Helen McCrory: Memories are made of these

Helen McCrory stars in a Pinter play about rewriting the past. Isn't that a departure from the sensual roles she's known for? Not at all, she tells Sam Marlowe
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In an old interview with Helen McCrory, there's an eye-catching account of her first day at a rough Bletchley school. The story goes that the young Helen was sent home in disgrace after defending herself from a skinhead schoolboy thug (who threatened her with a knife) by breaking his arm. Sitting opposite the delicate, dark-eyed heroine of this tale, I try to picture the scene, and I have to ask: is it true? "Did you read it in a paper? Then what do you think?" replies the actress with a throaty laugh. "No, of course it's not true. It was me being rather sarcastic. I've soooo learnt that irony does not read well in print."

In an old interview with Helen McCrory, there's an eye-catching account of her first day at a rough Bletchley school. The story goes that the young Helen was sent home in disgrace after defending herself from a skinhead schoolboy thug (who threatened her with a knife) by breaking his arm. Sitting opposite the delicate, dark-eyed heroine of this tale, I try to picture the scene, and I have to ask: is it true? "Did you read it in a paper? Then what do you think?" replies the actress with a throaty laugh. "No, of course it's not true. It was me being rather sarcastic. I've soooo learnt that irony does not read well in print."

That's the trouble with the past - it's constantly being rewritten. And that's an idea that's very much at the forefront of McCrory's mind at the moment. We're sitting in a smart east London hotel bar over white wine and a plate of tapas that McCrory ordered but has yet to touch. Instead, she's smoking hungrily in between struggling to find the words to pin down her role in Harold Pinter's Old Times, a gripping three-hander about memory and identity, which Roger Michell is directing at the Donmar Warehouse.

In Pinter's play, first presented by the RSC in 1971, the fortysomething Deeley (Jeremy Northam) and his wife, Kate (Gina McKee), are visited by Kate's old, and once closest, friend Anna (played by McCrory), whom Kate hasn't seen for 20 years. As they recall their different versions of the past, they find their most cherished certainties, about themselves and one another, thrown into doubt. McCrory, who as an actress assumes other characters for a living, and who is accustomed to finding herself and her personal history reinvented by the media, has evidently found much in the piece to relate to. In a melodious voice of gravel and golden syrup, she says she has often been astounded by journalists' accounts of her, and points out, "We're both sitting at this table now, but later you'll go away and write up this interview, and when I read it I probably won't recognise myself."

Still, the basic facts of McCrory's past seem solid enough. The daughter of a Welsh mother and Scottish diplomat father, as a child she lived in Cameroon, Tanzania, Paris, Scandinavia - and, yes, briefly, Bletchley. "Travelling definitely makes you less scared of change," she affirms. "I've never confused staying in one place with stability. And it makes you really interested in people other than yourself. And very adaptable." She says she's sure these were factors in her choice of career, and claims she "can't remember ever not wanting to act". She set her sights on a place at London's Drama Centre - a school notorious for its mercilessly candid method training. It was hard, but it obviously did the trick - scarcely had she graduated when Richard Eyre cast her in Trelawney of the Wells at the National Theatre.

She has worked solidly ever since, both on stage and on screen, and at 35 she has a CV littered with Shakespeare, Chekhov and notable new-writing work, as well as a string of meaty television roles and major films including Charlotte Gray, The Count of Monte Cristo and Interview with the Vampire. The constant flow of offers has meant she's been able to pick and choose her projects.

"I've been really lucky," she says. "Theatre doesn't pay much, so I don't have the biggest flat in London, and I don't see my friends as much as I'd like. But I haven't had to compromise on my work. It's a real honour to be given that opportunity, and I do feel that you shouldn't waste it. If you are lucky enough to have a choice, choose the stuff that interests you, that's going to make you happy, rather than what other people might think would be an intelligent career choice or would get you the biggest bucks. Life's too short."

Her huge eyes shine and her face is full of feeling as she speaks, and it's not hard to see why McCrory is so often cast in highly sexual roles. She delivered a pair of mesmerising beauties in Sam Mendes' two swansong productions at the Donmar, Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya, giving performances that saw her described by critics as "utterly bewitching", "riveting" and "luscious". On TV, her Anna Karenina was breathtakingly sensual, and in the recent BBC drama Charles II, playing opposite her one-time offscreen romantic partner Rufus Sewell, she sizzled.

So how does she feel about being required so often to be overtly sexy? "Oh, it's a real bummer," she drawls in a voice dripping with faux ennui. "No, it's great! What I enjoy is exploring sexuality from a slightly different angle, rather than just aesthetic beauty or the obvious Britney-type sexuality. Sexuality starts in the brain. What I would see as totally unthreatening a man might find terrifying, and something I would find terrifying a man might find a turn-on. I find that difference fascinating."

And oddly, although most people remember Charles II as highly explicit (in one scene her character bit off the penis of a dead bishop), in fact there was, at McCrory's own request, very little actual nudity. Referring back to Old Times, it's a perfect example, she points out, of viewers remembering what they think they saw, rather than what was actually there. "I think there was a shot of my bare back for about two seconds. Otherwise all the sex was done clothed, and of course it was far more sexy that way. Because then you have to use different parts of yourself to seduce. Seduction may start with a strip, but it's a strip of somebody else's brain and heart - that's sexy." She pauses, takes a sip of wine, then adds mischievously, "I'm not denying the nudity is quite good too, when it arrives, but you know what I mean!"

But despite her sharp wit and forthright manner, McCrory is not always this self-possessed. Her portrayal of Anna Karenina drew unflattering comparisons with Greta Garbo, who famously played the role in the 1935 film, from some critics. The implication was that McCrory was no match for Garbo's classic beauty.

"I was totally confused by it," she says, bridling at the memory. "Our whole production was totally different from that film. And I kept thinking, what's Garbo got to do with Tolstoy?" She breaks off, and her manner softens. "It's funny talking about this, because there's a part of me that thinks, I'm an actor, it's part of my job to do interviews. But there's another part of me, as Helen, as a person, that feels very vulnerable. Because I was really hurt by some of those articles. Nobody actually said, 'she shouldn't have been cast in that role', but they hinted at it. You sort of feel, well, I was cast, someone must think I can do this. But then you end up defending their choices, which is tough. Because I'm confident about my material, I'm confident about Pinter, but I'm not confident about me."

Perhaps, perversely, it's partly this that makes McCrory such a fine actress. Far from being egotistical she is, she says, "much more comfortable subjugating my personality to someone else's. I'm an interpreter. That's my job. Acting isn't about you." Her greatest fears, professionally, are "bad scripts and bad directors. It'd be like you working for a crap magazine, asking questions you don't care about of people you quite frankly would hate to find in your front room." Unsurprisingly, she regards celebrity culture, and the marketing of individuals as products, with deep contempt. "I think what disturbs me about the whole idea of it is that it's a lie," she frowns. "People don't look like that, or behave like that, the world isn't full of happy endings. And the more you keep telling people that it is, the more terrified and lonely they feel when they see that's not what their life is like. And that's not the job of an actor, or of a playwright. It's to reassure the audience that life, as muddled and as wonderful as it is, is worth living. And that pain is just as much a part of it as pleasure and happiness." She's become quite genuinely enraged and emotional in the course of this speech, and it's followed by a pause so lengthy as to be positively Pinteresque, as she glares out of the window and I wait for her to recover. Finally McCrory breaks the silence. "Sorry," she says, laughing it off. We wind up, and I leave her to tuck into her tapas at last.

As for pleasure and pain, it sounds as if there will be plenty of both in Old Times - she tells me Pinter himself, who dropped in to watch a run-through just before our meeting, said "he'd never been as moved by a production of this play". Coupled with McCrory's passion, that sounds like a pretty good guarantee of a memorable piece of theatre. I'll remember meeting McCrory, too - and she's welcome in my front room any time.

'Old Times' previews from tonight at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (0870 060 624), then runs 7 July to 4 September

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