The actress chats to Tom Hodgkinson about work, family and washing up
We at the Idler were unbelievably saddened to hear about the death of Helen McCrory, at just 52. What a brilliant and amazing woman. We’d met her and her husband Damian Lewis at festivals, going to talks as everyday punters. We did this interview in late 2019 and present it again as a memorial to a truly outstanding actress and person. I’ve never laughed so much during an hour’s chat on the phone. She was warm, witty and wise. What a terrible loss and so unfair when legions of a-holes still stride the earth. Massive love to her family.
TOM HODGKINSON Thanks for talking to us Helen. Have you been doing loads of interviews for the new Peaky Blinders?
HELEN McCRORY Yes, for women’s magazines. You bang on about the complexities of acting and playing Greek tragedy for 1,000 people and they’re like: “Yeah let’s just cut to the chase, what’s your favourite colour for the summer? What would you say is the most important thing in a lady’s handbag?” And I’m thinking: “Really, I’m being fucking reduced to this again?” I’ve had people saying to me “What did you last make for Damian?” and “What’s his favourite dish?” This is so personal – why would anybody be stupid enough to tell the truth? “How was your day?” “It was fantastic.” “How’s life?” “It’s a peach!” Like, really?
TH Those small domestic details can be interesting, too. I’d be interested to know that Socrates had terrible rows with his wife because she was jealous of his relationship with Alcibiades and Alcibiades made him a rice cake and he took it home and she stamped all over it in a jealous fit. It’s just a modern version of that. That’s what they are looking for.
HM It is the modern version of that. You’re quite right. You can’t take it all too seriously.
TH So have you been screaming at your children recently?
HM No, I have been more in hushed, shocked silence at my children recently.
TH How old are they?
HM Manon is 12 and Gulliver is 11 now.
TH You’re in the really lovely period.
HM They seem so different now. When I was going through my 13-14 stage, I was wearing my Doc Martens and listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees.
TH I used to love Siouxsie and the Banshees. I went to see them at Hammersmith Palais when I was 14.
HM When I was 14 the boys I fancied were 19 and they were all punks. That whole movement was anti the system. It was so fuck you. We went on Free Nelson Mandela marches, then it was the Poll Tax. It was so anti-establishment. What I find worrying about this generation is that because of the Internet and the constant advertising, they want to buy Gucci. You’re looking at them and thinking: No, I’m taking them down to Oxfam and telling them to make up their own outfit . Come on, be original. Do it yourself, don’t just sign into the system already and hope that you’re going to succeed as a blogger!
TH I have exactly the same problem. What do you do about it?
HM I just think that you just offer them something better. Like tonight we are driving up to our house in Suffolk and we will eat in the garden and they will moan about it because they’ll be saying: “Where are my friends? There’s no fucking Internet. What are you doing with my life?” But actually give them an hour and suddenly they will go: “Hang on how do you work this bow and arrow?” You have to understand that they’re having their revolution as well… But for us it seems so tame.
TH It seems so tame and so boring. I think this must be the case with lots of people of our age. I say to my children: “You’re just a slave to Silicon Valley, you’re just falling into their traps.”
HM I started telling Manon a story yesterday, and she just looked at me and said: “Hang on, before you go on, can I just ask does this end with Internet surveillance and somebody dying?” And I said: “Might do.”
TH What about computer games and computer time and Fortnite and stuff like that? Do you try to limit their time on the screen?
HM Yeah I do. It’s much less strict now though – it used to be no screens Monday to Friday. They could have screens Saturday and Sunday and then again it would be: you have to watch stuff with the kids, whether it’s Modern Family or The Simpsons or something. But at the same time, Gully never got Fortnite and all of this stuff, you give a little because what you realise is that your battles should be elsewhere. They run around all the time. Gully will take his basketball out and just drags it into the street and people will join in and play or he will play basketball by himself for two hours
TH So you’ve got a neighbourhood where people can just run outside?
HM Absolutely, we do a summer party where we have a big long table down the middle. We have a book group on our street, we have a yoga group, we have a choir.
TH How did you get involved with Peaky Blinders?
HM When they first approached me, they said: ‘Would you like to play Aunt Polly in this gangster drama set in Birmingham?” And I was like: “No.”
TH It sounded unappealing?
HM Well because I looked at the history of that time and the slums of Birmingham. My own grandparents grew up in the slums of Glasgow and were miners’ kids in Cardiff, and I thought I was going to be there with a mangle saying things like: “Gotta get up early to get the wash on in the backyard.” Then [writer] Steve Knight said: “Do you like Westerns?” When I was at drama school in Chalk Farm I would go down to a stall in Camden Lock that used to sell these 5p Western novels. I used to read them to relax on the weekends and I loved them. So he said: “That’s how we are gonna do it, we are gonna film it as a Western and we want that epic quality. We don’t want this kind of apologetic drama we are so good at doing in Britain – the kitchen sink, those angry young men.” It’s really shaped television writing, still now you’ll see it constantly and how it’s influenced the writers of today. But nobody was doing what Steve was doing which was making these people heroes. Also, with the idea that it’s man against everything around him, which is of course perfect for how men felt coming back from World War I. Suddenly God was dead and government was dead and people were in a sort of Wild West situation, there was that feeling of isolation. Then he was trying to find the music. We wanted The White Stripes and Jack [White]’s lawyer is Gully’s godmum. So we phoned her up and said: “Listen, we are trying to find the music and obviously your clients are all so fucking cool they won’t watch television or give their music to anybody. Would you just play him these first two episodes and see what he thinks?” We got a phone call back the next day saying: “Yeah you can have the piece, it’s fine.” And that just set the tone.
TH The show began quite humbly, didn’t it?
HM Yeah but it was nice, because it grew by word-of-mouth. First of all, everyone who was watching us was between 17 and 24 and it was all quite culty. If you went by Hoxton everyone would come up to you with Peaky Blinders haircuts, and then it went over to Williamsburg six years ago and they started doing it there and then they told their parents. So then I’d have black cab drivers saying: “Oi, my son put me onto you. When are you coming out again?”
TH Because of the look? Because of the style of it?
HM Yeah the style and the music and the fact that he’s just a really good storyteller. He eats up story. We will have more story in one episode than some dramas in television have in an entire series, particularly British drama, because we don’t have the money.
TH Is it fun being on set and making a series of Peaky Blinders?
HM It’s fantastic. I do a lot of my scenes with Cillian, he’s become a good friend. You get to know all of the cast and the fact that you work very very quickly is great because it is very focused.
TH How long does it take to film a season?
HM Four months for six hours a day.
TH What’s a typical day?
HM Up at four, in the car at five, makeup at six, in costume at eight, breakfast at 8:45, on set for none and then you will just keep going. Luckily this last season we have just got a brilliant producer called Anna Harrison Baxter who cut it all back and said: “No, you will work union hours, I’m protecting my career.”
TH Now Helen, do you think you work too hard?
HM I have definitely resolved to be more idle. Constantly throughout my twenties, thirties and forties I worked hard and played hard with a sort of searing energy. Damian would say that I’d suddenly go quiet and just sleep for 20 hours and then I’d be up again and off.
TH Maybe that’s natural, that’s how you do it.
HM Children teach you that time is elastic and that actually just slowing down gives you more time, weirdly. If you have a diary that’s just constantly full of stuff you might be really missing out on the important stuff. I think growing up in East Africa made me really enjoy the minutiae of life. For instance, things like dishwashing. We have only just got a dishwasher because I would scream and shout and say: “I want the kids to realise that you have to buy the food and cook the food and eat the food and then wash up.”
TH Hang on, so you’ve only recently bought a dishwasher?
HM I like the slowness of washing up.
TH I wanted to ask you about theatre versus TV. Lots of actors I’ve spoken to have said if they could do anything they wanted they would definitely do theatre. Why is that, and is that the case with you?
HM Oh yeah, because I think that it is the purest form of acting and also, when you’re in theatre you are totally in control. The director has buggered off after six weeks and it’s just you and a thousand people, which is the way I like it. When I left drama school I wasn’t even interested in film. I used to think it was for people who couldn’t act. My agent kept saying: “There’s this film…” and I would turn it down because that was my kick. That was my buzz. Just the concentration, it’s like a meditation when you go on stage and you know you’ve got three hours in which to tell the story as clearly and as simply as possible.
TH Do you tend to get nervous before and drunk afterwards?
HM Always. [Laughs]
TH [Laughs] It must be such fun to go out for a drink when the play is done.
HM My mum always used to say: “I never ever envied you being an actress, there’s not an acting fibre in my body but the one thing I think you’re very lucky with is the company you keep.” An actor by nature tells stories, so there’s always lots of stories.
TH What about the spiritual side of life? Meditation, religion? Are you into any of that stuff?
HM No, put simply. I remember at 13 or 14 I was asked if I wanted to be confirmed and I’d spent the year before that arguing through all of these confirmation lessons and I said: “No, I don’t think I’m ready to commit to that.” And all the girls around me were jumping up and down shouting: “I’m getting a necklace!” and I’d be like: “Oh my God this is my soul, you sold it for a necklace?” When Damian and I got married, we didn’t get married in a church. As far as the soul is concerned, do I think the soul needs to be protected and do I think that you can carry people with you after they die? Absolutely. It’s not in some other world, it’s in this world. There’s an energy in the theatre that proves it. I think that’s more Dionysus than Jesus, though. I think I’m more Greek.