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.


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.


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