AFTER three seasons as a shop girl in Mr Selfridge, Aisling Loftus has landed a plum role in an even more lavish costume drama, the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace, writes Janet Christie.
What better in the post-holiday gloom of empty bank accounts and January blues than to curl up on the sofa in a onesie with a leftover Chocolate Orange and a period drama? Than to console ourselves with BBC1’s big budget adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace with its chandeliers, corsets and cossacks? Epic and lavish, the six-parter that follows the fortunes of five Russian families against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars is filmed in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as the UK. Featuring settings such as the imperial Catherine Palace in St Petersburg, there is more gilt displayed here than on Jay-Z’s chest and the trailer has already got the tabloids quivering like whippets in the stalls on account of an incest scene. Written by Andrew Davies, who got Mr Darcy into a wet shirt as he sexed up Pride and Prejudice, it’s been dubbed “whoar and peace”.
“There is a certain amount of nudity,” according to the unapologetic Davies. “When you expect someone to be nude, they are.”
In the middle of all this heritage and heaving bosoms is Aisling Loftus, formerly of Mr Selfridge, (also written by Davies), in which she played the popular shopgirl Agnes Towler. Joining her are Downton Abbey’s Lily James, Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson, Brian Cox and Ade Edmondson.
“I can’t wait to see the whole thing,” says Loftus. “Filming in those settings was like when you have a drunken dream and things are really heightened. It was so decadent and so beautifully otherwordly. I’d never get to those places otherwise and the opera house and Catherine’s Palace in St Petersburg were amazing,” she says.
If the settings were to die for, Loftus found the best part of the whole experience was acting with James [who plays Natasha Rostova] and Jack Lowden, the Scots rising star, who attracted attention on stage in Black Watch and Chariots of Fire.
At 25 Loftus already has Casualty, The Bill, probation service drama Public Enemies with Anna Friel and Daniel Mays and The Borrowers on her TV CV, having started acting when she was nine. Film outings include Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine in 2010, Dive and Page Eight opposite Bill Nighy and Rachel Weisz. She’s flexed her theatre muscles in Noises Off and Spur of the Moment and last year saw her in Tennessee Williams’ sexual thriller, Green Eyes, alongside Game of Thrones actor Gethin Anthony. But working in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania was an entirely new experience for the actor.
As she chats away on her mobile outside a posh coffee shop in Hampstead, “the kind of place where you know you’re paying a bit too much for a coffee,” Loftus is the antithesis of the role she plays in War and Peace. While the aristocratic Sonya is trapped by the circumstances of her birth and gender in 19th-century Russia, Loftus is revelling in her freedom.
“I really hate when I feel like someone is trying to wrest control,” she says. “I hate the idea of not having autonomy over my own life. We want to be in control, to think the way we behave leads us down a certain path. But for Sonya and a lot of the women in the story, their expectations are so limited.”
While the male characters go to war to fight Napoleon and make historical waves, the women are left at home waiting, unable to control their destiny.
“I don’t think a character like her would be written in a modern piece,” says Loftus. “She’s very much of that time in Russia. She’s based on Tolstoy’s aunt who never married and was very much devoted to his family and a bit subservient. Sonya’s the poor relative, described as nice and good, and that’s difficult to play. You think, nice, yes, but what else? I don’t play her as insipid or limp.”
She adds: “Sonya spends the entire thing in love with her second cousin, Nikolai, living with him and his family. She’s doing it because she believes that one day she will have her happy ending. You have to just play it moment for moment because if you foreshadow something and imbue it with a fatalistic sense, it just doesn’t work.”
Does Sonya get her happy ending? We won’t spoil it in case you haven’t read all 587,287 words of one of the longest novels in the English language. Loftus has, though, and along with the rest of the cast used the book as a reference throughout filming. She reckons the Russian writer merits the literary reputation that is as colossal as his book.
“I loved reading it. It sounds academic, worthy, but it really isn’t. It centres around our emotional conflict and torment, like most good literature. I thought it was going to be really dry and something that wouldn’t connect with me, but I really loved it,” she says.
Sonya, with her lack of any ambition other than to marry well and be cared for, is a world away from Loftus, and she’s also a million miles from her shop girl character of Agnes in Mr Selfridge.
“Agnes is very much a modern woman at the turn of the 20th century. She embodies the idea of choosing to be defined by what you can do rather than what your family name implied and social standing allowed,” she says.
Loftus is very much about exercising her freedom to choose and rather than playing it safe, took the leap of leaving the ITV hit Mr Selfridge and its eight million viewers at the end of season three.
“I loved it and it was a really great cast and crew but I had this feeling that I am 23, and if I can’t take chances now, when can I? I have no dependants. It’s OK to make that choice,” she says.
Loftus is confident about keeping the wolf from the door thanks to her other half, actor and musician Jacob Anderson, aka Raleigh Ritchie. Best known for his role as Omen in the film Adulthood and as Grey Worm in Game of Thrones, Ritchie has a record deal with Sony and his debut album You’re a Man Now, Boy, is out in February.
“I’m seriously proud of him,” she says. “He’s an incredible writer so I’m sure we’ll always have bread on the table.”
The pair met when a mutual friend was directing some of his work but initially they “did that thing of dancing around each other, that ‘I really like you and can’t bring myself to look you in the eye’ thing. But now we are four years on,” she says.
Loftus is keen to have as much variety in her roles as possible and is now mixing it up a bit with the long-awaited adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which combines period drama with the unexpected. She plays Charlotte Lucas alongside on-screen husband Matt Smith.
“Charlotte sadly has no dealings directly with zombies, but I love Jane Austen and it was fun to do,” she says.
Also out this year is Property of the State, a film based on a true story dealing with the devastating effects of having a murderer for a brother.
“I think they might take it to Cannes,” she says, hugely excited at the prospect.
Set in County Clare and filmed in Derry, Loftus plays Anne Marie, who must weather the aftermath of her brother’s murder of a priest and a mother and son. The brother has a mental age of seven and suffers from mental illness and abuse before the murders.
“Obviously it’s a horrific thing and the idea of the film is not trying to excuse what he did but to wrestle with the thought, how can you morally continue to love someone who’s done something awful? It’s making sense of what had been a bombastic, tabloid story. Anne Marie is vilified for providing testimony for his mental health and how he had suffered.”
The Irish accent should have posed no problem for Loftus as her mum, Eileen, is from Tipperary and her dad, Paddy, from Dublin.
“Well, they’ve been living in England since their twenties, so it’s probably Anglicised,” she says. “Apart from when they’ve had a drink! So I’ve been on the phone a lot to relatives.”
Loftus was born and raised in Nottingham and began acting as a child at the city’s renowned Television Workshop. As the go-to place to cast youngsters for many TV dramas, this led to roles for Loftus on Peak Practice, The Bill, Doctors and Casualty.
“Television Workshop has a good reputation with casting directors. It’s halfway between drama school and a club and it was free! You can do things like Casualty and Peak Practice, so when I left school I wasn’t a complete unknown. I’m glad I did it this way and not theatre school.”
At 19, she headed for London and a fillip was the opportunity to work with Timothy Spall on The Fattest Man in Britain, co-written by Caroline Aherne.
“I’ve been very lucky and had a smooth ride so far,” she says. “There was no grand plan. It was never about being an actress. I just loved acting and find it really thrilling.”
Then Loftus laughs at her sincerity and passion and says, “I can’t articulate it. If you try and speak with too much depth about acting, you just sound like a bit of a knob.”
As for the future, she will take what comes, but she admits to a love of TV series.
“Mr Selfridge made me realise I really want to do series television. That’s what I like best, the idea of spending years with one character who changes. I like watching long forms myself on TV too, finding a great series and knowing there are 20 hours ahead to spend with these people.”
Loftus is grateful to be around at what could be regarded as something of a golden age of TV, thanks to Netflix and Amazon Prime, which are raising the bar for what’s possible.
“We are really spoiled for choice,” she says. “Competition is rife and that means everyone is trying to produce the best. People that would have been in films before are appearing on TV, so you get someone like Christian Slater being the supporting lead in Mr Robot.”
“I would work every day for ever. I love it. It’s rare to have a job that’s so… well, it isn’t a job because I love it so much. A job is meant to have a level of pain but I’m still waiting for that to come.”
Loftus has her fingers crossed about a couple of roles that may be coming her way. “I’m not sure what I’m doing next, but I just give in to the chaos. Every now and then I worry that this is so precarious, but I love it. The important people are writing and creating, so whoever gets picked to speak the words is just lucky. I’m just lucky.”
Such is Loftus’s enjoyment of her work that it’s clear her enthusiasm can sometimes run away with her when she’s auditioning for parts.
“For War and Peace they asked me if I could ride and I said yes, of course, but I couldn’t. And it was sidesaddle so I wasn’t very good. That’s why you’ll see me only taking two steps into shot on the horse, and there’s someone out of sight holding the reins.”
It’s not as if she doesn’t have previous for this kind of thing, as she reveals with regard to her perparation for Mr Selfridge at a famous old French department store. “Yes, I was going to go to Galleries Lafayette in Paris, and be like a proper actress and do some research. But my boyfriend and I went to Disneyland instead,” she says, dissolving into laughter.
And when it comes to corsets, she’s happy to throw the period drama rule book right out of the window.
“They asked me at the first costume fitting if I wanted a corset and I said no because it’s not really Sonya. She doesn’t make a presentation of herself. I had corsets in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and I used to think they were really helpful... but, to be honest, I just don’t like having my tummy squeezed.”
Fair enough, when we tune in to War and Peace tomorrow, sprawled out on our sofas in our onesies, none of us will blame her.
• War and Peace begins on BBC1, tomorrow, 9pm; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is in cinemas from 12 February; Property of the State will be released later this year.