ES Magazine


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


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