She's not vain: Keeley Hawes's model behaviour
Since being spotted by a talent scout when she was 17, movie star Keeley Hawes has balanced motherhood with a battle with depression to become a versatile actress
Back in 2011, Keeley Hawes did one of those newspaper questionnaires where she was asked about her likes and dislikes. Under the heading "A Book That Changed Me", she wrote, "One of the first books I read was My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. Having never travelled or really been anywhere, it opened up a whole other world of possibility for me." Jump forward five years and Hawes is just about to appear in … The Durrells, a loose adaptation for ITV of three of Gerald Durrell's books, including My Family and Other Animals.
Here, then, is one of those rare cases when an actor who claims to have spent years dreaming about playing a part actually has the evidence to back it up. "I'm genuinely not making it up for publicity purposes," she says. "I first read the book when I was about 11. I absolutely adored it and I've read it to my own children."
As I'm shown into an office on the top floor of ITV's London headquarters, two things about Hawes immediately become apparent. One is that she is even more striking in the flesh than she is on screen - with expressive, arching eyebrows and a formidably no-nonsense jaw. The second is that for some reason she is very eccentrically dressed, wrapped in an enormous men's overcoat out of the bottom of which poke a pair of gleaming white trainers.
The woman she plays in The Durrells was, in her own way, also pretty eccentric. Keenly interested in both spiritualism and cookery, Louisa Dixie Durrell was leading the life of an impecunious widow in suburban Bournemouth in the mid-Thirties when she suddenly decided to take her four children, and their dog, off to the wilds of Corfu. "I knew very little about her beforehand," says Hawes, "but I do think that what she did was incredibly brave. In those days, Corfu was the other side of the world. Not only did she have four children, between the ages of eight and 18, but she didn't know anyone in Corfu, didn't speak the language, or even have anywhere to live. Nowadays if you tried to do something like that, social services would be on to you in a flash."
However fond Hawes may have been of My Family and Other Animals, when she was offered the part she didn't immediately start dancing on the furniture. "At first I thought to myself, surely no one is going to believe in my relationship with these children because … well, because I'm so young."
She gives a roar of surprisingly throaty laughter. "And all through filming I kept thinking, do I really look old enough to play this part? But then when I watched it, I thought, what on earth was I worrying about? After all, I'm 40 now, almost exactly the same age as Louisa Durrell was when she went to Corfu. How can I possibly baulk at playing someone who was almost the same age as me?"
And here we come to something else unusual about Hawes, something almost unheard of in a member of the acting profession - she seems completely devoid of vanity. "I remember when I did Line of Duty" - in the second series of Jed Mercurio's acclaimed police drama, Hawes played a deeply stressed policewoman - "I overheard one of the electricians saying to the make-up lady, 'God, you've done an amazing job on Keeley, making her look like that.' And the make-up lady said, 'Actually, I haven't done anything at all.' She was right - that's just how I look when I get up in the morning. "As I've got older, I've realised that I don't really have any vanity - although other people might disagree, of course. But when you've done something like Line of Duty and people see you looking like that - well, it's pretty hard to be vain. Also, I genuinely don't really care what people think of me. I never have. Maybe that's weird, I don't know. But what does bother me is whether I might have hurt someone's feelings - I can get very anxious about that."
Along with not minding if she looks frumpy - or worse - she is constantly on the lookout for parts that test her. It's how she has ended up doing her first Shakespeare - playing Elizabeth Woodville in both Richard III and Henry VI, Part 2 for the BBC's forthcoming second series of The Hollow Crown. "I was doing it with Judi Dench and Benedict Cumberbatch and I remember thinking to myself on the first day, if I fall on my a--- here, there won't be any hiding it. But if you're going to do Shakespeare and you're lucky enough to be in a cast like that, there's no better way of learning. And, anyway, life would be very boring if you didn't take risks, wouldn't it?" If you're going to leap into the unknown, it probably helps if you have an unusually stable home life to go back to.
For the past 14 years Hawes has been married to her former Spooks co-star Matthew Macfadyen - they have two children, aged 9 and 11, and she has another son from her first, brief marriage to the cartoonist Spencer McCallum. Under the circumstances, it seems somewhat ironic that in order to play Louisa Durrell - a woman who takes her four children off to start a new life - Hawes had to abandon her own children, although only for a few weeks. "That is a bit odd, I know, but actually it worked out pretty well - although there was a lot of commuting involved. I think my children are old enough now to realise that's just the way things are. And when we're not working and stuck at home, they can't wait for us to go back to work."
While she was filming in Corfu, Hawes did at least have a substitute family to fuss over. "I became incredibly close to my on-screen children. Of course, I wanted to get on with them because we had a hell of a lot of work to do together. There's nothing worse than not getting on with people that you have to spend 14 hours a day with" - as we will discover later, Hawes hasn't always hit it off with her co-stars. "But on this, everything clicked to an extraordinary degree."
If Keeley Hawes hadn't been walking down Oxford Street one afternoon 23 years ago, the course of her life might have been very different. She was idly looking in a shop window when she was approached by a talent scout and asked if she wanted to do some modelling.
"In a way, that meeting really changed everything for me." Before that she had been at stage school from the age of nine. But her background was about as far as you could get from a stereotypical theatrical family. Her father worked as a taxi driver - one of her brothers drives a taxi now - and she and her three siblings lived with their parents in a small flat in Marylebone. "I'd been in a school play and loved it, and then the Sylvia Young school opened opposite where we lived. I would never have even known drama schools existed if that hadn't happened."
Becoming a model may have been an accident, but it helped to get her started - or at least noticed. "I had a very happy time modelling, although I don't think I was really cut out for it." What, temperamentally, I ask? "No, physically," she says, and gives another roar of laughter. "I always knew I wasn't going to be a top model; it was just something I did to fill the time. Then one day I got a phone call from Sylvia Young saying that an audition had come up - for Dennis Potter's television play Karaoke. Somehow I got the part, and then I got another one, and then it just sort of turned into a career."
This may sound like a chapter - even a book - of happy accidents, but it wasn't quite as happy as all that. In her teens, Hawes began to suffer from depression, something that, to some degree, has dogged her since. I wondered if being an actress meant that this was something she felt she had to try to hide, at least in the early days. "Well, you can't hide it. That's my experience anyway. It's impossible to go about your daily business and pretend that it's not happening. I mean, it's not like self-harm where you can cover it up." Although she seems loath to say it, I get the sense that one of the things that helps keep Hawes's depression at bay is the fact that she works so much. "It's true that I… how can I put this without everyone hating me? Put it this way, I'm quite consistent."
What she means is that she hardly ever stops. You can look at Hawes's CV in search of great deserts of unemployment, but you'll be looking in vain: Tipping the Velvet, Spooks, Ashes to Ashes, The Casual Vacancy … the list goes on and on. This weekend she can also be seen in cinemas playing the wife of Jeremy Irons in the JG Ballard adaptation High-Rise. But it was Line of Duty that really shook things up, making people see just what she was capable of. "It did really change everything, particularly the sort of scripts I was sent. They suddenly became much more interesting. The expectation of me was different."
Did it change her idea about her own capabilities as well? "No," she says, not altogether jokingly, "I always knew I was good." My suspicion - and it is only a suspicion - is that for all her affability, you wouldn't want to cross Keeley Hawes. Even in her enormous overcoat and her white trainers, there is something glossily poised, almost regal about her.
In 2014, she was involved in a much-publicised dust-up with Sheila Hancock when they were supposed to be appearing in a West End play together, Barking in Essex. Hawes jumped ship before it opened, citing that much-loved excuse "artistic differences" as the reason for her departure. But it is rumoured that she actually walked because Hancock criticised her performance. When I bring this up, her laughter is louder, longer and a little more forced than usual. "Y-es…" she says, and then starts laughing again. "I really can't talk about that, I'm afraid. It would be so wrong on lots of different levels."
I'm curious about what Hawes and Macfadyen are like together at home. Does he ever criticise her work, or she his? She looks at me as if I'm mad. "No! In fact, we rarely watch anything that the other has done - although I did see him in Churchill's Secret the other night and I'm pleased to report that he was as excellent as ever. But it's a bit like anyone else's job, I suppose. We come home and say, oh this happened, or that happened - and then have supper."
And what about when she watches herself on screen? On the whole, is she happy with what she sees? This time her eyebrows arch to their uppermost limits. "God no, I can't stand it. I'm always sitting there like this" - she put her hand over her eyes and peeks through her fingers. "But that never really changes. In the end all you can do is hope that you're a bit less s**t- in some things than in others."
'The Durrells' will be on ITV later this month
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