Ruth Wilson chats with SBJCT about her process as a women of the arts, and the dark materials that go into making work matter. A woman I admire deeply who, alas, is not quite so wicked as some of her characters would have you think, although she does have a damn wicked sense of humor. Oh, and you know, sod legacy and let’s get on with the business of saving this planet and all.
BY ERIN WALSH
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Erin Walsh So RUTH, I am curious about your role as an artist and as an actor. Tell me how you got started. Congrats on your new show, His Dark Materials, by the way! I think its safe to say everyone is excited about this…
Ruth Wilson How did I start as an actor.
Well, I don’t really know, like everything in my life it seemed like a slow, organic inevitability. My mother put me and my brothers into a theatre club when we were kids. The age range was 11-18 so for me it was the first time I was mixing and playing with people of different ages- I loved it. A group of children given the responsibility of telling a story every night. I had a lot of firsts here, my first kiss, my first drunken embarrassment and the first time I experienced that incredible adrenalin of performing live. My interest in performing and theatre grew, I studied it for GCSE’s and A-Levels and then picked my University based on what kind of theatre they had on the campus. Even though I studied History at Nottingham University, I spent all my time in the theatre acting, directing and devising shows. The most successful show was one called ’The HUSH’ directed by Carrie Cracknell. The only way I can describe it is a black and white silent slapstick comedy. It was successful, well for a group of students it was, and we ended up touring it to Edinburgh, London and off off Broadway at the Ice Factory festival in New York. It was then that I realised that acting could take me across the world, and it was then that I felt I had to give it a go, otherwise I would always regret it. So at 21 I applied to drama schools in London, I still hadn’t broken the news to my parents. I got in and the rest was kinda history. I did a two year drama course, got an agent, went to endless auditions and got the most amazing break 6 months out of drama school, playing Jane Eyre in the BBC 4 part drama. It was only my second job and my first major role, they took the most incredible risk on me and one I will be forever grateful.
EW Do you have a craft? How do you hone it?
RW Do I have a craft? Probably but I don’t know what it is. How do I hone it? I keep taking roles and experiences that scare me, that feel challenging.
EW Do you think it is possible to move/ change the world through art? Seriously. You know I started way back as an actor in NYU Drama school, and I took this idea oh so seriously. I still find that the visceral experience of theater stays with you after you are affected by a show- you literally walk out breathing the stuff. So what do YOU think? Can you change the world with your work?
RW Yes I believe so. On the micro level if you can affect one person, make them think and feel differently, make them see the world through someone else’s eyes then art has done its job. On the macro level I think TV for example can have a huge impact because everyone has a TV. The American TV series “24” had a black President long before Barack Obama was sworn in. I really believe seeing fictional but positive diverse role models on the tv screen can actually help make it a reality. People get used to it. I do take seriously that we have a responsibility to entertain yes but also to educate, to move and to challenge people.
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EW Is there a difference between theater and film in terms of how you train your body? I am not curious so much in staying fit for sample size, but I am keen to know that because your body is your instrument- how you deal with that, how you “train” according to performance?
RW Fitness, yes, well you know how I love it… both of us sweating it out at Tracy Anderson… My Dad actually always instilled the importance of being fit for mind and body and its proven essential to me in this industry. I am a pretty physical actor, my characters inhabit the whole body and voice so I have to keep it in tune. Filming tends to be more static, as the camera is more static, so when I’m filming I have to work out more. When on stage I tend to be very physical, in voice and body so it’s more about doing yoga and massage to keep the body supple for the evening performances. I really find that the more in control of your body and voice the more versatile an actor you can be. I often use a movement coach or voice coach for my roles, it helps give me ideas as to how to approach the character.
EW What is your fall back trick if you have ever had to fake it in a scene?
RW Faking it, well we’re always faking it. The trick is to get used to that feeling and enjoy it. I am learning that awkward or uncomfortable can actually be quite interesting.
EW What do you do when you feel you are lacking the proper guidance in finding a role? Has that ever happened? If so, did you find it to be freeing or terrifying or both?
RW Unfortunately it is quite frequent that the actor is left unguided. It can be hard directing actors, each are different and approach the task differently, so often I think some directors give up and focus on the things they can control, camera angle etc. It is always frightening when this happens because you feel you are working in a vacuum, there is a lack of trust and it can feel very exposing. I think my training in stage and at drama school has really helped with this, they would say we want to make you “director-proof.” Basically they gave us a lot of tools as to how to approach the script and character. How to make it nuanced, specific, so on the day you can just get on with it. So I tend to prep a lot before, vocally, physically, learn the lines, so I am on top of it. As I have become more confident as a performer, I have relaxed a bit and allow myself to find a lot more the day. I have to say when you do get a great director, it makes the world of difference. That just lends a trust to play and explore and it’s marvelous. I can never anticipate from an audition or meeting if that is going to be the case, you just have to know that you’ll have some great experiences and some shoddy ones. Strangely, the outcome is not always what you expect either. This industry is a tricky little bastard, it constantly surprises me, keeps me on my toes and that is probably why I’ve stuck it out.
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EW Given the obviously live nature of theater, there are lots of variables that can go wrong in a performance or in a show, many of which have nothing to do with your actual acting so much as technical aspects, audience reactions and energy, and connecting to other actors. Any crazy behind the scenes theater stories you would be inclined to share from any of your shows?
RW Yes, live performance is really a seat of your pants experience…hmm I’ve had a few mishaps. When I was playing Hedda Gabler at the National theatre a member of the audience fainted 5 minutes before the end of the show in a very dramatic moment in the play. As I was on all fours covered in blood, someone shouted “Is there a doctor in the house?” The house lights went up and we had to go off stage and wait for the medical team to help the audience member out of the auditorium. We then had to come back on and finish the last 5 very dramatic minutes of the play. It was weird, but the audience were incredibly supportive and we got them back! It was at the at moment that I realized what a joint effort theatre is between audience and actors. We need their focus and energy as much as they need ours. Everyone in the theatre has to commit to telling that story, and when it works it feels electric.
On King Lear, as the character Cordelia, I would make a dramatic dead entrance through the ceiling hanging from a noose (it was all very safe) again in the last 10 minutes of the play. However one night the harness wasn’t working, so they had to quickly winch me back from above the stage to the side and I had to walk on with Glenda (playing Lear). I was supposed to be dead, so it all looked a little rubbish and as soon as I hit my spot I just hit the ground. Most people in the audience didn’t know any different but when I told my friend, who was watching that night, what had happened he said oh yes he did think maybe the director had given up by then.
Everyone is so concerned with ‘Being Great’ but it is all at the expense of ‘Being Good'”. Goodness and Grace is under-rated. Thats what I am going to try and be more of. Sod legacy.
EW Tell me a bit about playing your grandmother and giving birth to your father…
RW Playing my grandmother in “Mrs Wilson” is the piece of work I am most proud of in my career. What a privilege to sit in my grandmother’s shoes and travel through her extraordinary life. I feel deeply honoured to have had that opportunity. You know, the beauty of this job is that you are constantly discovering things about yourself and others. It is an endless exploration. “Mrs Wilson” was more close and intimate than anything I have ever done before and it took an awful lot out of me. But I am so glad I got to honour my grandmother, my Dad, and the rest of the family. I feel I have given something back to them. It was a very, very special experience and I was thrilled that it resonated with so many people. I never expected that. I don’t know what I believe when we all pass, but it certainly felt like my granny was looking down on me during all of that. We have just published her memoir, “Before and After” which the drama was based upon. I think she’ll be smiling.
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EW Anything coming up creatively that you think might be surprising to your fans?
RW Hm what am I doing next that might be surprising? Well I am doing a fantasy series called “His Dark Materials” on HBO and BBC playing a woman described as “the mother of all evil”, So that has been fun. Also since producing Mrs Wilson I am developing few more projects, a podcast, a film and a few tv ideas, a theatre idea. I have loved being on the other side of the camera, working with story and design. It made me realize that the acting is just a very small cog in a much larger wheel.
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EW What do you consider to be your greatest gift?
RW What is my most treasured possession…
Ok so I have just chucked these out because I had them for years….but a pair of Black Armani capris. Or my Celine Navy cashmere jacket that I stole from set (!!) They go with everything and make anything look chic.
EW Favorite LEWK of all time ( that you have worn)? Favorite LEWK worn by someone else?
RW What does LEWK mean?
EW Favorite costume you have worn in character?
RW Favorite costume….hmm….you know, Mrs. Coulter wears some amazing costumes. All my clothes have been handmade for me, so they fit perfectly. My favorite maybe some judo style blue silk pajamas that I fought monkey style in …..(you have to watch the show to know what i’m talking about)
EW Do you enjoy the dressing up bit? Does it become cumbersome?
RW I mean I obviously love dressing up to some extent. Obviously, wearing a corset everyday at 7am can get a bit exhausting, but generally I enjoy it. In terms of press and red carpets… It all depends, usually I enjoy it but sometimes when I’m really busy and dressing up every day for work, to dress and make up for an event can feel one outfit too much…But I am damn lucky to get to wear the outfits I do, to wear a Brandon Maxwell creation or a Dior couture number… pieces of art… I can’t complain.
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EW Are you hopeful or pessimistic for our future and why?
RW To be honest, I am finding it pretty hard to feel optimistic at the moment. We have really ruined our planet and we are still refusing to work together to do something about it. It seems the world is all looking the wrong way- stop hating on each other and work together to save the little we have left. Why can’t we do that? People have been writing about the tragedy of the human race for thousands of years…I suppose this may have always been inevitable. There are some amazing people out there trying to turn the wheel but oof, it all feels quite overwhelming.
This industry is a tricky little bastard, it constantly surprises me, keeps me on my toes and that is probably why I’ve stuck it out.
EW What do you hope your legacy to be?
RW Legacy is funny. I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently. I mean perhaps we will be remembered for two generations by our family, no more than that, so really who cares. What matters is what you do now, when you’re here. In my work I want to tell stories and affect people, that’s all I can hope for. I want to be a good aunt and daughter, sister, friend and lover. The writer of “His Dark Materials” said something the other day which really resonated with me. He said, “Everyone is so concerned with ‘Being Great’ but it is all at the expense of ‘Being Good'”. Goodness and Grace is under-rated. Thats what I am going to try and be more of. Sod legacy.
EW I want SBJCT to be an outlet for artists to really get into what MATTERS to them, SBJCTS that you find to be extraordinary, that you feel haven’t been explored in a way that you might. What is really moving you lately?
RW The climate crisis occupies a lot of my mind and the fact that I don’t do enough about it. That has to change.