She’s a celebrated stage and screen actress but Helen McCrory is best known for breaking hearts when she settled down with her luscious co-star Damian Lewis. Lucky boy, says Lydia Slater
Perched on a velvet sofa in the elegant sitting room of the Cheyne Walk Brasserie, Helen McCrory strokes her Stella McCartney-clad stomach and smiles under heavy eyelids, rather like the cat who’s got the cream. As well she might. Life has never seemed to be particularly tough for McCrory, 37, who has been winning plaudits for her acting ever since she took her first role in the National Theatre’s production of Trelawney of the Wells, and who is constantly tipped as the next Judi Dench.
But even by her own high standards, the future is looking pretty rosy. She is eight months pregnant with her first child, and has an unnervingly perfect celebrity bump – no fat ankles or swollen face, just a watermelon at the waistline and a correspondingly magnificent bronzed cleavage. ‘I’ve never worn so many low-cut dresses in my life. If I could just wear spangles, I would. I feel so amazingly attractive,’ she gurgles throatily, with total justice if our young waiter’s saucer eyes are anything to go by.
McCrory doesn’t appear to notice him; but then if you’re engaged to Damian Lewis, star of The Forsyte Saga and Band of Brothers (and arguably the sexiest redhead on the planet), waiters probably come rather low in the pecking order. ‘I’ve never been broody before, but when I met Damian I became very different about relationships,’ she says.
Lewis will be with her at the September birth of little Boris, her pet name for the foetus which she is convinced will be a boy. The birth will be at St Mary’s Paddington, where both she and Lewis were born, and she’s hoping to keep it as natural as possible. But the only instruction she’s written on her birth plan is that he and not the midwife tells her the sex of the child. ‘I’m just so excited about becoming a parent with him,’ she confesses. ‘I really wanted Damian to do it because it’s our child and it’s going to be the most extraordinary experience of our lives. It doesn’t get bigger than that.’ Will he cope? ‘He’s not weakstomached. I think he’ll be very good at it. At the beginning, he knew more about it than I did.’
Although we spend most of our meeting discussing labour and breast-feeding, we’re supposed to be talking about McCrory’s portrayal of the Prime Minister’s wife in Stephen Frears’ new film, The Queen, dealing with the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, when the mood of the country turned dangerously republican for a bit.
Helen Mirren stars as the Queen, and McCrory is great as Cherie, pulling off the slightly scuttling walk and the adoring gazes at her Tony to perfection. ‘It was very difficult to research,’ she says. ‘There’s lots to read about her, but actually seeing footage of her talking, walking, moving around, there’s hardly anything.
‘But it was interesting doing it because you suddenly realise why she holds herself like that,’ she says, constricting her neck in a way that instantly recalls Cherie. ‘It’s because walking out in front of all those strangers, you feel vulnerable and defensive. And the constant smile warmed me to her; I realised it’s really generous. She’s trying to be friendly, trying to be supportive of her husband. I have huge respect for her.’
Though McCrory perfectly pulls off the simultaneously awkward and resentful observation of royal protocol that one imagines would be Cherie’s, in real life she was brought up to feel entirely at home in that milieu. In fact, she says, her parents still have the Queen’s seals up in their loo at home in Cardiff.
Her father, Ian, was a career diplomat who took his family with him – mother Anne, a physiotherapist, Helen, her younger brother Johnny, and sister Catherine – on his postings around the globe. They are very close. ‘When you move around so much, you rely on your family for everything,’ she says.
McCrory spent her first two years in Oslo, before the family moved to French-speaking West Africa, followed by Tanzania. ‘It was a
Helen wears dress, £1,875, Stella McCartney (020 7518 3100)
wonderful, exciting, eventful childhood,’ she says. Her earliest memory is of being hosed down with the dog outside the house; she has a scar from the day she was chased by a rhino on safari and split her chin on a tree branch, and describes herself as a Mowgli who ran around wearing as little as possible. When her father was posted back to England, she sobbed about the lack of trees and detested wearing ‘restrictive’ shoes.
She saw school as another adventure, though. She boarded at Queenswood School in Hertfordshire, from where teachers took her to London to see plays, including Judi Dench in Mother Courage. ‘I remember thinking that was what I wanted to do.’ But the seeds of a desire to act were sown in early childhood.
‘Moving around, I realised there was no such thing as “normal”,’ she says. ‘How different people were because of their circumstances fascinated me. I had to learn to adapt in order not to be picked on.’
At 17, she auditioned for the notoriously tough Drama Centre in London, but was told to return when she had more experience of life. She waited a year, then reapplied, attaching copies of her rejection letters to other drama school offers. ‘I told them I’d do that every year until they let me in.’ She was offered a place.
The subsequent experience she describes as like ‘sliding down a razor blade’; not for nothing was the college nicknamed the Trauma Centre by its students, who included Tara Fitzgerald, still a close friend. ‘At 18, if someone’s asking you to explore certain facets of your personality and show it to other people, that’s really tough. And the teachers didn’t mince words; they could be vicious. They believed I had such confidence,
they had to be strong in
order to break it down.’
Unpleasant as it
sounds, she remains
grateful for the experience. ‘That’s what critics
do, isn’t it? What the
experience shows you is
whether you’re the sort
of person who can pick yourself up and carry on or, if you’re going to be so upset by criticism, you do something else.’
An unnecessary training, as it turns out, because there’s barely an even mildly critical review to be found in the acres of praise lavished on McCrory’s work.
One of the country’s leading stage actors, her roles have included Nina in the National Theatre’s The Seagull with Judi Dench and Bill Nighy, opposite Joe Fiennes in the RSC’s Les Enfants du Paradis and numerous performances at the Donmar Warehouse. Her Lady Macbeth prompted one critic to comment: ‘She makes you wish Shakespeare had written her more scenes.’
On screen, she’s played the entire gamut of roles, from a sexually charged Anna Karenina in Channel 4’s lavish adaptation, to a hard-faced, dyed-blonde single mother on a Welsh council estate in the TV film Streetlife (a role for which
she won several awards, including a Welsh BAFTA), and a triumphantly hideous Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim, with Coke-bottle specs and tight curls flattened to her head. Her resolute lack of vanity when it comes to playing her roles (‘Are you an actress or a B-list celebrity?’ she says scornfully) has the fringe benefit that she is rarely recognised in the street and has managed to keep her personal life mostly under wraps.
For a while she dated Rufus Sewell, with whom she starred in Charles II: the Power & the Passion. Similarly large of eye and curly of hair, they were once thrown out of a pub for snogging by an appalled barman who thought they were brother and sister. ‘Oh, that seems like another life,’ is all she will say on the subject of Sewell.
The wisdom of discretion was brought home to her last summer, when Sienna Miller, playing Celia to her Rosalind in As You Like It, found herself in the eye of a tabloid storm when Jude Law’s infidelity hit the headlines.
‘I was horrified by what was happening to Sienna. When people turn against you, it doesn’t matter who it is, it’s horrid. There are reasons people decide to be discreet.’
Given McCrory’s publicity-shyness, one can’t
help but wonder whether marrying a
fellow high-profile actor may prove
rather a shock.
She and Damian got to know one
another when they starred together in a
terrible play at the Almeida called Five
Gold Rings. The tempo of an otherwise
sluggish evening, when I saw it, was
raised mightily by a passionate love
scene between the two.
In fact, she says, it wasn’t for another
year that they got together, although she
refuses to be drawn on the details.
Is it tough, though, dating a man who
gets sent knickers in the post from
female admirers? ‘No! Nobody wants to marry someone nobody else wants! It’s part of his job, and it’s part of my job as well. Damian doesn’t mind; he just puts the flowers in the back of the car and drives home. We understand where it comes in life. It’s because people project on to you; some people are like that,’ she says pragmatically.
Off-stage, the pair have been leading a life of peaceful domesticity. ‘We’ve had such a lovely time. Damian’s taken time off and we’ve been to Wales, Cornwall, Dorset, Paris and Spain, and gone to galleries and the ballet, and sat in the garden and read, and cooked, and just had an amazing few months…’ Which explains the caramel tan and the general blissed-out air. ‘We’ve completely and utterly, as my grandmother says, stepped out together,’ she goes on.
The couple are due to marry next summer in Wales (‘I decided I wanted to be skinny and drunk rather than fat and sober,’ she jokes), and in the meantime have bought a house together in Tufnell Park, North London’s Nappy Valley, which they are having done up. ‘Good schools,’ she intones like a mantra, ‘near the Heath…
‘When we first drove into the area, I had hives,’ adds the actress, who until recently lived in the rather trendier enclave of Spitalfields. ‘I was like, “Oh, I can’t, there aren’t any art galleries, there’s no cinema!” But you suddenly realise that when you have children, what you want is green spaces. Your priorities change.’
Thankfully for her fans, McCrory can’t imagine retiring into motherhood for long. ‘I like going out, meeting new people. I can’t see myself being satisfied at home. It’s been strange being pregnant: it’s the first time I haven’t worked.’
She already has two typically eclectic film projects lined up for early next year: one, a comedy about couples in London going for marriage counselling; the other, a gritty drama about moneylenders in Glasgow. Naturally, baby Boris will be going along, too. Despite her success, McCrory isn’t quite sure about the idea of him (or her) following in her footsteps into the limelight. But with such high-quality greasepaint in the genes, you can’t imagine any alternative. The Queen is out on 15 September