Anne-Marie Duff may fill an auditorium, but don’t expect her to fill a room. Pale to the point of transparency, she’s sitting opposite me, slight, self-deprecating and contriving to hide behind a packet of salt-and-vinegar crisps.
Duff – she doesn’t have a damehood yet, but just give it a few years – would chew razor blades rather than tell you she is any more than ordinary. But this is a quantum kind of ordinariness in which a girl can grow up on a council estate in west London one day and play George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at the National Theatre the next. Can arrive on our TV screens as the formidable Gallagher daughter, Fiona, in Paul Abbott’s breakthrough comedy-drama Shameless and, in a breath, appear as Elizabeth I in the BBC mini-series, The Virgin Queen.
The crisps have gone now and she’s started on the fizzy drink and a ham sandwich. She’s insisting none of her achievements has changed her: “I get the train and the Tube to work every morning. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m not 25 and been plucked out of obscurity to play the lead in a Hollywood blockbuster. I’ve been working away for years and it’s been an old-fashioned trajectory. It’s not so impressive really.”
That quiet centeredness is rooted in her working-class origins: her Irish parents coming to live in London in the 1960s. There was an emphasis on hard work and education at home. She is also deceptively tough. Just off our screens as the adulterous Edith Duchemin in BBC Two’s Parade’s End, her current challenge is to bring Jean Racine’s heroine Berenice to life at the Donmar Warehouse.
This 17th-century play is a love story in which the heroine waits for her younger lover, the next Roman emperor Titus, to marry her. Rome has other ideas. What follows is an unexpectedly honest exploration of passion, interpreted with powerfully simple lyricism by the novelist Alan Hollinghurst.
Duff is in her element. If there’s a thread running through her film, television and stage work, it’s her ability to express strength within vulnerability: “She [Berenice] is not an ingénue, which makes things very interesting. It’s not a rites of passage play, she’s a woman at the start of the play as she is a woman at the end. The role is not one of a victim but of a woman prepared to see love in the context of what’s right, rather than right for her.”
So love is, in the end, a deal? “Yes, that’s true and therefore it’s a play about choices: what you choose to do with love and responsibility and power.”
Her own choices have ensured both success and respect: “I’d always dreamt of doing a certain kind of work, and pretty much it’s happened. That’s not being disingenuous. I’ve been choosy a couple of times and said no to things that weren’t really my cup of tea, but I’ve been in a very fortunate position where I haven’t been out of work for three years with bills to pay.” That’s surely not accidental? “Well, we all know there’s no such thing as an accident. I’ve always been very grateful for stuff, and that maybe comes from learning that you should be grateful. I don’t look over my shoulder very much at what everybody else has.”
Are her parents proud of her? “Yeah, I’m sure but then they’re proud of me because I’m happy in what I do. As a parent myself, the idea that your offspring would feel fulfilled and happy, that is beyond your wildest dreams, you know?” She has one child, a boy aged two. No moaning from her about juggling work and home – “You just run a lot!” she laughs – and she’s vehement in her attacks on any form of dilettantism. “You have to really love being an actor, not the idea of being an actor. There’s a great thing [the Russian theatre director and actor] Stanislavski says about having to love the art in yourself and not yourself in the art, and that is what I would say. Don’t do it for the rewards or the acclaim because none of that is guaranteed or means anything. You can’t equate that with happiness,” she says.
“It is a very interesting time. There’s this weird dichotomy where we all feel we are entitled to whatever we want. And then at the same time because of the political climate, we also live in a world where we define people by where they come from.”
Has she been aware of a class glass ceiling? “Well, you mustn’t see one, I suppose. I read this great quote that Lennie James said about being a black actor, and it feels kind of the same. ‘You want to talk to me about the glass ceiling, f*** off. That’s not my conversation. Have that conversation with all the people who don’t cast black actors.’”
Berenice was, historically, 12 years older than her lover. Duff, at 41, is eight years older than her husband, the Scottish actor James McAvoy. Ageing is on her mind. She’s aware that there are fewer roles for female actors in middle-age but determined not to let that hold her back. Nothing else has. “You just have to take each day as it comes and tell your own tale.”
And if she was forced to take a long break? “The house would be full of baked goods. And little manuscripts.” The bookish Duff has written plays and novels, but they remain hidden away. Writing, she feels, “would be the ultimate achievement, but I self-censor too much and I think the thing is to get beyond that”.
Would she have more children? Silence. She’s also silent on the subject of her husband. They fell in love on the set of Shameless when they were both unknown. He has since had dizzying success in Hollywood, recently playing Charles Xavier in X-Men. She has both the thrill of a younger man and the horror of having to watch him snog Angelina Jolie in Wanted and Keira Knightley in Atonement.
Hollywood, she claims, isn’t an issue. Their understanding of the business and their backgrounds bring them together: “It’s like a big, warm shawl that feels like a safe place to be. We have a very Celtic house. We go up to Scotland a lot, and we were in Ireland last summer, which was great.”
Discipline in work and at home resonates with her: “The path of being a parent is to give a shit about your kids, which a lot of people don’t seem to. It’s important to discipline a child. It’s important because actually what you are doing is communicating the care. It’s very frustrating when you see lazy parenting and you think, that’s part of everything that’s going wrong. Where were all the parents of those 14-year-olds who were involved in the riots? I come from a very working-class family and there’s no way they would have allowed that to happen. Come home with something that had been stolen? Never.”
That uncompromising power will be used to full force in Berenice: “She has strength and dignity, huge passion and pride. It’s very muscular. It’s exhausting actually because great love is knackering. In this play there’s no subtext, there are never any masks. It’s the kind of role you fantasise about as an actor but at the same time, you have to summon it up. You have to fill yourself with the sea and then spray the ocean on to the stage – which is quite extraordinary. But if we can pull it off, it will really be worth it.
“The play will be very resonant for the audience. It’s about sacrifice, which we are not used to because we live in a world where we say, ‘well, I deserve to be happy’ as opposed to saying, ‘well, what does happiness mean in a greater sense? What would be the right thing to do?’”
A big lesson for our times? “Sometimes it feels like that.”
She acknowledges the world has become a harder place to find work and fulfilment: “There’s a lack of specifics and perhaps that’s why people can’t define the ladder they want to climb.” Do you still see that ladder? “I see it when I look at Penelope Wilson. I see it when I look at Judi Dench. Yes, of course I do. Because it’s not just about getting somewhere, it’s about finding something too.”
‘Berenice’ is at The Donmar Warehouse from September 27.