THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM Agyness Deyn reigns supreme at Henry VIII’S former home
After a Manchester childhood, Agyness Deyn conquered London and claimed the throne of British fashion a decade ago, thereby becoming one of the most famous models in the world; then moved to New York and reinvented herself as a compelling actress. Now, in a triumphant return to the realm of her birth, she ascends Royal rooftops, in the first ever story to be shot at Hampton Court Palace
When Agyness Deyn first moved to America, back in 2005, she hit a few roadblocks. ‘People would say, do you speak English?’ she says. ‘And I was like, I am English.’ Deyn had grown up with her parents and two siblings in a suburb of Manchester, and discovered, aged 22, that her accent was essentially unintelligible to the average New Yorker. ‘Just on a pure survival front I had to soften my Lancashire broadness a bit.’
What remains is a gentle lilt, and one of the only giveaways that the woman sitting on the other side of the table in the Rosewood London, eating nuts and drinking fizzy water (‘Let’s go wild!’) is actually Deyn. The difference between the woman you might expect, and the reality of who you get, is stark. The first is probably based on the mediated version from the 2000s – the edgy young model who was the face of Burberry and Vivienne Westwood, and seemed to be permanently partying. The photographs from that era usually showed the peroxide-cropped Deyn in the midst of some sort of escapade with her best friend from home, the designer Henry Holland. And so I’d imagined an extrovert, someone loud and attentiongrabbing, who would naturally dominate a room. Instead, Deyn is almost an apologetic presence, lost to an enormous grey hoodie, her hair still cut short but now nut-brown. When I tell her how different she seems to what I’d lazily presumed, she nods, as if this happens a lot. And then she offers a partial explanation: ‘You grow up, as well.’
Deyn modelled for 12 years, after she moved to London to live with Holland and got approached while they were out together. ‘And in that time, I mean, I’d gone on a rollercoaster. You get spotted on the street as a kid and you’re like, “What? Are you kidding me?”’ She travelled the world, moved to Brooklyn, worked with everyone, and became sick of it. ‘I suppose you’re just playing one role aren’t you?’ In the past, she has said diplomatically that modelling was like a decade-long apprenticeship to becoming an actress, letting her explore a creative life that then determined what she actually wanted to do. But there’s no doubt she grew out of it. ‘You start something as a teenager and you become a woman,’ she says now. ‘It was a very clear moment when I thought I have to figure out what else I’m going to do.’ There were panicky moments in the transition. ‘You think, “Who am I if I don’t have that?”’ But also pure joy at the liberation. ‘I wasn’t severely unhappy but I did feel, what’s over that wall?’ she says. ‘It’s like when you have your first boyfriend and you can’t think of ever being with anyone else and then all of a sudden you get a bit older and you realise, there’s other boys, and then, there’s other men.’
To everyone watching, it’s obvious that Deyn has become deeply committed to her new life. This has been no dip-your-toe-in-a-superhero-movie career change. Instead, she has played a run of unglamorous parts in arthouse films that have been acclaimed but gone almost unnoticed. She cites two as the most important to her so far, the ones that gave her lead characters to inhabit and made her fall hard for the profession: firstly Electricity, directed by Bryn Higgins, in which Deyn played the epileptic Lily. ‘I just thought he was nuts for casting me in his film. Nuts,’ she says. But the hunch paid off: as Lily, sitting on the end of a pier eating chips, dirty hair falling over her scratched face, Deyn dismantled any remaining vestige of model-ish poise.
‘I ALWAYS THINK THAT YOU DON’T REALLY CHOOSE THE ROLES, THEY KIND OF CHOOSE YOU’
The second was Sunset Song, in which Deyn was cast as Chris Guthrie, the daughter of a tyrannical Scottish farmer played by Peter Mullan. As an experience, says Deyn now, ‘it might just have changed my life as a woman’. She doesn’t just mean the experience of working with the director, the British auteur Terence Davies, but the self-discovery that came with playing the part. ‘I have always been a person who hated conflict. I hated arguing, was terrible at arguing – it just wasn’t in me.’ Playing Guthrie, a young woman coming of age and fighting for survival in unforgiving rural Scotland in the early 20th century, Deyn had to unleash another side to her character. She learnt how to argue. ‘And I was like, “Oh my God, I’m off !”’
In hindsight, the simple fact of being cast also gave Deyn a boost, chiefly because Davies had no knowledge of her previous life. When they were shooting, someone on set remarked that it was unlikely she would be modelling any more. ‘And Terence said, “What?!”’ she laughs. ‘I wished I’d known sooner – I definitely earnt my spot.’ Davies confirms this when we talk on the phone. ‘I don’t know anything about that part of popular culture, I simply don’t. And I don’t watch that much television either. I had no idea who she was. She was the very first person in on a Monday morning when I was auditioning, and I came up the stairs and thought, “God, she looks about 11 years old.”’ She then gave, according to Davies, the perfect audition. They were seeing countless other hopeful actors for the rest of the week, but Davies was so struck by Deyn that he never even considered anyone else. Looking back, he believes it would have made no difference if he had known who she was. ‘Had she been completely unknown I would have cast her anyway.’
These two parts, Lily and Chris, have somehow defined Deyn’s whole approach to acting. Both were women with passion and singularity. ‘I always think that you don’t really choose the roles, they kind of choose you,’ she says. And since playing them, she has felt confident enough to follow her nose, seek out the more unusual characters and hope that directors will take a chance on her. When she finds something she wants, she goes all out. After filming herself to audition for Hard Sun, the new pre-apocalyptic BBC six-part police drama in which she plays the co-lead, Detective Inspector Elaine Renko, she was invited to meet the director Brian Kirk over Skype. ‘I was in New York and I said to Joel [Mcandrew, her
husband of two years], “Joel, I think I’ve just got to go.” I jumped on a plane the next day and showed up to Brian and said, “Let’s do it. I want to do it in person.”’ Was he impressed? ‘I hope so.’ It is typical of Deyn that she could still express uncertainty even after winning the part and making the show.
As DI Renko, Deyn is both tough and fragile, violent and remote. ‘Renko isn’t sexualised or objectified. It’s the opposite,’ she says, relishing the fact. Making the series was brutal – six months of 16-hour days, six days a week, often performing fight after fight. (Deyn, in an earlier interview, has said she was trained by a tiny New York woman who could beat up her six-foot husband.) It was a step up in workload, but also in pressure. ‘No one had time to hold my hand or molly-coddle me through it.’ It was also her first major television role. The writer, Neil Cross, asked her if she was ready to be on TV. ‘And I was like, “What do you mean?” Then I realised, “Oh my God, that’s different isn’t it? You’re in someone’s home.”’ For many, it will be the first time they’ve laid eyes on Deyn since the fashion years, and they probably won’t be able to quite place her until the credits roll. She is almost unrecognisable – her face hardened into a kind of impregnable mask, which will then suddenly crack with emotion. It’s the same quality that Terence Davies noticed in Sunset Song. ‘That’s what Agyness is. She’s strong but never hard. She’s on and off screen full of humanity.’
Despite playing all these varied characters, Deyn says she still feels ‘green’. Not as green, perhaps, as when she was in rehearsals for the 2012 West End production of The Leisure Society. The director asked the cast to warm up, Deyn had no idea what to do, and so ended up following her fellow cast member Ed Stoppard around the room. ‘Eventually he said, “Ags, do you want to just do it with me?” And I was like, “I’d love that.”’ She smiles. ‘Ed taught me how to warm up.’
Perhaps, after 12 years excelling in a previous career, it’s inevitable that the feeling of being a beginner will take a while to wear off, but there’s self-doubt too. She talks about how she loves being directed, having someone who can ‘guide you and mould you and safely take you on [the journey]. Which then frees me up. Especially since I’ve had no training, which is hilarious’. Deyn often refers to herself as a ‘blagger’, as though her whole acting career to date is a result of absurd chance. She tries to explain it. ‘I don’t know whether it comes from a place of wanting to do well, not for anyone else but myself,’ she says. ‘And maybe coming with a certain amount of fear and excitement in each role.’ Either way, Deyn uses the greenness, the uncertainty, to remarkable effect, exhibiting the kind of vulnerability that means you feel you’re watching someone truly on the edge, exposing everything. And though she might still see herself as an imposter, no one else does. ‘Any success she has she more than deserves,’ says Davies.
As most of her work to date has been playing British characters, Deyn finds herself in England all the time. She loves it, and feels genuine relief when she’s back on home turf. Her family are still here, and her closest friends, who – including Holland – are all from her childhood in Manchester; and she feels at ease with her fellow countrymen, the peculiarities and eccentricities of the English. ‘When you’re with your people you actually have more affinity because they understand you even without much being said,’ she says. ‘We know where we all come from, we know the terrain, we know everything. I miss that in a lot of ways.’ How would she define it, the feeling of being English? Deyn, as she often does, thinks for a long time before answering. ‘You carry a lot of history. On a soul level, you carry the history of where you’re from… Because of the newness of America, Americans have a different spiritual disposition. We carry our ancestry with us. It’s not a bad thing or a good thing, but a heaviness.’
Deyn and her husband live partly in New York City and partly in a house upstate, which Deyn adores because it reminds her of the English countryside, ‘the green and the hills’. There’s little likelihood of her moving back (‘I don’t think he’d come over here,’ she says, laughing about Mcandrew), so the replica will have to do. Still, she gets her own back with regular usage of English idiom, which Mcandrew apparently finds mystifying before co-opting it himself. What kind of thing? ‘Rapscallion, or something like that,’ she says, deadpan. She, in turn, has adopted certain words – elevator for lift and so on – to get by. Still, there are limits. ‘I still say bin,’ she says, defiant. ‘They call it trash. Some things I’m like, “I can’t say that.’” Since those early days of no one understanding a word she said, Deyn has learnt a new language, adopted a new country and embarked on a new career. It has been a wholesale reinvention. And, more than likely, it won’t be her last. ‘The Titan’ and ‘Patient Zero’ are released later this year.
‘BECAUSE OF THE NEWNESS OF AMERICA, AMERICANS HAVE A DIFFERENT SPIRITUAL DISPOSITION. WE CARRY OUR ANCESTRY WITH US’