An oncoming Ruth Wilson can be awfully intimidating. Striding down the corridor, the publicist doing a half-skip to keep up with her, she looks imperious business. With her catlike eyes and flaring eyebrows, she could be Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep. Or closer to home, that powerbob might signal the arrival of scornful, supersmart Alice Morgan, Idris Elba’s nemesis in Luther. Ten minutes later, however, Wilson reveals herself to be less poised than either of these women as she tries to scrub coffee stains from the front of her pink Stella McCartney powersuit. “I knew it,” she sighs, throwing an accusing look at the half-finished latte. “Just on today.”
In an industry where groomed glamour is the default setting, Wilson’s klutzyiness is refreshing. As is her excitement at one of the perks of her first Hollywood role, as the female lead, Rebecca, in The Lone Ranger. “I am a Lego figure now,” she cries. “Which is possibly the most exciting thing to happen to me.”
This sounds improbable for a woman who has been a lethal pleasure in Luther, gives birth to Emma Thompson in the upcoming Saving Mr Banks, and snogged Jude Law onstage in Anna Christie. Yet Wilson senses that landing the female lead in a blockbuster with Johnny Depp, shootouts, and a railway chase where she leaps off a carriage and lands on a horse backwards, is a milestone.
Despite success on TV and on stage, most notably in a production of Anna Christie which won her plaudits in London’s West End and on Broadway, movies, she says frankly, had been off her radar. Why? “I don’t know, but I’ve been knocking on that door for ages, here and in America. By the time I got to The Lone Ranger, I felt I didn’t have a hope of getting it.”
The first hurdle was sending a video to America of Wilson doing dialogue as Rebecca. “I didn’t even get to see the whole script, and I know very few people who land parts by putting themselves on tape.” Then in the middle of stage rehearsals in London for Anna Christie, she was asked to fly to New York and meet director Gore Verbinski and Hollywood uber producer Jerry Bruckheimer. “I flew out Friday and was back by the weekend. “ What is her top tip? “Wear more make-up and look prettier,” she says, with a short laugh. “Also, my casting agent told me to try and look exactly the same because Gore had liked what he saw at the first audition, so the next time I even wore the same clothes.”
Oddly, Verbinski was unaware of Wilson’s other work. It’s understandable that he may have been unaware of her first appearance out of drama school, as a hotpanted sexpot in Channel 5’s Suburban Shootout. But how could he have missed her as a Mrs Hannibal Lecter in Luther? Or eyebrow-raisers in The Prisoner, Small Island, Stephen Poliakoff’s Capturing Mary, and above all, as the mousey governess who tames Toby Stephens in Jane Eyre.
“Oh even Idris hadn’t seen Jane Eyre,” she laughs. “When we first met, he said, ‘I loved you in Jane Eyre’. And I went, ‘really? You watched Jane Eyre?’ And, of course, he hadn’t. And Gore didn’t know me from Adam. Other people were telling him, ‘she’s in these shows…’ but all credit to him for putting his neck on the line, because in the end I got the job because he thought I looked right for the part.”
Her acceptance was conditional, however. In the original script, Rebecca was a sweet homemaker and mother, but Wilson pushed the director to give her character more moxy. “I didn’t want to be the damsel in distress, tied to the railroad track and waiting to be rescued. I wanted to be a bit tougher.”
Wilson is frustrated by a lack of compelling roles for women. “Film is really behind when it comes to representing women. Really, it’s almost gone backwards to simplistic versions of what women are. Women are depicted in fiction as having issues that centre on love and children, and that’s it. There’s a lot more complexities than we’re given credit for in fiction and drama. ”
To encourage more adventurous writing, she tried to set up a female-friendly film festival with her friends, Hayley Atwell and Emma Thompson, “but we couldn’t get the money at that point”.
Now she’s told her agents to put her forward for interesting roles, even if they are intended for men. “They should think about how it would play with a woman instead. Instantly it could make it more interesting. I read about Melissa McCarthy in Identity Thief, and originally it was for two guys. But Jason Bateman saw Melissa in Bridesmaids, and said, ‘she’s the girl,’ and it was changed to a woman.”
Growing up with three older brothers, Wilson types herself as a tomboy, so when she heard that Armie Hammer and most of The Lone Ranger cast were being sent to ‘cowboy camp’, she volunteered to join them. “It was the best part of the job,” she says. With little or no experience of ranching skills, she turned out to be a crack shot and better at lassoing targets than the Lone Ranger. “Armie was a bit embarrassed.”
Her one regret is that her character doesn’t share many scenes with Johnny Depp’s Tonto. “I don’t think I got to know him very well. For seven months, I never saw him out of his full Tonto make-up. Even the first day, he walked in with the white face, because he’d just come out of make-up tests.”
Verbinski’s reinvention of The Lone Ranger, previously a favourite US radio show and TV series, has not been without controversy. When it was released in the States last month, reviews were mixed; although almost everyone seemed to like Wilson. “I was surprised by the negativity,” says Wilson. “In fact, I was rather incensed. If I’m going to be in a blockbuster I want it to be a little subversive and have something to say. I wouldn’t do a film like this unless I thought it was something to be proud of.”
Wilson has always been candid, but when I first interviewed her, after filming Jane Eyre, she was less self-possessed. Instead of coffee, there were large white wines while she talked about the hope that the series might land her more work. The surge in confidence came a year later, when she was nominated for every period drama award going. “Suddenly I thought, ‘yeah, I can do this.’”
If anything, her interpretation of Charlotte Bronte’s heroine has been eclipsed by a psychopath. The third series of Luther finished last week, and to fans’ delight, Alice, played again with amused brilliance by Wilson, returned to save the day. “If you ever betray him like this again,” she hissed to Luther’s girlfriend. “I’ll kill you and eat you. How does that sound?”
The show’s open-ended conclusion leaves the door open for a Luther movie, or perhaps an Adventures of Alice spin-off. Wilson likes both ideas, although “I’m not sure she’d work without Luther.” That begs the question of Elba’s availability after lead roles in Prometheus and Pacific Rim but, on the other hand, the series has developed an international following, with Wilson getting recognised throughout Europe, and when shooting A Walk Among The Tombstones with Liam Neeson in New Mexico this year.
“There’s a huge fanbase, and a completely different audience from any I’ve had before. It’s younger, mostly male and popular with different ethnic minorities, whereas people who come up and walk to talk about Jane Eyre tend to be white middle-class girls and women. America, in particular, seems to love sexy psychopaths,” she reflects.
And surely that’s a cue for someone in Hollywood to write Ruth Wilson a killer script. But maybe hold the coffee.
• The Lone Ranger is in cinemas from Friday.