From ice-cream seller to superstar: Susannah Fielding hits the West End stage

She started out working in the foyer at the National Theatre, but next week Fielding will star with David Walliams and Sheridan Smith in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Noël Coward Theatre

Susannah Fielding's debut as a professional actress was a baptism of fire. Six months before appearing at the National Theatre, she was an usher there, selling ice-creams in the foyer and sneaking off in her breaks to watch the actors warm up on the Olivier stage.

Then – bang! – there she was on it, starring opposite Zoë Wanamaker as her daughter in Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo, and being led by artistic director, Nicholas Hytner (following the death of the play's first director, Steven Pimlott).

She was a drama student at The Guildhall when she was introduced to the National's head of casting, Wendy Spon, days before a holiday abroad, and she didn't for a moment think she stood a chance of securing herself a role. "I was going to Thailand and she said she would probably have cast the part by the time I got back.

"I arrived back at Heathrow and heard a voicemail from my agent, who said 'Be at the National tomorrow'. Sometimes things conspire to help you out. I had come back with a big tan and the role in the play was for an Italian girl. It was one of those crazy, lucky things. I was one of the youngest people they could find; I'm slightly Mediterranean-looking and the Guildhall was happy to let me go…"

Wasn't she terrified, at 21, to be thrown in at the deep end? "I was terrified and very excited. In some ways, we [actors] are like racehorses. We want to get through the line and start the race."

Fielding, seven years on, still sports the tan and has a calm confidence that, at the age of 28, emanates a greater maturity. She also has the acting experience of someone beyond her years. She is in the final previews for Michael Grandage's A Midsummer Night's Dream (this is the second time she's worked with Grandage; the first was when he was at the helm of the Donmar Warehouse) and does not show any nerves at playing Hermia alongside Sheridan Smith's Titania and David Walliams's Bottom.

If anything, Walliams has a greater cause for nervousness, she thinks, given his comparative newness to the Shakespearean stage. Seeing his Bottom, though, did set her off at times. "I'm a bit of a giggler. I've loved watching David Walliams and his ideas come to fruition…"

To go back to her beginnings at the National, though, Fielding believes it was serendipitous, not least because of the personal resonance to the role: she played the daughter of a single mother, not unfamiliar terrain for Fielding, who grew up with a single working mother of her own in Portsmouth. It was her mother who inspired her love of words, before she attended a boarding school in West Sussex which inspired, in turn, her love of the stage. "My mother is very creative, but she didn't have the same opportunities. She writes plays in her spare time. She went back to university when I was 12 years old."

Fielding left the Guildhall to work on two more plays with Hytner in 2007 (both these productions counted towards her degree, so she could graduate with her classmates). What happened after this golden ticket into professional acting? Absolutely nothing, she says. She found herself struggling to pay the rent, occasionally crying into her cappuccino, but that's show-business for you: "I've had lots of times when I've had to go back to work in the pub! I've spoken to actors who I am in awe of who are just as insecure as people coming out of drama school. It never changes… Even if you're brilliant, it doesn't always mean the right project will come up. You just learn to have more faith and realise that something does always turn up."

Even so, Fielding hasn't had much of a problem finding employment. To date, she has not only worked with Grandage and Hytner, but acted alongside Patrick Stewart in Rupert Goold's Merchant of Venice in 2011 and before that as Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. She has also glimpsed another side to celebrity, finding herself the subject of tabloid speculation over her relationship with her actor ex-boyfriend, Tom Hiddleston, of whom there is no mention today.

Last year, she teamed up with Zach Braff – of Scrubs fame – on his black comedy, All New People. "He was incredibly generous and thoughtful. I didn't expect him to be like that, being a big American star." She played a "blonde, Californian prostitute with a boob job and a coke habit." It was a refreshing role, she says, and it epitomised her idea of acting – to play "the broadest spectrum of people" that bear little relation to herself or to her previous roles.

Fielding with Zach Braff in 'All New People' Fielding with Zach Braff in 'All New People'

 

It was at boarding school, Christ's Hospital, that she first fell in love with acting. "Somebody there said 'Why don't you think about going to drama school?' It had honestly not occurred to me that you could make a living out of this." Yet that was apparently all it took. She left school, aged 18, moved to London and put herself out there, doing whatever bits of theatre she could get her hands on, helping to shift the scenery – and she even got a one-line part in a semi-professional musical before the usher job at the National. "It wasn't groundbreaking stuff, but I was sure by the end of that year that acting was what I wanted to do – even though I had seen the reality of what that meant."

As far as this role in A Midsummer Night's Dream goes, she doesn't want to say too much for fear of giving away the production's surprises.

"It's contemporary. There will be things you'll recognise…" she says, quizzically. So women in skirt suits in the courtly world? "You're not far off." And the wood? Will it be a field in Glastonbury or some such lark? "There'll be a festival vibe to it, that's all I'm saying." She can say that she likes her role immensely, and considers it a meaty one, given the dearth of women's parts in Shakespeare – and in canonical plays as a whole.

"I think it's always desperately uneven because of the classical plays: female actors did not even exist when many of these plays were written."

She first noticed the uneven ground as a student. "There were 24 of us at the Guildhall and of those, only eight were female. I'm frequently with only two other women in a room when I'm in a play… But Tennessee Williams? Now he really does write women well."

Fielding as Lady Teazle in ‘School for Scandal’ (Rex Features) Fielding as Lady Teazle in ‘School for Scandal’ (Rex Features)  

Alongside the stage work, she has done plenty of TV comedy – ITV's The Job Lot with Russell Tovey, Channel 4's Pete Versus Life, and now a pilot for Drifters, written by Jessica Knappett (with Inbetweeners writers Iain Morris and Damon Beesley), which is "about people in their 20s who are a bit lost".

Comic roles are a gift, she says, because you spend your time laughing. Her comic heroes range widely, from French and Saunders and Julie Walters to [the comic actress] Phoebe Waller-Bridge. But women still tend to play the "straight-man" in much of mainstream comedy, she thinks. "Often the girl is the foil for the boy's comedy. Better parts need to be written for women, but there's no point in standing around moaning. Things are changing, and I hope I will add to that cause."

Older women's parts are another scarcity, in both comedy and drama. Actresses are not models, she says, so why is there such a focus on their bodies? "I find it really sad when my actress friends starve themselves for photo-shoots. Being an actress and a model are very separate things, and should be seen that way."

You won't find her dieting for a part, or lying about her age. Ever, she says.

That might come back to you when you're 40, I joke. "Yeah, right," she giggles; but the steely look remains.

'A Midsummer Night's Dream', Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2 (0844 482 5141) to 14 November

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor