Interview: Geraldine Somerville, actress

AFTER a decade of raising her children and taking only a few choice roles, Geraldine Somerville is back at work in one of the most talked-about dramas of the year

Geraldine Somerville has done her homework. She Googled me. She Googled the photographer. And she Googled herself, “Because I thought you would, and you would know all these things about me. Who writes this stuff? It’s inaccurate and it’s out of date,” she says, and we’re soon giggling about the strike rate of a notoriously unreliable online encyclopedia.

This is mildly surprising. My memories of Cracker are hazy, so my expectation, on arriving at a café on Kensington High Street, was based on images of ghostly Lily Potter, smiling beatifically out of a mirror at her son, Harry. And nothing immediately dislodges my presumption. Somerville looks as though you could snap her in two, frailness that’s accentuated by her up-front admission that a dodgy tummy might send her running for the loo at short notice. Her hair’s pulled back, showcasing clear, nearly translucent skin. Her beauty sneaks up on you, rather than clobbering you over the head, and is greatly enhanced, as is always the case, by the revelation that she’s an animated and lively conversationalist, full of voices and accents, and a clever one, as well. Plus it turns out that we share a passion, if that’s the right word, for the Titanic.

That’s fitting, since she’s part of the all-star, international cast – which includes Celia Imrie, Linus Roache and Toby Jones – boarding ship in Julian Fellowes’ new four-part series Titanic, set to air to mark the 100th anniversary of the vessel’s one and only voyage. But before we get to that, I ask why her clipping file is so slender. Is it a policy not to grant many interviews?

“For the past ten years,” says the 44-year-old, “I’ve been having children and kind of treading water in my career, not doing very much. One or two jobs a year, like Harry Potter. But what a job. Especially for a woman at home with three kids. I was literally having them, then doing another little bit of filming for these tiny roles that are, ‘Oops, dropped the popcorn, I missed you Geraldine.’ But a great job, and they do talk about my character all the time.”

Her eldest son is nine and has a vivid imagination, so he finds the books quite scary – as does Somerville. “He found the snake whispering terrifying in the book and in the cinema. But even though I was away working, I did make him go to the final premiere. (I do get a little bit more to do in the last one, which is really cool.) I said, ‘You have to go, even if you’re scared, just hide your eyes. And there’s a key moment when you see me killed,’ but he does understand it’s not real. So he went and loved it and is now really into Harry Potter.

“My next son is seven, and quite a bookworm, and has started reading The Philosopher’s Stone. And my four-year-old is a girl. So yes, to answer your question, I’ve been really focused on that part of my life. I know women are meant to be brilliant at multi-tasking but I find it difficult to be thinking about three kids and a career. It’s a lot to juggle, and they’ve been where I wanted to put my focus and attention. Then the third one went off to school and suddenly I turned around and said, ‘Where’s the next one?’”

Don’t mistake that for broodiness, she laughs. “I’m so not. But there was this terrible moment when I walked in the door and they’d all gone and the house was empty and it was like the last ten years went whoosh. One of those moments when you feel it’s gone so quickly, and yet seemed like such a long, hard journey. It’s rewarding, yes, but it is hard work being home with the kids.”

As a result, she says, she’s been really ambivalent about what it is she wants from her career, and how to manage it. When she thought about it, she realised that she does like acting. “I don’t think I’m that bad at it, and I think I’ve probably got more to offer now, in a funny sort of way, because I have been through that experience.”

Getting older has its benefits, we agree, but they’re not easily found in a mirror. “No one wants to do that thing where you look at yourself sideways, lifting your face. Also, I’ve put on a lot of weight.” Seriously? If that’s true, she was skeletal to begin with. “When I had my babies I put on like five stone every time. All I did was eat pizza and pasta and cheese. That’s what I wanted, so I thought, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Then I’d lose it – and put it back on with the next one. Of course, this doesn’t help the jaw line, but what the hell, getting older is a good thing.”

Somerville is a middle child, flanked by an elder sister and a younger brother. She was born in Ireland and grew up on the Isle of Man. Her father is Sir Quentin Charles Agnew-Somerville, second Baronet, and her mother, Lady Agnew-Somerville, is the daughter of the 15th Baron Strange.

“I decided at a ridiculously young age that I was going to act. It seems absurdly young. I started off doing ballet, which I really loved, when I was about six and went to the Arts Educational school in Tring when I was eight and did ballet and drama and music. That’s when I discovered that I was never going to be a dancer, unfortunately. That was a powerful moment, but I discovered that I loved to do the acting.

“It was an extraordinary education – it was set to music. Wherever you were in that building, even at your lessons, you could hear a piano playing, either because someone was practising their music, or for a ballet class. Isn’t it lovely? I was lucky to go there. It was a really strict school. I think my parents chose it because they didn’t think for a second that I would get in. I know it sounds harsh going to boarding school when you’re eight, and I certainly wouldn’t send my children away, but I actually really liked it and was happy to go.”

She left Tring when she was around 15 and finished her schooling in London before going to Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Her attitude toward the profession’s ups and downs is sanguine. “There will be jobs I really want and don’t get, and it does hurt, but I don’t take [rejection] desperately personally, because I think, ‘They don’t really know me.’ Also, being a redhead, we are a different species anyway. People either love us or hate us, like Marmite. It’s true. I went to a comedy club and every other joke was how ugly red-headed people were. I thought, ‘You wouldn’t be able to say that about anyone else, and shouldn’t say it.’

“I’m really happy being a redhead now, but it’s taken many years to get to that place. I didn’t like it as a child – and I was a much brighter redhead then.”

I joke that it’s a wonder she wasn’t cast as a Weasley, and with genuine wistfulness in her voice she says that none of her kids has inherited red hair.

Her friendship with Julian Fellowes goes back to the days when he was a jobbing actor, and they worked together when she appeared in Gosford Park as well. She was thrilled to join the cast of Titanic, telling me A Night to Remember is one of her favourite films about the disaster.

“In this I play a fictional character, Louisa, Countess of Manton. It’s the usual set-up of upstairs, downstairs, middle stairs, with interconnecting storylines. I’m married to Linus Roache, and our daughter, Georgiana, is played by Perdita Weeks. She’s behaving rather badly and becomes a Suffragette. This is absolutely out of order for my character, who is a very conservative woman. She believes there is only one way to be and there isn’t any wavering. At the beginning she’s a very narrow-minded, staid woman, but she goes on a big journey on the boat. I don’t want to reveal too much, but she turns out to be surprising and is a bit of good egg by the end of it.”

This version of the story is very people-focused, she says. “We’re not trying to go for the big special effects because obviously James Cameron – well, you could have been on that ship. Of course, he’s a complete Titanic boffin, and has been down to the wreck many times. I’ve watched all the documentaries, partly for this, but I’ve always been intrigued by it. I don’t generally believe in something being doomed, but in this case it was so strange – if that boat had hit the iceberg any other way, it wouldn’t have sunk. And there was a boat ten miles away which completely ignored, didn’t understand, or didn’t pick up the message. Those two huge factors, I find chilling.

“I think it’s as big a deal as September 11 is today. It’s about the levelling of people. It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are, who you are, some things are bigger than you. That fascinates me, and the awful unfairness of it is just unsettling. And also – sorry, I’m getting emotional – the other thing I find [remarkable] is the nobility of men. It’s a social bubble of what life was like in 1912; the idea that men would stand back and allow these women to get off the boat before them, and this idea that there were some single women on the boat and the men would take it upon themselves,” she puts on a voice that I can only describe as Ye Olde British Empire, “to make sure that she got off the boat. That’s what I love about A Night to Remember, it captures the social etiquette of the time, and that’s what I find deeply moving.

“In all honesty, do we think it would be the same today? Great stories of incredible bravery and humanity come out of all these disasters. I find the sadness of those men incredibly moving, and the disgrace of any of those who did step into the boat and were then social outcasts, I find very sad and moving as well.”

The drama is structured so that the same events unfold from a range of perspectives. So, she explains, you might hear or see an exchange that appears baffling the first time round, but which clicks into place by the next episode when the back story is filled in.

They shot in Hungary when it was hot, making it all the more challenging to pretend to be freezing their socks off in the north Atlantic. “Sometimes it was 40 degrees. I was drinking three to four litres of water a day. We had these awful lifejackets we had to wear and they were a nightmare, because when they got wet, which they did, they started to smell like hamster cages. Imagine 150 extras, and everyone sweating. But the Hungarian extras were amazing, tolerant, and so lovely. We had a great atmosphere on set, and I did laugh a lot.”

That tendency to giggle makes her a wonderful interviewee, but has posed problems on the job now and again, notably the first time she worked with Robbie Coltrane, playing DS Jane Penhaligon opposite his Eddie Fitzgerald, in Cracker. “Such an attractive man, and one of the funniest people I have ever worked with. My first scene I ever, ever did with Robbie – I was doing a play in London, at the Royal Court, at the same time. I’d do the play, drive to Manchester in the night, wake up to film, then fly back to London, do the play and start all over again. I was exhausted, and when I am tired I get even more giggly, as well as forgetful.

“The very first scene I had with Robbie I could hardly do, I was laughing so much. He tells jokes and is a brilliant story teller. He does characters and is great company, really intelligent. I loved working with him but had to train myself to deal with the fact that I was doing one of the most serious drama roles of my career and he was trying to make me laugh.” Unfortunately they never overlapped on the set of Harry Potter, so Hagrid never had a chance to, well, corpse Lily Potter.

Now that her career is more of a priority, what’s on the horizon? She had a small role in My Week With Marilyn – another blink and you’ll miss her moment – but with a cheerful grin she admits the future remains a question mark. “I feel very excited but I don’t know why. I really want to take on some more serious work and be more full on, so I’m excited and ready for that, but I don’t know what’s coming up next.”

• Titanic starts tomorrow night on STV at 9pm.