee Williams and also Anton Chekhov. Did you know Chekhov was Williams’ favourite? In The Notebook of Trigorin, Williams rewrote The Seagull in his own way. I don’t know what Chekhov would have thought of Williams. But I think both of them write very much from the heart rather than the head. Passionate and intense – and that works for me!

What roles would you most like to play still?
Sonia in Uncle Vanya (Chekhov) and Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire (Williams). That’s so flipping obvious, isn’t it? Also, Nora in A Doll’s House (Ibsen).

If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I really would like to have been an aid worker. Maybe on the medical side. I love the idea of going to Africa and helping people. They have so little and we have so much.

What’s the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last?
Because my family were not into the arts, I discovered theatregoing quite late actually. I didn’t really get into it until I was performing at the National myself. Suddenly, I could go to so many plays for free. I remember seeing Summerfolk and being blown away by The Island. The last thing I saw was Hedda Gabler (now transferred from the Almeida to the West End’s Duke of York’s theatre), because my boyfriend is in it.

What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
I’d say encourage more young people to see theatre. There’s nothing better than live theatre to inspire and educate.

Favourite books
I recently read Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. That was good. I’m also reading – very slowly – Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. When I was in South Africa, I took a trip to Robben Island.

Favourite after-show haunts
I like Two Brydges, which is a club off St Martin’s Lane. It’s not pretentious, just people huddled in little corners.

What was your involvement in getting The Postman Always Rings Twice off the ground?
After Baby Doll, (director) Lucy Bailey and I wanted to do something else together. We looked at Williams’ The Notebook of Trigorin and some other plays. Then one day I was speaking to a friend who told me he had this script in a drawer – he said I could only take it if I promised to do it. That was four years ago. We workshopped it at the National and then didn’t get much further until (producer) Rupert Gavin got involved. He managed to get the rights sorted in about four weeks – something we’d been trying to do for four years. Obviously, Rupert has a lot more clout. Then we took it to Leeds and now we’re here.

What is it that attracts you to the part of Cora?
There’s a huge journey that Cora goes on and that’s very interesting as an actor. She’s so accepting of her lot in the Depression in the 1930s, but then she sees a possible way out. She’s kind of sensitive although ruthless. And, of course, she’s a passionate woman. I do think there are a lot of similarities with Baby Doll. I imagine Cora is how Baby Doll might have turned out if she’d left her husband and drifted towards LA.

You’re now starring opposite Val Kilmer. How do you feel about the influx of Hollywood stars into the West End?
My feeling about Val is quite simple: if he hadn’t taken the role, we wouldn’t be here at all. From that point of view, I’m very grateful to him – and, in general, to other Americans because I think they’re coming is keeping the West End alive in many ways. On the other hand, I think it’s sad that we need to rely on American stars. I don’t mean to put anyone down, but we’ve got lots of talent here too. Of course, the odd show works without that kind of casting. But most producers can’t afford to take the risk unless they’ve got a ‘big’ star. I don’t blame them, of course, they’ve got to make money. I don’t know what the solution is.

The play contains some very steamy sex scenes. What does your mother think?
She’s happy that I’m working. And she thinks it’s great. She just forgets that it’s me up there. I think that’s what you’ve got to do. Iain hasn’t seen me with Val, of course, because he’s doing his performances in Hedda Gabler at the same time.

What’s the oddest thing that’s happened during the run to date?
The car not crashing in one of the previews. I ran over and tried to push it over but it wouldn’t budge. Finally the house lights came up and I ran down the stairs and off the stage feeling humiliated. I don’t think the audience had any idea what was going on.

What are your plans for the future?
I’m not sure. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, especially since my Dad died during rehearsals for this West End run. I love acting and I really feel fortunate to have done the things I’ve done. But there are other things in life that I’d like explore. With acting, it doesn’t matter how much you do, it’s still so fickle. You can do a play like Baby Doll and suddenly you’re hot and everyone’s interested and excited, then you do something that isn’t well received and it all changes. You’ll never experience such highs or such lows. I think I might like to try living life a bit smoother for a while. We’ll see.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is at the West End’s Playhouse Theatre, where it’s booking until 13 August 2005.