Interview: Rachael Stirling

Rachael Stirling stars in Their Finest, out Friday
Rachael Stirling stars in Their Finest, out Friday
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Rachael Stirling is engaged in what she calls “the whole f***ing shebang. Having a babba, moving house. It’s bananas. Everybody says don’t do it, then everyone does it.”



With the “babba” that was due at the end of March, beginning of April, she and her husband Elbow frontman Guy Garvey are hopefully cracking open the champagne right now, but when we speak Stirling is still incubating her bump. She’s sitting on the balcony of her London apartment, a temporary address she and Garvey are renting before moving into a new family home, and all around her tradespeople are hammering and sawing away. Stirling sounds like she’s relishing the upheaval, being at the centre of such a maelstrom of activity, and today she is full to bursting with the joys.

“I’ve had a blissfully easy pregnancy, I’m waddling a bit, but no sickness. All I do is look down and see this little person thumping away because he’s impatient to see the world and howl with laughter. I’ve relinquished control of my body.”

Stirling is articulate, used to delivering lines, but today she says she is affected by what she calls “baby brain” and the words leap and bound ahead of her, occasionally running in circles while she rounds up a stray expression.

“I’m just... I love words, that’s the annoying thing. They keep escaping... but there you go, yeah, no, um…” She laughs.

Calm and upbeat, at 39 Stirling gives off an air of cheerful unflappability that makes her perfect casting as an exponent of classic British wartime spirit required for her latest film, Their Finest. “Excuse the noise… there’s a lot of sawing going on…” Well, her father’s uncle did found the SAS: David Stirling established the regiment in 1941, as a small band of highly-trained troops who specialised in taking out German airbases. His statue stands near his former family estate at Park of Keir near Dunblane. “Yeah, there’s a fantastic sculpture of him overlooking the town, with a cigar in his top pocket, jacket waving in the wind, mid march. We often walk up and see it,” she says.

Their Finest, based on the 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, from acclaimed Danish film director Lone Scherfig (An Education and One Day), also stars Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy. Set during the Second World War, it’s been described as a romcom, but there’s no shortage of tragedy too. Stirling plays the clever, funny, closet lesbian Phyl who works on propaganda films at the Ministry of Information. As Churchill seeks to inspire Britons to stand firm in “their finest hour” her team works on a film about the evacuation of Dunkirk.

“It’s a gorgeous celebration of optimism in uncertain times,” says Stirling, “with characters who have a get-up-and-go despite their circumstances. It’s a celebration of the power of the coming together of a group with like minds… of the power of film and uh, em and oh, what else, what else, see the brain… the brain is in the belly!”

Filmed in rural west Wales, Their Finest saw the cast off-grid in terms of wi-fi which led to them bonding perhaps more than usual.

“Normally between takes people disappear but we had no reception so everyone had to talk to each other. And Lone Scherfig is insightful and collaborative and really believes in the ensemble; everyone matters from the actors to the carpenter, so there’s a sense of camaraderie. Gemma Arterton and I would go swimming in the sea after a day’s filming – we’ve become fast friends – and I’ve known Bill [Nighy] for years since I did my first film with him while I was still at university. So it was a really joyous group of people there to tell a joyous story.”

Another element of Their Finest, that Stirling particularly enjoyed was that it shines the spotlight on film making techniques employed in pre-CGI days. She mentions the 1940s films of Powell and Pressburger (A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, One of Our Aircraft is Missing) and the inventive camera work of that time.

“So, for example, to film scenes on the beaches at Dunkirk, we show the painted plates of lines of troops that were used in front of the lens. The mechanics of how it was done... it was genius.”

As well as the war raging in Europe, women were engaged in their own battle of the sexes and Phyl is in the front line with her Savile Row suits and steely determination, representing the women working as writers, producers and technicians as women fought for inclusion in the film industry.

“She keeps her cards close to her chest and a dignified front, but she’s a rebel and I loved that. Her role is to show that women can have their own voice. But there’s also a romantic sadness to her. What would it have been like to have been a secret lesbian during the Second World War?”

Given that Stirling is taking personal uncertainties in her stride, what does she mean by Their Finest being a good film for uncertain times?

“The greatest economy in the Western world is governed by a muppet whose surname means fart in Northern England – my husband always uses that word for fart. And this very slow latent rise in fascism, the similarities between Hitler’s early rise to power and his slogans and those used by Trump. I watched every single debate... it’s like watching a slow car crash. It’s a valueless age of celebrity culture where someone can be nominated for the most important political post in the Western world because he’s been on the telly. On the telly despite the fact he has a mouth like an asshole and ignorance beyond anything imaginable. I’m pretty gobsmacked by the situation,” she says.

Stirling is a shoot-from-the-lip kind of woman, which is no surprise since she grew up with Diana Rigg as a mother and role model, she of the karate chops and leather onesies in the classic 1960s series The Avengers. Nowadays Rigg is still kicking ass as the steely matriarch in a wimple, Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones. The mother and daughter have worked together before in a 2013 episode of Doctor Who. Throw in a theatre producer father, Archie Stirling, and it seems there was something of an inevitability to Stirling’s chosen profession. “I suppose it was inevitable, I was drawn to it instinctively and always got involved in school plays and hung around backstage a bit but didn’t meet vast swathes of famous people. Ma kept things separate. I think if I’d been born ten years earlier when Ma was at the height of Avengers fame it would have been a different kettle of fish altogether, but she was very much a ma first, and an actress second for my formative years.”

After school, Stirling was keen to go to drama school but her parents persuaded her to go to university instead where she gained a BA in art history from Edinburgh University. She loved the city and her flat in Stockbridge, “but I wasn’t a very present student. I was pretty much a working actress for the last two years of Edinburgh, doing Othello with the National Youth Theatre and then getting an agent and starting to work in earnest. I knew what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go in the world.

“I remember typing up my dissertation sitting in a horse box – I didn’t qualify for a caravan – on a set in Pinewood on my first film, Still Crazy.

What was her dissertation, written while she was making 1998 rock revival comedy, Still Crazy, about?

“Jenny Saville and Excess: The Empowerment of Women in an Age of Oppressive Body Politics,” she shoots back straight away, baby brain or no baby brain.

“At that age I was aware Kate Moss had just become some kind of shit hot model and a great deal of my friends seemed to be in the grip of some form of eating disorder. I had been kind of quite porky and happy at boarding school and not self-conscious at all, then suddenly I found myself in auditions, being examined and it made me angry. I fell upon Jenny Saville’s work and loved these great big pieces she was painting, celebrating all things flesh and woman, and with great big Simone Beauvoir quotations written in mirror writing so you had to look at yourself in the pictures to read them. She was saying everything I wanted to say, in paint.”

After university with Othello opposite Chiwetel Ejiofor and Still Crazy kicking off her career, she amassed five films and two television dramas the next year, but it was the televised adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Victorian lesbian love tale, Tipping the Velvet, that propelled her into the limelight in 2002.

“Of course it did – get your tits out and the world’s your oyster!” she says, then immediately, “Agggh… that will be the quote! Please don’t use that quote, please just don’t use that. I’m joking,” she says. Sorry Rachael, but it illustrates both her humour and her give-it-a-go attitude. No fewer than five times has she gamely strapped on appendages to play a role of the opposite gender. She laughs.

“Yes, well, I definitely couldn’t be disguised as a boy now, I tell you that much, but I did go through a phase of permanently playing cross-dressing people.”

More recently she’s been cast in Churchill’s Secret with Michael Gambon and Lindsay Duncan for ITV, alongside Toby Jones in BBC One’s Emmy-winning drama Capital, where she breathed humanity and humour into the horrific Arabella, and in the Bafta awarded The Detectorists, written by Mackenzie Crook. Stirling plays his long-suffering girlfriend Becky while Rigg occasionally guests as his short-suffering mother-in-law.

“Mackenzie’s scripts are perfectly polished gems so all you have to do is say the words as they appear on the page. He’s a magic man. Perfectly written, and he is so gentle in his direction. It’s a lovely celebration of human foibles and all things gentle and witty. It’s a real pleasure to be part of, and Toby [Jones] is in it too, of course, which is a joy because it means you have a shorthand, when you’ve worked together before.”

She’s waiting on the green light for another series of The Detectorists – “that would be my first job back, like returning to the bosom of a family with a babba. I can’t think of a better job,” and in the meantime she has just finished filming Tara Fitzgerald’s adaptation of the Shirley Jackson short story Nothing Important. “Tara Fitzgerald is a brilliant actress and she’s also directing this. She’s written me in as pregnant in it, so that’s fine. And while you’re pregnant, you can voice Netflix documentaries, and a juicy series about rival sisters.”

Film credits to date include blockbusters Snow White and the Huntsman and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and Maybe Baby, Redemption Road, Complicity (with Tipping the Velvet co-star Keeley Hawes) and Another Life. Theatre remains as important to Stirling as screen, with stage roles every year. Last year saw her taking the lead as Hermione in The Winter’s Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. It was the same stage on which she also married Guy Garvey, followed by a low-key register office and curry event in Manchester, where Garvey originates.

“We’ll have a place in Manchester as well as London,” says Stirling, “and go between the two, because his heart is there. If he didn’t have a foothold in Manchester I should think he would melt away into a pool of Guinness.”

It was a mutual love of words that attracted her to songsmith Garvey – when they met she had already fallen in love with his lyrics, on the Elbow song The Take Off and Landing of Everything.

“We met at, namedrop, Benedict’s Cumberbatch’s wedding. We were both actually with other people then. Somebody had played me The Take Off and Landing of Everything and when I heard the lyrics I said ‘who wrote this?’ I was absolutely gobsmacked by the beauty of the words. Then someone took me to see a gig of his. I was joking all the way through that he was looking at me – Guy says now he probably was – so when he walked into Benedict’s wedding I was properly star struck. And I’m not very easily star struck. I was with my mate Andrew Scott, who is Moriarty, and he saw me react and said, ‘what the f***, you’re going all peculiar’. Guy came up and went, ‘Hi, my name’s Guy’ and I was a mess. A mess!

“So we were friends for a bit, then later, when we were single, he came down to London. I teach literacy on a Saturday in a primary class and he came along and I made him sit on a tiny chair. Then he went up to do the same in my mother’s class, ‘cos she does it too, again sitting on a tiny chair. Poor man, on a first date. Then we went to lunch with my mother, he met the mother ship on the first date. I think her first words to him were ‘you’re brave’.”

Guy Garvey’s reactions to Stirling can be found among the lyrics of the tracks on the new Elbow album, released in February and typically autobiographical and honest. So which of the songs are about her?

“They all are babe, well not the ones about… well... the album’s called Little Fictions and neither of us will ever disclose what’s true and what’s not. But he does, he spouts his all, and I sometimes have to go ‘ please don’t do that, not all the warts and everything, everything... but yes, he writes very autobiographically.

“He rang me up one day when they were recording the new album and he said I’ve just realised that eight of the ten songs are all about you. Then when the reviews started coming out we howled with laughter because I’d never been reviewed in Q magazine or Mojo before. I said ‘Can one of those stars be for me?’”

Stirling laughs again, happy with her lot, happy to chat, but it’s time for her to go. There’s a home to organise and a baby bursting to make a debut centre stage. The clock is ticking and it’s time for “the whole f***ing shebang”.

Their Finest, in cinemas from Friday