Shirley Henderson has enough acting credits to her name to be part of the celebrity set. But the actor – appearing in a new television drama, starting tonight – tells James Rampton why returning to live in her native Scotland means more to her than the bright lights of stardom
Shirley Henderson could quite happily carve out a very nice life herself in Hollywood. She is, after all, one of our most brilliant and versatile actors. She’s played everything from the complaining ghostly schoolgirl Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter movies to a terrifically feisty Kate in BBC1’s Taming of the Shrew, from a stunning singer of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in Topsy-Turvy to the heroine’s boozy best friend in the Bridget Jones films, and from a ballsy young woman in Trainspotting to a mother who impersonates her 11-year-old daughter in ITV1’s May Contain Nuts. Tinseltown would surely welcome her with open arms. But she chooses live not in downtown LA, but in Dunfermline.
The eldest of three sisters, she grew up in Kincardine, Fife. After graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, she stayed in London for a few years. Now, however, she has returned very happily to Scotland, where she lives peacefully with her partner “near the beach and the countryside”.
Sitting opposite me in a central London hotel, the petite actress looks so youthful, she could almost still pass for a schoolgirl. Sporting long, lustrous dark hair and a black jacket over a cream shirt, she looks about two decades younger than her 46 years.
Unlike the majority of her profession – who seem to live by the motto “look at me!” – Henderson is winningly shy. Possessed of a dry, slow-burning sense of humour, she also manifests the characteristic we hold most dear: self-deprecation. She is a self-effacer, not a show-off.
Henderson, a favourite of such acclaimed directors as Danny Boyle and Mike Leigh, once again demonstrates the breadth of her range in her latest work, Everyday, more of which anon, begins by emphasising how delighted she is to have moved back to her native land.
“I just like being in Scotland,” she says simply. “It’s my home. It’s where I am. It’s where my life is. Many years ago, I used to live down here in London. Now I like to come and work in London and then go away again.
“It’s just what you know. I’m from Scotland. I don’t analyse it. When you have a very cold, crisp, sunny autumnal morning in Scotland, it’s really beautiful. I wouldn’t want to miss that. I like the seasons that you get in Scotland.
“Also, it’s no distance to be out in the countryside or the beach. You don’t do it all the time, but just occasionally, you look at the landscape and think, ‘Wow, that is so beautiful!’”
She is equally down-to-earth when it comes to discussing our current obsession with celebrity. “Apart from seeing those magazines at airports, I really don’t know what that culture is at all. I’ll go to premieres of things I’m involved in, but I’m not happy to go to anything else.
“The press are not that interested in what I’m up to, and that’s absolutely fine by me. I’m just myself. I’m not on telly all the time, and I’m not living in a place where I hang out with celebrities. I certainly don’t hang around on red carpets. That’s not my hobby!” She says she would far rather spend her time swimming, walking, or gardening.
But she is often far too busy for hobbies. One of the hardest-working actresses in Britain, she has just completed her longest, most intense project yet. She has devoted the past five years, on and off, to filming Everyday, an absorbing new drama, which goes out on Channel 4 on tonight.
In Michael Winterbottom’s bold film, Henderson plays Karen, a devoted wife struggling to bring up four children on her own, while her wayward husband, Ian (played by John Simm), serves a five-year prison sentence.
Shot over half a decade, the film captures all the characters growing up. It is remarkable to see the four children – played by real-life siblings and shot in their genuine home and school in rural Norfolk – move from nappy-wearing toddlers to self-sufficient youngsters.
It was this highly original and ambitious concept that first drew Henderson to the piece. “When Michael first approached me about Everyday, he said he’d like to make a love story set over five years. My initial reaction was, ‘OK, at least I know I’ve got work for the next five years!’
“But then I started to realise what an amazing idea it was. The natural change in the children and in us over five years works really well. We would return to film in Norfolk twice a year. Sometimes we had been doing other things and would turn up looking tired. But that look of fatigue on our faces really helped with our characters.”
The fact that the four children are siblings in real life and were filming in their own home invests the production with a rare sense of authenticity. Henderson initially bonded with the children by taking them on a trip to the seaside where “we had juice and played on the slot machines”.
“This approach underlines the reality of who these children are. It’s their home and they’re sleeping in their own beds. They felt safe there. They had a sense of familiarity.
“In the first scene I shot with them, which is at the very beginning of the film, Michael made me go to their house very early in the morning to wake them up in darkness. We all had to get out of the house and go to visit their father in prison. They had a very sleepy quality, and that just helped us to be physically comfortable with each other. It also helped with the tenderness of the whole project.”
The old showbiz adage is “never work with children”, but Henderson says: “I didn’t find it difficult at all. But it was quite emotional sometimes. If I had to chastise them, they would find that hard because they took it to heart – in the nicest way. I also had to be tough with them sometimes – like when I had to make them eat their dinner.
“But they soon started to understand what filming was and how you needed to do scenes again and again. They were brilliant to work with. And now when we go to film festivals, they’re chatting to everyone.” I picture them playing hardball as they clinch deals with Hollywood producers.
The only time Henderson had problems with the verisimilitude of Everyday was when Winterbottom made the non-smoking actress puff on a cigarette. “After that scene, I vomited three times at the side of the road!”
She was also attracted to Everyday because she instantly connected with the character of Karen. “From the start, I saw there was a vulnerability and a tenderness there. Whenever I’m exploring a character, I look for a flaw or a problem or a worry – that’s always more interesting.
“Look at Moaning Myrtle – she’s very flawed. She is a ghost who fancies Harry Potter. Even though she is over the top, though, there is something vulnerable about her, so the audience feel sorry for her. Flaws are life. Who’s perfect?”
All in all, she loved working on Everyday so much that “I would happily have gone on longer – the children would have left home and I would have been sitting on the sofa in their house still watching TV. If Michael had said to me, ‘Let’s do ten more years,’ I would have replied, ‘Great! As long as you dye my grey hair black, I’m happy!’”
She closes by demonstrating the sort of philosophical attitude to the profession that has no doubt contributed to her enduring success. “I just let life happen. If I don’t get a role, I just go and do a little bit of gardening. You never know what’s next. You have to wait for the right thing. You have to learn to wait and not panic.”
But one thing you can be absolutely sure this naturally beautiful actress will not be doing is resorting to plastic surgery. “Each to their own,” she says. “If that makes you happy, fine. But it would scare me. I don’t think I’ll be doing it.”
A beat, and another wry grin. “I’d rather go to a garden centre and spend my money there!”