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Cressida Bonas: 'I love dance, but acting wins'

The actor will star in a new show about Sonia Brownell, the wife of George Orwell

Cressida Bonas will play Sonia Brownell in Mrs Orwell
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Mrs Orwell is set after George Orwell published 1984. He's got TB and believes he has three more books left in him. I play Sonia Brownell who is an assistant at Horizon magazine and a friend to George. He proposes to her saying she is his only hope and she'll save him. She has to decide whether she wants a platonic relationship with him or to succumb to Lucian Freud's advances. There's some dramatic license but it's based on true events.

I love the research, it doesn't stop. Sonia is a really interesting character and she had an amazing life, she died penniless but she was the sole heir to Orwell's estate, she got everything. She was very bright and a modern woman for the '40s. She was an ambitious working girl and her contemporaries were getting married but her passion was literature and poetry and art. In today's world, we think an ambitious woman is great, but back then she received some bad press because she was trespassing on this male-dominated world and industry. People thought, 'who is this'?

People called her a golddigger, but her motive was to protect Orwell's name and his work. She loved him, it was an intellectual love and a friendship. I've read The Girl from the Fiction Department, it's a biography written by Hilary Spurling who was a friend of Sonia's at the end of her life, and she defended everything that was said about Sonia. She was fiercely loyal but if someone went against her she was fiery. [In the play] she's very loyal to George and I wanted to make her as real as possible, no one is purely bad or good. I always try to find a connection to the person I'm playing to make it as truthful as possible, I can't say exactly what those things are between me and her but I can relate and understand her, she's got this sense of survival that I do have in me.

I did An Evening with Lucian Freud in 2015 and it's a really strange coincidence that then I read Mrs Orwell and thought 'Oh my God, Freud has come back again'. So I went in knowing what he was like already and now I'm learning even more about him. But he is 27 in this, whereas the one-woman play was set when he was 80, so in this he is even more magnetic.

George married Sonia just three months before his death from tuberculosis and a lot of decisions were made in a short space of time. He proposed to this woman, not sexually, because he couldn't, but their friendship is interesting and I think she thought she could save him, she was by his bed every day.

I was at the Royal Ballet School and my love of performance came from there. Then I went to sixth form college where I discovered acting and I spent my whole time in the drama studio and didn't do much else. At Leeds University I studied dance and while I was there I joined a theatre company called Dugout, we did Othello and Hay Fever, and did the Edinburgh circuit. Then I went to LA and studied Meisner and contemporary dance.

I love dance, I love it, but acting wins. I always wanted to speak and play a character, so every part I've played I come from a physical point of view. I don't like sitting and talking, I like to get up and find the physicality. I think, ‘let's just see and if it's horrible we'll make another choice'. But [director] Jimmy Walters is very good at finding what works for us. I met him at Leeds University, we didn't know each other very well, but he was in the same drama gang.

Mrs Orwell runs at the Old Red Lion from 4 to 26 August with previews from 1 August.