'It was quite an awkward environment - or an uncomfortable environment' - Ruth Wilson talks filming The Little Stranger
The British actress tells Independent.ie what it was like filming the supernatural drama, how she feels wrapping on The Affair after four years, and her fear of becoming 'lazy'
The Little Stranger is almost upon us. Lenny Abrahamson’s hugely-anticipated gothic drama – an adaptation of the best-selling novel, by Sarah Waters – stars Domhnall Gleeson as Dr Faraday, a country doctor who, during the summer of 1948, is called to visit a patient at Hundreds Hall, the once exquisite, British countryside manor where his mother worked as a housemaid.
Aroused by the deteriorating mansion, and its enigmatic inhabitants, Dr Faraday soon forms a bond with the Ayres family, particularly daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson). Alas, there is something amiss at Hundreds Hall. Let’s just say that there are dark secrets at play, and that Abrahamson’s chilling, slow-burning, haunted house story will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
The Little Stranger also marks another intriguing career move for the inimitable, Golden Globe-winning British actress, Ruth Wilson. You may know her as Alison Lockhart in The Affair (which she bowed out of this summer), or Alice Morgan in Luther. You might recall her acclaimed turns in Jane Eyre and Dark River. And, we’re particularly excited to see her in the forthcoming BBC adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. In the meantime, Independent.ie caught up with Ruth to talk career goals, switching between theatre and screen, and getting to grips with The Little Stranger…
Aside, of course, from getting to adapt the best-selling novel, by Sarah Waters, and getting to work with the great Lenny Abrahamson, what was it that initially drew you to The Little Stranger?
“I think it was the sort of mystery at the heart of it, to be honest. I didn’t quite understand it, and I read it and then I had to read it again, and then it got under my skin. There was something unnerving about it, and so I think that intrigued me, and I read the book, and that was even more unnerving! And I loved the character - I thought [Caroline] was sort of eccentric and odd, and again there were lots of puzzles to her. For me, if it’s intriguing and there’s lots to explore, and it feels like it’s something I’ve never read before, then that’s why I take it.”
The film retains a heightened level of suspense, intrigue and tension. How did you go about shaking this off at the end of the day?
“Oh, I don’t know! I mean, it was quite odd on this. We were filming in London which is where I live - but really far in north London, near Watford, and it would take an age to go back to my house, so I would stay up in this hotel, which had a swimming pool, and was a bit random. It was a bit of a weird experience, to be honest.
“I mean, Lenny and Domhnall were great fun and amazing, and a lot of the crew were amazing as well, but it was quite an awkward environment - or an uncomfortable environment, and I think that was partly because of the nature of the film, so everything was quite stilted - we were playing repressed people, it was kind of in this big weird mansion, which felt very claustrophobic, even though it was massive, so it was quite a weird experience. I remember I’d come out of it and go, ‘What was that? I don’t know what that is’.
Every day, I’d be feeling like that, so it wasn’t like the most joyous experience - not in a bad way! I’m just saying that’s kind of what came out. I think it was like constantly [being] not sure who this character was, and what this world was, necessarily, and that’s the nature of the piece, I think.”
The film has received a lot of attention from the press. Do you read reviews?
“Yeah, I do actually. I’m quite intrigued, because I watched this film and I was really chuffed with it in many ways, and so I was intrigued about how people might view it, and what they might think of it, because I knew that it is a difficult film in some ways - it straddles lots of genres, it’s not clear-cut. So, I was interested to see what people would think of it, and if they’d get it, basically, and I was really chuffed with a lot of the reviews, because they did. And I think that that was a relief that people saw what I saw in it, or what Lenny saw in it, or what we all saw in it when we took the job - that there was a worthwhile story to tell.”
What was it that made you want to become an actor?
“I don’t know, really. I was the youngest of four kids, [I have] three older brothers and I don’t know when it was, or why it was. I know that my mum put us all in like, an acting club, to get us out of the house, and I started doing that when I was about eight, and I remember watching my brothers do plays, and I wanted to do what they were doing, because it looked like fun, and it was magical.
“And I think that theatre had that sort of spell-like effect on me, you know, creating a world of magic on stage and in the auditorium, and so I think that’s probably why I’ve always loved theatre - you create the contract between the audience and the actor, and it’s very magical and there’s a lot of people involved and committed to creating that magic, and that’s really unique, that’s really unusual - in this day and age, even more so, you know, a lot of people all committing to ‘make-believe’, I mean that’s amazing, that’s fascinating to me, and I just loved being in that world of make-believe, perhaps. It’s sort of more exciting than reality”.
Obviously, being an actor has worked out rather well for you, but was there ever a plan B?
“There wasn’t really a plan B. I was always a little bit conscious that I might not be very good - I didn’t know what was good and what wasn’t, I didn’t have any kind of measure of it in my family, and no-one in my family knew about the world of acting at all. Neither did I. I went to UNI and I did history and I did loads of acting on the side, and it was there that I met loads of friends who all had acting and directing in common.
They were all going to drama school and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta give it a go’, and I gave myself two years out of drama school, which is nothing, right, but I didn’t know. I was like, ‘I don’t wanna keep getting rejected - if I’m not good enough, I’m not gonna keep trying, I’m not gonna keep forcing this on people if I’m not good enough!’ So I kind of gave myself two years. I didn’t have a back-up plan, I didn’t have a clue, I was thinking, ‘I’m pretty competent, I can sort of do other things’. I don’t know what that would be, and thank God it didn’t happen, because I don’t know what I’d be doing know, I might be working in an office somewhere, really hating my life!
“But I was quite pragmatic about it, in a way - I didn’t want to believe that I was gonna make it, I was like, ‘Don’t think you’re gonna make it, you’ve gotta work fucking hard to get it.’ That was kind of my attitude. And luckily, I got a job pretty soon. I got one job, and then Jane Eyre (the 2006 BBC drama) was the second job that I got, after lots of auditions - I mean I did an awful lot of auditions, and got rejected from a lot of things…”
You spent four years working on The Affair, and three years in Luther. Is being a part of an ongoing television series the closest thing that an actor gets to working a full-time job? Is it strange, then, leaving that character behind?
“Yeah, it’s funny, I am sort of reluctant as well to commit long-term to things, I have a sort of aversion to commitment, although I do it a lot! Like, I sort of hate myself for committing, but I often do it because I’m fascinated by it, or that’s where the most interesting characters have settled for me, despite them being three seasons, or whatever, it’s what has kind of enticed me more than a film role that’s come my way. I go for the things that seem the most interesting.
“Something like The Affair, that’s a really unusual experience for me and the first time that it felt like that. I mean Luther has been in and out and it’s a bit part, really, so it doesn’t take up much time and it’s every few years, so it doesn’t feel the same, but yeah, five months every year going and filming [The Affair] out in New York, that felt like a sort of regular job, and I liked and didn’t like that, at the same time. It means you can become really familiar with the character in a way that becomes second nature, and other times I sort of feel, ‘Am I getting lazy?’
“That’s my fear – [that] you get sort of lazy, and when you let go of it, it is weird, I mean it feels like a part of you - but that’s with most characters. With someone like [The Affair’s] Alison, she constituted a lot of my life, you know? Two years, really, if you put it all together, so yeah, it’s a long time that you’re exploring that person and playing them. And they’ll always be with you, and I’m sure if I ever find myself in Montauk, things will remind me [of that role], and it will be really interesting. I’ve only just stopped it, so it will be a while before I can look back properly…”
Finally, you work in theatre, TV and film. Do you have a preference?
“I don’t know! They’re all amazing. Theatre would exhaust me if I did it full-time, and you get paid nothing! I mean, I love theatre, because it is magical, and you have the most control as an actor, I think, to tell the story every night. But it is exhausting. So, I think they all exist for a reason and I luckily get to dip my toe into all of them, and that makes me feel much more sort of rounded, and it allows me to express different parts of me in different ways, so yeah, thank god there’s all three of them. That’s a really hard decision! If theatre paid a lot more, then maybe I’d go with that!”
The Little Stranger is in cinemas from Friday September 21st.