Interview: Helen McCrory
Fake news, post-truth, a world where there are no facts, only interpretations, if ever the time was right for a character like Helen McCrory’s human rights lawyer in ITV’s six part legal thriller, Fearless, it’s now.
Emma Banville believes in truth and the ability of the British legal system to uphold it, but not without a fight, and the tenacious lawyer is up for that fight. Known as a champion of lost causes, she sets out to prove the innocence of a convicted killer, who has served 14 years in jail for the murder of a schoolgirl, amid a backdrop of official conspiracies and cover-ups.
“Emma is a hunter for the truth, fearless and brave. She believes in Britain’s legal system and that it will strive for a just and fairer society, and that nothing is above the law,” says McCrory over the phone from the Fearless press junket.
“What’s really interesting is the grey area where politics and the law meet. It’s one thing to prove whether or not someone is guilty, but when it comes to who is responsible for covering up facts, that’s more difficult.”
Written by Homeland writer Patrick Harbinson and from the makers of Poldark and Downton Abbey, Fearless also stars comedian John Bishop in a straight role as Banville’s photojournalist boyfriend and Michael Gambon as a shadowy former Cabinet Office grandee.
So does McCrory see any similarities between herself and the character of Emma Banville?
“Well, she specialises in lost causes and maybe I’m similar in that I don’t think there’s such a thing as a lost cause. I believe in second chances for everybody. Also, Emma’s obsessive about her work and I am too. I’m always thinking, why did the writer write this line?
“Lawyers are constantly looking after their clients’ interests, sometimes for years, and come to identify with them, and it’s like that playing a character – you become an advocate for them.”
McCrory goes on to expand on what she sees as a British desire for fairness and equality and recognition that no-one is above the law. Coupled with this, in the wider world, is a growing concern that human rights are increasingly endangered. A child of the Seventies, she grew up with an awareness of the effects of Thatcherism on Britain and has drawn on this experience in Fearless.
“It was important for Patrick that he cast someone that had been politicised like Emma Banville so at the beginning there are flashes of Greenham Common and Thatcher’s Britain. I grew up in that and love her or loathe her, everyone was politicised by her in the same way as people are by Trump today. For Emma Banville activism is second nature from the cradle.”
McCrory also believes in protest and marched against the poll tax back in the day, more recently taking her ten-year old daughter Manon on January’s Women’s March. Her commitment to change sees her channelling her efforts into various charities, including the Sir Hubert von Herkomer Arts Foundation which gives children a gateway to the arts, The Princes Trust, MIND and Seen and Heard.
“With Hubert von Herkomer we introduce children who are falling through the gaps to art. It’s a great way for them to find their own voice and I find as I get older I’m more and more interested in doing that kind of work. I’ve realised the youth of Britain is what I care about most, and my energy has gone into that, mental illness and mentoring.”
As you would expect from the writer of Homeland, 24 and ER, Harbinson’s Fearless bears the hallmarks of that stable and the pace is cracking, with plot twists coming thick and fast.
“He comes from that American writing tradition where the plot is king and it’s hugely entertaining. You think you know this character, a slightly arsey woman lawyer and there’s a killer, and you’re thinking Christ, I’ve seen this before. But then it’s tipped on its head and you realise it’s not what it appears. There are three cases running consecutively and we go from a small rural setting to crossing continents and it gets bigger and bigger as time goes on.”
McCrory, whose husband, actor Damian Lewis has also been stalking the small screen in US dramas Homeland and Billions, sees audiences as increasingly sophisticated and receptive to complex dramas like 24 and The Wire.
It’s at this point that my tape machine connection to the phone gives up the ghost and I revert to shorthand, telling her what I’m doing so she’ll speak a little slower. (McCrory’s enthusiasm for Fearless makes her words spill out faster than Wikileaks). She approves of the change.
“Oh yes, Emma Banville absolutely should be interviewed by a shorthand journalist, yes. She’s an old school character, she’d definitely have shorthand herself. She’s at odds with the new world, where people go online and read fake news, then that permeates a culture so we have a system where no-one trusts it.
“Banville is all about not trusting anything until she’s double-checked it. And she’s right. You’ve got to be careful who you get your information from. If you’re sitting in the British Library and there’s something that has been in print for 400 years you can check it, go to the source. It’s the same with government information, double check.”
At this point she refers to her Glaswegian grandmother who liked to say, “just because I’ve got a hole in my arse, doesn’t mean I’m a plant pot.” Quite.
McCrory is big on research and prepared for the role by looking at human rights champions Helena Kennedy, Michael Mansfield and Gareth Peirce. “You have to find out why people are driven this way when you go to play a character, so I read some of their speeches and I also went into courts and spoke to lawyers involved in human rights legislation. I was trying to see what chambers were most interested in and what inspired those people.”
Emma Banville is the latest in a long and varied career for the award-winning 48-year-old who has two children with Lewis – Manon, 10, and Gulliver, nine. She played the Malfoy matriarch in the final three Harry Potter films, baddie Rosanna Calvierri in Dr Who, attempted to pension off Judi Dench’s M in Skyfall and most recently has had an extended run as Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders. She’s also played Cherie Blair twice in The Queen and The Special Relationship.
Like her character in Fearless, McCrory is dogged and cheerfully unflappable. When our phone interview is interrupted by a poor signal that sees us repeatedly cut off, she swaps first to another phone, then another location, meanwhile intercepting and dispatching her daughter to a contemporary dance class, “interpreting a bee or something,” all without losing her equilibrium or good humour.
“Sorry, cut off again,” she says, coming back on the line. “It becomes a bit dispiriting around the 17th time, doesn’t it?” she says and laughs as we try once more.
So, why did McCrory want to do Fearless? She sums it up as script, character and the female bias of the series.
“Firstly because it was a really entertaining script, interesting and engrossing because it’s so multi-layered and you’re constantly on catch-up. There are three plots going on at once. [Banville is also sheltering a Muslim woman called Miriam Attar (Karima McAdams) who has attracted the interest of the secret services.] There’s no explaining, you just have to work it out as it goes along.
“And I really liked Emma,” she says. “She wasn’t navel-gazing or self-pitying, but she wasn’t perfect either, and has a slightly swotty quality. She’s the girl at the front of the class, quietly reading away to herself. We don’t often have those women as our lead character.
“I was fascinated that he had cast four women characters in the lead parts, but he doesn’t write it as a conventional women’s drama in that they don’t talk about how things impact on their home lives or children. It’s about class or law or politics, or the police, or the next bit of the story and they just happen to be women.”
Aside from Fearless, McCrory has been working on Loving Vincent, the Van Gogh biopic due out later this year, in which she plays the role of Louise Chevalier, one of the painter’s subjects. She’s also been filming season four of Peaky Blinders, the gangster family epic set in 1920s Birmingham in which she plays another strong character in the shape of Polly Gray.
“Over the seasons Polly goes from taking over as head of the gang for a while to opting out then realising she can’t, discovering a missing son, being raped and shooting her rapist. Each season there’s an umbrella theme and last season it was can you escape your past, can you escape yourself? I think it’s out in September, I’m looking forward to that.”
Since graduating from London’s Drama Centre in 1993 and being cast by Richard Eyre in Trelawny Of The “Wells” at the National Theatre, she has worked solidly in theatre, film and television, winning the Critics’ Circle Best Actress Award in 2015 for her performance of Medea. Many of her roles have been serious from Anna Karenina to Macbeth, where she played “Lady M” as she calls her, with a twist. “All the women I know that are duplicitous bitches are smiley and really light and pretty, those women that every man goes ‘oh, she’s lovely, what’s wrong with you?’, and all the women get a chill when they walk by, so I played her as smiley with a blonde wig.”
McCrory also enjoys comedy and laughs and does voices as we talk, singling out Harry Potter as her most enjoyable job. “I really enjoyed doing [Harry] Potter because it was such a huge adventure. It was like sitting in Madame Tussauds except they were alive. You’re with Robbie Coltrane next to Maggie Smith next to Ralph Fiennes, next to Helena Bonham Carter, all chatting over breakfast – we’re talking about some of the nation’s best storytellers, so of course it was an amazing experience.”
Another positive experience was portraying Cherie Blair.
“After I played her I was at a friend’s house for dinner and was chatting away when they said there’s someone here who wants to meet you. I turned round and there she was. I thought Oh My God, is she going to knee-cap or headbutt me? But she didn’t do either, she shook me by the hand and said lovely to meet you and was very complimentary and encouraging, which was generous of her. It’s nice to get an endorsement. She also left a very nice message when I got my OBE recently.”
McCrory is still thrilled about getting the honour in January this year, particularly as she was awarded it for her acting. But such is the busy nature of her home life that the letter lay unopened in her kitchen for days until the Palace phoned to see if she was going to accept.
“I didn’t open it because Damian was in America with the children doing Billions and we were running two houses, one in New York, one in London, working on two sets, and I was flying back and forth every 11 days, learning lines on the plane. We’re like everyone constantly struggling to balance and just as one house of cards is built, the other is blown over. So I didn’t know until they phoned me. I was really bowled over. It meant the world to me, it really did. My dad joined the foreign office and my mum spent her life in the NHS, so I was brought up with that idea of serving your country.”
With Fearless now showing and season four of Peaky Blinders about to air McCrory is about to start work on series five of the show.
“Steve Knight’s writing is phenomenal and working with Cillian [Murphy] is a highlight, when you’re working with people at the top of the game and I’ve worked with him now for four seasons. It’s wonderful to just go on set and not need much small talk, to just go, then do each take completely differently just for the fun of it. That’s when it’s really interesting as an actor, when you get to work with people like that and flex your muscles.”
The daughter of a Welsh mother and Scottish diplomat father, McCrory grew up in Cameroon, Tanzania, France and Scandinavia. Sent back to school in the UK, she discovered TV and drama.
“I was older than most kids when I first saw telly because I’d been brought up in Africa and wasn’t brought up with a telly in the sitting room so it made a huge impact on me. Watching films and drama really changed me and the way I felt about things, and I really wanted to do it too.”
However, on her first application to the Drama Centre in London she was rejected at interview.
“I was doing a Juliet speech and they said ‘that’s wonderful, but when were you in love?’
“I was 16, 17 and said ‘Well I haven’t been in love. I have never been kissed’, and they said ‘well, what the hell are you doing standing in front of an audience and not knowing what the f*** you’re doing? Bugger off and live a bit.’ So I went to Italy and lived a bit, fell in love, and kept applying and applying and they put me on the waiting list.
Did she have to keep falling in love while she was on the waiting list to show she was learning about life?
She laughs. “No, it was just the one lover, for three years, and he was a very good introduction to the world of men. I’ve been very lucky to be in love with very lovely people, not everyone is,” she says.
“I spent that year just being in love basically, and bottle washing and waitressing. I also went to art galleries and did courses on composition of painting. Why you turn your body one way or the other, with that certain light, so you know whether the letter that person is reading in that portrait is good news or bad news, from the way the eyes fall or the head. That’s helpful for an actor when you have to portray things.”
So, political, hard-working, lucky in love, multi-tasker actor and parent, is there any project she’d love to work on in future? “Yes, I like doing a play a year, and I’d like to do more Peaky, more Fearless and…” she mulls it over for a moment… “I’d love to do panto at the Citz! They do the best pantos.”
Finally, before we’re cut off again and Manon’s dancing like a bee class ends, I remember she’s a stickler for double checking and run names and ages by her. How old is her husband Damian?
“‘71,” she says.
“He’s never 71,” I say stupidly, thinking he looks amazing for his age.
“No, he was born in ‘71,” she says, and laughs. Her granny and Emma Banville are right. Plant pots and arses, cover-ups and conspiracies, news and fake news, it’s always best to check.
Fearless continues on Monday nights on STV at 9pm. Catch up on previous episodes at the ITV hub