The truth, the complexity of truth, and true stories stranger than fiction have a draw on Keeley Hawes. From light to dark, comedy to crime, it’s a theme that recurs throughout her acting career, from current TV ratings toppers The Durrells and spy thriller Traitors, to Mrs Wilson, the forthcoming Summer of Rockets and next year’s Miss World comedy drama film Misbehaviour.
“Sometimes that’s where the best stories come from. If somebody said, ‘I’m writing a fictional drama and it’s about this man who has been married to however many different fictional wives’ you’d think, hang on, you’ve probably gone too far, no-one’s gonna buy this. But when it’s the truth, you can’t argue with it and it’s just a brilliant, brilliant story.”
Hawes is talking about last year’s BBC One period miniseries Mrs Wilson, for which she’s up for Best Supporting Actress at this year’s Baftas, alongside her other nomination for Best Leading Actress in Bodyguard. Mrs Wilson, a true story in which Ruth Wilson played her own grandmother, also starred Iain Glen as her bigamous, spy grandfather, in a tale you couldn’t make up.
“When I read it my jaw was hanging, but it’s all based on truth,” says Hawes. “It was extraordinary, fascinating. I wasn’t in it very much and I’ve just found out I’m up for Best Supporting Actress, which was a total, utter shock for me. I’m so pleased.”
Hawes is well known for roles in the water-cooler discussion shows of the moment, Line of Duty, Bodyguard and perhaps what is more “lovely warm bath” than water cooler, as she describes The Durrells.
She’s talking to me from her home in London where she’s kicking back with her kids while actor husband Matthew Macfadyen is away filming HBO series Succession. “He’s all over the place shooting that, it’s his turn, so now I am here with all my babies. I love it,” she says.
Unlike Corfu, the skies are grey and overcast, but it doesn’t bother the sunny Hawes, who is happy to be at home waiting for the next job. Not that she, like viewers, isn’t in love with Corfu and ITV’s The Durrells, whose adventures on the island in the 1930s, currently have us captivated.
“Awww. It’s just gorgeous isn’t it? Just wonderful. It’s another character really, the island, and the weather. It’s the light that’s amazing. I look back at photographs I’ve taken, just on my phone, and it’s extraordinary – the colours, pinks and blues – it’s a real gift, amazing.”
Hawes is back for the fourth and final series of The Durrells – adapted from Gerald Durrell’s Corfu trilogy, which begins with My Family and Other Animals,by Simon Nye – playing Louisa, who relocates to the island following the death of her husband to bring up her four children and an ever-increasing menagerie. But it wasn’t the weather or the amazing location that attracted Hawes to the job.
“Actually, the location made me think twice!” she says. “Because I’ve got children myself it’s really hard being away, so as much as it looks like Corfu would be appealing, it was actually the trickiest part. But Sid Gentle Films, the company that makes it, were just brilliant, totally understanding that I needed to get home a lot and made it work. Most women of my age playing that part would probably have a family, so they were brilliant about it. And it’s only a three-hour flight.”
Four series on, the cast have grown up on set, developing over four years of filming, something that Hawes appreciates about being in a long running series.
“In this one we look at a photograph from the first series, and there’s little baby Milo [who plays Gerry], and now he’s my height and doing his GCSEs. It has been wonderful watching those guys grow up in front of our eyes, growing into themselves and becoming more confident.”
As for the success of the show, Hawes attributes that to Nye, who has come up with a family show that avoids being too saccharine.
“You can watch it with your kids or mum, and there aren’t many of those are there? Apart from Modern Family, but there the list ends. With The Durrells there’s someone everybody can relate to in it. And I think a lot of its appeal lies in what Simon Nye has done – one minute you’re laughing, the next, crying, and that’s a tricky thing to do. It could be quite sickly, twee, could slip over the line, but it never has. It’s always cut through with sharp humour.”
So in the new series when aspiring writer Gerry has a couple of Australian women saving on rent by moving into his room, it’s an event that goes unremarked upon apart from a passing “well done” from a neighbour. Darker is the looming shadow of the Second World War, which along with issues of gender and sexuality are deftly handled along with the domestic day-to-day dilemmas of The Durrells.
“It does cover all sorts of issues that affect everybody,” says Hawes. “Often there are things in the script where I think that seems a bit out of keeping, such as the two gay American guys that come and stay with the Durrells, but they’re in the book, it happened. Yes the truth is stretched sometimes, the truth in the books is also stretched, was slightly elastic, because it had to be enjoyable as a story. But more often than not, what you’re watching is based in truth, which makes it even more extraordinary.
“So they do talk about sex and Louisa is very open and approachable to her children. She’s applauded her daughter Margo’s feminism from day one, and she doesn’t claim to know the answers. I think she’s a great mum, isn’t she?” she says, pleased to think that a little of the Durrell matriarch may have rubbed off on her. Hawes has three children – Myles, 18, from her first marriage and Maggie, 14, and Ralph, 12, with second husband Macfadyen who she met on spy drama Spooks in 2002. “My own little set of Durrells,” she calls them.
“I think I’ve turned into that sort of mum. I was quite young, well 24, when I had my first child, so I feel I’m good friends with my children. Probably flattering myself, but I feel like I am. So I’m a bit like Louisa, or I should try to be if I’m not, because I think she’s inspirational.”
Hawes is enjoying the public feedback on The Durrells, mainly when she’s at the supermarket. “People stop me and talk about it and their faces light up. They say things like, ‘Thank you for the joy you bring,’ and it’s so rewarding when you get a reaction like that. I mean, children’s faces light up! It’s so nice!”
As opposed to the reaction that running into Line of Duty’s DI Lindsay Denton might provoke in the freezer aisle.
“Exactly. That’s when people’s faces drop and they run away. They’re a bit horrified.”
She laughs, because playing Lindsay Denton in cop corruption thriller Line of Duty in 2014 and again in 2016 in a surprise plot twist is one of her favourite roles, exactly because of the complexity of Denton. Dodgy, but ultimately honourable, she died trying to do the right thing in the end.
“We had no idea the character was going to be as popular as she was. I was only supposed to be in it for one series and then Jed asked me to go back which was very flattering. I loved playing her, she’s one of my all-time favourites. There’s just so much to play with and have fun with, yeah, Lindsay Denton is up there.”
Another character who isn’t all that she seems is Priscilla in Traitors, which is currently on Channel 4 and coming soon to Netflix. Unlike with Louisa Durrell, Hawes doesn’t see any common ground in character or skill set.
“No, I’d make a crap spy,” she says. “It would be so tricky, and I’d be useless! But women spies are fascinating – I’ve played a couple now, Zoe in Spooks as well as Priscilla – and it’s a fascinating world. But I could only ever play one on TV.”
She’s being a bit hard on herself as Hawes can keep things confidential when she wants to, for example when she’s asked about her family or whether being married to another actor makes for a successful relationship or helps in the job. Adept at politely deflecting questions, she explains why.
“I’m talking less and less and less about my relationships. I like to keep things private really, with my children and family. It’s a tricky area. And it’s because an interview about The Durrells, or any of my work, will then become about ‘my inner tips to a great relationship’!” She laughs.
So we move on to Bodyguard, last year’s massive BBC hit series, the most watched TV drama in a decade that carried off Best New Drama this year’s National TV Awards and is up for a handful of Baftas. As well as the Leading Actress nomination for Hawes as home secretary Julia Montague, who she modelled on Amber Rudd, there’s the Must-See Moment nomination for the assassination scene.
“It came about at a time when everyone was thoroughly fed up with Brexit, as they are now. I don’t know why it was such a success, but Jed Mercurio’s story was brilliant and people seemed to fall for the characters. I think it was just one of those chemical reactions. It was very exciting, I mean THRILLING, to have that sort of success.”
Having been blown up in the last series, Hawes obviously can’t be in the next one…
“You’d think that,” she says, “but it doesn’t stop people asking me! And the other day a journalist asked me if I was going back to Line of Duty – I was seen on screen being shot in the head! What does it take?” She laughs.
You can’t blame her for enjoying some time out from filming after working on The Durrells, Traitors and the soon to be aired Summer of Rockets, BBC2’s six-part series set in 1958. It stars Hawes, Toby Stephens, Linus Roache and Timothy Spall, and this time round she’s on the receiving end of the surveillance.
“It’s another espionage story, again based on truth, written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff who I have wanted to work with for a long time. It’s based on his grandfather, who invented hearing aids, and was approached by MI5 to spy for them. So, again, slightly based in truth, which makes it even better.”
Hawes has also been making comedy drama film, Misbehaviour, based on the true story of the 1970 Miss World show, which an audience of 100 million watched being disrupted by the newly formed Women’s Liberation Movement. Controversial from the start, the contest saw South Africa enter two contestants, one black, one white, and was won by the first black woman in its history.
Due out next year, the Pathe film is steered by women – the director is two-time Bafta winner Philippa Lowthorpe, producers Bafta nominee Suzanne Mackie and Sarah-Jane Wheale and along with Hawes playing contest organiser Julia Morley, it also stars Keira Knightley, Lesley Manville, Phyllis Logan, Greg Kinnear and Rhys Ifans.
“It was some of the best fun I’ve had in a long time,” says Hawes. “You think why hasn’t this been done before, but with the #MeToo movement and those things being to the fore, now is the right time.” Happy to describe herself as a feminist – “I hope we live in a world where everybody would describe themselves as a feminist, although I know they don’t. Under my roof there is no, ‘Boys are better than girls’” – Hawes has sympathy with Julia Morley, crediting her with trying to change the outmoded Miss World format.
“She was the one who said we’ve got to make this about charity and stop these women in bikinis being interviewed by men in suits, because it’s wrong. We have to move forward. And she still works tirelessly for charity now, Beauty With a Cause, in her 80s. It’s an extraordinary story.”
Extraordinary, and again true. Talking about true, it’s time to double check basic biographical details and the privacy-preferring Hawes is happy to correct the misinformation that swirls around her on the internet.
So, date of birth, 10 February, 1976? “Yes, though they had 1 January for a long time.” Height, 5ft8in? “No, I’m 5ft10, how dare they?” Your first husband was a cartoonist? “No, absolute nonsense. He’s a DJ, always has been, don’t know where that came from, completely bizarre.”
Also true is that Keeley Clare Hawes, 43, is London born and bred, with a “very Scottish granny from Glasgow – I’d LOVE to have a tartan if anyone knows what it is,” she says. She was named after the singer Keely Smith, who had a hit in 1965 with You’re Breakin’ My Heart, because her parents “just liked the name”. Raised alongside two brothers by Tony, a cabbie, and Brenda, a “stay at home mum”, she describes it as a “working-class background”, perhaps belied by the elegant vowel pronunciation she was taught at Sylvia Young Theatre School when she went in the early 1990s.
“I didn’t grow up in East London, so I was never a Cockney or whatever nonsense is written, but I had a London accent because I grew up in central London. We had speech tuition at Sylvia’s and some things stick, you know. You remember how to do a pirouette, how to say vowel sounds. But no, my original accent is just London.”
Unlike her two brothers she didn’t go into the family business of cabbying, (and no, she can’t get a cab whenever she wants one – “the opposite”) because she always wanted to act.
“I’ve loved it since… well, ever since I can remember. I just love everything about it. I love being on sets, and particularly enjoy television. I like theatre and film, but I love the feel of television, where you can have series where characters grow, like The Durrells. I love it. I wouldn’t do anything else,” she says.
“I love that I don’t know what’s going to appear in my inbox from one day to the next.
“I also find it fascinating when someone has seen something in me that I haven’t. I’ll be reading a script thinking, ‘Crikey, this is nothing like me’. That could be offensive,” she laughs, “but I’m never offended. Because that’s the whole point! The more complex the character, the better. So I have an illegal amount of fun playing Priscilla or Lindsay Denton or… anyone! You explore it – and that’s when it gets really, really exciting. I’m so privileged to do a job that I love.”
The Durrells, series four is on Sundays, 8pm on ITV/STV. Catch up with the series so far on the ITV/STV Hub