from behind the scenes to leading lady
Blagging a job as a seamstress, although she couldn't sew, on the set of 'The Tudors' was Katie McGrath's unusual route into acting. A love scene with Jonathan Rhys Myers later, she tells Chris Jackson, and she was performing in front of millions. Now she's teaming up with Myers again in 'Dracula'
'Miss McGrath isn't here at the moment I'm afraid," says the man behind the desk at the Covent Garden Hotel, mispronouncing it "grath" as in "wrath", as so many Englishmen tend to do. He directs me toward the avocado-coloured bar where I wait upon a comfy floral print chair as rich olive-skinned guests sip on cocktails and beer at a marble-topped bar, backed by a large fanlight mirror, which seduces shameless stares of vanity from a few.
The wait is short as Katie strides in, searching the tables for me, smiling at strangers, until she finds me. She greets me with a hug and before I have a chance to say anything she's ordered tea, soda and a small bowl of macadamia nuts, which she then devours in not too short order. She's not one to stand on ceremony.
Katie's in London promoting the latest television adaptation of one of fiction's most popular characters, Dracula. From the producers of Downton Abbey, Dracula is a major British and American co-production, primed to capture audiences across the world.
She leans back against the wall pulling her left knee into her body, as if at home on her couch, rather than in the bar of a five-star London hotel. She speaks in a low voice with the soft and steady cadence of a person of some cultivation, save for the odd swear, which only serves for emphasis. I ask her about her Dracula.
"With this Dracula they've taken the story and they've flipped it. They've made it more modern. There's a modern comic-book element to the story.
"The Dracula of this story is playing a role, that of an American industrialist, to exact revenge on those who wronged him."
It is, like others, a departure from Bram Stoker's original, although, as Katie points out, the Dubliner may have warmed to an adaptation where Dracula and two other main characters are played by Irish actors – Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Victoria Smurfit are the other two. (Katie, like Stoker, is an alumni of Trinity). She plays Lucy Westenra.
The Lucy Westenra of Bram Stoker's original was the embodiment of youthful innocence, the counterpoint to Dracula. I ask her what we can expect from her Lucy.
"My Lucy is a complete departure. In Stoker's Dracula she is a paragon of virtue. She is the idealised Victorian woman. She's sweet, kind, soft and gentle. She's the archetype of goodness," she says, stopping shortly before each sentence with a pregnant pause. She is polished in her speech.
"My Lucy, however, well, she's more of a high society 'It' girl. She seems vapid and vacuous at first. Then you see she has problems of her own, problems which will completely change your outlook on her. She's not the sweet girl of Bram Stoker's novel."
Katie is keen to point out that the departure doesn't stop there and that her Lucy is, like herself, an independent woman.
"She doesn't take sh*t from no one. She's the one in control, blonde strumpet that she is," she says.
Stoker's Lucy is a woman pursued by multiple suitors, but Katie is reticent on the subject of her own suiters.
She betrays the discomfort of someone who is not used to attention, someone who is still coming to terms with their success. It's understandable, she never saw such a future for herself when she was younger.
Katie McGrath was not a typical teenager. She had pink hair, listened to Green Day, and worked in a Tattoo Parlour. She was someone who you could imagine in a Kevin Smith or Richard Linklater film – a Goth, an Emo, a Rocker, an outlier. She no longer sees herself in such terms.
"I don't see myself as alternative anymore. You get to a point in life where you're comfortable with who you are and exist in your own world. I'm just me, walking around and trying to do a job without failing, although I do miss the pink hair."
Her path to stardom was unforeseen and unusual. An average student at Trinity (she studied history), she, like so many, did not know what she wanted to do with her life post-graduation. She played with the idea of a career in fashion and worked for Image magazine to achieve her left-field dream of being Vogue magazine's China editor. She then swung a job as a seamstress, though she couldn't sew, on the set of The Tudors, which was filmed near her home in Wicklow.
As she says "they needed a busty wench" for a love scene with Jonathan Rhys Meyers and she was happy to oblige them. Within a year she was cast as Morgana in BBC's Merlin, acting before millions of viewers in more than 150 countries.
The young woman whose life was without clear direction before was now on a path to great fame and fortune. It's little wonder she refers to herself as "having won the lottery".
As Morgana, Katie became a favourite of fantasy fanboys (the polite term for nerds), who can be quite obsessive. Often some of them live their lives vicariously through shows and their characters. She's experienced it first-hand, receiving, among other things, penned stories, pictures and dolls of herself as Morgana. She came face-to- face with many of them at San Diego's annual Comic-Con, a Mecca for fans of fantasy, sci-fi, and comic books, one of whom was Katie herself.
"It was amazing, it was like a place of joy, it was like a giant air-filled hangar of joy" she says with a broad smile, in between eating more macadamias. "They're all pretending to be someone, be it Princess Leah or Green Arrow, but at the same time that is who they are.
"It's both bizarre and wonderful to see all these people pretend to be others and be so comfortable doing it."
Not all the parts she's played have been as successful. Take Madonna's directorial debut, W.E., in which Katie was cast. W.E. was panned by critics and was barely seen by anyone, taking less than $900,000 at the box office (The King's Speech, a similarly themed film, took more than $400m the year before).
"I think W.E. was a good film. I think critics were always going to be tough on it because it was Madonna's film. If it had been any other first time director I think they'd have been far more supportive of it" she says sincerely.
In spite of the failure of W.E. Katie's career has kicked-on, and last year she was cast in Channel 4's Labyrinth, an adaptation of Kate Mosse's best-selling novel of the same name, in which she was again required to wear a corset, a requirement made of her again in her latest ole, which, in one way, sees her career come full circle.
"I started as crew with Johnny, when I first met him I worked in wardrobe, now I'm starring opposite him. Sometimes I stop and think 'sh*t, I won the lottery'."
Her friendship with him means much to her, both personally and professionally, particularly given his extra experience.
"It was great having him there. This show is a big deal, with big money and big networks behind it. When you walk into a room with 20 high-powered producers it's great to know you're walking in with a friend, one who's got your back."
It's understandable that she seeks such support. Her acting apprenticeship was served in front of an audience of millions and it wasn't until she started to shoot Dracula that she felt confident in what she was doing.
And yet, in spite of the depths with which she has been cast, she has emerged. Katie is not one for the future anymore, she is one for the present, although there is some downside.
"People have great difficulty pronouncing my name. I've given up correcting people" she says. I say nothing of the man behind the desk.
Dracula begins at 9 pm next Thursday on Sky Living HD