Don’t mess with Mccrory

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As Peaky Blin­ders re­turns to BBC One, He­len Mccrory tells Ga­van­ndra Hodge how she bal­ances home life with Damian Lewis with be­ing a badass on screen


He­len Mccrory, the mul­ti­ple-award­win­ning ac­tor, is hold­ing what looks like a moist slice of turkey. ‘What is that?’ I ask.

‘It’s a face mask, dar­ling. £1.99 from Su­per­drug,’ she says, rub­bing it against her neck. ‘It’s go­ing to make me look like a teenager.’

We are stand­ing out­side a café on the Re­gent’s Canal, cy­clists and prams whizzing by. Mccrory is wear­ing a flo­ral tea dress, sil­ver Zadig & Voltaire boots, sun­glasses and a VIP wrist­band from a Bob Dy­lan con­cert she went to, five days ago. ‘I am never tak­ing it off,’ she says.

There is a sort of rock-star swag­ger to He­len Mccrory, 50, a charis­matic, don’t-give-a-damn cool with her chipped red nails and posh-voiced sweari­ness. She likes to party, to wear top hats and vin­tage frocks, and there is the in­evitable dou­bling of glam­our that comes from her mar­riage to the ac­tor Damian Lewis (Brody from Home­land, more re­cently Bobby Ax­el­rod in Bil­lions), with whom she lives in a tall, nar­row house in Tufnell Park with their chil­dren Manon, 12, and Gul­liver, 11.

But what is most thrilling about Mccrory is not the husky wit, the fa­mous friends (‘Have you seen An­drew [Scott] do­ing Present Laugh­ter? Now that is how you do Coward’) or the fact that she ran an acid jazz club in Is­ling­ton one sum­mer in the early 1990s – it is her tal­ent. She brings a fu­ri­ous pre­ci­sion and in­ten­sity to the roles she takes: Medea and ‘Lady M’ on stage; on screen, Anna Karen­ina, Nar­cissa Mal­foy, Cherie Blair and the gang­ster ma­tri­arch Aunt Polly in Peaky Blin­ders, the fifth

sea­son of which is soon to start on BBC One. Crit­ics com­pete for the glow­ing ad­jec­tives when de­scrib­ing her per­for­mances – ‘su­perb’, ‘ma­jes­tic’, ‘sim­ply won­der­ful’. In 2017 she was awarded an OBE for ser­vices to drama.

Birm­ing­ham-based Peaky is the BBC’S wildly pop­u­lar 1920s gang­ster epic, with a Wild West sen­si­bil­ity and sump­tu­ous pe­riod styling (in the new se­ries, Polly will mostly be wear­ing jaunty, Greta Garbo-in­spired suits). Mccrory plays the aunt of Thomas Shelby (Cil­lian Mur­phy), who is now not only a crim­i­nal king­pin but also an MP. The new sea­son ‘starts with the Wall Street Crash’, ex­plains Mccrory. ‘When it all hits rock bot­tom. Polly has noth­ing again, which is ac­tu­ally her most happy modus operandi. She is a street urchin, an al­ley cat, she makes it up as she goes along.’

There is a sharp edge to the parts that ap­peal to Mccrory: witches, rogue queens, em­bat­tled lawyers and women about to top­ple into de­spair. Her friend and col­league, the late Alan Rick­man, once said, ‘He­len has a kind of dark­ness of spirit to bring.’ ‘I am cer­tainly not fright­ened of melan­cho­lia,’ she ad­mits. ‘That thing of al­ways try­ing to be jolly and pos­i­tive, that has never re­ally in­ter­ested me. Dark­ness is so much part of our lives. If you deny that in your per­for­mances, if you air­brush that out of life, you make peo­ple feel lonely. The whole point of sto­ry­telling is to sit there and not feel so des­per­ately alone, which is of course our nat­u­ral state…’

Mccrory’s mother was a Welsh phys­io­ther­a­pist, her fa­ther a Glaswe­gian who worked for the For­eign Of­fice and took his young fam­ily (Mccrory has two sib­lings, a brother and a sis­ter) to Paris, Tan­za­nia, Nor­way, Mada­gas­car. ‘I was al­ways dif­fer­ent, wher­ever I went,’ she says.

Mccrory still felt like an out­sider as a teenager, when she boarded at Queenswood Girls School in Hert­ford­shire, wore DM boots and lis­tened to The Clash, and marched to free Nel­son Man­dela and abol­ish the poll tax. ‘Al­though I did look like I’d eaten the other girls. I was quite plump. Not that I ever no­ticed… I wasn’t brought up to no­tice things like that. My mother has never worn a scrap of make-up in her life.’

It was at Queenswood that Mccrory first be­came aware of the theatre ( grow­ing up in Africa, she had barely watched tele­vi­sion). Her drama teacher was Thane Bet­tany (fa­ther of Paul) and he took his pupils to see pro­duc­tions such as Mother Courage with Judi Dench. Mccrory im­me­di­ately felt ‘at home with the mis­fits’ of the theatre and, at 16, ap­plied to the Drama Cen­tre. ‘When I told my par­ents I wanted to act, the thing that they were wor­ried about was not what hap­pens if I act, it was what hap­pens if I don’t act.’ For her au­di­tion, she read Juliet’s speech from act three of Romeo and Juliet: ‘Gal­lop apace, you fiery-footed steeds.’

‘They said, “That’s great. So, when have you been in love, what does love feel like?” I said, “I have no idea.” I was a 16-year-old vir­gin. “But there will be peo­ple in the au­di­ence whose wives have died, who know about love in a deep and amaz­ing way,” they said. “And you are stand­ing there, talk­ing to them about love? What right do you have? Go away!” And I thought they were ab­so­lutely right.’

‘I don’t think I am deep enough to have men­tal-health is­sues. I just get stressed like ev­ery­one else’

Mccrory went to Tus­cany with a boyfriend to learn about love, in bed and in art gal­leries. After a while, the boy went to Africa and Mccrory went trav­el­ling – France, Spain, Aus­tria. But he pined for her and, with­out warn­ing, headed back to Europe, track­ing her down to a café in Inns­bruck (it was a time be­fore mo­bile phones and Face­book; lo­cat­ing a lost love in Europe re­quired con­sid­er­able in­ge­nu­ity, in Mccrory’s boyfriend’s case con­tact­ing her fa­ther via di­plo­matic chan­nels). ‘I felt this tap on my shoul­der and it was him. I fainted. It was the first time I had ever fainted.’

It was an ex­cel­lent piece of im­mer­sive re­search into how to play Juliet, and when Mccrory re­turned to Lon­don – liv­ing in a rented room in Fins­bury Park with a TV that had to be fed 50pence pieces – she tried out for the Drama Cen­tre again. This time, she was ac­cepted (the boyfriend went to Cam­bridge and the grand love fiz­zled out). After three years of ‘men­tal tor­ture – it re­ally suited me’, Mccrory grad­u­ated, walk­ing into a job at the Na­tional Theatre play­ing The Bride in Blood Wed­ding by Lorca, fol­lowed by 10 years al­ter­nat­ing be­tween there and the Don­mar, work­ing like a demon by day, par­ty­ing like a demon by night.

She might not be such a stalwart of Soho’s drink­ing dens any longer (al­though a friend who knows her says there is no one in Lon­don more fun to stand out­side the Groucho and have a fag with) but re­search re­mains the cor­ner­stone of her work. ‘I am ob­ses­sive. As soon as I am of­fered a part, I write down sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences be­tween me and the char­ac­ter, then I just work on the dif­fer­ences.’

For Medea, she spent time with the clas­sics scholar Edith Hall dis­cussing Greek tragedy. ‘I read stuff that I hadn’t read since I was 17, like Plato’s Symposium.’ She has just ac­cepted a role in a Stephen Frears adap­ta­tion of the James Gra­ham play The Quiz for ITV, about the for­mer army ma­jor Charles In­gram, who was ac­cused of cheating on Who Wants To be a Mil­lion­aire? in 2001. Mccrory will play the de­fence QC, So­nia Wood­ley, and has al­ready been in touch with a crim­i­nal bar­ris­ter friend to ar­range a trip to the pub­lic gallery to watch her at work. The other pro­ject in the pipe­line is for the stage. ‘I re­ally

want to do Pri­vate Lives with Damian,’ she says.

Mccrory met her fu­ture hus­band in 2003 when they were both in the Joanna Lau­rens play Five Gold Rings at the Almeida, about a dys­func­tional fam­ily re­union. The at­trac­tion be­tween them was a pal­pa­ble force in the room. ‘I could have warmed my hands on it. It was like direct­ing a fire,’ the di­rec­tor Michael At­ten­bor­ough later com­mented. Mccrory had never re­ally con­sid­ered get­ting mar­ried be­fore she met Lewis – al­though she had been en­gaged a few times. The cou­ple had their first child three years after meet­ing, their sec­ond 14 months later.

When the chil­dren were younger, Mccrory was a strict par­ent, mak­ing sure there was rou­tine in a life that might oth­er­wise seem chaotic, with one par­ent in Los An­ge­les, or a stint of school­ing in New York. The struc­tures have be­come a lit­tle looser now that Manon and Gul­liver are older. ‘There are rules, but they are chang­ing. We are tak­ing them to Lat­i­tude next week­end, and the deal is ev­ery­one chooses two things [to see] and we all have to go. There will be no walk­ing out half­way through Drake be­cause it is not the clean ver­sion!’

Mccrory and Lewis try to al­ter­nate jobs so there is al­ways some­one at home with the chil­dren, and this year they have not had a nanny. ‘When we go back to work we’ll get some­body in, but I turn a lot of work down be­cause I am aware that they are go­ing to be out of here soon.’ The fam­ily has just been on a road trip in Cuba, ‘not in ho­tels, stay­ing with fam­i­lies’, which was ar­ranged by Lewis.

He also or­gan­ised Mccrory’s 50th birth­day last sum­mer. ‘He took me to the Wal­lace Col­lec­tion. He got the gen­tle­man in charge to give us a tour, which was my idea of heaven. Then we went to a ho­tel that will re­main name­less, then home. When I came down to din­ner, my whole fam­ily were there and a load of friends. Damian is very good at throw­ing sur­prise par­ties. And be­cause I al­ways dress up, I just hap­pened to have on a 1920s back­less blue vel­vet evening gown with a pair of old Fila train­ers.’

Mccrory loves clothes; the idea of pulling on a dif­fer­ent per­sona with a dif­fer­ent out­fit. ‘But I’m as happy to wear my py­ja­mas, old flipflops and a jumper. I would never worry about whether that was the right or wrong thing to wear.’ She does seem not to care about the things that bother so many women in her pro­fes­sion. She laughs about her lat­est hairdo (a gamine crop). ‘I bumped into Shar­lene from [the band] Texas. She is so f—ing cool. I thought, “I want hair like you,” to­tally for­get­ting that I have tight curls. So I went to the hair­dressers, and in­stead of look­ing like Shar­lene Spi­teri, I look like Roy Or­bi­son.’

She thinks that diet fads are ‘non­sense’, hasn’t been to a yoga class for three years, and keeps fit in­stead by run­ning up and down the many stairs in her house, and cy­cling ev­ery­where be­cause she doesn’t drive. When I ask if she med­i­tates to man­age stress and men­tal-health is­sues, she goes silent for the first time dur­ing the in­ter­view. ‘No one has ever asked me that be­fore.’ Si­lence again, slightly in­tim­i­dat­ing. ‘I don’t think I am deep enough to have men­tal-health is­sues. I just get stressed and wor­ried like ev­ery­one else. Some­times you can work it out, and some­times you can’t and it re­ally up­sets you. I mar­ried my best friend which helps, so there is al­ways some­one to make me laugh.’

She says she lives en­tirely in the mo­ment. ‘I am alarmed by peo­ple who make plans, and in­deed by peo­ple who think about the past.’ She finds mod­ern tech­nol­ogy an in­tru­sion, turn­ing her phone off at week­ends. She doesn’t re­ally care what her home looks like, is dis­dain­ful of match­ing crock­ery and is fa­mously thrifty, tak­ing her kids shop­ping for clothes in Ox­fam. She em­braces ro­bust hon­esty and crit­i­cism: ‘Turns out I have the emo­tions of a so­ciopath!’

All this might make her seem tough, but re­ally she is just cer­tain of her­self and switched on to how she feels. She is also pas­sion­ate about the power of cre­ativ­ity, and has be­come deeply in­volved with the Sir Hu­bert von Herkomer Arts Foun­da­tion. This char­ity brings ac­cess to the cre­ative in­dus­tries to dis­ad­van­taged chil­dren in in­nercity es­tates, of­fer­ing cour­ses such as pho­tog­ra­phy, doc­u­men­tary film-mak­ing, art and fash­ion. Mccrory helps with fundrais­ing and aware­ness rais­ing, and says that the award from Lon­don’s mayor that the char­ity re­cently won, recog­nis­ing its im­pact on the lo­cal community, is one of the things that she is most proud of in her life (in­deed, she has brought it with her to show me).

Mccrory says that now, more than ever, she will only do things ‘that re­ally count’. It is why she will only take roles that she cares about. Polly in Peaky Blin­ders ap­pealed be­cause, ‘Steve Knight [the writer/cre­ator] gives her such wit and in­tel­li­gence, but it all comes from a very fe­male place’. Fe­male power on screen might be all the rage, but it is noth­ing new for He­len Mccrory: she ex­em­pli­fies it, in her work and her life. ‘Peo­ple are look­ing for pow­er­ful fe­male char­ac­ters. But I am very lucky, I have just been play­ing them any­way.’

To sup­port the work of the Sir Hu­bert von Herkomer Arts Foun­da­tion, visit von­herkomer­foun­da­ Peaky Blin­ders is on BBC One from 25 Au­gust at 9pm

‘I mar­ried my best friend, so there is al­ways some­one to make me laugh’

Pre­vi­ous page Mccrory wears: jacquard fil coupé jacket, £1,850, Er­dem (er­ Velour hat, £340, Al­berta Fer­retti (al­berta­fer­ This page Jacket with peak la­bel, £2,150, and high-waist trousers, £575, both Dolce & Gab­bana (dol­cegab­bana. com). Lurex shirt, £820, and hat, both Al­berta Fer­retti (as be­fore) Left, from top Mccrory with Richard Gere and Billy Howle in the re­cent BBC se­ries Mother­fa­ther­son ;as Aunt Polly in Peaky Blin­ders (far right). Above right With hus­band Damian Lewis at Wim­ble­don, ear­lier this sum­mer

Mccrory wears: wool-silk jacket, £7,240, and high-waist trousers, £2,275, both Alexan­der Mcqueen (alexan­derm­c­

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