She has an impressive list of stage and screen credits and is married to Homeland star Damian Lewis, but at home in North London Helen McCrory is happy to play down her fame and be just another working mum, she tells Chrissy Iley.
the feisty star who prefers a low-key life
Helen McCrory is rather pleased her husband, Homeland and Wolf Hall star Damian Lewis OBE, has been objectified as a pin-up, with topless shots from US TV series Billions plastered over the papers and glossy magazines alongside other British hunks Tom Hiddleston and Aidan Turner (for more on Aidan, see page 34).
“It’s lovely. Every wife wants to be with someone everyone finds attractive. Just like every husband wants to feel their wife is attractive,” she says, perched at the bar of a London members’ club in high black boots and a black, high-necked, fitted dress with a sexy split in the skirt.
I’d heard Helen McCrory was tiny. But she never looks tiny on screen, especially as Polly Gray, the mobster matriarch in award-winning Peaky Blinders. There you don’t think about her size, just her mesmerising force, which is equally apparent in her rapturously praised lead in Medea at the National Theatre in London. It’s given her an impressively varied career. She’s appeared in two Harry Potter films, starred opposite 007 as MP Clair Dowar in Skyfall, played Cherie Blair in two films, and she’s recently been on the stage of the National again in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.
So does she think of herself as part of a power couple? “Sure, every morning on the way to school in my pyjamas with the children in all the wrong outfits: power couple is written all over us,” she exclaims with a laugh.
In the flesh she’s a fierce, sexy woman with refreshing views on nudity (“I walk around at home in knickers”), the National Health
Service (“drunks who pitch up to
A&E should foot the bill”) and the gender pay gap in Hollywood (“if you’re doing the same job, you should get the same money”). She also makes a surprising bid for a key role in the next Bond films (see overleaf).
Her relationship with Damian
Lewis sounds close and lively. Actor Michael Caine’s advice for keeping a relationship alive is to have separate bathrooms. What’s hers? “Marry someone you love and someone who you like. I am incredibly lucky. We are constantly apart and in stimulating situations; it’s feast or famine.”
Does she have anything like the three-week rule, where no matter where she and Damian are in the world they have to see each other? “No, but we try to see each other as much as possible… it’s not a rule, I just miss him when he is not there babbling to me for hours. We talk a lot. We both don’t shut up. It’s constant until your ears bleed.”
At 48, two years older than her husband, she revels in her Peaky Blinders role as the tough-as-old-boots matriarch Aunt Polly, who keeps up with the boys both in the bar and on the mean streets of Birmingham, while taking care of business when the men were in the trenches during WWI. But Helen also believes she can play much younger women: “Instead of that dysmorphia where women look in the mirror and the size 14 woman sees herself as size 22 because she has no self-esteem, I’m the other way around. I go, ‘That 17-year-old, tall woman staring back is lovely.’ Sometimes I look at the screen and go, ‘Terrible lighting, I almost look middle-aged.’ And I am so
alarmed if I see a photo of myself. I say, ‘What a strange camera angle, you’ve made me look terribly short.’
While she jokes about her own appearance, she is perplexed by accusations of a lack of political correctness in the film and TV business. So while this year’s
Academy Awards, dubbed “The
White Oscars”, highlighted race concerns in Hollywood, Helen suggests that race isn’t the only issue that could have been picked up on. “Where were all the old ladies and the big fat guys?” But she adds: “I find it strange when people say actors are role models. Why would you have such low self-regard that you want an actor as a role model? It’s not about being socially conscious, it’s the entertainment business.”
However, she is vexed by sexism in interviews. She would like someone to ask Damian about his beauty regime and how he juggles children and a job, and is he thinking about getting some work done. She may have a valid point, but given lascivious media comments earlier this year about her husband’s naked scenes in his shows I cheekily ask her if she’s changed her mind about stripping off, as she used to turn down nudity? “You mean, will I drop my knickers at the drop of a hat? Not quite. But when I started I was very aware that I was in a vulnerable position and you can’t call the shots. You can’t decide where the camera is going to be and you are not in control. When you are older you get to be more in control and it’s easier to be vulnerable because you’re in a safe place. And I don’t see that nudity is necessarily sexual. I’d be happy to just open the fridge in a pair of knickers at night talking to my husband. In the summer at home I walk around in knickers.”
Damian has always said that it’s his wife who is the boss at home. “I don’t think he sees me as boss lady at home, but when he’s away in America he knows that I am looking after the children and he knows that I can take care of them [her children Manon and Gulliver are 10 and eight]. He has recently been doing Billions in New York. When he comes back home he is very aware that I have been there, manning the fort.”
Will they ever work together? “I don’t know. I think we’d like to, but the problem is we get sent scripts that either have a great bloke part and an only okay girl’s part, or vice-versa. In some of them there are husbands and wives and I think that’s a bit distracting for an audience. It feels a bit Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Jennifer Lawrence has spoken out about the pay gap in Hollywood, the difference between men and women. But Kate Winslet said it was vulgar to talk about money. Where does Helen McCrory stand? “If you’re doing the same job, then indisputably you should have the same money. I don’t sit around with my friends and ask, ‘How much do you earn?’ but mainly because I don’t know what I earn until the tax man at the end of the year says what I have earned. I absolutely assure you that we both need to work. Phone up the National Theatre and ask how much we make a week.” (The Equity minimum wage for an actor is £380 [$679] a week, but big names in big theatres can expect up to £1000 [$1787].)
Emma Rice, the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London, has said that there is no reason why women should not be cast in the classical male roles and vice versa, and she has committed to delivering a 50/50 gender split in her productions. The actresses Fiona Shaw, Cate Blanchett and Maxine Peake have already taken on iconic male Shakespearean roles (Richard II and Hamlet), so is there a classical male lead Helen would like to play? “I was offered Hamlet about four years ago in New York, which I was quite excited about until I discovered that I was to be the only person with reverse gender. If you decide Hamlet is a woman, I want all the cast to be reverse gender. That said,” she admits, “I would really like to play Macbeth. I want to be able to say, ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’.”
How does she feel about playing Bond – James Bond or a Bond girl? “I have been in Bond. I may not have been emerging from the Atlantic in a bikini but I had a very fetching twinset from Jaeger that did the job. I would love to be a Bond girl in the way that M [Judi Dench] was. Would I like to play Bond? No. But if [Bond film producer] Barbara Broccoli is reading this, can I please play M?”
For Helen, sexiness and confidence come from within. She once said that
When I come back with Damian from dancing in New York, you have that feeling you are freer, more relaxed and sexier.
women doing “the walk of shame” (coming home at dawn in the same clothes you went out in the night before) is hot. So when was the last time she did the walk of shame? “I’ve walked into hotel lobbies at 5am with messy mascara and mushed hair, and that’s more to my taste than when I leave looking pristine. That’s what I was talking about. When I come back with Damian from dancing in the boom-boom rooms of New York or whatever, you have that feeling that you are freer, more relaxed and sexier.”
Does she often go dancing with Lewis? “Not so much, but yes, we like to go out. He is here now making shelves, actually. Later this year, he will be filming in New York so I will go over with the kids. Damian filming and me playing my greatest role to date: mother and wife.”
She laughs with a mischievous cackle, but I suspect that part of this is true.
Do her children like to hang around on set watching their parents? “No. We live in Tufnell Park [in north London] and all our friends are in the area, none of them are in the business, and I like it that way. I don’t want my children to be in the glare or rarefied or spoiled. The way we live is kind of low key. We tell them that we are storytellers. They came on set when I was doing Horrible Histories, which is a big kids’ programme. I came down in a bald cap with black teeth and my hair withered – ‘Look at Mummy’s funny costume’ – and they walked right past me. They weren’t interested at all.
“And you can easily avoid the limelight. I have no time for ‘Why were the paparazzi there when I was staggering out of The Ivy at midnight?’ There is a perfectly good Italian near us that the paps won’t be outside, so if you choose to go there you can keep the paps away.”
She doesn’t suffer fools easily. The McCrory-Lewis household is one of shared tasks. “If I have been at home all day and have cooked the kids lunch, Damian will cook in the evening or vice versa. Whoever has the energy left to do it. Damian is better at cooking quick things and I am better at cooking slow things. I’ll make fish pies and apple crumble. He makes tuna Niçoise. That’s all you need in an evening. There’s a depressing new generation of women who say they don’t like the word feminism. Housework is not an optional extra for men, it’s something that’s necessary to do. Not the boring job that the other person does.”
She is clearly not starry either. “We avoid all that. It doesn’t interest either of us. The kids are, like most kids with their parents’ jobs, only mildly interested.”
Nevertheless, both have leads in school plays. Do they have strict home rules? Do they have iPads? “Absolutely not. I know the kids watch television but we are with them. I don’t want them typing ‘pussy’ into YouTube, though the other day Manon wanted to look up a baby monkey and the image that came was a monkey with its skull pulled back and electrodes on its brain. I hope that image will fade and soon they will be old enough to have the conversation of what you’ve got to be careful about because you have to protect your mind. They are lovely children. They will say things like, ‘I came second, not meaning to boast Mummy, because boasting is not good.’ They are both really kind and I am most proud of that.”
Helen’s childhood years were spent in various far-flung locations because of her father’s diplomatic career.
“We were in Scandinavia, West Africa and Tanzania,” she recalls. “Then I went to a Welsh school for a term, then a school in Bletchley. It made me
fit in but never want to belong. I used to lie appallingly. I never saw that as a problem.
“I remember being horrified at 15 or 16 when a girlfriend was really upset because I had said something that was total fantasy. Of course it never happened but it was a terribly good story. And it really confused me why people were so interested in truth. Truth of feeling is very important. Being honest about your feelings. But being honest about what really happened? Unless it hurts somebody, it’s just semantics. So living in the great twilight between my reality and reality as an actress was born.”
When she gets on a roll Helen is almost unstoppable. She is particularly keen on reforming Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). She once said that people should be fined if they miss appointments. “I would also like people to be told how much their prescription is costing. If you pitch up, hammered out of your mind, to have your stomach pumped, which is what most A&Es are full of on Friday and Saturday nights, you should foot the bill. If you can’t take your drink, don’t drink.
“‘I would like to take the NHS out of the political arena. Let’s put it back in the hands of the doctors and start really valuing it. And the other thing that depresses me is machines at Tube stations. There used to be six ticket officers who would tell you if the trains were down today and where you would change platforms. And now it’s just machines. What if the Tube crashes and there’s not one person to help 750 people get off the train?”
She hurtles along in outrage: “And what about supermarkets with no people, just machines? Why do people have to be so greedy? Why is it all right to say we’re making all this money and now we’re going to fire people to make even more? What happened to people talking to you at the shops?
It’s nice to feel part of a village, wherever your village is.”
Helen is as happy meeting Tube workers and checkout staff as royalty, although she describes meeting the Queen in March this year as “very exciting”. She was working on A Little Chaos, one of Alan Rickman’s last films, with a woman who taught her how to curtsy properly. So when she was presented to the Queen she did the whole thing. “I was prostrate in front of her and then I came up.” She gives a little demonstration, outstretching her arms as she bows into her plate. Theatrical. Brilliant. “A lady-in-waiting came afterwards and said, ‘Her Majesty would like to commend you on your curtsy.’ I was thrilled. She was very clever, very funny and witty.”
I look at Helen’s face – gorgeous, expressive and hardly any lines. “I don’t think of myself as old, but I want to make sure that when we shuffle off this mortal coil I would like to be ready to go, at peace with it, not screaming, ‘It never occurred to me that I’m going to die!’ I am not religious but I think I might find it. I might go the way of my Catholic forefathers. I was in Venice recently with my mum and the smells and bells in those beautiful churches had a meditative quality. I like that. I like dream time. I like daydreaming. I think it’s an important part of the day.”
And with that thought, the tiny tall lady takes her leave.
ABOVE: Helen McCrory and her husband Damian Lewis in February this year. Damian has always said that it’s his wife who is the boss at home.
FROM TOP: Helen and Michael Sheen as Cherie and Tony Blair in The Queen (2006). Onstage as Medea in 2014. In The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (2015). And in her role of mobster matriarch Polly in Peaky Blinders.
Helen photographed outside London’s ITV studios in March this year. When not at work, she prefers to avoid the limelight.