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Emilia Fox: 'Acting's like a family business that gets passed down the generations'

Emilia Fox, best known for her long-running role as Nikki Alexander in ''Silent Witness'', has returned to the stage after a lengthy absence to star in Gina Gionfriddo’s ''Rapture, Blister, Burn'' at Hampstead Theatre

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Emilia Fox in Rapture, Blister, Burn
© Alastair Muir

Tell us about Rapture, Blister, Burn
My character is called Catherine and she's described as a 'rock star academic'. She goes back home because her mum has had a heart attack and there meets up with her old roommate from school and her ex-boyfriend, who are now married. Catherine's academic teaching is all about feminism and the women's movement, but she sees her old friend's life and is suddenly aware that when her mother dies she's not going to have anyone in her life to love and who loves her. It's about, broadly, whether we can have it all and whether we really want to have it all.

What's the takeaway message from the play?
I think the ultimate message is that you don't have to have everything. Trying to have it all doesn't always bring happiness; the simple life is often the most fulfilling. It's a very positive message. I suppose the most important thing to convey about it is that whilst it deals with feminist issues, it's not a lecture on feminism at all. It's much more a comedy about the lives of three people in a kind of mid-life crisis.

The two main characters want to switch lives. Have you ever thought about taking a wildly different path?
Constantly! On a day to day basis I think of all of the things I could have done with my life. But equally I think that I'm very lucky with what's happened. I do a job that I really enjoy, so that's stopped me from pursuing anything else.

What's it like coming from a famous theatrical family?
It's curious – lots of people have said to me "is it in your blood?", but I've never really believed that. I think it's more to do with growing up around people and an industry you feel comfortable with. It's more like a business that gets passed down the generations, it's no different to doctors; I think that happens with lots of generations and they choose to go into the same work. When I did Who Do You Think You Are? I discovered that my great-grandmother's family all acted as well, which I thought was rather wonderful. I didn't want to act initially, but I fell into it and got hooked.

Did you know what you did want to do and how did you fall into acting?
I wanted to write. I did a degree in English and I wasn't really sure what to do with a degree in English, I wasn't a very good teacher. I tried that in Australia and completely failed - I was more like one of the students than the teacher!

I did want to write and I'd always loved English literature and stories and possibly that's why acting was a natural progression in the end. I ended up doing Pride and Prejudice and from that got an agent. I put myself under enormous amounts of pressure at university so it was a relief to have something else to think about. I just didn't think it all through very clearly, and I was very lucky to carry on working and to enjoy it.

Shannon Tarbet, Polly Adams and Emilia Fox in Rapture, Blister, Burn
© Alastair Muir

Was Pride and Prejudice your first screen role?
It was, although in a funny way I can't count it as that because I was doing it without knowing what I was doing. I can't bear to look at it; I don't think I've ever seen it. I was much more qualified as a waitress than an actor.

Any plans to work with your relatives?
I'd love to. We've all carved our own paths for fear of people saying, "Oh you're part of a theatrical family, and that's why you got the job", so we quite deliberately went our separate ways. But now I think would be a good time to work with them. I'd love to work with Laurence or Freddie.

You've played Nikki Alexander in Silent Witness for almost a decade. What's it like playing a character for so long?
It's a luxury for an actor, because you've got time to grow with the character, to understand her. I feel like I've been through different eras with Nikki, and certainly as the casts have changed, she adjusts with it. I grew up on crime drama and crime fiction so Silent Witness suits me to a tee. And we get on really well as a cast – we often play bingo together! I'm going back for another series in April.

This is your first return to the stage in a decade. What was it about this play that drew you back?
I think I've always felt more confident filming that I have on stage. I always thought that if I went back to the stage I'd like to do it, but I never really thought the work would come my way. Then I went into meet Peter [DuBois – director] and we had a rip-roaring discussion about pornography, which is discussed quite a lot in the play. I just loved the project straight away. I've got some brilliant co-stars and Gina's writing is very funny.

Would you turn to writing?
Yes, I would love to. I'd quite like to explore the other side of this business, the writing side or the producing side. It's about making the commitment to do it, which is time, and at the moment I'm very involved with being a mum. I think there will come a time when I'd like to get involved with that side.

Rapture, Blister, Burn runs at Hampstead Theatre until 22 February 2014

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