Helen with her father Iain McCrory
THE MAGIC BEGINS: A character you’d like to see more of on your dashboard → Narcissa Malfoy”If you attack my son again, I shall ensure that it is the last thing you ever do.”
Most treasured possession My grandmother gave me a cross that was carved by her father in the First World War trenches. I’d definitely save it if the house was on fire.
Designers I love so many but a short list would include Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, Armani and Roksanda Ilincic.
Make-up There are many products that I think are great, but I often don’t use them for their intended purpose. I like Dermalogica Total Eye Care, for example, but I use it to keep my lipstick looking matt.
Film I wept all the way through Saving Mr Banks recently. The film moved me because it’s about how the writer invented a family – through Mary Poppins – for herself because her own had been so awful.
DVD Damian recently bought the whole collection of the Marx Brothers movies and we’re ploughing through them. Duck Soup is a favourite.
Style Icon Cate Blanchett is the epitome of effortless chic.
Book We read a lot to the kids and one of my favourites is The Muddle-headed Wombat, probably because it was read to me when I was young.
Holiday We’re about to go to Marrakech for a week. I’ve never been to Morocco, and Damian will be there working with Nicole Kidman on a new Werner Herzog film, Queen of the Desert. The kids, my dad and I are going along for the ride.
Favourite city I love London but, equally, I’d be happy for us to move around as a family. Gully was born in America and already the children have been to Italy, Spain, France, South Africa and the US.
Helen McCrory has asked for our interview to take place at an unpretentious gastropub just around the corner from her home in Tufnell Park, North London. She arrives without fuss or fanfare, on foot, dressed simply in a parka for warmth over a black skirt, opaque tights and a well-cut black blouse that she picked up in a little shop in Paris. ‘Fashion mecca for 5ft 2in midgets like myself,’ she laughs.
She is, indeed, tiny, yet the straight-backed posture, deep gravelly voice and ultra-posh vowels of the diplomat’s daughter that she is make her seem, somehow, statuesque. Jewellery-wise, too, she wears nothing more than a plain titanium engagement ring and a wedding band that she agreed to have made from more expensive platinum, after some badgering from her husband Damian Lewis, the actor and star of the hit TV series Homeland.
‘Not that you can really tell the difference,’ she says, rotating the rings for my inspection. ‘When my dad saw them he said, “What is Damian, a bl**** plumber?”’ she hoots.
Helen, it seems, is a woman of contrasts. Cut to our photo shoot, three days earlier, in the plush surroundings of the royal suite of the Goring Hotel in Belgravia (her suggestion). On that occasion, it was diamonds all the way – hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth on loan from De Beers, Cartier and Asprey (who frequently lend the sparkle to Helen’s red-carpet outfits). ‘Oh, it was so much fun,’ she says.
The gloriously over-the-top shoot – complete with a security guard for the diamonds – had appealed to her sense of theatre, and she’s nothing if not a brilliant actress. Frequently referred to as a kind of ‘Judi Dench in waiting’, she has all the acting credentials to support the accolade.
She’s at home in the big classical theatre roles, most recently co-starring with Julie Walters and Rory Kinnear in The Last of the Haussmans at the National Theatre. Her film roles have included Cherie Blair in The Queen, Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies and Mama Jeanne in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. On the small screen she has played a raft of roles including the older woman who falls for a much younger man in Tony Marchant’s Leaving.
Now aged 45 – five years away from 50, the age at which she reckons a woman is at the height of her allure – the parts keep getting better. In the coming year we’ll see her returning to her role as Aunt Polly in the second series of BBC’s quirky period gangster drama Peaky Blinders and appearing alongside Kate Winslet in the Alan Rickman-directed movie A Little Chaos.
Today, however, we’re here to talk about her upcoming role in Tommy Cooper: Not Like That, Like This – the Simon Nye-scripted ITV biopic that examines the double life of one of Britain’s most iconic comedians. Helen plays Mary Kay, the mistress that Tommy loved until the very end. ‘Although, in the final analysis, she was the other woman and, as such, entitled to nothing,’ says Helen.
It’s all a far cry from the love and stability that Helen herself has found with Damian and their two children, Manon, seven, and Gulliver, six. Here the actress, who describes her life as ‘incredibly blessed’, talks about being one half of Britain’s acting power couple and making hay while the sun shines.
I didn’t want to be in a tawdry kiss-and-tell drama. Tommy Cooper’s an icon and we needed to respect his memory and his family’s feelings. Still, it was important to be honest and to show that, behind the comedy mask, there were problems. He was an alcoholic, who could at times be violent. He was self-obsessed, tortured, narcissistic and fanatical about his work. Plus he had two women – his wife Gwen, or Dove, as he always called her, who stayed at home with the kids, and Mary Kay, the stage manager who went on the road with him and was his mistress. More than anything, the drama is a fascinating look at that love triangle and Tommy’s guilt about it.
Mary wasn’t your average home wrecker. She was quiet and unassuming – happy to be in the background. You wouldn’t have clapped eyes on her and thought, ‘Aye, aye, there’s trouble!’ On the other hand, she was married herself and had no qualms about having a 15-year affair with Cooper. Not that she ever asked him to leave Dove. She made no demands at all, which most women – myself included – would have struggled with.
Mary was with him the night he died. She was in the wings when he collapsed from a heart attack on stage at Her Majesty’s Theatre. She travelled in the ambulance with him, but he was dead on arrival at Westminster Hospital. There’s a poignant scene where Dove, played by Amanda Redman, and Mary pass each other and exchange a knowing look in the hospital corridor. Mary’s on her way out and Dove’s coming in to assume her rightful place as the grieving widow. It broke my heart a bit that Mary wasn’t even invited to the funeral.
Tommy came from a blue-collar background and that made his double life even more fascinating. It wasn’t the kind of thing you’d expect from a traditional, working-class Welshman. Of course, if we’d been making the drama in France no one would have understood why it was a story at all. Quoi? It’s only the English who care about men having mistresses, isn’t it?
David Threlfall is amazing as Tommy. And you can’t overestimate how hard it is to play a public icon. He had prosthetics and padding to get the physicality right, but the real triumph is how he captured the mad, cigarette-and-booze-fuelled energy, the perfectionism that drove Tommy to practise tricks 30 to 40 times before going on stage, the way that there was only ever one topic of conversation – Tommy himself. David completely nailed all that.
The experience reinforced what I thought about comedians. They’re different from actors. Everyone laughs and calls us luvvies but mostly we’re nice people who are kind to each other because we appreciate how tough it can be – the periods of unemployment, what it’s like to be in the sun one minute and out in the cold the next. Whenever I’ve hung out with comedians, they seem a lot more competitive. If someone tells a joke, it’s never the comedians who laugh – they’re too busy trying to think of something funnier.
I’d rather be considered funny by a man than beautiful. And humour has always ranked highly for me, too, when it comes to men. It was definitely Damian’s humour that I fell in love with first. Give me someone who can make me laugh and I’m prepared to go to the end of the world with him.
We fell in love working together in 2003. We were in the play Five Gold Rings at the Almeida. The play was awful but it did bring us together at exactly the right moment in our lives and for that I am truly grateful.
It’s a very happy marriage. But not, of course, a fairy tale. We don’t skip around the house in gingham, with bluebirds in the kitchen. We can argue and don’t necessarily like each other all the time, but I have never felt anxious with Damian or thought for a single second that I wanted to be somewhere else.
It’s lucky that both our careers are going well. We know couples where one is thriving and the other isn’t and that can be so hard. It helps that we constantly want the best for each other. Damian is my greatest champion and I am his. I mean, really, I am just so proud of him.
I couldn’t watch the final episode of Homeland. And I was horrified that they were going to publicly hang Damian’s character, Nicholas Brody. A crane was going to hoist him up by the neck in front of a baying crowd in an Iranian public square. I said, ‘Really? I definitely won’t watch that!’
I found a lot of Homeland unbearable. In fact, I stopped watching around the time that someone urinated on my husband’s face and kicked him in the groin. Damian always laughs and says, ‘It’s acting, for God’s sake!’ And I say, ‘Yes, but when the lights go down so does my IQ.’ I’m a perfect audience member because I believe everything I see.
Our children are vague about our jobs. In fact, Gully thinks Damian’s a rock star and Homeland’s a band – perhaps because we never discuss acting in the house and mostly admire musicians. Manon’s more aware and recently asked me about Harry Potter. I explained that, yes, I was in that story. The way we explain our job is to say that we’re storytellers and that, just like children, adults like stories, too.
It’s important to keep the job at bay. It must be odd for a kid to watch their mum pretending to be someone else’s mum, or killing someone or falling for someone that isn’t their dad. So we don’t expose them to it. We also switch off the email at weekends because we don’t want our kids competing for attention. What can be so important that someone needs a reply on a Sunday? There’s no such thing as emergency acting, is there? I’m not a doctor!
Our house is chaotic. It’s stuffed with books, toys, clothes, arts and crafts. Currently, Manon’s making an entire doll’s house out of shoe boxes, complete with little clay figures.
I’m a very relaxed mother. But then my parents weren’t neurotic either. They gave my brother and me unconditional love and support and made no gender distinctions. I was never told, ‘You can’t do this, you’re a girl.’ It may account for why I’m instinctively a feminist now and am raising my daughter to be one too.
I am still so close to my parents. They’re my best friends and my worst fear would be losing them. It’s to do with my childhood, again. Moving around all over the world with my father’s job meant that my mum and dad were my stability. To me they represented home.
I used to be a fearless jump-off-the-cliff type of person. But since having children, I’m much more belt-and-braces. My other worst fear now is that I’d leave my kids without a mother. And that comes, I think, from my own fear of being left.
Having children leaves you emotionally ‘peeled’. Before kids there were times when I had to dig for the emotion of a role; now it constantly threatens to overwhelm me. I can cry at the drop of a hat. Even when I saw Ragtime the Musical at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park a couple of summers ago, I blubbed like it was Schindler’s List.
We don’t choose our children. At the moment Manon and Gulliver are completely charming and wonderful. But I know fantastic people who have children who have, say, mental illness or drug addictions, and no amount of love will heal that. Of course, I hope that Manon, for example, will come home with a ‘First and Proud’ sticker and not one that says ‘Pregnant at 15’. But you can’t control the outcome of everything.
I used to turn down roles involving nudity. But it was Damian who eventually said, ‘You can’t keep saying no, no, no. You’re missing out.’ So last year I played a middle-aged woman in love with a much younger man in the TV drama Leaving, and the love scenes made total sense. I found them much easier than I’d feared and, actually, rather liberating.
Nude scenes are easier when you’re older. At 20, you have no control. But at 45, I feel I’ve earned the right to ask the director, ‘Where are you putting your camera? Can I see a playback?’ I’m due to shoot more nude scenes in another episode of The Penny Dreadfuls later this year and I’ve had the conversation already with the director, producer and writer. I’ve said, ‘OK, I’ll do this, this and this, but not that.’ You don’t have that kind of control as a young actress.
I love the ease of being older. At 20 you’re thinking, ‘Do I look OK in this? Does he love me? Will I ever be an actress?’ But at 45, with any luck, you know yourself and what suits you, you’re stable in your life and work. It’s such a total relief.
I don’t understand why people worship youth. I prefer the French way. I spent years growing up in Paris, where older women are appreciated. At the age of 12, I went with my father to an ambassador’s ball and was stunned not by the pretty young girls in their teens and 20s but by their mothers, whom I found toweringly beautiful. One in particular was a lady in her 50s who sat and talked to me. Her hands were beautifully manicured, her skin translucently lined, she was all elegance and calm. I can remember thinking, ‘This is when you’re at your most powerful.’ And I still feel it now.
The past couple of years have been extraordinary. Damian and I have sat at the same table as the Obamas at a White House state dinner and were guests of honour sitting with Mick Jagger and Hugh Jackman at the Met Ball in New York. I’ve had lunch with Martin Scorsese, too, when he invited me to take the role of Mama Jeanne in Hugo, and though part of me reckoned he must be confusing me with Helen Mirren, I thought, ‘I’m having lunch with him anyway!’
We appreciate the glamour but are never happier than when at home. The four of us hanging out, making pancakes on a Sunday morning, is my idea of heaven. We recently got a whole new stack of vinyl and we play it and dance around the kitchen, as we have since Manon and Gully were born. It’s in those moments that you think, ‘I have never been happier in my whole life.’ And the wonderful thing is that we know it. (x)