‘It’s relatable’ … The Crown’s Emma Corrin on playing gender-swapping, time-travelling Orlando

The actor and the director Michael Grandage talk about how relevant their staging of Virginia Woolf’s classic work of gender fluidity feels – and remember their own queer battles

Emma Corrin wasn’t yet born when Tilda Swinton took to the screen as Orlando in Sally Potter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, with a look that would create a whole new aesthetic for gender fluidity. So it’s no little deal for the 26-year-old actor that, even before they step out on to the stage in the role, comparisons are already being made.

A swoony Instagram ad doubles down on the similarity for those who know the film, showing a stream of historic pictures washing past an androgynous beauty shimmering in bleached lace and satin. But, although the palette is similar, the temperature is very different: whereas Swinton was cool and remote, Corrin radiates an invitation to play.

It’s an atmosphere that follows the actor into the room after a day of rehearsal in a chilly London chapel. Settling down into one end of an old leather sofa, they say they can’t remember a time when they weren’t aware of Orlando. “But if I’m totally honest, it was mostly through the film – because of the sensation that it was, aesthetically and in terms of Tilda’s performance, but also through the conversations it started about the fluidity of gender at a time when it wasn’t really on people’s radar.”

Returning to the novel last year, Corrin was blown away. “I love how it throws up all these questions, and allows itself to hold them there before answering them, if answering them at all. That’s a very real experience of life and identity, particularly with figuring out your gender. It’s all about trying to answer these questions of how you feel, and pairing that with what society is trying to make you feel about yourself.”

‘When did you know?’ … Grandage and Corrin.
‘When did you know?’ … Grandage and Corrin. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Since breaking the surface in season four of The Crown as Diana, Princess of Wales – a character they have described as “so queer in many ways” in terms of both the royal’s otherness and embrace of fellow outsiders – Corrin has become a pin-up for non-binary identity with no qualms about sharing the twists and turns of their development on social media. Last spring they declared their pronouns to be “she/they”; a few months later they switched to “they/them”. Why? “Because I was working on a film in the US, away from everyone who knows me, and when people called me she, it felt so weird and uncomfortable,” says the actor.

This month especially the actor seems to be everywhere: doing the publicity rounds for a starring role in the forthcoming Netflix adaption of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, while also appearing in cinemas as the young wife of Harry Styles’s closeted gay copper in My Policeman.

At the other end of the sofa sits Michael Grandage, director of both My Policeman and Orlando: one a melancholy reflection on lost time in so many closeted lives of the mid-20th century; the other a joyfully anachronistic reflection on what is possible in life and art today. Woolf’s novel has been archly crafted by the playwright and novelist Neil Bartlett into a magpie’s nest of glittering wordplay, gleefully pilfered from many writers over the centuries from Shakespeare and Pope to Kander and Ebb, as well as Woolf herself and the lover to whom she dedicated the novel, Vita Sackville-West.

Orlando was published in 1928, a decade after women won the right to vote in the UK, and almost 40 years before homosexuality would be legalised in England and Wales. Grandage’s introduction to the novel was at a Cornish grammar school for boys in the 1970s. “I cannot begin to pretend that I saw everything that was in it, but as a 16- or 17-year-old boy, the time-travelling was interesting to me: the idea that a writer could play with form to create a character that moved through time effortlessly – and that there was never any question about it. No one says, ‘That’s not possible.’”

‘It started conversations’ … Tilda Swinton in Orlando (1992).
‘It started conversations’ … Tilda Swinton in Orlando (1992). Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

Growing up at opposite ends of a tumultuous period for sexual and gender identity, the duo have an easy rapport but also the curiosity of two people looking at each other across an ocean of history. “When did you know [you were gay]?” inquires Corrin of Grandage, who has been in a creative and personal relationship with the theatre designer Christopher Oram for as long as Corrin has been alive. The question prompts an anecdote from Grandage about an upset at school, “when somebody spat the word ‘queer’ at me in the playground, and I had to go home and ask my dad what a queer was, because I had no idea.”

He would have been about 14, he recalls, “and you have to understand that when you were 14 in the 1970s, it was like being 11, or even nine, now. And I remember my dad looking at me saying, ‘Queer is a very bad word for homosexuals.’ Well, that was no help at all, so I asked him what homosexual meant. There was a pause and then, in what I now appreciate to be a piece of supreme parenting, he said, ‘A homosexual, son, is a free spirit.’”

“Do you think he knew?” asks Corrin. Grandage says he never had a chance to ask, because his father died when he was 18. “I think he must have done – that has to be why he said it – but even I didn’t know at 14. I had no idea. In Penzance in the 1970s? Give me a break!”

The trailer for My Policeman, directed by Grandage and starring Corrin opposite Harry Styles

Corrin ponders this before reflecting that, even in the five years between them and their younger brother, attitudes have changed. They dropped out of Bristol University after struggling with their identity, only finding their feet when they made a fresh start at Cambridge. “When I started dating a girl for the first time, my brother sent me a message on Instagram saying, ‘Hey, welcome. I’ve been out for years.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ He just quietly got on with it. So he has an amazing girlfriend, but he’s into men and women and wears makeup and heels and is everything all at once. I guess it must be how it feels in his friendship group. But I think it’s a testament to my family as well, creating a safe space for him.”

Grandage points out that part of the mission of the production company he set up in 2011, at the end of a decade in charge of London’s Donmar Warehouse, is to make West End theatre accessible for that younger generation by offering them cheap tickets. Many won’t have any memories of Swinton’s iconic performance in a film that is, anyway, of its time – and one big difference is the strides that have been made towards diverse casting. “There are 11 people in the cast and – I’ve got to get this right – only one of them is a man,” says Grandage, carefully. What does that mean? “Well, you tell me.”

It’s a challenge intensified by the gender changes in the play itself. It’s been funny, jokes Corrin, seeing him get his pronouns in a twist: “Like, ‘He, she – oh no! I mean them.’ Actually, though,” they continue, “you’re very good at it.” Grandage accepts the compliment, adding, “I’ll tell you one of the reasons I’m not worried about it – it’s because, even before I started the process of casting, a trans actor said the most lovely thing to me: ‘Look, all you’ve got to remember is that, providing it’s never done with malice, getting it wrong is entirely forgivable, because everybody knows you’re trying to get it right.’ And weirdly, the moment you free yourself from that anxiety, you find you get it right.”

‘So queer in many ways’ … Corrin as Princess Diana in The Crown.
‘So queer in many ways’ … Corrin as Princess Diana in The Crown. Photograph: Des Willie/AP

“How queer to have so many selves,” wrote Woolf in her diary in 1935. In a discussion of when exactly the word “queer” was rehabilitated, Corrin reveals that they haven’t heard of Section 28, the notorious piece of legislation introduced by then PM Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s, which outlawed the “promotion of homosexuality” by schools and local authorities. “It was a dark moment in LGBTQ history, no question about that,” says Grandage. “We all marched against it, and Annie Symons, the costume designer on My Policeman, was arrested and went to prison for it. It’s why I think the film is important: because we’re at a fragile time when all those Section 28 issues seem to be bubbling up again.”

It’s not that everything is now going backwards, he clarifies, but that the forward momentum has stopped. “And going backwards is going to be terrifying. I think the moment that this young generation start to realise it might actually be happening will be the start of an uprising the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Because they are not going to give up the freedoms they rightly enjoy, after a lot of fights involving a lot of us over many years. Neither are we, by the way, but what a wonderful, powerful voice.”

This, they agree, is why Orlando remains a groundbreaking work nearly a century on. Says Grandage: “It made people think, ‘Wow, just look at the extraordinarily dramatic mind of a writer who can say, “He was a woman”’ – the greatest line of all time. What does that trigger for a modern audience? We’re using a piece of literature, and a play, to reflect a massive debate that’s happening in society at the moment.”

Corrin chips in: “It celebrates the opening of minds, and the ease with which we should be able to find fluidity within ourselves and our society. For me, that’s very relatable, but also I think, for a lot of people, it will hopefully be cathartic and empowering. Isn’t it really just an ode to freedom and love?”

• Orlando is at the Garrick theatre, London, from 26 November to 25 February.


Claire Armitstead

The GuardianTramp

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