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

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

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star