AFTER years of rejection Amanda Abbington is set to become a Sunday night sensation. But the best part is being romantically reunited with her globe-trotting husband.
‘PEOPLE are going to hate me.” Amanda Abbington does a neat line in self-deprecating humour. The reason for her prediction is that, soon, Abbington’s rather lovely face will be hard to miss on a Sunday night.
While not exactly taking over the schedules, the actress will be appearing in two of the most eagerly awaited programmes of the next few months. On STV she’ll be back behind the counter as the formidable and lovelorn Miss Mardle, head of accessories, in the new series of Mr Selfridge, and on the Beeb she’ll be in the hysteria-inducing third series of Sherlock. It is just possible (she doesn’t know and neither do we, since transmission dates have yet to be confirmed) that both programmes could be on at the same time, which would put Abbington head to head with herself. Nice work.
But even if that were to happen, when someone in a business known for its feast or famine ways gets this lucky, surely it would be more than a little churlish to be resentful? After all, Abbington is all too familiar with the other side of the story.
“When I first met Martin, I stopped working for 18 months. I didn’t do anything. Not a thing,” says Abbington, referring to her partner of 12 years, actor Martin Freeman, with whom she has two children, Joe, seven, and Grace, five.
They met on the set of the TV movie Men Only before The Office turned Freeman into a star. So was she looking for a career break?
“No,” she smiles, “it just stopped. I’d done a nice costume drama, I met Martin, and that was it for 18 months.” She raises her eyebrows and shrugs. “But I kept going.”
Abbington describes herself as “quite scrappy”, and I suppose you’d have to be to keep plugging away in the face of that kind of rejection. It also helps that right from the start, as a little girl growing up, Abbington knew she wanted to be an actor, insisting on putting on variety shows for her parents complete with makeshift curtain and hand-drawn tickets.
“It’s the love of doing it,” says the 39-year-old. “Being an actor has got to be vocational. There was no way that I was going to give up, that I was going to let it beat me,” she says. “It is quite demoralising, but you can’t take it personally, because it’s not personal.”
But surely that’s exactly the problem. You don’t get the job because something about you (not necessarily something you can do anything about) doesn’t quite fit. It doesn’t get much more personal than that. Abbington smiles: “I was watching The X Factor the other day and I was thinking, you have no idea of rejection. This is the first thing you’ve done. You’ve wanted it all your life? Yeah, all your 16 years. Be an actor. Be an actor for about two years and see how that goes, because it’s constant. The number of jobs that you get as a ratio to the number of times you are rejected is incredible.”
It turns out that I’ve met Abbington before. It was more than a year ago, in a car park in South Queensferry on a freezing-cold day. I spent the afternoon watching her sitting in a car having the same conversation with a man over and over again as I listened in on headphones. It sounds odd, but that’s what happens on a TV set – in this instance the set of the BBC drama Case Histories, in which Abbington played DC Louise Munroe, a dour Edinburgh cop in a love/hate relationship with private eye Jackson Brodie (Jason Isaacs).
“I was wearing such a thin leather jacket,” she says, remembering the biting wind. “Munroe was supposed to be Scottish, but there’s no way if she was she’d have been wearing a coat like that. She’d have been wrapped up.”
She has a point. I don’t remember her coat, as it happens. I remember the one I was given: an enormous North Face suitable for Arctic expeditions which I put on over all of my other clothes and which still didn’t keep out the cold. I also remember Abbington’s impressive Edinburgh accent that disappeared between takes like warm breath in the cold air. “I apologise for the accent,” she says, before I can offer a compliment. “It’s hard. It’s quite posh.”
So how does someone so chronically modest cope with her latest run of work, with a recurring part in a successful drama and a plum role in one of the most adored and celebrated telly offerings of recent years, Sherlock? Because, let’s face it, both Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hollywood careers may be soaring, but no roles have provoked as much excitement and devotion as their revamped versions of the inhabitants of 221B Baker Street.
“You just cling on to it,” Abbington says. “You desperately make it work.”
As for explaining her success, she just shrugs. “It’s coincidental,” she says. “I didn’t get any of these on the back of the others.” In fact, Abbington auditioned for the parts in both Case Histories and Mr Selfridge. With Sherlock, though, it was slightly different. Writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat wrote the part of Mary Morstan, Watson’s love interest, specifically for Abbington. If there was ever something to get a little puffed up about, this might be it, but not Abbington.
“We were at Mark Gatiss’s house when The Hounds Of Baskerville first came on the telly. Afterwards they went into the kitchen and were sitting talking about the next series. I went in and sat with them. It had been mooted that I would be in it, might have a little part in it. They were talking about who might play Mary and I was like, ‘So, who are you thinking of?’ and they said ‘You’.”
It seems like a sensible choice. After all, who else could be better to play John Watson’s future wife (to be clear, Abbington offers no spoilers, but pictures of her wearing a wedding dress have somewhat let the cat out of the bag) than the real-life partner of the man who plays him?
“I got very emotional because it just seemed so amazing, just such a gift,” she says.
Abbington admits that, even for her, stepping into a show that has such a reputation and that centres so much on the dramatic rapport between the two leads was daunting.
“I remember doing a scene very early on with Martin and Ben, and I was standing in between them and I thought ‘I really have to up my game, this is proper’. They really bounce off each other.
“When I was at the read-through, I remember watching them, and the chemistry between them is just amazing. They do have this beautiful relationship, so getting in between that – which is what Mary does, she becomes this kind of third wheel – was scary. Also, the fans love these two together, so I’m sure Mary won’t be particularly liked by them, but I hope that on the whole people really like her, because she’s a great character and she has some fantastic secrets.”
There was a bit of a storm in an online teacup about Mary’s appearance in Baker Street. Abbington was on the receiving end of some pretty nasty comments from young fans who couldn’t quite cope with Sherlock and Watson’s twosome becoming a threesome. Such was the vitriol, a rival site was set up championing Abbington’s cause. Fans sent in pictures of themselves holding up “We HEART Amanda Abbington” signs.
For Abbington, the chance to work with Freeman seems to have been the best part of the job. It’s not uncommon, of course, for actors to be married to each other – James McAvoy and Anne-Marie Duff, Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz – but I’ve never come across one who is so openly admiring of their partner’s talent without sounding in the least bit soppy, or jealous.
“He’s one of my favourite actors,” she says. “I’m biased but it’s true. Watching him work is brilliant – every take he does something different. He’s a really good actor and he’s a really good person to have on set because he makes everyone feel relaxed. I learned a lot from Martin.”
As for being in a relationship with someone who does the same job, Abbington says it works so well because both understand the long hours and the need to be away from home for long periods of time. It’s just as well really, because for his role as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s epic prequel to his Lord Of The Rings trilogy, The Hobbit, Freeman had to be away from home for 18 months. Blimey.
“It was hard,” she says, “the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do. The longest I didn’t see him for was four months because I was doing Mr Selfridge and he went out to New Zealand to do the last block of The Hobbit.”
The time difference made it even worse. “You’re never in sync, ever. When you’re up and ready to go, he’s getting ready for bed, so you miss each other. I don’t recommend it and we’d never do that again. We’d never do that long apart again.”
In fact, Abbington admits the enforced separation was something of a wake-up call.
“It was a real lesson in being together, in making sure that that part of our relationship is strong,” she says. “We need to spend quality time together. It took him doing The Hobbit for us to realise that, because we had taken it for granted for a while. You get complacent, but it was like, oh we do still want to be together, we do love each other and this is hard.” She smiles. “It was a bit of a revelation. And it was close.”
When Mr Selfridge finishes shooting, Abbington will get a break and, although she wants the work to continue, she’s looking forward to going home and “just being a mum for a while”.
“This is a great period in the run-up to Christmas. We’ve got Halloween then Guy Fawkes Night, then it’s my son’s birthday and then it’s Christmas, so it’s really nice to be at home for all of that.” Having children has, she says, changed her priorities when it comes to her career, but that doesn’t mean she’s not ambitious.
“Your priorities change. Before I had children, acting was the most important thing in the world to me. If I couldn’t be a really successful actress then it was awful. But as soon as children come along it’s like, ‘Right, this is my role.’ It shifts the balance of things.”
She pauses. “But after four or five weeks you do think, ‘Right, I’m ready to do something again. I want to exercise my acting muscle.’” n
• Sherlock will air soon on BBC1 and Mr Selfridge on STV