Interview: Chloe Pirrie on scaling the heights in the BBC's new Bronte sister act

Why the Scots actor would take Emily Bronte clubbing on Lothian Road

Chloe Pirrie stars in BBC's Bronte drama, To Walk Invisible this Christmas. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown. Thanks to HOXLEY & PORTER of Islington, London, WWW.HOXLEYANDPORTER.CO.UK
Chloe Pirrie stars in BBC's Bronte drama, To Walk Invisible this Christmas. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown. Thanks to HOXLEY & PORTER of Islington, London, WWW.HOXLEYANDPORTER.CO.UK

There’s despair at wanting a part so much – “I thought ‘Ooooh, this is perfect and I’ll never get it!’” or delight at “sitting in a Michelin restaurant in Prague – I’ve never been in a Michelin restaurant before – and having the most stupendous meal of my life!”

And so it is watching her Emily Brontë. She holds the viewer completely absorbed. She is Emily, threatening to thump her boozy brother Bramwell one minute, cradling him in her arms and wiping up his bloody phlegm as he dies of consumption the next.

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Written and directed by Sally Wainwright, of Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax fame, the two-hour film for TV takes us slap bang into the lives of the three sisters who produced the classic novels.

But be warned, To Walk Invisible is set in the Brontës’ freezing parsonage home in 1840s Yorkshire, so if you’re sitting down to watch it this Christmas, you might want to don a onesie and crank up the heating.

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Pirrie breathes life into Emily, writer of Wuthering Heights, one of the most enduring classics in the English language. Well, who doesn’t love a love story – especially one with ghosts, corpses, the possession of souls, and bucket-loads of revenge.

“I was sent the script and I thought it was incredible, that’s for me. It’s horrible too because you go through a dread process because you know if you don’t get it you’ll be devastated. And it’s more likely than not that you won’t. It was the same with Shell. I remember reading that and having that feeling for the first time. It’s wonderful because it means you’re reading something you love, a great script by brilliant writers and that’s really exciting.”

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Emily died at 29 and her need for secrecy and privacy meant she left few traces for an actor trying to find a way into her character, unlike her diary-keeping sister Charlotte who outlived her siblings and enjoyed great fame in her lifetime.

“Emily wasn’t really interested in publishing in the first place and was quite mysterious so there are lots of theories about her,” says Pirrie. “There is speculation that she might have had Asperger’s or an eating disorder, but it’s difficult to know or look at through the prism of a modern perspective, so I didn’t get too hung up on that, although the research is useful for background detail.”

Then there’s Sally Wainwright’s knack of making everything current, familiar, and leavened by humour. We’re still in Victorian Yorkshire, a world of chamber pots, corsets, coaches and consumption, with the wind howling above the moors and grey rain staining cold Yorkshire stone, bouquets of damp blooming on the floral wallpaper of the parsonage, yet these people are just like us. It’s a family drama, albeit a family of gifted writers. Three daughters without husbands who face penury when their ageing father dies, writing about their here and now.

“Sally has this way of writing that’s very real,” says Pirrie. “She writes believable dialogue no matter what period she’s tackling. She can write people’s humour and their relationships so they feel alive on the page and it gives her characters great humanity. They don’t feel like the ghosts of mythical Brontës, with their almost cult status, it isn’t reverential. They just feel like a normal family with extraordinary gifts.”

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With To Walk Invisible we’re often out on the wily, windy moors as Kate Bush would have it, but that wasn’t a problem for Pirrie, who was born and raised in Edinburgh.

“The wind is the same, and the landscape quite similar, so the conditions were very normal for me.”

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Ever since she played the lead in Shell, set in an equally chilly petrol station in the Highlands, her career has been on an upwards trajectory. Shell won Best Film at the Turin Film Festival in 2012 and Pirrie was named Best Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards, and elected as one of the Screen International Stars of Tomorrow 2013. Soon she was starring in BBC2 Cold War spy thriller The Game alongside Brian Cox, playing a politician in Charlie Brooker’s cult hit Black Mirror, then appearing alongside David Thewlis, Miranda Richardson and Ken Stott in An Inspector Calls. Next up was Sky Atlantic’s crime series The Last Panthers with Samantha Morton and John Hurt, and this year she played Julie Karagina in the BBC’s sumptuous corsets and cannonballs adaptation of War and Peace. She 
had a part in Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-nominated comedy drama Youth with Michael Caine and Rachel Weisz and won more praise for the black comedy road movie Burn, Burn Burn.

Pirrie, 29, is the daughter of a physiotherapist and a lawyer who was raised in Stockbridge. It was at school at Mary Erskine’s that she had her first taste of acting, as Anja in The Cherry Orchard, and when she first thought of drama as a career.

“It was a sort of weird, troubled road into acting because I had been a bit naughty in school until I did my Highers and then I was like, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to apply myself and surprise everyone’. I decided to actually do some work and I did really get into academic stuff, but got very anxious at the same time because I’m a real perfectionist so academic study became synonymous with anxiety and pressure and a kind of depression. That was very telling for me so I knew that this might play into something that wasn’t very healthy. At the same time I was in The Cherry Orchard and just loved it and thought I should do that. I applied to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and didn’t get in the first year, so I worked at Costa and the Dean Gallery Café then applied again and got in the next year when I was 18. I was so excited.”

One of the things Pirrie loved about drama school was learning about accents, something she had attuned herself to at an early age, being exposed to a diversity of them.

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“I grew up in Edinburgh, but my dad’s from Glasgow and my mum’s from Chingford in Essex, and I spent time in Ireland too, so I was always somebody who absorbed accents. I would come back from visits, very much to the annoyance of friends and family, with an accent based on where I’d been. I’d come back from Ireland with a little lilt or Chingford with a London accent and people were like ‘what are you doing?’ I enjoyed that. We have such rich accents in this country. Also, I think it’s an interesting way to approach a character; there are lots of clues in the way that someone speaks.”

Perhaps Pirrie could be the next Meryl Streep if she keeps this up?

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Pirrie laughs at the idea then rolls with it. “Ideally yeah, that would be wonderful. She has that chameleon quality that I love and I admire her a lot. I love Samantha Morton too, she’s an amazing actress and I got to hang out with her on The Last Panthers, which was cool. And Emma Thompson, I’m struck by how very brilliant she is. I like people who do what they do incredibly well and are active in their non-acting life too.

“Also Sally [Wainwright] is from the area where the Brontës grew up so she kind of doubled up as an accent coach. She would correct us – for example I kept saying Halifax but it’s Haleefax, and how to say no, which is very specific in that part of Yorkshire. I didn’t want to get it wrong because I might offend people,” she says.

If she does, Pirrie might never each lunch in Halifax again.

“Or Haworth,” she says. We spent a lot of time there. The locals were very excited and connected to the project. The parsonage and museum gave us access to things that aren’t available to the public, artefacts and the Brontës’ writing when they were children, tiny writing on tiny bits of paper that they had hidden away. Seeing their handwriting when they were ten was incredible, really cool,” she says.

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The hardest accent Pirrie has ever had to master she found to be Welsh, for Burn, Burn, Burn.

“That was quite daunting at first. There’s nothing worse than hearing bad accents, but I think the key is not to go too far. And it was softened because this character had lived in London for a long time.”

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A bit like Pirrie, who has been there for more than a decade now. While her career is on the right path now, after drama school she did her fair share of waitressing, burger joint and bar work in between jobs as she struggled to make a living.

“When I left Guildhall I was in that wilderness of all actors, ‘Oh God, what am I doing?’ It’s difficult. I was working in bars when I did the play Men Should Weep and Shell, and it took a long time to let go of the need to have a job that pays something every week. There was a time when I had nothing looming and things weren’t going well, but in that time I also made amazing friends and experienced life,” she says.

“Obviously it would be great to leave drama school and get an amazing gig then another, then another, but I’m really grateful I had a time when I just had to get on with life and really struggle with money and everything because it’s made me grateful for everything I’ve got now.

“It’s healthy to spend your early twenties not knowing what the hell’s going on and making terrible choices and not knowing why. It’s the best part of life, and I’m glad I had it. I cherish it.”

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After To Walk Invisible, Pirrie spent the rest of the year filming Series Two of The Crown, the Netflix chronicle of the Queen, in which she plays Eileen Parker, wife of Prince Philip’s private secretary. Much like Parker himself, Pirrie is discreet and won’t reveal the plot.

“I’m in three episodes because their relationship comes to the fore for reasons I won’t go in to,” she says.

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After that, there are more things in the pipeline but again she’s “not allowed to talk about stuff like that.”

Whatever she has coming up, we can be sure her choice of projects will be character driven, whatever the genre or format.

“It’s more the part that’s at the centre of it,” she says. “I don’t care where it’s set or when, if it’s a play, TV thing or film thing. I don’t care as long as it’s a person I want to be. I don’t know, but I know when I see it.”

It’s a ridiculous question but because Pirrie and Wainwright have brought the twentysomething Emily so vividly to life in To Walk Invisible, I find myself asking how the young actor would entertain the writer were she to come to Edinburgh to visit.

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“I would take her beyond Holyrood on a walk to Duddingston round Arthur’s Seat, then take her for a pint in the Sheep’s Heid – I think she’d feel at home there. And I’d take her to Frasers on Princes Street because that’s where I used to meet my friends and we’d spend the day wandering around aimlessly, through the Old Town, down Cockburn Street. And then at night we’d go clubbing up Lothian Road. That would be cool. She’d have a great time.”

Emily Brontë clubbing on Lothian Road? Pirrie can almost convince you that could possibly happen. n

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Chloe Pirrie stars in To Walk Invisible on 29 December, BBC1, 9pm