Interview: Trudie Styler, actress

Every actor has their own way of getting into character. Trudie Styler has to have the right shoes. At the moment, that means a delicate little 18th-century version of the kitten heel for her new play, A Dish of Tea With Dr Johnson, which opens in Edinburgh next week.

“Certainly, I couldn’t think of rehearsing Hester (Thrale, her character) without the right shoes and without a long petticoat,” she says, sitting opposite me in her London home. “Look at us – you’re wearing trousers, I’m wearing trousers. Most women today almost lose sight of putting on heels and a dress. It’s reserved for occasions, it’s not part of everyday living.”

Styler is excited about the Fringe. Wife of a multimillionaire rock star she may be, and in her own right a film producer, businesswoman, ecowarrior, but in her heart Trudie Styler is an actress, and she has never played the Edinburgh Festival before. “When I was acting more full-time it was always one of those dreams, ‘I hope this play goes to the Fringe’, but it never did. It’s so lovely it has come at this point in my life.”

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All the same, when I knock on the door of Trudie and Sting’s elegant four-storey townhouse near St James’ Park, I’m a long way from the world of sweaty Fringe venues and actors sleeping ten to a flat. The door is opened by an immaculate suited assistant who shows me into a wood-panelled sitting room lined with Picasso collages. Sting and Trudie also have an apartment in New York, a beach house in Malibu, an Elizabethan manor in Wiltshire and an estate and winery in Tuscany. There might be a yacht as well.

Styler is out casting her latest movie and is a little delayed. She comes running in at the same moment as the assistant brings us both glass bottles of mineral water. She’s unpretentiously dressed in casual trousers, a black T-shirt and plimsolls. At 57, she’s slim and athletic with unfussy blonde hair and no make-up. Oddly, this is more impressive than if she had dressed up. It gives the sense of a woman who is more interested in what she does than how she looks. She sits cross- legged on a sofa the length of a barge.

Styler has been savaged by the press previously and she is wary. She manages to look both businesslike and rather vulnerable. At first, her voice is so quiet I can barely hear it on the tape, and she berates herself when she forgets the name of Hester Thrale’s second husband. “I’m going to have to bone up for this role again,” she mutters, almost to herself.

My impression is of a woman who is busy, driven, endlessly active. A Dish of Tea, which will run for a month on the West End after the Fringe, is sandwiched in her schedule between casting and post-production for her new movie Imogene, which stars Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids) and is her first joint venture with US producer Celine Rattray. A month ago she launched Lake House Table, a range of upmarket ready-meals for Waitrose, named after she and Sting’s country estate. Then there’s charity work, a series of yoga DVDs, her own film production company, Xingu Films. “Not to mention what is going on with my kids. I have a 15-year-old who still requires a lot of time and attention.” She and Sting have four children: Mickey, 27, who is an actress; Jake, 26, a photographer; Coco, 20, the lead singer with the band I Blame Coco; and Giacomo, 15.

“I have an ADD personality, which means I am very good at scanning all the things I have to do. It’s not off-putting to me at all because I like a broad range of things that I’m passionate about. I’m also gifted with a lot of energy, so when I finish a performance I can go back home and make calls and e-mails to New York or LA. And I love it, it’s not that I feel it as work, it’s a way of life, I’ve chosen this.”

Though she still acts in occasional films, A Dish of Tea is Styler’s first stage appearance for 20 years. It’s the doing of Max Stafford-Clark, the celebrated director of Out of Joint Theatre Company, who co-wrote and directs the play. They met when he was director at the Royal Court in the late 1970s and Styler was at the RSC, and became friends.

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Then, in 2006, Stafford-Clark suffered a series of massive strokes which left him all but immobile, though he has since made a triumphant return to directing. “His story is that when he had the strokes, when people were standing over him looking rather forlorn and sad, he was planning his next season,” Styler laughs. “That’s Max, the indefatigable Max, his creative spirit, his chi, his life force. When he dragged me out of my acting retirement – my theatre retirement anyway – and said ‘You’re really suited to this role, you should do it’, how could I say no?”

Stafford-Clark wrote A Dish of Tea with actors Ian Redford (who plays Johnson, the great man of letters) and Russell Barr (who plays his acolyte, Boswell, and all the other parts, male and female). But Stafford-Clark felt that an actress was required to play the part of Johnson’s last great unrequited love, Hester Thrale.

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When the play opened in London in the spring, Styler found herself acting in front of a live audience for the first time in two decades. “It was very scary,” she laughs nervously. “Everything is up for grabs. When you work in film, it’s a much more controlled area. This piece plays out over an hour and 15 minutes, once it starts, there’s no stopping. Of course that’s what theatre is, the delight of it and the fright of it: it’s live and anything can happen. At first, all thoughts are of what can go wrong, but as you proceed and get used to it, you’re thrilled with what’s gone right. It’s a lovely feeling.”

And Hester Thrale, though she’s confined to the last 20 minutes of the play, is a great part. Styler enthuses about her. She’s smart, witty, beautiful, a great hostess, an 18th-century proto-feminist. She became close to Johnson when she nursed him through an illness. He loved the fact that she could hold her own in intellectual debate and, when her husband died, hoped she would marry him. But Hester had other plans: she eloped to Italy with her daughter’s music teacher, some 30 years her junior. “Piozzi!” says Styler, triumphantly. “That was his name.”

Getting into Hester’s shoes has been fun, partly because she seems to have loved clothes as much as Styler does (Sting quipped in a recent interview that his wife was capable of buying the United States out of recession). “She was a clothes horse, and given that she’d had so many children (23 pregnancies) I don’t know how she kept her figure. She was known in society to be a very glamorous person, and it’s fun to wear the lovely dresses. And we think we’re very de rigueur with hair extensions, but they all wore extensions, wigs and put adornments in their hair.

“She loves clothes, I love clothes. She’s a mother, I’m a mother. She loved to entertain, and one of my passions in life is that I love to have people around the table. She’s a very fascinating personality for me to engage in, there’s just so much to her. And I feel very much that I’d like to defend her.”

Hester, you see, also got a hard time from the press. When she married Piozzi she was all but driven from the country. Boswell, who wrote the first and most influential life of Johnson, detested her and portrayed her as mean and selfish.

“She’s not a favourite with the press, the tabloids, and I have certainly had that experience,” Styler says. Almost everyone in the spotlight has at some point, but preparing for the interview, I was shocked by the volume of nastiness directed at Trudie Styler. She’s pilloried for campaigning to save the rainforests while continuing to fly around the world, for launching a range of ready meals when she employs a private chef. Even praise for her acting is often accompanied by a faint note of surprise. Private Eye ran a merciless ‘Trudie Styler’s A-Z of How to Be A Better Person (“Remember your carbon footprint... Just hire a small private jet.”)

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She must need a thick skin. “I’m not thick-skinned, I’m very sensitive,” she says, turning her doe eyes on me and looking frighteningly vulnerable. “I think there’s a modus operandi among certain members of the press who want to create unhappiness, dislodge relationships, just because it seems to be de rigueur. The fame game has become unseemly, and I don’t wish to have a part of it. I’m getting on with my life, through movies, through plays, through working not for profit, and being a mum.” But some would say she and Sting court speculation about their private life. Earlier this year they did a racy photoshoot together for Harper’s Bazaar, and he has been known to drop remarks (when he’s in his cups, according to Styler) about five-hour tantric sex sessions. Perhaps it is simply the case that they became celebrities at a time when the fame game was at its most merciless, and rock stars’ wives have always been targets for some of the worst of it. Does she worry about her children moving into the same world? Coco is already attracting press attention for her music, and because she is Trudie and Sting’s daughter. Styler worked hard during their childhood to protect them from the public eye. “If you ever see pictures of our kids when they were growing up, you’ll see scowls on our faces. We’ve never encouraged that. Sting and me have been firm about not having them exposed as children to public life. Nobody thinks they’re a celebrity when they’re at home, they’re brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, we’re mum and dad.

“Celebrity and fame is not something to seek for its own self, it comes with the medium that you’ve entered into, that attracts it. Coco’s will because she’s chosen music. Mickey’s might as she’s chosen acting. Jake is behind the camera, so there’s no need for him to be exposed to the press, and he certainly eschews all opportunity. Giacomo’s still very young. But everybody wants to get on with life in their way and not be famous for being famous.”

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Styler met Sting when they were neighbours in Bayswater in 1982. He was married to actress Frances Tomelty, a friend of Styler’s, with whom he had two children. When their became public, a scandal erupted, also coinciding with the break-up of The Police. They married in 1992 – she wore a £20,000 Versace dress and rode off into the sunset on a white horse – and have what is regarded as one of the most stable of celebrity marriages. One reason given for the enduring success of their partnership is that they have similar backgrounds, Sting from working-class Newcastle, Styler from Worcestershire. Her father worked in a factory, her mother was a dinner lady. She drops into a superb West Midlands accent to do a brief impersonation of Dr Johnson, who came from Lichfield.

If one is looking for a reason for Styler’s drive, her determination to make the world a better place, it probably comes from here. When I ask about her charity work, she talks about her mother, who suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s and died when she was 60.

“Mum was a big force in our lives. She would always encourage us to give of ourselves to people in need, even though she didn’t have much money she would be sending off cheques to various causes that she supported. I grew up with that, and I encourage my kids to do the same. That’s important to us as a family, because we have been given so much, we have so much, that’s the least we can do, to contribute in some way.”

From an early age, she wanted to be an actress. “On my report card it said, Trudie must stop playing to the gallery,” she laughs. “The idea of escape was wonderful. I wasn’t a particularly happy teenager. To lose myself in characters was always so liberating.” From the age of 15 she pursued her dream seriously, and got a place at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. “It was unheard of in my family, in my street. Nobody was an actor. It was a pretty high wall to climb.” She must have been very determined. “Yeah, I was, because I couldn’t see any other way through.”

When she’s acting, she can forget the demands of being a celebrity, a rock star wife, being Mrs Sting. “I love that,” she says, scooping up her hair and absentmindedly knotting it on top of her head. “I love getting out of the way of myself, letting these characters come through. It’s a very liberating feeling.”

Styler made a promising start as an actress, working at the RSC, and picking up television parts in Poldark, The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Bell, alongside Ian Holm and Rachel Kempson. But in her early thirties, the phone stopped ringing. “I certainly wasn’t being offered the roles that I’d enjoyed playing. When I got to being a young mum in my early 30s, these leading youthful parts were now no longer mine. It became quite a barren period for me, I was quite depressed about it. The actor’s life is largely about rejection sometimes, and a lot of sadness comes with that.

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“At 32, I realised I needed to pull back from it. I certainly didn’t want to go to [do plays in] Manchester and Leeds because I had two tiny kids whose dad was often on tour. So I thought that I’d better switch horses and I became a producer, which means I can create a piece of work when I’ve got that window of time free.” She set up Xingu Films, which specialises in working with young directors. “Acting is one of the loves of my life, which I’ll never stop doing. It’s also made me a better producer because I understand actors. And when I like a story, I like a director, I move heaven and earth to get the movie made.” I can believe that very well.

A Dish of Tea With Dr Johnson, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, August 24-28, tel: 0131-228 1404.