Freya Mavor: ‘The best female characters are mad’

Mavor is living the dream in Paris but still pines for Scotland. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown (debrahurfordbrown.com)
Mavor is living the dream in Paris but still pines for Scotland. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown (debrahurfordbrown.com)
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She found fame as the bitchy Mini in teen drama Skins, but Freya Mavor is anything but typecast

Freya Mavor sits bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in a Paris café, a blonde-haired Amélie, alive with the potential of what life will bring. At 19, the Scottish actress has the world at her feet, with a part in ground-breaking teenage series Skins for E4, two films and a BBC1 drama all behind her. No wonder she pauses, taking time out between meetings about future projects and classes in physical theatre, to sit and watch the world over her coffee cup.

“This café is very cute,” she says. “And the building is rickety and old and smells a bit like wine and cheese. It’s just over the road from the flat I’ve found through a friend of a friend, so it’s my hangout.”

About to burst onto our small screens in Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen on BBC1 next Sunday, the Edinburgh-bred actress’s current habitat in Paris’s student quarter is as far away from the Tudor palaces of her side-saddle-riding Princess Lizzy character as the teenage bedroom of Mini McGuinness, the role that launched her career in Skins. Settled in Paris since the start of the year, in between coffees she’s in discussions about future projects, has done “bits and bobs” that include a French comedy sketch show and is studying physical theatre. She’s also enjoying the fulfilment of a childhood wish to live in the French capital.

“It was always a dream to live in Paris. I’m very happy here, I feel very involved with the culture and love the lifestyle. I feel I’ll be here for the next year, taking a bit of time out, and then we’ll see.

“I was always in love with that old romantic French idea and it has definitely lived up to it. I did all the very clichéd things at first: listened to jazz, walked by the river… In my street there’s a cabaret that does burlesque shows and beside me there’s a poodle parlour where French ladies bring their little dogs to be groomed. I like to look in the windows and see the dogs, all looking miserable as they’re given a makeover,” she laughs, and breaks off to order in fluent French.

Language is not a problem for Mavor, whose family decamped from Scotland to live in the south-west of France when she was nine, and she and her elder brother were taught French at school.

“It was the best way to learn,” she says, switching back to Edinburgh-accented English. “We lived in La Rochelle for four years as my parents were very lucky to have jobs that were flexible, so they could move around. They thought living in another country, learning a different language and culture, would be good for young kids. I couldn’t agree more. I think it was one of the most wonderful decisions we made as a family because it instilled a love of the French culture.”

Mavor gets a buzz from immersing herself in other cultures and times, with her approach to playing Princess Lizzy in The White Queen being to devour all of Gregory’s books in order to bone up on the history. The author’s latest book in the series, The White Princess, which covers the fortunes of the character Mavor plays, is published this week.

“I had no knowledge of her books before filming so I threw myself into research. I thought it was important to read all the novels to see her style and she had a big input in the scriptwriting process too. It was quite a big undertaking, but they’re written in a fast-paced way and you quickly get into them. It’s a good medieval soap opera.

“It’s shocking, the palaver going on in that era. It’s the law of the jungle, with beheadings and betrayings. It’s…” she struggles for a word, “…the French say déstabilisation, is that the word? Well, the opposite of stable.”

Mavor slips easily between the two languages and admits to dreaming in both. “I mix it up. My mind is French, it fits with my philosophy,” she says.

It’s no surprise that in the city of Simone de Beauvoir, whose own coffee shop musings led her to write about the role of women, Mavor’s philosophising should include an appreciation of the freedoms enjoyed by young women like herself today. Compared with the straitjacket of conformity forced on her character in The White Queen, Mavor has a world of choices ahead of her, and knows it.

“Liz is the queen’s first daughter so she is always under threat of being attacked. It’s infuriating how women were treated as pawns, and if you didn’t have a title or family you were completely discarded. And they all had so many bloody kids – 15 each. But it’s also interesting how women showed strength, through childbirth and marriage and by learning to be manipulative and controlling the situation through their husbands. Princess Elizabeth is constantly being used. The thing that makes her interesting is she realises how unfair her situation is and becomes ballsy and questions it,” she says.

“It’s interesting playing a female figure in such a different era when things were so different. You have to take into account the environment and women’s roles of the time.”

In stark contrast is Mavor’s own easy upbringing in a bohemian household in Edinburgh, where her ambitions were encouraged. Despite having no actors in her immediate family, Mavor is nonetheless steeped in theatre and performance. Her father, James Mavor, is an award-winning playwright who heads up the MA screenwriting course at Napier University, while her mother was a singer with Scottish Opera for 15 years and is now her daughter’s role model in combining teaching, studying, illustration and “managing to remain a mum and hold everything together”. Her grandfather, the delightfully monickered Ronald Bingo Mavor, was The Scotsman’s theatre critic in the early 1960s before he became the director of the Scottish Arts Council, and Mavor’s great-grandfather, Oswald Henry Mavor, aka James Bridie, set up the forerunner of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre.

Mavor describes her father’s job, locked away in a room for days on end, as “the least glamorous part of the whole acting experience”, and so she turned her talents towards treading the boards. After the family’s return from France she gained acting experience at Mary Erskine School in productions of The Tempest, playing Miranda, and The Merchant Of Venice, then joined the National Youth Theatre in 2008. Since landing the role in Skins in 2011, she hasn’t stopped working. There’s her stint in this summer’s Not Another Happy Ending, with Karen Gillan, and a part in The Proclaimers’ musical Sunshine On Leith, to be released in October, plus filming for The White Queen.

“It was bizarre going from a drama to a musical to a period drama, from singing Scottish anthems to wearing petticoats and riding side-saddle – that was my favourite bit,” she says. But changing pace between musicals and drama, film and TV, mixing it up and keeping it fresh is very much to Mavor’s taste and bring-it-on attitude to life.

“Skins and The White Queen are very different, polar opposites – a BBC drama and an E4 teen drama that had a reputation for being risqué… that was my first professional experience, when I was 17 going on 18. What it did have in common with The White Queen is they’re both TV and very true to the script, because there was no time to change anything.”

Filming Not Another Happy Ending in Glasgow last summer was a similarly expeditious experience that Mavor enjoyed for its upbeat feel and “chilled cast”, and also because it gave her a chance to return home, albeit briefly.

“It was a shockingly fast three-week shoot, so it was a lovely, sweet experience, like biting into a cupcake. Then came Sunshine On Leith, and words can’t express how wonderful an experience that was, because we had a month of rehearsals, then two months to make it. We had time to get into the characters. One of the things I love about this job is the more you put into it, the more you get back. Peter Mullan and Jane Horrocks were fantastic to work with too. She’s really funny, always cracking jokes, and he was so down to earth, which was nice because I was a bit nervous about meeting him,” she says.

Mavor is still just enough of a teenager – and given that she appeared in the coolest show for teens on TV, we should let her off – to feel a slight cringe at the word “musical”, although she has nothing but praise for Sunshine On Leith.

“I still snigger a bit when I think about being in a musical, because it has connotations – jazz hands and spangled leotards, you know? But this one is so different from that. It’s honest and simple and genuine,” she says.

With her good looks and clothes-horse figure Mavor also has another string to her bow, with one foot in the fashion pond along with her acting talents. She was hired as the face of Pringle of Scotland for its 2011 spring/summer campaign and also won the Fashion Icon of the Year Award at the 2011 Scottish Fashion Awards.

“That makes me laugh,” she says, “although I was so thrilled to be given the title, because I know so little about fashion. I’m a 19-year- old Scots lass. I have no clue or idea about fashion. I’ve always been interested, but I’m not a fashionista and I don’t read magazines. Paris has rubbed off on me though – the elegant, chic look you see here. There are no skimpy hot pants and crop tops about. I like shopping in second-hand shops and flea markets.”

Mavor also admits to enjoying the drama of the costumes her Princess Lizzy part required her to wear. “I loved the dressing up. It was fantastic. It’s so funny for the first ten minutes, giggling and being a girl, having curly hair and riding a white horse, like a princess. Then, after 20 minutes, you’re holding the dress up out of the mud and it’s becoming a problem to go to the toilet. That’s when you start to tire of it,” she laughs.

Fame seems to sit easily on her shoulders, chiefly because she doesn’t take it too seriously. Stories about One Direction’s Niall Horan asking her on a date mystified her “as I have never met the boy and I don’t know how that bizarre rumour came into the press. I don’t pay any attention. You just have to laugh,” she says.

As for the discussion of her bisexuality sparked by her Skins character’s sexual exploration, again she giggles. “My words were twisted. What I said was I was very open about that kind of thing. But I would say I’m straight. Now the first thing people read about me if they look me up is I’m bisexual. I’m dating at the moment, but – this sounds awful and American – I’m not seeing anyone in particular. I’m really loving concentrating on work,” she says.

Being catapulted into the limelight so soon means Mavor has avoided the usual drama school/extras/bit part route into her career, but being more of a student-of-life type of girl, she isn’t keen to enrol for a long academic stint any time soon.

“I was never attracted to the idea of a three-year drama course. With acting there are so many ways of getting involved there’s not the one path or obligatory way to do it. Every actor chooses a different way in. This year I’m taking time out to do physical theatre training here in Paris. It’s very experimental, and for me it’s always been if something makes you immensely happy, that’s something you will feel fulfilled in and should do. For me this training is like a musician practising his instrument, and that’s essential to a career.”

In terms of her future career, Mavor is keen to split her time between the UK and France, and among film and TV and theatre. Being bilingual means working either side of the Channel is an option, and her actor heroes include those who have managed to pull off just this juggling act.

“I’d like to be like those who have managed to balance film and the stage, like Tilda Swinton, who started off staging one-woman shows in the film festival, or Kristin Scott Thomas, who balances theatre and TV in two countries. That’s hard to do,” she says.

“I’d also like to do more theatre. I’m obsessed with it, because it’s so different to screen acting. You can’t do it again, so you have to use your basic instinct and be more vulnerable. I’d love to do Lady Macbeth some time. All the best female characters are a bit mad and nasty. Mini was a total bitch, but she was so much fun.”

As much as Mavor is enjoying the gaiety of Paris for the moment, she’s a Scots girl at heart (with a touch of Danish from a grandmother, hence the name) and misses her family at home in Edinburgh – her father, mother, brother and three cats.

“I was back for the film festival and premiere of Not Another Happy Ending, but I’ve not really been back in six months. I miss my family, obviously, and my friends. They keep me grounded and haven’t changed at all. I miss the Scottish weather – ha ha, no I don’t. Oh, and a proper Indian curry. And I miss our cats too – I haven’t even got a goldfish in Paris. Cats are wonderful. At one point we had nine cats when one of ours had kittens. For anyone feeling down, I’d just put them in front of a box of kittens. Kitten therapy,” she laughs.

Again she breaks off to speak to the waitress in perfect French, before we resume our discussion of the future. “I just want to do work that interests me, take a bit of time out now so I can learn. And there’s always working in cafés like this to keep up with the rent while I do that. It’s all experience. It’s important to throw yourself into the wide world,” she says.

Indeed, but somehow I don’t think Mavor will need to start waiting on tables any time soon.

Twitter: @JanetChristie2

• The White Queen, BBC1, Sunday, 4 August, 9pm. Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess, is published on Thursday, Simon & Schuster, £20