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20 Questions: Louise Brealey - 'failure is not trying'

The Sherlock star on books, Doctor Who auditions and felt koalas

Louise Brealey
© Johan Persson

Louise Brealey, perhaps best known for her role as Molly Hooper in Sherlock opposite Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, is soon to star in the Royal Court's touring production of Nick Payne's two-hander Constellations, touring the UK from 14 May

1. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in rural Northamptonshire, the Rose of the Shires, the Boot and Shoe County. It's about eighty miles up the M1 from London, where I've lived since university. Me and my brother and sister had the text-book country childhood; making dens, bombing each other with straw-stubble-with-the-soil-attached, avoiding bulls, manhandling newts, getting smashed on Snake Bite and Black, all that stuff. I have red Northants mud in my veins.

2. What made you want to become an actor and subsequently a playwright?
No one else in my family is an actor, but both my parents are very funny and my dad's a salesman, which is basically the same thing. I always wanted to act when I was little but I wasn't a very confident child so I never did all that putting on shows for my parents stuff; we didn't have a dressing-up box. I actually think I first fell in love with acting because I was a bookish little thing and I'd always get completely lost in the story and imagine myself as the characters of everything I read. So I spent my childhood being Jo in Little Women, or Anne of Green Gables, or Jane Eyre, or Elizabeth Bennett. I found a tatty old book in a box in my parents' loft called The Swish of the Curtain about friends who put on plays in a derelict Parish Hall, and read it over and over. As for writing, I've been a journalist all my working life and when I was asked by the National Youth Theatre to write a play about a ninth century woman pope, I thought, why not?

3. Was there anything else you wanted you to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a diplomat to see the world. Sadly my diplomacy skills are fair to middling. For about five years I wanted to be an astronaut. I'm playing a cosmologist in Constellations so it's handy that I can spot Orion. My theoretical physics is not up to much, though.

4. First big break?
My first job, for Max Stafford-Clark at the Royal Court in 2001. I played a 14-year-old kid who was madly in love with the local bad boy. I got it because the assistant director had worked with me in a fringe play in which I sang - badly - a Britney Spears number.

5. Career highlights to date?
Sonya in Uncle Vanya for Peter Hall. I could play that part forever. Chekhov is brilliantly funny and sad, and Sonya has a heart the size of Russia.

6. Worst audition?
Showing up to read for Rose Tyler in Doctor Who and Chris Eccleston saying "I remember you, you did that interview for Premiere" (into which my editor had crowbarred a couple of less-than-flattering comments).

7. What was the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
I fell in love with the girl playing the male lead in the school play, Roses of Eyam. I was dazzled by all the things she made me feel.

8. And the last?
I saw Imelda Staunton in Good People and she blew my mind. I couldn't stop thinking about the play, which is about chance, for months and she was absolutely amazing. I've never seen a more perfect combination of technique and instinct.

9. Favourite book?
I'm not a big re-reader, but the last book I read that smashed me to bits was This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. At the moment I'm reading In the Orchard, The Swallows by Peter Hobbs which is utterly beautiful. It sort of goes into your body and glows; a bit like a Barium meal, but less bad for you.

10. What's the best advice you've ever been given?
That failure is not trying.

Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey will star together in Constellations
© Johan Persson

11. Why did you want to get involved in Constellations?
Because it is one of the most beautiful plays I've ever read. Because you are playing tens of different versions of the same woman so it's an immense technical challenge. Because I'm playing opposite Joe Armstrong and he makes me a better actor. Because Mike Longhurst is directing it, and we've wanted to work together for a while.

12. How would you summarise the play in five words?
Love. Choices. Universes. Binbags. Bees.

13. Did you see the original London run of Constellations?
No. I went up for it and couldn't bear to go and see it! I'm glad now, though, because there's no shadow of Rafe and Sally on our stage. We never feel we have to do what they did.

14. How are you feeling now about the two-hander, having started rehearsals?
We have had so many laughs, especially considering that, one way or another, there's a lot of death in the play. It has been the best room to make mistakes in and be bold in. I can't wait to share it with an audience.

15. You've said you're planning to write a book whilst on tour - what will it be about?
Can't say yet, sorry. But it's non-fiction. And if I get my arse in gear, it'll be out next year.

17. Do you feel steps are being taken to redress the gender imbalance in theatre?
In terms of roles, I think the conversation is finally happening. But we need the literary departments of theatres to confront the issue and actively work with making better roles for women, and more roles. We have a canon which is wildly imbalanced in terms of men-to-women, but there's no excuse for new writing not to meet the challenge head on. Campaigns like Act For Change are a start, and people like Vicky Featherstone at the Court are very good news.

18. What's the best gift you've ever received from a fan?
Make-it-yourself felt koalas for the Christmas tree.

19. How do you unwind?
I light a fire and stick on a Yoga demo thing, where the woman talks you through the moves. Or I walk in the woods around my house and pretend I've got a dog.

20. What's next?
The mysterious book. But in terms of appearances, I'm in George Gently on 19 May, and I'm really proud of it. I usually cringe at myself on camera but I did a bit of ADR on it and it looks really brilliant. And Ripper Street 3 comes onto the BBC shortly. I made a thriller last year called Containment with the ridiculously talented Lee Ross, so that'll make an appearance at some point. And then there's the Sherlock special.

Constellations opens at Woking's New Victoria Theatre on 14 May and tours until 4 July.

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