Hannah Murray interview: ‘I keep a sad face in my little box of tricks’

In ‘Game of Thrones’, Hannah Murray has truly gone through the mill. So hurrah for her new role

Your reaction to God Help the Girl, the film directing debut of Stuart Murdoch from indie-pop outfit Belle & Sebastian, will no doubt mirror your feelings towards the music of his band. Following three teenagers who start a band one long hot summer in Glasgow, it’s as skirt-twirlingly whimsical as any of their albums and as much of an acquired taste. Indeed, the soundtrack to this low-budget musical was already released as a Belle & Sebastian record in 2009; the film’s been in the pipeline for almost a decade.

And if God Help the Girl is just the sort of New-Wave-goes-to-Glasgow quirk-fest you’d expect from Murdoch, then Hannah Murray is just the sort of leading lady you’d expect him to pick: now 25, the actress became synonymous with a certain type of ethereal kookiness thanks to her breakout role as anorexic party girl Cassie in the era-defining teen drama Skins.

Murray has had an on-off relationship with the project: clever-clogs that she is, she was studying for finals in English at Cambridge at the point when she first auditioned for the film. Then Elle Fanning was attached to the part; then she wasn’t. Eventually, in summer 2012, Murray was finally cast – playing, weirdly, another Cassie, the fey, life-loving counterpart to her angsty fellow band members; depressive singer Eve (Emily Browning) and lovesick guitarist James (Olly Alexander).

Pale and interesting, she looks lovely flitting about in the film’s thrift-store costumes, that wafty blonde hair topped with a series of trendily daft hats (though Murray’s actually more of a jeans-and-T-shirt girl in real life, viewing red carpets and fashion shoots as the “Cinderella elements” of her chosen career). And she nails the adorable dance moves, looking like every pretty indie kid Murdoch has ever pulled up onstage at a Belle & Sebastian gig.

Indeed, it’s really no surprise she’s a massive fan. “It was such a no-brainer that [I] wanted to be involved. It was lucky it was good because I think I would have done any mess of scenes that Stuart wanted.” As for the inevitable accusations that GHTG is too twee? “Stuart has had a certain amount of flack in the past for being twee, and I don’t think he really cares. But that’s what is really nice about this movie, that it’s so distinctly one person’s vision. Some people are going to [hate it], and some people are going to love it.”

In person, Murray is stiller and more considered than you might expect from any of her performances to date, and very politely contradicts me when I suggest she might have been typecast again in GHTG. “I wonder if I maybe have a natural floatiness that comes through in everyone I play. [But] for me, this felt like the most different role I’d ever played – I’d played a lot of very damaged, unhappy people. Turns out you have a really fun time if you go to work every day and focus on being silly and funny and happy!”

Not that acting breezy is always easy. Thanks to her procession of victim roles – which, Cassie aside, have also more recently included the vulnerable Gilly in Game of Thrones, and a wounded, innocent French peasant on stage in the critically acclaimed Martine at the Finborough Theatre – Murray acknowledges she has “a little box of tricks, my ‘sad face’ I can pull out”. Not much use for the sunny Cassie in GHTG, though. And then there was the singing….

Hannah Murray (right); and with co-stars Olly Alexander and Emily Browning in God Help the Girl  

While Browning’s Eve leads the singing, rendering her journey through mental illness in music, Murray has a few numbers too. She has always loved singing – to herself – but she’d never done it publicly. Part of the appeal of the role was to force herself to try. “You go through phases: ‘this is amazing, what a challenge’, and then you hate it and are crying and so scared … but Stuart was very helpful. He wasn’t that interested in how you sound, he cares that it’s right for the character. It’s 90 per cent about confidence and attitude. Once I managed to get a hold of that attitude I realised what a joy it is to sing.” In the final edit, her voice may not be the strongest, but its lispy, wispy sweetness certainly suits the part.

Musical direction aside, how was Murdoch, as a first-time director? “He’s one of the most relaxed people I’ve ever met. Directing a film is so stressful, and this was very low budget, crazy hours … but he was loving it! There was this idea [on set] that it’s fun – people forget that and think they have to be tortured artists.”

 Even with sanctioned silliness, though, it sounds like Murray, Browning and Alexander might have had a little too much fun…. “It was probably a bit sickening if you weren’t part of our little gang!” she confesses. “The three of us got the train up [to Glasgow] together, a five-hour journey where we didn’t have seats, so we were all crammed up together by the toilets, which is quite a good bonding experience. We were this really awful little gang with horrendous in-jokes – it’s quite hard to fake that kind of friendship and I think it comes across on screen.”

Refreshingly, this trio of pals don’t become a love triangle, which would have been the clichéd  trajectory for a story like this. Instead, Murray’s Cassie remains BFFs with both Eve and James, without intruding on their romance or causing jealousy. “It’s so nice to see female friendship that’s really uncomplicated: they’re not competitive, there’s no bitchiness,” agrees Murray.

Female friendship takes centre stage in her next project, too; Lily & Kat, a US indie set to do the film festival rounds, is about how breaking up with a friend can be as hard as any heartbreak. Murray is Kat, the ‘bad girl’ of the lead pair: “She smokes all the time and wears leather – I never get to be that girl! You watch these two people be very horrible because they don’t know how to deal with the fact that they care so much. They just get really drunk and do awful things.”

Then, of course, there’s the unstoppable juggernaut of Game of Thrones, fast becoming the ultimate CV staple for up-and-coming British actors. “It’s nice, there are a lot of young people, I have a lot of really good friends from it. It feels British and it feels local – and then it’s this big hit in the States, which doesn’t compute.” She gets mobbed, now, in America, and struggles to get her head around it. “I love watching the show as a fan, but I’m just baffled to be a part of it. You can see [its success] from the outside, but then you’re in it and you can’t quite connect it with you.…”

What does she think is the secret of its success? “I think it’s escapism. There’s a reason why everyone might like Mike Leigh, but they don’t lose their shit and dress up as his characters! There’s something about a world that is not your own that excites people more than anything else.” She pauses, then adds with a little laugh: “I think everyone secretly really loves fantasy, but it wasn’t very cool before – they’ve made it socially acceptable.”

‘God Help the Girl’ is in cinemas from 22 Aug

Where are they now? Five Skins stars who made it big

Nicholas Hoult

He was already familiar to viewers thanks to About a Boy in 2002, but Hoult’s bad-boy Skins role was just one part of his transition from child actor to adult A-lister. Hooking up with Colin Firth in Tom Ford’s A Single Man also helped, as did the relationship with his X-Men co-star Jennifer Lawrence. He’s been a lead in everything from fantasy fairy tale Jack the Giant Slayer to zombie romcom Warm Bodies and the forthcoming Kill Your Friends.

Jack O’Connell

One of the second generation, O’Connell had a solo Skins show last year. It’s a wonder he could fit it in: he’s starred in Eden Lake, went topless in 300: Rise of an Empire, and had real acclaim as the lead in recent prison drama Starred Up. He’s also in Unbroken, forthcoming directorial debut of one Angelina Jolie.

Dev Patel

He might have played one of Skins’ goofier characters, but Patel was also one of the quickest to escalate his career, rapidly becoming the award-winning leading man of Danny Boyle’s Oscar-netting hit Slumdog Millionaire. Things haven’t quite stayed at that pitch, but a regular role in Aaron Sorkin’s US TV drama The Newsroom has kept him busy.

Freya Mavor

From the last generation of Skins kids, Mavor’s since appeared in historical TV dramas The White Queen and New Worlds, as well as in two Scottish movies, the acclaimed Sunshine on Leith and the not-so-acclaimed Not Another Happy Ending.

Kaya Scodelario

As one of Skins’ best-known stars, Scodelario returned for the 2013 specials. By then she had appeared in the films Moon, Now is Good and Wuthering Heights. There have been Plan B music video appearances, and a role as schoolgirl love object to Billie Piper in True Love. Watch out for her in The Maze Runner, the latest movie to be dubbed ‘the new Hunger Games’.

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