There's something about Mary Nighy

As Mary Nighy, the daughter of two celebrated British actors, makes her directing debut in the West End, she explains why the theatre's a good place for women now
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Mary Nighy decided to become an actress when she was at junior school. She promptly made her first film when she was 11 – a gothic ghost story – and then found herself being directed by Sofia Coppola in Marie Antoinette as Princesse de Lamballe, the regal confidante to Kirsten Dunst's Queen Consort. She was 21 and studying for her finals, with a script in one hand, she remembers, and a compulsory Eng Lit copy of Chaucer in the other.

By the time she had got her degree from University College London and won her scholarship to the National Film and Television School, she had a bustling CV: she had directed two plays and was on her way to making her second short film, along with the acting roles. By 2005, she was among the UK Film Council's roll call of "Breakthrough Brits", plucked out as a star of the next generation.

Perhaps none of this is surprising, given that her father is Bill Nighy and her mother is Diana Quick. It might even be proof of genetic hard-wiring, or the inherited advantages of hailing from an acting household. But then again, Nighy could easily have veered in the opposite direction, feeling the weight of expectation and the fearing failure by comparison. Both her parents are clearly present in her face, wavering on the fringes of her fine, slightly slanted features. Yet she feels no burden of expectation nor competitiveness, she says, despite the fast and furious CV building.

It certainly helped to have two good actors in the house to look up to, but she didn't go to them for favours, she says. "I'm so lucky to have them as my parents for lots of reasons. One of the reasons is that they make really good work. We're very close and I'm lucky that they understand what I do... But I didn't really go to them. For example, I was going for auditions and I got Marie Antoinette, so I did that. The play I directed while I was at UCL was because I thought 'I want to do this'."

In 2003, she starred in the acclaimed TV drama, The Lost Prince, alongside her father, though she hadn't planned it that way. "It was a coincidence. I went to the audition and I got it. I didn't ever see him on set."

Since then, she has not worked with either parent, and it seems as if the tireless workload is a way of forging her own way. Her latest project takes her to the Soho Theatre in London as the director of Shallow Slumber, a play about a social worker (starring the 2010 Olivier Award nominee, Alexandra Gilbreath) and her relationship with a young mother (Amy Cudden). The two-hander, written by Chris Lee [a jobbing inner-city social worker and playwright] is vaguely reminiscent of the kind of real-life controversial cases involving children, mothers and social workers that occasionally hit the headlines. What it dramatises for Nighy is the negative aspects of motherhood – a subject she thinks is still relatively taboo on stage and screen.

"More than the Baby P case, Chris was referring to near-misses in his own inner-city borough," says Nighy. "It's a story of a damaged mother and her social worker who has a troubled history herself. The play asks philosophical questions – how much free will there is to how we turn out, and who does the judging in our lives. The young mother character lives on an estate and is an explosive, articulate character, who says at one point: "Only rich women get to be bad mothers unsupervised."

Her work has so far been diverse, exploratory, flitting from stage to screen, and from in front of the camera to behind it. She starred in The Fine Art of Love, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2005, and co-starred Jacqueline Bisset. She has written and directed several short films and plays. Two feature films are in the pipeline. She is, she says, still to decide on where her home will be, in acting or in directing, though she is tending towards the latter because "I want to tell the whole story."

If there are traces of a theme emerging in the stories she tells, then complicated motherhood is one of them. There is the troubled, eloquent mother in Shallow Slumber, but there have been many previous others: Be My Baby – a drama by Amanda Whittington about a mother who sends her pregnant 19-year-old daughter to a religious home – was her first serious play at Westminster School, aged 16. In 2008, she made a short film, starring the late Pete Postlethwaite ("He was a wonderful man, exemplary, I can't tell you how professional he was in his level of preparation") and Celia Imrie, about a single mother's relationship with her talented pianist son. She is also beginning work on a film adaptation of the Royal Court play, A Miracle, by Molly Davies, about a young mother who must make a choice between her baby and her partner who has just come back from fighting the war in Afghanistan.

She is juggling a third project for which she has lived in Paris for the past two months, to research a film based in Paris of the 1960s. She won't be pushed to reveal any further details, but she will say that it has been an eye-opening experience in more ways than one. Having been immersed in British theatre for most of her life, she found French theatre to be vigorous and full of innovation. Her respect for French cinema has also grown – "Jacques Audiard is the man who most excites me".

The love affair seems to be two-way: contrary to common perceptions, Parisians adore us Brits. "I'll let you in on a state secret. They love the British accent. They sell things by writing 'So British' on adverts."

Paris is a good place to be for a 27-year-old Englishwoman, it seems. Yes, she says, and so is the film and theatre industry in general. "I'm very encouraged by the [women] film and theatre directors. There was Kathryn Bigelow getting her Oscar, which was huge. Sofia Coppola is an inspiration. There's [the French director] Claire Denis in film, there's [the joint artistic director] Emma Rice at Kneehigh Theatre. There's a great visibility for women in theatre and film," she says, "and I'm very excited by it."

'Shallow Slumber', Soho Theatre, London W1 (020 7478 0100; www.sohotheatre. com) to 18 February