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Patsy Ferran: 'Drama school prepared me for being pigeon-holed'

As she steps up to play Tennessee Williams' most-loved character, Patsy Ferran explains why she's learnt to stop apologising for being onstage

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Patsy Ferran in Summer and Smoke
© Marc Brenner

Actress Patsy Ferran may be in her late twenties, but she still managed to get asked for ID the other week. "I showed the man at the till my ID and he laughed in my face. He even asked if it was definitely mine!" she says to me in the Almeida's offices at the start of our interview. "I told him not to worry, I get that a lot."

You can see why; Ferran's wide eyes and oval face have a kooky-kid look about them and are probably the reason why she's played everything from angry teens (the recent My Mum's a Tw*t at the Royal Court), to androgynous boys (Jim in Treasure Island at the National Theatre) and young house maids (in the West End's Blithe Spirit).

Now though, she's rather relieved to be playing an age closer to her own in the revival of Summer and Smoke at the Almeida Theatre where she stars as Alma, the daughter of a preacher. The play is set in Mississippi and is a push-and-pull, will-they-won't-they love story between two young and very different people. It marked a slight dip in fortunes in the career of playwright Tennessee Williams – it originally played 102 performances on Broadway, which wasn't a patch on the previous success of Streetcar.

However Alma, according to Ferran, was one of the characters Williams most loved. "All of his characters are essentially mouthpieces for his own thoughts and battles, and he believed [Alma] articulated the best of what it is he wanted to say," she explains.

Patsy Ferran in Summer and Smoke
© Marc Brenner

Summer and Smoke is one of Williams' lesser-known works, although it was seen in London at the Apollo Theatre in 2006, where Rosamund Pike took the role of Alma. By both Pike's and Ferran's accounts it's a beautiful, complex, juicy part. And it's a role that drives the play, which makes Ferran feel a little uncomfortable. "At one point in the first week the director said: 'We have to tell the story through Alma's eyes', and my body went: 'Oh, no, no, no, no, no, don't put all that pressure on me!'"

Alma marks something of a gear change for Ferran, whose break-out role before she had even graduated from RADA was in a cast with Angela Lansbury in the West End revival of Blithe Spirit. There she garnered excellent notices from astonished critics who applauded her professional debut as hilarious. The part may have been small, but it made a big impact. After playing Jim in Treasure Island in 2014 at the National Theatre, Observer critic Susannah Clapp hailed her as "one of the best young actors I have seen in the past decade."

'I think someone described my acting style perfectly as 'all-elbows''

What seems most surprising to Ferran is that she has managed to avoid being typecast. "When we were leaving drama school we were prepped with the idea that we were going to be pigeon-holed. But weirdly it didn't happen to me." Instead she took on Portia, then Celia in Polly Findlay's productions of The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It respectively. Being offered the part of Portia was something of a shock to Ferran: "When that part came my way I was like: 'What?' I think someone described my acting style perfectly as 'all-elbows'." Not how you'd usually describe the graceful, poised Portia. It is testament to Ferran – and Findlay's vision – that she was able to turn that expectation on its head.

But though there is pressure on Ferran in Summer and Smoke she is clearly delighted to be given the opportunity to play Alma. "It feels like a real honour to be able to try and materialise that brain. I just think she's beautiful. She's flawed, but she is an exquisite character." Leading the company doesn't come naturally to Ferran, who described Celia in As You Like It as a role which put her in her comfort zone, because she was onstage a lot and got to observe, but didn't have all the lines and wasn't the driving story. Even in the recent production of My Mum's A Tw*t – a 90-minute monologue performed Upstairs at the Royal Court – she described the acute sense of feeling like she needed to 'apologise' for being onstage.

'I learnt things from My Mum's a Tw*t that I need to take on as a human, not just as an actor.'

"It was the most vulnerable I felt onstage." She explains, "I spoke to the directors about it and they said 'take up room, be onstage, you are allowed to'." Why did she feel like that? "I'm not loading this with anything, but I think there's a possibility that it's about being a female actor and that we're not used to having the loudest voice in the room. I learnt things from that show that I need to take on as a human, not just as an actor."

Over the last four years her career has been a veritable feast of parts and plays, which have continued to propel Ferran forward. Having seen her perform, I can't help but think she will be hitting bigger roles in bigger stage and screen projects very soon. Which isn't bad for someone who almost didn't become an actor. At school, she dropped drama for a year in favour of Latin, because she was thinking she would become a linguist (she's a Spanish speaker too). But it was only when a friend mentioned to her that the drama teacher was upset she hadn't chosen the subject for GCSE that she realised her mistake. "I remember it as far more cinematic than it actually was – suddenly I was running through the corridors, bursting into reception and going: 'I need to change my GCSEs!'"

And thank goodness she did. She's an incredibly versatile and dynamic talent and Williams' cherished Alma will be in excellent hands.

Summer and Smoke runs at the Almeida Theatre from 7 March to 7 April with previews from now.

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