Esther McCarthy caught up with actress Ruth Wilson as she jetted into Dublin for the premiere of Lenny Abrahamson’s latest movie, ‘The Little Stranger’.
When Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson sought a female lead for his eagerly awaited follow-up to Room, he looked no further than Ruth Wilson.
The top British actress, he felt, would bring layers and mystery to Caroline Ayres in The Little Stranger, the story of a troubled family living in a house which may hold a dark secret.
Who better than the reliably great Wilson, who has brought depth to such characters as the genius psychopath Alice in Luther, the complicated Alison Lockhart in The Affair, and Marisa Coulter in the forthcoming adaptation of His Dark Materials.
“I think it’s pretty much that you read it and go: ‘Oh, that intrigues me’ or: ‘That’s different to what I did last time’,” she says of choosing her roles.
“It can be a combination of things. Then there are other characters where you go: ‘She’s a mystery’. Like Marisa Coulter in His Dark Materials. She’s described as ‘the mother of all evil’. Well that’s great to play! ‘A cesspit of moral filth’ — brilliant! I want to know what that is,” she says.
We meet in Dublin just hours before the European premiere of The Little Stranger, where she’s looking forward to beingreunited with Abrahamson and co-star Domhnall Gleeson.
She laughs when I tell her both men had paid her the ultimate Irish compliment, that she’s great craic.
“But last week we were in New York when it was opening there. And we went out afterwards and had a great fun time.
“It was funny because certainly in that film, there are a lot of repressed people on the screen. Those characters are deep, they’re hiding things, they don’t understand themselves, there’s conflict or trauma in them.
“So it’s really important to have some banter and lightness around it. Even when we weren’t acting there was a certain intensity inside the set, inside the environment.
“It wasn’t the most lighthearted filmmaking experience that I’ve had but they’re really funny. We had a great old time last week and I hope to have one tonight as well.”
She is simple elegance personified in gold heels, white cut-off trousers and a cream blouse when we meet to talk about her career.
Although she has certainly become known for playing complex women, she says she primarily seeks out stories which surprise and intrigue her, and that was what she felt from Abrahamson’s film.
“It was partly that I didn’t understand it. I knew that it was good, that it was interesting, I loved the characters. But I didn’t quite understand it and I was mystified it.
"It also got under my skin, there was something unnerving about it. That’s what drew me in. I thought: ‘This is unusual and I want to keep digging at it’. It’s sort of a mix of things and that’s intriguing. It kind of darts on the line of all sorts of genres. It’s like nothing else you’ve read.”
In the movie, adapted from the bestselling novel, Gleeson plays Dr Faraday, a GP called to the home of the Ayres family in 1940s Warwickshire.
He befriends the once-wealthy family whose home is now crumbling down around him, while trying to win the affections of Wilson’s Caroline in the multi-layered mystery.
“It wasn’t a normal romance and it didn’t play out like a normal romance,” says Wilson.
“A lot of that is relevant now, that toxic masculinity, or toxic patriarchy that Caroline was feeling adverse to, even though she didn’t really understand it. I don’t think she comes to any clarity until near the end of the film. She’s stuck in a social order which she hates and which keeps her, in a way, burdened and claustrophobic.”
She enjoys playing such interesting women as Caroline and others.
“To me that’s what it’s about. Everybody has multi layers to them, no one’s purely good, no one’s purely evil. More and more I get more excited by that.
“Unfortunately I have a brain which will go into that anyway, even if it’s not on the page. I think I’ve trained my brain to become more curious in that way and look at it that way.
“I find it quite awkward and self-conscious to just say a line as me. I can’t do that.”
Growing up with three older brothers, Wilson didn’t realise that a career as an actor was a possibility when she was younger. Her mother sent her and her siblings to a drama club “just to get us out of the house” and even though she joined drama societies at college, it was history that she studied.
“I was not sure… I just didn’t know how to get into the industry,” she says, adding that her family find the world of her career: “Completely bizarre. But they’re dead proud.
“In a way it’s good, it grounds me. When I go back home, we don’t talk about my world.”
But they have been kept involved in her next project, a three-part series based on an astonishing secret within her own family. Her beloved paternal grandmother, Alison Wilson, discovered upon her husband’s death that he led a double life, a secret her family only learned when she passed.
Now the story is being dramatised in a series, Mrs Wilson, with Ruth playing her grandmother on screen.
She tells the extraordinary story which inspired the project, which she is also executive producing.
“My grandmother wrote a memoir which was written in two parts and left them to us when she died. She died when I was 22, so I knew her really well — apart from this massive secret of her life, which she’d kept to herself.
“She married Alexander Wilson, who was my grandfather, and it turned out that he was a spy in the interwar years. He wrote 27 spy novels and he had many wives who he never divorced, and they never knew about each other,”she says, adding that she believes her grandmother knew of one other woman, but others have since been uncovered.
See photos from last night's European Premiere of @TLSmovie in association with Pathé and #VMDIFF19. A wonderful first event to celebrate our new title sponsorship with @VirginMediaIE. Huge thank you to @lennyabrahamson, cast & crew for a wonderful night https://t.co/mKZ6fForD3 pic.twitter.com/xU05MTHSt2— Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival (@DublinFilmFest) September 13, 2018
“We found out a lot more since she died, and we have since met all these other family members. My dad has met all these half brothers and half sisters. All of the wives died, and all of them kept the secret.
“It’s been really fascinating — it’s been down to the next generation to discover it. So this drama is inspired by my grandmother’s memoir, it’s through her point of view.”
Making the drama, also starring Keeley Hawes, Iain Glen and Cork-born actor Fiona Shaw, has been a profound experience, she agrees. “It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever done.
“I executive produced it as well, got it going, so I was there from the beginning.
“I got the siblings to read the script before we started filming, kept them well informed. I had this adrenaline flowing through me all the time.
“It felt like she was sitting in me, or whatever. The journey was pretty weird.
Wilson also confirmed recent speculation that she will not be in season five of The Affair but said her departure was not connected to any pay parity issue.
She has spoken in the past of about the issue but also feels it’s complex.
“It’s difficult in our industry, because it’s grey and because it’s based on value and how do you measure value? Do you measure it by the work you’ve done?
"Do you measure it by how popular what you’ve done is? Do you measure it by the amount of awards you’ve got? How do you measure value? It’s very hard. I don’t know.
“At the moment we have more confidence to fight for more, when we wouldn’t have done before, or wouldn’t have even considered that we were getting paid so substantially less.”
The Little Stranger opens in cinemas on September 21.