Interview: Natascha McElhone on becoming a writer

Natascha McElhone has found catharsis as a writer. Picture: Dave J Hogan
Natascha McElhone has found catharsis as a writer. Picture: Dave J Hogan
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While Natascha McElhone refused to strip for sex comedy Californication, personal tragedy inspired her to bare her soul as a writer, finds Siobhan Synnot

NATASCHA McElhone is not the woman you think she is. Not the wide-eyed idealist with the porcelain skin that Anthony Hopkins fell for in Surviving Picasso in 1996. Nor is she the anguished hallucination who forces George Clooney to turn intellectual pretzels in the existential puzzler Solaris. Nor is she as exasperated as David Duchovny’s ex-partner in the long-running US TV series Californication.

In real life, she’s very much more cheerful, collected and self-possessed, even when the clock is against us. This evening she’s already running an hour late, but insists the interview will go ahead for its full length, once she has brokered a deal over childcare. “The nanny’s desperate to go,” says the mother of three boys, apologetically. However, the crisis is soon averted; a tribute to the powers of Natascha McElhone, nanny whisperer.

Next month, she would like to take the children to experience the Edinburgh festivals: “I love that there’s theatre everywhere, and everyone has access to it,” she says. “You can walk down the street during Festival time, and be just as entertained as if you’d paid top dollar.” Certainly festival crowds may be her best chance of walking the streets unnoticed. The name may not be familiar to everyone, but McElhone’s face is not easily forgotten: an exotic cross between early Dietrich and prime Cleopatra.

In the eyes of millions of Americans McElhone is also the witheringly smart Karen in HBO’s Californication. Just as Kevin Spacey is now thirled to House Of Cards, and Bryan Cranston will never break free of Breaking Bad, McElhone is hard to separate from the hit adult comedy. Yet when she auditioned she was seen as a long shot since she had never done a TV series before. Her meeting with the show runners consisted of a 20-minute phone call during which she made them laugh.

The series was originally a showcase for Duchovny, who made the 180-degree turn from Fox Mulder in The X-Files to play Hank, a disillusioned, destructive writer in Los Angeles with a penchant for having sex with anything with two X chromosomes. He could have been an unbearable sleaze if it wasn’t for his funny and romantic love for his ex and their to-and-fro reconciliations. And in a show about unsteady people, Karen was a rare reminder of what level-headedness sounds like, with a depiction of adult womanhood that was neither sappy nor schoolmarmish.

The comedy pushed the envelope in another way, broadening American TV’s sexual licence by often using sex as a punchline. The tone was set from the opening episode, where Duchovny appeared very naked. As the series went on, so were many of the women – but notably not McElhone.

“I just didn’t do it,” she says. “It doesn’t make sense to have your main female character stripping off all the time, because it’s very boring and objectifying. And I think it makes sense that the constant in his life should remain constantly clothed.” On set, there was no resentment from other actresses, just a lot of friendly banter, especially from Pamela Adlon, who plays Karen’s friend Marcy. “Pam was always joking about me and my burka. She’d say, ‘The reason I have to keep taking my clothes off is because of f***ing you! Do you know how many bullets I’ve taken for you, you giraffe?’”

Californication’s tales of Tinseltown hedonism seemed designed to discombobulate a moral minority, with its scenes of snorting cocaine off a hooker’s bottom, to Hank fantasising about oral sex with a nun. Was there pressure on the cast to go along with nude scenes? McElhone says there wasn’t. “It was done willingly. Anyone can say no.” In the past, she shared a love scene with George Clooney in Solaris which was much remarked upon, partly because it showcased Clooney’s bare behind. In truth, who showed what on Solaris could have gone either way, she says. They were both naked on set, but director Steven Soderbergh opted to leave George more exposed. “I was surprised, but I was quite pleased.”

So what gave her the confidence to hammer out some rules with the Californication production on the nudity issue? “I think getting older definitely helps. It was never antagonistic though. I just felt it wasn’t necessary to tell the story, so I wasn’t going to do it. I think that the more mystery that is retained, the more exciting something is. I think that’s the case with most art forms – I know I’m in a minority though.”

The series ended in June after seven years, leaving McElhone with mixed feelings. Californication filmed for three months in Los Angeles, leaving her the rest of the year for rest of the world and her family. “My boys were led to believe for a very long time that Californication was called California Vacation,” she says.

When I suggest that she must miss the job security, she laughs. “We had seven-year contracts but you never know if that will run. It’s rare for shows to run for more than a year or two, so there was no guarantee from one year to the next that it would return. But I did sign up to this rather peripatetic life where I don’t really know where I’ll be or what’s around the corner, and usually it suits me.”

America is keen to have her back on TV, but she has yet to find a project that is exciting enough for another long haul. After years of juggling childcare in two continents, it would have to be quite a role. When she was doing Californication her two elder children were at school in Britain, while McElhone looked after the youngest in America. They used Skype for homework and piano practice, but three sons sounds like a handful.

Now back in Fulham, she’s managed to squeeze out a few cultural treats, enthusing about Sadie Jones’s new novel Fallout and Flamenco shows at Sadler’s Wells. TV doesn’t make the cut: “Newsnight after the theatre is about all I manage these days,” she says, referring to her recent stage version of Fatal Attraction (“I’m the bunny boiler!”).

Unexpectedly sandwiched between her two rather steamy acting assignations, she has recently appeared in a sweet-natured football film called Believe, described as a cross between Billy Elliot and Bend It Like Beckham. McElhone, dressed down, but never dumbed down, plays a practical single mother with ambitions for her young tearaway. A bright student, with a gifted right foot, the boy becomes torn between his mother’s ambition to get him into a good school to attain academic qualifications, and the chance to be trained by a retired Sir Matt Busby (Brian Cox).

McElhone can identify with some of this. “My middle son is a football nut and a very good football player, so I didn’t need to do much research,” she says. “Also my real dad was from the north and was a Man U supporter. Every weekend I would go up to visit him at Old Trafford.”

McElhone was born in London to Irish parents. Her mother is the journalist and now painter Noreen Taylor; her father was Mike Taylor, a former deputy editor of the Daily Mirror. Her parents split up when she was a baby, and soon afterwards Noreen married Roy Greenslade, a former newspaper editor, and now a professor in journalism and media columnist for the Guardian. Mike Taylor went on to live in Sweden with his second wife and their two children. Latterly, he developed Alzheimer’s, and he died a few months ago.

A little too conscious that we have a limited amount of time, our conversation has been quick-fire until now, but McElhone’s memories of her father pull us up short. She says she was profoundly moved by Sally Magnusson’s recent memoir of her mother, Mamie Baird. Mamie was a journalist and a vivid personality, like Mike, and she also suffered from a form of dementia which slowly stole her mind and character. Radio 4 serialised Magnusson’s memoir, Where Memories Go, on Radio 4 this year. “I listened to it every day,” says McElhone, fervently. “I’d drop the kids off at school and sit in the car until Sally finished her reading. It was a wonderful book, and it describes exactly what families go through, from realising something isn’t right, and that feeling of gradual loss.”

Certainly McElhone knows about loss. In 2008 she was filming Californication in Los Angeles and pregnant with her third child, when she received a phone call informing her that her husband had died unexpectedly of a heart attack at their London home. A fit 43-year-old sportsman, Martin Kelly was a renowned plastic surgeon who repaired facial deformities. It was just days before he planned to fly out to meet his wife so they could celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary together, and his last phone message to her was full of excitement and plans for what they would do together.

Instead, McElhone flew home in a daze to sort out their affairs. She even penned his obituary, still raw with anguish and lack of sleep. “I can’t believe I won’t feel his skin any more,” she wrote.

Once she started writing about Martin, she didn’t really stop. She wrote to him directly in a series of diary entries as an exercise in catharsis. McElhone described this as “a handrail, as I take my first steps down this 
dark, lonely staircase”. Later she collected these notes and published them as the book, After You: Letters Of Love, And Loss, To A Husband And Father.

Like Magnusson, she has a keen eye for the absurdities amongst the awful raw emotion of the time. In the middle of her disconnect, even technology seemed to conspire against her; the phone stopped working, and she was locked out of accessing information from Martin’s computer.

She also found herself receiving counselling from various kindly quarters. Pierce Brosnan, who lost his first wife to ovarian cancer, told her to issue some sort of statement about her husband’s death to the press to pop the blister that might otherwise form around the event. Her two older children, Theo and Otis, picked up on the advice that was floating around them. Two days after his father’s death, her eldest son Theo said, gravely, “Mummy, I’ve told you, we’ve got to move on.”

It must be hard to talk about the awful upheaval, but McElhone tries to eschew self-pity. Grief was “an incredibly galvanising force. It may hurl you to the floor, but it can sharpen everything too.” Rather than withdraw from Californication, she kept working, partly because she was now the sole breadwinner, but instinctively, because she felt that she could cope if she forged ahead with something to focus on. “What you want to do is stretch out to life,” she says. “You have to grab on, and get swept up in the maelstrom. Don’t settle in a dead place.”

Her book continues to be found and read, as she hardly dared hope it might be. When people approach her, “I just know from looking at them that they aren’t going to talk about Californication or whatever play I’m in or a film they’ve seen. They’re going to tell me they’ve read my book. I can see it before they even speak.”

What is weird, is that a lot of the responses are from people who have got divorced, and find a reflection of that loss in my book. That really surprised me. And someone who read the book got divorced because they thought, ‘I don’t feel anything like that about the person I’m sharing my life with. I need to get out.’”

There does seem to be something about McElhone that attracts the confessional. Wide-eyed, with cheekbones that could scrape the ceiling, she’s so direct and friendly that she draws out confidences. She says that while starring in Fatal Attraction, “I got bizarre letters from men saying, ‘I’ve just finished an affair that I’ve been having for 15 years after seeing your play’ or ‘I’ve just stopped a second night stand happening’. They are really strange, confessional letters.”

She has been told she should write more, and she’s followed this up by pulling together “a couple of treatments and pilots and things like that for film companies. I love writing characters, so I’m really happy to do that.” She isn’t so sure about another book.

“The book market is so insanely competitive, if I wrote a book it would have to be something that I just wanted to do for myself.” Then she admits shyly that she has written about half a book already. “It’s one of my dangling projects, that I’d like to finish. There’s that proverb, ‘It is better to start in the evening, than not at all.’ That’s how I should approach my book – and so many things.”

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

Believe opens on 25 July