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Ophelia Lovibond: 'Theatre is very addictive'

The actress is making her professional stage debut in The Effect

Ophelia Lovibond
(© Pip)

Ophelia Lovibond is palpably excited to be taking to the stage. The actress, known for film and television roles including Man Up, Guardians of the Galaxy, Elementary and W1A, is making her professional theatrical debut in The Effect at Sheffield Theatres next month.

"I'm so excited; it's really quite cloying how excitable I am. The luxury which I am realising I've not had working in film and television is the time to figure out every different facet of the character and discuss everything – it's very addictive."

Lovibond didn't go to drama school, opting instead to study English at the University of Sussex – "reading novels every week – what a chore!" – where she largely stayed away from acting because the theatre group was "such a strong bonded group of people that I kind of felt a bit outside of it".

She talks of her current experience watching the rest of the cast of The Effect in rehearsals as a "sort of training", and also feels that she got a good grounding in her early work; her first TV role was aged 12 in The Wilsons.

"I was really lucky, getting television work and everything when I was young. You do all these TV jobs and you learn very quickly what works and what doesn't so personally I've never felt ‘I wish I'd gone to drama school' ever. When it came to making choices and filling out UCAS forms and all that, I just thought ‘I want to go and study English; I don't want to go and study drama' because I'd been doing it already."

She caught the acting bug early, going to a weekend theatre workshop on her brother's recommendation aged 10, and hasn't looked back since: "from then on in I knew what I wanted to do; it gave me a lot of focus".

And now, having yearned for a theatrical part for a long time, she's learning a different aspect of her craft. "There are so many ideas that you can interrogate. And Daniel Evans, the director, is so full of ideas; he'll make you try things out that hadn't occurred to you and you discover something you never could have anticipated which enriches your performance so much more."

So what was it about this production that lured her in? "Primarily the play itself. I hadn't ever read anything like it before. I loved how naturalistic the dialogue is - Lucy Prebble is quite a master in that, the use of pause and the way you chop and change your syntax. I was just really drawn to that naturalistic speech."

The fact that Evans was directing it helped as well; Lovibond thought it would be "incredible" to have him at the helm. She adds: "As soon as I was sent it I was very eager, to put it mildly."

The play premiered at the National Theatre in 2012 starring Billie Piper as Connie, the role that Lovibond now takes. None of the current cast nor Evans saw that production, which Lovibond thinks is "probably a good thing".

Henry Pettigrew and Ophelia Lovibond in rehearsal for The Effect
© Johan Persson

The story is a complex one, set in a drugs clinic where a new antidepressant is being trialled. It looks at love, depression and psychology, offering a variety of opinions as to how the brain might work.

"It's so complex and so layered but not dense, not obtuse. It circles back to the same issues and then explores them in yet another way. You hope as it goes on the audience has a gradually more enhanced understanding or viewpoint of what we're talking about. Prebble, her writing is so dynamic; it's a hell of a play to start with!"

The company spoke to a psychologist in preparation for the production, asking her "lots" of questions, who told them of the huge amount we just don't know about the brain and its inner workings.

"You can interrogate it and examine it and have a look at all the different bits but ultimately it still surprises us. In terms of love and how it is experienced, the play asks these questions but it doesn't tell you what to think; it exposes the fact that you can think what you want. We're such complex creatures and I don't think it can be reductive, you can't just prescribe a certain theory."

Now Lovibond has had a taste of the theatre, will she search out more stage work? "Having worked on The Effect, knowing how much you can get from a character, I have definitely become very enamoured of this approach."

"I love working in film and television. I think I'm just open to whatever engages my imagination. It's just about the right ingredients: the playwright and the cast and the character and the director."

She'd also like to tackle the Bard. "I'd love to play Isabella in Measure for Measure - I remember reading that and thinking there was a lot to play with there. The thing is there are many Shakespeare roles I'd love to play but they're all men so I'd probably want to follow Maxine Peake in her footsteps. Iago, that would be a great part to play."

And how about a musical role? "Absolutely, I would love to. I've always wanted to play Sally Bowles. I used to sing jazz in different clubs in London just for fun and I do miss it so if I could marry those two I would really relish it... Doing a musical onstage would be something else."

She's talked before about the lack of interesting roles for women ("the fact that that was news I found quite remarkable"), an issue which is "improving" but still has some way to go.

"I mean it's absolutely nowhere near balanced which is mad, because we make up 51% of the population but I just think having voices like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer, that's how it will shift. I'm an optimist. I think it will take time but I'm confident it will shift; I can't see how it can't."

Conversation turns to Lovibond's work in the US. She was in New York for five months last year, filming the third series of Elementary, and has an agent in LA. Are we in danger of losing her to America?

"Sounds like Columbus or something! The thing that is so incredible about this job is that you don't really have to be in any one place because you can tape auditions and send them across. I love the adventure of living in different places; it doesn't mean that I can't come back again. I'm very much a London girl born and bred but I'm keen on travelling and I feel so lucky that I get paid to go to other countries and explore different cultures."

We might see Lovibond's name under author sometime soon, too. "There are lots of scrap ideas in different notebooks. I do miss the act of writing from university so I think that will need to be sated."

And fingers crossed for another series of BBC comedy W1A, in which she plays Izzy Gould. "I really hope so because it is such a fun job shooting that. It's just so bizarre wandering around the BBC satirising it and there's also so much scope for more. There seems to be a lot of mileage out of that so I hope so, I would love to do another series.

So it looks like the world is Ophelia Lovibond's oyster. And if you're a casting director looking for a female Iago or the next Sally Bowles, your search ends here.

The Effect runs in the studio at Sheffield Theatres from 25 June to 18 July