Thursday 19 October 2017

Another level for Ruth Wilson

Luther star Ruth Wilson tells how a lucky meeting at a lift in an LA hotel got her a role in the latest Tom Hanks film

Ruth Wilson
Ruth Wilson
Ruth Wilson as Margaret Goff in Saving Mr. Banks.

James Mottram

So this is how you get roles in Hollywood -- hang out by the lifts at the Four Seasons.

It certainly worked for Ruth Wilson, when she ran into screenwriter Kelly Marcel at the luxury Beverly Hills hotel in Los Angeles. "She was a big fan of Luther," explains the British actress best known for BBC drama she stars in with Idris Elba. "So she brought that up in the lift, and then we had a drink downstairs at the bar. And then she said 'I've got a script I think you'd be great in,' and everyone says that in LA. 

Today holding court in a London five-star joint -- nowhere near the lifts -- Wilson is happy to say that Marcel was telling the truth. The script was Saving Mr. Banks, a charming tale about the making of the 1964 classic Mary Poppins and the tempestuous working relationship between the book's British author P.L. Travers and Walt Disney, the animation king who had spent 20 years pursuing the rights to this classic about a children's nanny.

What's more, with Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks attached as Travers and Disney, taking this on was what they call a no-brainer. "It felt like a movie I hadn't seen for a long time and it felt like a script I hadn't read in a long time," adds the 31-year-old.

An elegant-looking brunette, with smoky-green eyes and lips that have set reviewers all of a quiver, Wilson was deemed perfect to play Margaret Goff, Travers' mother, in flashbacks to the author's troubled childhood in Australia.

While much of the film deals with Travers dealing with Disney, fearful that Uncle Walt would sugar-coat her beloved novel, these scenes set in the early 1900s add much to her backstory. Then called Ginty (and played by Annie Rose Buckley), the young Travers had to contend with a loving-but-irresponsible father (Colin Farrell) and a mother that Wilson estimates "was probably suffering from post-traumatic stress -- a form of depression".

With the film directed by John Lee Hancock, who previously steered Sandra Bullock to an Oscar in The Blind Side, there's something delightfully old-fashioned about the story -- even if flips unevenly between the Hollywood scenes and the more intense childhood traumas.

With the two narratives shot separately, "For me and Colin and for Annie Buckley, it felt like our movie was two-and-a-half weeks long and a small independent family drama," says Wilson.

Still it was Farrell that did his best to bring the two halves of the cast together -- hosting a pre-shoot screening of Mary Poppins at his apartment. Not that Wilson needed it. The youngest of four, and the daughter of an investment banker father and a probation officer mother, she watched it religiously as a child. "I know it off by heart ... it's such a wild film. It's really psychedelic in some places. It's just crazy, a lot of it. I think it's pretty amazing, really."

Wilson grew up on the outskirts of London, in Shepperton, just ten minutes away from the town's famous film studio. "There was always this air of mystery when a film was being made there -- like Judge Dredd and Sly Stallone was in town." she recalls.

"I never saw any actors, ever, but you heard stories of them being in the local pub or down by the river. There are always the stories of these films stars, walking through Shepperton. But I never saw one."

It was something more down-to-earth that inspired her to be an actress -- watching her brother in a local theatre production of Godspell.

"I think I was going through a spiritual time as a kid and I got taken by the music, and got quite emotional. I think I wanted to have that effect on other people." She joined the same theatre club then continued acting at the University of Nottingham, where she read history, before going on to drama school.

She got her first gig within three months of graduating, after a whirlwind of auditions.

"When you first come out of drama school, people are looking to see you and see a new face. You go up for everything -- the lead in a blockbuster, all these young ingénue parts. I wasn't getting them straight away, and I remember my mum saying 'They should put you up for supporting roles. Why aren't they doing that? I think they're being a bit too ambitious.' Thanks mum."

Such are the vagaries of the industry, Wilson doesn't seem surprised that she generated her Saving Mr. Banks role by standing in a lift. "It's a weird game, the acting game. There are very few occasions when, in the room, at the time [of an audition], you win that job." It's a word-of-mouth profession, she says, though admits there are several people she's indebted to, giving her jobs "that definitely have changed the course of my career".

Amongst them, director Susanna White, who cast her in the title role in the BBC's 2006 adaptation of Jane Eyre. Then there was Rob Ashford, who gave her the part of Stella in his 2009 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire at London's Donmar Warehouse -- which won her an Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress (two years later, she graduated to Best Actress, for playing the title role in another Donmar production, Eugene O' Neill's Anna Christie).

More recently, there was Gore Verbinski. "He was the first person to give me a film job," she says, referring to this year's western revival The Lone Ranger, which you might think was something of a poisoned chalice. Playing Rebecca Reid, love interest to Armie Hammer's eponymous masked hero, Wilson was cast before the film was delayed in August 2011. While it was on hold, she actually made her big screen debut in Joe Wright's Anna Karenina, before The Lone Ranger was finally given the green light.

When it came out this summer, despite co-starring Johnny Depp as Tonto, the critics gave it a roasting -- though after grossing $260 million globally, it's not quite the flop it was perceived as.

Fortunately, she already had Saving Mr. Banks in the can, and has since added two more films, wartime romance Suite Française, with Michelle Williams, and Locke, a taut drama with Tom Hardy. Then there's the possibility of more Luther, with persistent rumours that creator Neil Cross will turn this police detective show into a feature-film, allowing Wilson to reprise her role as the sociopathic Dr. Alice Morgan.

She admits to loving the show, and starring with Idris -- or 'Stringer Bell' as she calls him, referring to his character in The Wire. "I knew we were in something quite special when we were doing it. But I didn't realise it was going to have quite the impact it had," she says.

"I didn't expect that, to be honest." She reflects for a second. "You always just hope for the best with these things. You never quite know how they'll turn out."

Saving Mr. Banks opens today

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