‘I wouldn’t admit I was an actor. I once said I was a tree surgeon’: Gina McKee on confidence, class and #MeToo

After more than 40 years in film and TV, the star of Our Friends in the North is about to share the screen with Harry Styles. She talks about 90s sexism, her start in drama and playing the villain

I’ve actually seen Gina McKee in real life once before, about 15 years ago, on the tube. There were only three of us in the carriage. I whispered urgently yet extremely quietly to my then-husband: “That’s Gina McKee,” and he boomed out in this huge man-voice: “That is not Gillian McKeith.” The ghost of a smile crossed her face, which was otherwise averted in a palpable desire not to get drawn in. I drew three conclusions, one of which I knew already: this actor has an exquisitely readable face – her eyes can throw out 100 distinct emotions a second; she does not like the limelight, not at all; and I bet she’s nice. Happy to report, having met her properly on a hotel rooftop in London, that I am once again completely right.

McKee looks exactly the same now, at 58, as she did back then, indeed, the same as she did in 1996’s Our Friends in the North, though middle-aged people always say that kind of thing about each other. She is tall and fine-boned, with a slightly grave set to her face, complicated by frequent bursts of laughter.

We’re here to discuss My Policeman, in which the cast is split into the young ’uns – Emma Corrin (The Crown), David Dawson (The Hollow Crown) and Harry Styles (you know who he is), engaged in a doomed love triangle in the 50s – and the same characters 40 years later, played by McKee, Rupert Everett and Linus Roache. It’s essentially the animation of a tragedy that’s well-known but quite well-buried culturally, the era when homosexuality was still a criminal offence and the awful, echoing layers of brutality and sorrow that created.

McKee/Corrin’s character, Marion, is emphatically not the good guy in all this, but McKee plays her chin-out and challenging. “You can be a conduit to remember the past, or introduce others to that time,” she says, “but you mustn’t apologise for it or try to change what it was. They’re all victims of their time. She [Marion] behaves the way she behaves because she’s living in the world she lives in in the 1950s.”

McKee with Rupert Everett in My Policeman.
McKee with Rupert Everett in My Policeman. Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh/© 2022 Amazon Content Services LLC

It’s an unusual and presumably quite hard task, job-sharing one character with another actor, complicated further by the pandemic. “Because it was 2021, the protocols were really strict. We couldn’t meet the younger cast.”

For precisely no reason, I suggest it’s like having to keep dogs apart in a pound when they get kennel cough, and she dissolves into laughter, which must be polite but sounds so authentic. From this point on, it’s my mission to make her laugh again. I almost tell her the joke about the priest, the imam and the rabbit going to donate blood together, and the rabbit saying: “I think I’m most probably a type-O.”

“I had never met Emma,” she says, “so obviously I watched everything I could, watched the way she moved, thought: ‘Is that something you would carry through the decades?’ You can think like that, and then you have to let it absorb a bit and then you have to forget about it. You’re not doing an impression.”

She adds hastily: “Obviously I didn’t look as beautiful as Emma when I was young,” which is super-dumb and untrue, but never mind.

There’s been a lot of chatter about whether Styles can act or not, but it’s not relevant here, so drop it, OK? McKee’s performance is arresting. The film delivers a lot of its emotional punch visually, going from this sumptuous, effervescent scene in the 50s to the awful drab claustrophobia of the 90s, like a pictorial record of society extinguishing the human spirit.

My Policeman is based on the novel by Bethan Roberts, who took the germ of the story from E M Forster’s life – he ends up being nursed at the end by his lover’s wife – and “it never hurts for all of us to be reminded that it wasn’t that long ago,” McKee says. “What does that mean, how does that give us a fresh perspective or a new energy to appreciate those who have helped make the change? I think until we have a real sense of equality, we still have masses of work to do.”

Christopher Eccleston, McKee, Mark Strong and Daniel Craig in Our Friends in the North.
Christopher Eccleston, McKee, Mark Strong and Daniel Craig in Our Friends in the North. Photograph: BBC Photolibrary

That’s not why she chooses the roles she does – to be socially useful. She does describe how she makes her decision. First, is the writing any good? Second, what’s her role? Third, who else is involved? Fourth, what’s the medium? Subject matter only just inches into the top five. “Because sometimes you’re asked to be involved in something that might put the cat among the pigeons and so you’ve got to know how you’re going to deal with that and what it means to you.”

Does she hate putting the cat among the pigeons? “No, not if it’s the right thing,” she says, “but I don’t seek it.” She takes a moment to refine what that means. “I seek challenges, personally. In my private life. Not in my private life! I meant in my professional life.” She’s laughing again, but I can’t take credit as she did it to herself – and it’s funny because the following Wednesday is her 33rd wedding anniversary to Kez Cary, which in showbiz years is, what, a platinum jubilee? You only have two things you can control as an actor, she says: whether you’re doing the best work you can, and whether you say “yes” or “no”. Does she say no to a lot? “If I say ‘yes’, I’m gonna sound shitty, and if I say the other thing, I’m going to sound shitty! You’ve put me in a cul-de-sac.”

Born in Peterlee, County Durham, McKee was the daughter of a coalminer and a bookmaker. Neither parent had acting ambitions for her; indeed, no one in the family even realised what a big deal it was that she got into the National Youth Theatre, aged 15. By the time she got there, she’d already been in Quest of Eagles, a children’s TV show, but still felt incredibly green and clueless. “I just quietly watched, learned, listened and absorbed. I remember listening to a conversation between some girls that were on the same course as me at the National Youth Theatre. I was not contributing. They were all really thrilled. One was saying: “They made an announcement in the school assembly that I was coming here,” and another had been interviewed in the local paper. Another one was saying her mum was so pleased. I remember thinking: ‘Oh, so this is like a big deal.’ I didn’t know that.”

She got some A-levels, “didn’t do the university thing” and describes a powerful early-career insecurity. “I am not well read. I’ve always been aware of that. There would be conversations during rehearsal and I’d be thinking: ‘I don’t know what these people are talking about.’ Whereas now, I’ll just say: ‘I’ve got a complete hole there – tell me what should I read.’ But back then, I didn’t even know how to do that.”

But there was something else; she’d known since forever that she wanted to act, but absolutely hated all its trappings. “It took me a long time before I would tell anybody I was an actor, even when I was earning money as an actor.” What did she say she did instead? “I once told somebody I was a tree surgeon, which was a really stupid thing to do. After that I just used to say: ‘I temp in offices.’”

I ask her if that strikes her as at all strange, because it does me. “No, it strikes me as necessary. I didn’t know how to deal with it. Or I didn’t want to deal with it. ‘So what have you done? What have you been in?’ That conversation over and over again. It felt like pressure. It felt to me like I was still in the water, looking around thinking, where do I swim to?” This pressure ramped up with Our Friends in the North, an absolutely stunning drama that launched the careers of every damn person in it: besides McKee, Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Craig and Mark Strong. “We’d all done enough work to feel comfortable on the shop floor, but nothing that had been given a massive amount of attention,” she remembers.

With Tim McInnerny in Notting Hill.
With Tim McInnerny in Notting Hill. Photograph: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Our Friends was a critical hit and a lasting monument to a particular era of British drama – it was fierce, political, passionate and intensely human. I moan, briefly, that you rarely see that dignity accorded to working-class culture in modern British TV, and she asks: “What did you think of Sherwood?” And I go: “Oh, OK then, maybe you do.” She says, with an optimism underpinned by deep pessimism: “Obviously, we’re going through such a massive amount in terms of what’s happening nationally that we are going to have more narratives exploring poverty and inequality. We may need some time, but it will happen. You’ll get those stories and we will have that representation. It will be imperative.”

After Our Friends in the North, she sealed her status as an obvious lead, and went on to play Clive Owen’s girlfriend, Marion, in Croupier, Nadia in Michael Winterbottom’s fabulous Wonderland, Bella (the one who threw Hugh Grant over for Tim McInnerny) in Notting Hill. These all came thick and fast in the late 90s, and McKee has mixed feelings about the era. “There was a time, particular to young women, when you were expected to be a personality as well. And that was part of the machine, if you like. Nobody says: ‘This is what happens,’ it’s not like it’s spoken about. But there was a well trodden path, and when I said: ‘I don’t really want to do that,’ it jarred with a lot of the rhythms of the way things go. That element, I didn’t know what to do with, when it came my way. I just go to work, and now I’m home, and this home is mine, go away.”

She speaks elliptically, and it’s often hard to figure out whether she’s talking about just ambient sexism, openly predatory behaviour, or the more amorphous sense of actors being cannon fodder in periodic volleys of greedy attention. The predatory behaviour passed her by: “I’ve been extremely fortunate to have that relationship in my life for such a long time, in this business,” she says of her marriage. But when #MeToo broke, “and the stories began to emerge, it certainly wasn’t a surprise”. But times have really changed, she says. “I think that sometimes there’s a way of speaking to one another which has to do with some kind of perceived banter, like a way of getting on. And I think that has been examined. Because what lies below it sometimes is not brilliant for young women.”

‘I’ll always make a decision hoping I’ll exercise different muscles’ … McKee. Stylist: Ella-Louise Gaskell at Stella Creative Artists.
‘I’ll always make a decision hoping I’ll exercise different muscles’ … McKee. Stylist: Ella-Louise Gaskell at Stella Creative Artists. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

She describes a Carol Morley film she has made but that has not yet been released, Typist Artist Pirate King, where they had an on-set therapist (“I have no idea if they were busy. I guess you shouldn’t have any idea”). McKee says it’s common practice, now, at the start of a shoot, “to watch a video about what to do if you feel like you’ve witnessed behaviour, or you’ve been party to behaviour, which is not acceptable. Over the years, you learn to negotiate, but you learn the hard way. I don’t think we should keep doing that to young people.”

When you look at how McKee’s career has unfolded, you get a sense not that she holds herself back for the highbrow (she was great in Line of Duty and Catherine the Great), nor that she’s in low demand (there’s generally been around a feature film a year since Our Friends, including Hector, Atonement and In the Loop), but rather that she was never looking to maximise her screen time, would rather be in an ensemble than at the centre. The general vibe is ask not what the part will do for you but what you will do for the part.

That’s not it at all, she says. “Basically, what I seek is variety. If I feel like I’ve had a very strong experience – for example, we’ve just finished a Pinter play – what I usually seek then is the opposite. It’s not like I have loads of choices, but I’ll always make a decision hoping I’ll exercise different muscles, think differently and have different creative requirements. It’s almost sometimes a bit obtuse. I’m chasing it because it’s different.”

At this point, I laugh, because obtuse is so far from being the right word for such a subtle, searching actor. And she laughs, too, even though she doesn’t know what I’m laughing at, just because, as I predicted, she’s nice.

My Policeman is out in UK cinemas on 21 October and will be available on Prime Video from 4 November. Our Friends in the North is streaming now on BBC iPlayer.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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