Faye Marsay’s career, from Game of Thrones to new BBC drama Love, Nina is on the up. Not that you will find this daughter of a steelworker from Teesside boasting about it, writes Janet Christie. Portrait by Debra Hurford Brown
Faye Marsay has her feet on the ground. Bare feet, on a London street and it’s raining. She’s filming the five-part comedy drama Love, Nina for the BBC and her character, the eponymous Nina, a 20-year-old from Leicester, has a penchant for wandering around without shoes and socks.
“I spent six weeks in the cold with no shoes on, filming,” she says. “So I got a terrible cold that I spread around the cast and crew. I was Patient Zero. If it was an outside shot I had to have hot water bottles to get my feet warmed up again ‘cos I couldn’t feel them. Yes, I suffered for the art.”
But Marsay is joking. The 30-year-old was delighted to land the part of the Northerner who leaves home to work as a nanny for a bohemian, arty family in 1980s London.
“The real Nina told the director she didn’t wear shoes because she couldn’t be bothered with them. When I got the part I decided I’d walk about without shoes and the first couple of days I thought it was bizarre, and nice. Then it became hard skin, bunions, cold feet, and that wasn’t fun any more.”
Love, Nina is adapted from Nina Stibbe’s bestseller which she based on her letters home about her life with London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers and her two sons. Now Nick Hornby has turned it into a script for TV with the production starring Marsay alongside Helena Bonham Carter and Jason Watkins, but while the book is peopled with the likes of Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, the TV version is a separate entity with its own characters. Bonham Carter plays a literary editor, but her ex-husband is not Wilmer’s real life ex, film director Stephen Frears, and the chief tea table guest is Malcolm, a nippie sweetie Scottish poet, not Bennett.
“I really loved making Love, Nina,” says Marsay. “I was in every scene which was amazing. Bloody hell, what a job! Lots of actors would kill for that. I loved being around the kids and Helena and Jason, and it had such a good director, [Toast’s] SJ Clarkson, who knows what she wants. Helena took me under her wing and kept me going with posh chocolate. She is so funny with a magnetism that makes you want to talk to her. She looks you straight in the eye and really listens.
“And as actors you just want to be around her and Jason, listening to what they say. It’s a masterclass. Jason offers you a million tips. He also gave me advice about pensions and mortgages, which was useful. I’m younger and quite new to this game still and they’re madheads, both of them.”
If Nina and her TV incarnation face a culture shock moving from the Midlands to one of London’s most bohemian, upmarket streets, Marsay also had to negotiate a bit of time travel back to 1982. The short brown wig hiding her blonde hair was no problem and the clothes she embraced readily, especially a pair of Come on Eileen-style high-waisted checked trousers and a couple of little jackets she tried to hang onto when filming had wrapped, but for someone born in 1986 it was a bit of a journey.
“Some stuff I did remember, like the haircuts. My mum had a mad perm, and I remember big old tellies with wood casing and buttons, and a big VCR player at my grandad’s. And not having a mobile phone, I could relate to, because I come from a working class home and didn’t have one till I was 14. Not having that instant access was nice, and the letters Nina wrote... the letter is a forgotten thing, but my mum still writes me letters, and I love that.”
Nina also has to negotiate dating without the delights of Tinder or the internet when she meets love interest Nunney. They do quaint old-fashioned things like bump into each other in the street and stammer their way through the toe-curling, cheek-burning ritual of asking someone out on a date face-to-face.
“There is no online, so it’s kind of that organic way of meeting someone which is quite cute,” says Marsay.
She thinks she is shyer than Nina, whose energy and observational skills produce much of the humour in both the epistolary and TV account of life at 55 Gloucester Crescent. However, they’re on similar territory when it comes to being a Northerner in London where she is now based, having grown up near Middlesbrough.
“Nina and I both moved to London and had to adjust to a different lifestyle compared to where we come from. London is high energy, fast-paced. I’m from Teesside, Loftus, on the outskirts of the ‘burgh and growing up there in the 1990s, it was a predominantly white, working class steel town. I used to come to London and experience the speed of it, the culture, and I thought it was amazing.”
She adds, “I remember the first time I came down with my mum. It was like everyone’s kicked out of a festival, but all of the time. At first the tube was too much. No-one talks to anyone which I was upset about, but there’s a lot more kindness going on than you realise and if you need help it is there. I like that about London. It comes together when it needs to, and it has magic.”
Marsay grew up with a steelworker/firefighter dad and medical secretary mother. Her brother was also a steelworker until he was made redundant with the closure of the Redcar works last year.
“My family are the most salt of the earth people,” she says. “My brother has been unemployed since October. He’s 32 years old with two children under the age of five. So I know I’m lucky to be doing this, and long may it continue.
“[As actors] we’re not saving anyone’s life, so how can anyone become too big for their boots? My feet are always on the ground. My family and friends make sure I stay there.”
Before she “actually got in!” as she puts it, to Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Marsay had a series of jobs that she looks back on with bemusement.
“I worked in a restaurant and in a nightclub cloakroom. It was a strange time and a bit soul-destroying. I also had a bizarre job walking around selling things from a wheely suitcase on a commission basis. It was hard so I used to put on accents when I knocked on doors. And then I thought, I will go and do the degree, and from there all this happened. No more suitcases for me.”
Not that Marsay is taking anything for granted, despite her recent success, and as she talks it becomes clear she is plagued by the vulnerabilities that affect everyone in her chosen profession.
“I always wonder ‘when will this stop?’” she says. “I always think that this job will be it, and I probably haven’t saved enough money. A lot of actors feel vulnerable and I sometimes struggle with it. I get demons where I’m doing a take and think ‘that was s**t’ and the director is going ‘that’s fine’. So you have to wrestle with it. And enjoy it. I just want to be really good at it.”
After Bristol, Marsay’s career took off and she now has a CV that sees her pinching herself daily – on TV she was in Dr Who, the BBC’s The White Queen with Janet McTeer, then in student life comedy Fresh Meat where she played Howard (Greg McHugh/Gary Tank Commander)’s girlfriend Candice. She is currently onscreen as Waif in the HBO megahit Game of Thrones. Film credits include the action film Need for Speed and Pride, the 2014 miners’ strike movie with Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy.
Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Staunton and Nighy left Marsay impressed by their professionalism and lack of diva behaviour.
“All good actors are nice, and appreciative of what they’re doing. I’m quite shy but as soon as you step on the set with them they make you feel like you’ve known them all your life. At the read through on Pride with Imelda and Bill and I was ‘Oh my God’, but once we were on set it was a bunch of mates doing their job. Their professionalism led the ensemble.”
Being in season three of Fresh Meat, was a weird experience for Marsay as she had watched it as a fan and former student.
“When I got the job it was like winning a competition to go on a set visit. Next thing there was a camera in my face. It was a great gang to be around, especially gorgeous Greg and we had a giggle.”
It wasn’t all laughs though, as Marsay was touched by the issues raised by the comedy drama.
“The last series was poignant because it posed the question of what kids are going to uni for, what are you spending that money on? Everyone should be able to go to university if they want to, but the fees stop them. It’s disgusting. If you want to educate people you have to fund them,” she says, then hesitates. “But I don’t want to get too political.”
But then she does. Like Nina she has a welcome sod-it-and-say-what-you-think reflex.
“It’s a shame that the fees have gone up to £6,000, £9,000... Who’s got that? People spend three or four years getting into debt and then there are no jobs for them. The fees eliminate an entire class from university. Like Nina was, like me and my family. My brother did A levels then joined the steel works. I’m the only one that went to university.”
She warms to her theme, being careful not to swear because she usually swears when she talks about the government, but doesn’t want to upset her mum.
“I just think it’s unfair and it’s wrong and needs to be reformed. It’s a shame, it’s elitist, it’s very sad. It’s the same with drama school. People who come from what is the majority of the population will never be able to go.”
Marsay was able to go thanks to a sponsor in her final year who paid her tuition fees and a loan taken out by her mum. “Bless her. It was hard being skint and asking my mum for money. But my parents’ gamble paid off and I have been treating them ever since. When I first did The White Queen I got my mum to come to London to a spa hotel then marched her down the King’s Road and bought her a handbag. A Mulberry. It’s small, black, gorgeous. She only takes it out twice a year, on special occasions.”
Looking ahead Marsay has Fish Without Bicycles, due out next year, with David Tennant about a career woman whose girlfriend falls pregnant around the time she herself conceives, and she is also filming something else, but “can’t say what”.
“I just want to work. I would love to do a really meaty film like Monster with Charlize Theron, something really gutsy and powerful. Women need to be on TV more. Also we need to address the ethnicity on TV as well, making stuff that reflects society as it is, a wonderful multicultural society, real life.”
Wherever the future holds, Marsay is chuffed to have got this far and is full of a recent trip to LA for a Game of Thrones launch.
“It was bonkers. It was the first time I have ever been to LA and I was really nervous. I have never been on a red carpet in my life and it was a shock. It’s a big, looooong red carpet, so long that you’re on it for a while.”
“I was only there for three and a half days, so didn’t see much of the place but I managed to get up to the hills and the Hollywood sign. Standing up there, that was a moment. I thought ‘bloody hell, wow! I managed to make it to this!’”
She might have made it to Hollywood and found herself walking along that very long red carpet, but Faye Marsay’s feet, with or without shoes, are still firmly on the ground.
• Love, Nina continues on BBC1, Fridays, 9:30pm