Ruth Wilson: ‘The industry sells sex… and that’s confusing’

Soon to be seen in Dark River, a bleak picture of a farming family at loggerheads, the actor talks people-puzzles, #MeToo, and playing her own grandmother

Ruth Wilson shot the scene in which she nonchalantly skins a rabbit in the film Dark River on the day after the EU referendum, a coincidence of timing that turned out to be unexpectedly helpful. OK, so she had already watched a YouTube video showing how this task is most easily performed (to be blunt, once you’ve dealt with the legs, you simply peel the dead animal like a banana). And yes, she had also taken advice from a farmer called Hazel and a person I am going to describe as an on-set butchery adviser. All the same, when the moment finally arrived, something extra was required to see her through. “Basically, I took Brexit out on the rabbit,” she says, with a comic grimace. “I imagined it was Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson, and that… well, it kind of kept me focused.”

Rabbit-skinning wasn’t the only skill she learned for Dark River, in which she plays Alice, a jobbing sheep shearer who has returned to the run-down Yorkshire farm where she grew up, following the death of her widowed father. “Clio [Barnard, its director] demands truth from her actors, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to fake it: I didn’t have any experience of the world I was stepping into. So once I was signed up, I spent three weeks staying with Malcolm and Hazel; Clio found them when she was first looking for places to shoot. They’re the last generation of tenants in their family, and their farm is all they’ve known, so they match the situation in the film.” Apparently, they gave her quite the education. “They were lovely,” she says. “But something gruesome and horrific happens every day on a farm. A sheep will break its leg, or you’ll have to lance a swelling on its neck that’s full of pus. It was disgusting, the stuff I saw; all that life and death and brutality.”

She learned both to dip sheep and to shear them: “It’s amazing: you have to wear these special shoes, and then you get them between your legs, and there’s a way of turning them round and keeping the skin taut so that you don’t nick it. I was dead nervous, but you have to act like you know what you’re doing so they give in to you. Not that I was particularly quick. A real shearer takes about a minute, whereas I would take 10.”

She also worked with a sheepdog, a red-haired collie with yellow eyes whose relish for work and suspicion of humans had something in common with the character of Alice. And when she wasn’t out in the fields and the barns? Then she was busy perfecting the accent. “I was out recording people. Getting it right was really important. You want to make it feel natural in the mouth, and it’s a very specific accent: we were in Embsay [a village near Skipton].” It thrilled her when people in the pub would ask if she was local.

Dark River isn’t much like The Arbor or The Selfish Giant, Barnard’s previous feature films (the former told the story of the playwright Andrea Dunbar, and featured actors lip-syncing to interviews with Dunbar and her family; the latter was a Kes-like recasting of Oscar Wilde). Based loosely on Rose Tremain’s 2010 novel, Trespass, Dark River is almost, if not quite, a two-hander: also on the farm is Alice’s estranged brother, Joe (Mark Stanley, turning in a brilliant performance), who has let the place become a ruin in her absence. Alice would like it to be her name on the new tenancy agreement – her father promised the place to her, perhaps to make reparation for his own misdeeds – but Joe is resistant, still furious at her abandonment of him and their sick parent; when he makes a counter-claim, we know things are unlikely to end well. Punctuated by flashbacks to their childhood and the unending physical work both of them must do to keep the farm from going under, the film is marked by its extreme quietness: so much is left unsaid, so much withheld. The wind blowing through the grass seems at times more eloquent than these damaged siblings.

How did Wilson come to be cast? Had she long wanted to work with Barnard? “Well, she is a fascinating film-maker, and I was drawn to the way she tells stories in different ways. But [she laughs] I wasn’t her first choice for this one. We were talking about something else entirely, and then she told me about Dark River: she’d had casting issues. I told her I would love to work with her, and then I read it, and I saw the poetry on the page – though in fact the final piece is a lot more sparse than the script, because it’s her way to pull so much out.”

Dark River
As Alice, who fights her brother to inherit the family farm. Photograph: Handout/

What was she like to work with? “She has a lovely energy. She has such compassion for characters. On set, she’s very quiet. She takes time to work out what she wants from the scene.” For Barnard, this film was a kind of homecoming: she grew up not too far away, in Otley. But it was hardly easy. “Sheep won’t necessarily do as they’re told,” says Wilson. “There was pressure, because this is a film with a lot of set-pieces.”

She has seen it twice now. But if she knows how good her performance is – I think it’s very good – she gives no outward sign. “For about the first 20 minutes, there’s no one on screen but me. So when I first saw it, all I could think was, ‘Oh my God, please, someone else come on.’ I just couldn’t bear watching myself any longer. It was only the second time I saw it that I was able to think, ‘Wow, she’s such an adept film-maker. It doesn’t have a single extraneous shot.’”

In a way, though, the finished film is of relatively little interest to Wilson, and not only because it’s now too late to put right anything that might be wrong. “It’s the preparation that’s my favourite part of the process,” she says. “I love meeting people, and analysing their world. I like having a puzzle to solve. That’s why I do so much work in advance. Even if it doesn’t affect my performance in the end, I just find it so much more interesting if I’ve got as wide as possible an understanding of the material. For me, the final film is just like a weird sense memory of all that happened on the day.”

Wilson and I meet in a Bermondsey coffee shop, close to where she lives (luckily, the gentle types in the corner who were previously earnestly discussing hedgehogs, the protection of, leave before we get on to the dead rabbits). She is a tiny bit late and asks for a chai latte with oat milk, but it’s hard to hold either of these things against her; she pulls a this-is-so-embarrassing face when she orders the latte. Friendly and straightforward, if perhaps a little shy, she looks rather magnificent – Annie Hall striding through south London – in her high-waisted, wide-legged brown corduroys, her ruby knitted beret, her nearly black nails. Can she still, in spite of the hit TV series (Luther, The Affair), travel incognito? She thinks for a minute. “I do get recognised but, if I’m in a restaurant, I’ll get one person noticing me, not the whole place. It is uncomfortable when people try and sneak a picture; sometimes, I don’t feel like being seen. But I don’t stop myself doing stuff. I go to Barry’s Bootcamp and yoga just like anyone else.”

Dark River feels far off now, almost distant; in the 18 months since she finished working on it, she has filmed two series of The Affair with Dominic West (the fourth will go out this summer, after which, well… we might just have reached the end of the affair) and Lenny Abrahamson’s forthcoming adaptation of Sarah Waters’s novel The Little Stranger. She has also starred in Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. And of course, so much else has changed, too, following the shaming of Harvey Weinstein. What does she think about #MeToo? Does this feel to her like a significant moment?

The Affair
As Alison Bailey in The Affair, for which she won a Golden Globe, opposite Dominic West as Noah. Photograph: Steven Lippman/Showtime

“Yes, it does,” she says. “But while there are times when I feel incredibly excited by it, there are times when I feel a bit scared, too. It doesn’t surprise me that it has happened; it was bound to. There has been inequality for so long, and now that someone like Trump is in charge, we’re face to face with how much misogyny there is in the world. But things are moving quickly, and you just want to say, ‘Let’s think about this, because we don’t want to jeopardise real change.’”

What pleases her most is that women are at last talking to one another. “They’re sharing stories and experiences, and in this industry you don’t get to talk much. It is competitive, and you’re often the only woman on set. So I hope that side of it continues – that women continue to support each other like this.”

I sense a “but”.

“But I would also say that there are grey areas. Every case of assault or feeling violated is different. It’s good to know how big the problem is, but this is not black or white, and we used to have this thing: innocent until proved guilty.”

Has she had miserable experiences herself?

“Not miserable miserable. But I’ve had times when I felt like I didn’t have a voice. That’s always been my frustration as a woman, even when I was a kid: that feeling of being shut down. As an actress, particularly, you’re treated like an idiot. They handle you with kid gloves, but they also treat you like a fool. When you’re feeling uncomfortable or exploited, they don’t want to listen; they think you’re being a bit difficult. Also, this is an industry that sells sex, and that’s… confusing.

“More could definitely be done on set. With sex scenes, for instance, perhaps people could have a clearer idea of what is, and what isn’t, expected of them right from the start.”

Sexual harassment exists in all worlds. But perhaps the actor’s life exaggerates the kind of insecurities that work in the favour of those likely to abuse their power. “It’s so fickle,” she says. “It’s an industry that’s built on making you feel not quite good enough, that you haven’t quite got to where you should, and it’s so mixed up with the media and selling stuff. The turnover of stars is silly, brutal. You have to be zen, and that’s why it’s vital to stay working in the theatre, which is more generous to older women and more collaborative. It’s the true form, for me.”

Hedda Gabler
As Hedda Gabler, with Rafe Spall as Brack. Photograph: Jan Versweyveld

She loved working with Van Hove, who expects his actors to arrive for rehearsals with their lines learned. “It’s basically a technical rehearsal on day one. You’re in your costume, you’re off book, and all the creatives are there, too: lighting, sound, the lot.” Van Hove’s directions aren’t psychological; he doesn’t ask his actors how their character might be feeling. “No, they’re entirely physical. ‘I want you like that dead flower next to you,’ he’ll say. Or: ‘I want you curled up on that couch as if your side really hurts’. Or: ‘Die like a fish!’”

Was she a theatrical child? “Probably. I mean, I wasn’t a drama queen. But I did a theatre club outside of school, and my mum reminded me the other day that me and my brothers used to create these little shows with some kids down the road at Easter and Christmas, and they were awful and long; and I took a play to Edinburgh when I was 17.” Still, as a teenager (she grew up in Surrey, the daughter of a probation officer and an investment banker), she thought it wise to keep her ambitions in this direction to herself. “I didn’t want to say anything. I thought that would be embarrassing because everyone wants to be famous. So I decided just to choose a university with a good theatre on campus.”

At Nottingham, where Wilson studied history, she put on plays with Carrie Cracknell and Michael Longhurst (both now acclaimed directors), and as a result she decided she had, after all, to give it a go.

“I was really lucky. I got the part in [the BBC’s adaptation of] Jane Eyre nine months after I left Lamda, and Jane opened a lot of doors for me. I didn’t realise how big it was going to be until halfway through filming. I had to do some press, and there were a lot of people there. ‘Oh shit,’ I thought. But I gave it everything, that job. I’d never been able to cry on set before then, and it was for that part that I trained myself to do it. I used a Sigur Rós song, one that made me feel really sad. It’s an idea I still use. For Dark River, I used to listen to a lot of Björk – her album Vulnicura, which is all about the break-up of her relationship.”

She’s shooting something she can’t talk about at the moment, and she would like to do more theatre as soon as the right thing comes along. But in April, she finally begins filming a long dreamed of project: a drama for the BBC and PBS in America that will tell the story of her paternal grandparents. In Mrs Wilson, which is written by Anna Symon and directed by Richard Laxton, she will play her grandmother, Alice, who only discovered after his death that her husband, Alexander Wilson, was a bigamist. (After Alice’s death, Wilson’s father found out that Alexander, an MI6 officer who wrote spy novels, had in fact been married not twice, but four times; none of his wives and various children knew of one another.) “It has been such a long process,” she says. “Getting a committed answer from the BBC took a while. But that might be a good thing. We’ve had time to talk to everyone, to make sure they feel OK with it.”

Jane Eyre
Her breakthrough role as Jane Eyre came nine months after leaving drama school. Photograph: BBC

It will, she says, be the greatest privilege to play her grandmother. “I think she would have liked it. She burned her diaries, but she wanted the memoir she wrote to be published. She knew she had to tell us, that she couldn’t keep the secret, so she gave us half of the story. She never expressed much of what she felt to us. But in her poetry and in the memoir, you see that she was a different woman inside. She had enormous amounts of passion both for her husband and for God. She had so many unanswered questions. We still don’t really know the truth about my grandfather. Was he a con man, or was he a hero? Did MI6 have to close him down for some reason? In the end, she had to find some other form of truth, and that was Jesus. It’s fascinating.” Her family have been “brilliant” about the project. “We’ve got lots of new members now – and some of them are in it, or their mothers or grandmothers.” By all accounts, Alexander Wilson was universally adored by those who knew him. On his headstone is a line from Othello: he loved not wisely, but too well.

Has the project brought her closer to understanding what made him find it so difficult to tell the truth? “I’m not sure. His father was a military hero, who’d gone from being, in the first world war, a private, to joining the officer class. My grandfather was desperate to live up to him, but he had bad knees, and couldn’t serve himself.”

Really, though, it’s her grandmother’s story, one she has been thinking about for the past 15 years, that seems most to fascinate her. “I am desperately scared by the idea of playing her,” she says, softly. “But I’m excited, too. It feels incredible that it is finally happening, and that has to be good.”

Dark River opens on 23 February


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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