It’s been a year of firsts for British actress Ruth Wilson. Currently running on Broadway, “King Lear” marks her first professional Shakespeare play, her first time singing in public, her first time playing a role written for a man (likely the first time both Cordelia and The Fool have been played by the same actress), and her first time sharing the stage with the mighty Glenda Jackson. (It’s Wilson’s second Tony nomination.)
And in the past year, Wilson finally said a firm goodbye, after five seasons, to playing her Golden Globe-winning Long Island beach girl in Showtime’s “The Affair.” And the BBC’s BAFTA-nominated “Mrs. Wilson” is the first time she developed, produced and starred in her own television series – in this case, based upon her own grandmother’s story. Playing Alison Wilson could yield her first acting Emmy nod.
It’s surprising that her sexy husband-stealer role in “The Affair” or serial killer Alice Morgan in “Luther” (Season 5 is playing on BBC America) never generated Emmy love. But “Mrs. Wilson” offers a tragic true story that Wilson, having enjoyed telling for years, finally decided was juicy enough to bring to the small screen.
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Growing up, Alison Wilson behaved like your everyday grandmother, fixing lunch, picking the kids up after school. Ruth had no idea that after her grandfather Alexander Wilson died, his wife took vows as a secular Catholic nun. The revelation that he was a British spy with multiple wives and children was revealed to Wilson’s family in stages. Her grandmother wrote a two-part memoir; she shared the first, which revealed one of her husband’s other wives, with her two sons; the second came to light after she died, when Ruth was 21.
“When she died, we then discovered two more wives,” said Wilson, over a post-Saturday matinee lunch of salmon and Brussels sprouts. “They got in touch with my uncle; he was the point of contact with two other families investigating their father. As the family puzzle was solved, connections were made: my dad has six half brothers and sisters they never knew of. We had a family meeting with 55 members, it was very emotional and moving. It was an extraordinary story – I never got bored of telling it.”
One of the sons had hired researcher Timothy Crook, an expert in espionage and spy writers, who helped to report the evolving story. (British intelligence are still keeping some records sealed.) “We might never know who he really was,” said Wilson, who has been working on the project for eight years. “I still don’t know who he is or what his justification was for any of this.”
The project came alive when she agreed to produce and star. “I decided I would play her,” said Wilson. “It was the only way to protect her. I was showing all sides of her, I didn’t want to shy away from her complicity in the relationship and her denial. I’m much more interested in telling a version of the truth and being brutally honest about how people were living their lives. My grandmother, if she is to believe or accept what he’s done, her whole life falls apart. She strives to find out the truth and has a desperate need not to hear it, to wish it were something else.”
Wilson has always been willing to portray the characters who are not as book smart as she is, from Long Island waitress Alison in “The Affair” to Alison the constrained and proper British stenographer in “Mrs. Wilson.” “I suppose I connect with what drives these characters emotionally,” she said. “The piece to me feels of its time. For a woman to divorce or to openly be illegitimate was completely shameful, and would have been also for her sons. It was frowned upon by the church and the local community. She was protecting them. My dad and uncle are glad she didn’t tell them right away, that they learned in their 50s when they had families of their own and could deal with it rationally.”
Wilson’s return to Broadway came after theater and television director Sam Gold (“Fun Home”) directed the final episode of “The Affair.” He phoned her to offer the role of Cordelia, King Lear’s spurned youngest daughter. Wilson politely suggested that there wasn’t much to chew on. But when he threw in the second juicy part of Fool, she was tempted. “I wouldn’t get offered Cordelia much anymore,” she said, “I might not have this opportunity again.”
Anyway, Wilson was eager to return to the theater. “I go with my instincts,” she said. “I need a play every few years to get to physically perform. Television and film are more claustrophobic, more internal, with the camera up here, close to you. On stage you are expressing yourself to the auditorium, it’s more physical, you have to do it eight days a week.”
Although Wilson commands considerable stagecraft – see Tony-nominated “Constellation” opposite Jake Gyllenhaal on Broadway, or the National Theatre’s “Hedda Gabler” – Lear’s Fool is a tricky comic role usually essayed by veterans like John Hurt. “He speaks in riddles 400 years old and the jokes are outdated,” she said. “He doesn’t have an end, you don’t know what happens to him, he disappears. I find him quite mystical as a character. He’s part of Lear’s mind. As Lear’s mind goes mad he starts to leave the play. He’s got one foot inside the play, one foot with the audience, you can create what you want with him. I needed to make him relevant. How am I going to get underneath this guy and make him work for the audience? I haven’t done much comedy, so I wanted to bring some lightness into it. I love him, he’s a truth seeker. It lets out a different side of me, the real foolish side.”
In one scene she sings and dances on a table – requiring knee pads. She had fun playing with gag props – including patriotic American socks and a big carrot stuffed through a hole in her pocket. “How do I make this joke work?” she asked. “It was dying every time I’d do it.” Sometimes Fool imitates Lear, and in one memorable sequence, Wilson shadows him from behind. Gold initially wanted Fool to look identical to Jackson’s Lear, but they eventually found a bowler-hat, flat-foot Chaplin style.
Singing Fool’s two Shakespeare songs for the first time in front of composer Philip Glass was daunting. “It was frightening, it felt like drama school,” she said. “He was generous, allowed me freedom to bring the character into the songs.”
Wilson also had to contend with Jackson, who famously does not suffer fools of any kind. “She’s ferocious. Her voice penetrates to the back of the Gods,” said Wilson. “I would try things out and if she didn’t hit me, it would stay in. She occasionally would tell me off. I had to say, ‘okay.’ As it’s gone on, she’s become more tactile on stage, which wasn’t the case six weeks ago. It’s grown as we’re performing. I like that. It allows the tenderness of Lear, which you don’t see in the rest of the play.”
Both Cordelia and Fool are truth seekers, said Wilson, “One of which is a woman who Lear dismisses. He listens to Fool, who’s a man. There are lots of sexual dynamics in the play. Shakespeare himself has played the two roles.”
Wilson enjoyed playing opposite several women in key roles, including not only her two sisters but the usually male Duke of Gloucester. “Quite often women are on our own with men, in movies and Shakespeare,” said Wilson. “It’s a wonderful bunch of strong and talented women bouncing off each other, a lovely energy. It’s a great cast; we all come from different avenues, so rather than homing in on one central place, Sam let it all be chaos. He’s saying ‘the world is chaos, people are disconnected.’ We are all in different plays.”
There’s no question, says Wilson, that the best roles for women are in television. She’s back for Season 5 of “Luther,” and there’s talk of a spin-off for Alice that has yet to become reality. “I love that character, she’s so fun to play,” she said, “but I felt that you have to frame it right. It has to be inside her world, which is a different place, a different genre. You have to think carefully about what that might be.”
And theater allows a freedom to control your performance every time that long-running television series do not provide. “I love mini-series,” she said. “There are more and more of those that are six or eight episodes long. TV series are a novelistic form, where the story has to repeat itself, and you can get slightly trapped in what the audience wants or expects, and characters end up doing the same tropes. Moving the stories forward on those TV series without an end is hard.”
Like many actresses, Wilson has been dissatisfied with available movie roles and has moved into proactive development via her own production company. On “Mrs. Wilson” she loved “seeing how it all works,” she said. “As an actor you think you’re so important. I had never been involved in having a say working with the writer, being in the edit and seeing it come together, adding the music.”
Wilson turns down many film roles that come her way, “until something is challenge to me,” she said. “I love film and I want to do more of it. I want to work with brilliant filmmakers, but invariably I find the parts really surface. I found that quite early on with ‘Lone Ranger’ and ‘Saving Mr. Banks.’ The roles felt like women crying after a child; they were small, there was not enough there, they were written so simply. There was not enough to sink my teeth into.”
One exception was a juicy supporting role in “The Little Stranger,” Lenny Abrahamson’s follow-up to “Room,” which failed at the box office. “It was a total character piece,” she said, “there was real misery at the heart of this woman.”
Finally, Wilson is returning to series television this fall with the eight-episode launch of Philip Pullman’s trilogy “His Dark Materials,” one of HBO’s hoped-for fantasy replacements for “Game of Thrones.” She agreed to star as Marisa Coulter, the same role Nicole Kidman played in “The Golden Compass,” because Wilson adored the books, which lean more adult than child, she said: “They’re anti-God, intelligent. Lyra is the new Eve.”
Her character Mrs. Coulter is “the mother of all evil. She’s very powerful,” she said. Like all the characters, she is accompanied by her spirit animal, a golden monkey, played on-set by an actor with a puppet. “I don’t speak to it. I abuse it, so it’s full of self-loathing.” Tom Hooper directs the first two episodes; HBO is about to shoot the second season. (Season Three will depend on how the first two play with audiences.) “Logan” star Daphne Keen stars as Lyra, along with James McAvoy as Lord Asriel and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby.
Next up, Wilson produces again with Jude Law; they have acquired rights to Deborah Kay Davies’ book “True Things About Me,” which is in development with writer-director Harry Wootliff at BBC Films for them to star in together.
Wilson is also developing an unsolved Australian true crime story into a podcast. “I’m interested in mixing and playing with the fact and the fiction,” she said. “Podcasts are fascinating, we could do horror. It’s intimate. Radio is for the whole room. A podcast is one person speaking into your ears, it has such potential to be frightening.”