Alex Kingston: Fighting spirit

Alex Kingston is one of America's best-paid TV actors, with a luxurious LA lifestyle to match. So why did the ER star leave it all behind to appear in a mud-splattered British drama about Boudica?
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By nature, The Independent is a self-effacing newspaper. It displays an entirely proper sense of British reserve and modesty. It is not at all keen on blowing its own trumpet. However, it is more than happy for someone else to do so on its behalf - especially if that someone happens to be Hollywood star Alex Kingston.

Quite unprompted, midway through our interview she says that The Independent offers "the best journalism in the world". This is not, I hasten to add, just gratuitous flattery. It is expressed as part of the actress's deep concern about the state of the media in the US.

Kingston, who has now been based in America for the past six years and is one of the leading lights in the top-rated US medical drama, ER (where she is said to earn $150,000, or £90,000, per episode), shows no sign of wanting to abandon her very comfortable life in the US - and who can blame her for that?

And yet there is a part of the actress that will remain forever England. A charming, self-deprecating presence, she has not lost her refined Home Counties accent, or her sense of irony, or her sense of fair play. The daughter of a butcher from Surrey, she is down-to-earth and defiantly English. She freely concedes that even when she is installed in her luxurious LA home, she misses "the weather. I love those cold, damp, rainy days. The fog, the roast chestnuts, PG Tips tea."

Despite all those years surrounded by psycho-babbling lifestyle gurus, I'm mightily relieved to say that she has not gone all Californian on us. That is most obviously demonstrated by the actress's outrage that in the US virtually all criticism of Bush's policies has been deemed "unpatriotic" and suppressed. So when she was over here visiting family earlier in the summer, Kingston started reading The Independent's coverage of the war in Iraq and was reminded what the phrase "a free press" really means.

"It's so refreshing to read a different point of view. You realise how in America your opinions are controlled by a press that does not give you the full facts. When I read The Independent, I remembered that journalists are allowed to say what they feel about the government. The Bush administration may think it's always absolutely right, but it's good to be aware of alternative opinions. I miss that freedom of the press. I've been away from that for too long."

In addition, she is livid about the McCarthyite witch-hunting of anyone who dares voice criticisms of the US President. "It frustrates me," Kingston asserts. "And it's not just because I'm European - thousands of Americans share the same frustrations. A comic called Bill Maher hosted an irreverent current-affairs talkshow called Politically Incorrect, where celebs would come on and discuss topical subjects. In one edition, he wanted to provoke a debate, so he said that while the terrorists who had hijacked the planes on September 11 were many things, they weren't cowards. His show was instantly axed, and Maher lost his livelihood. Isn't he allowed to make an inflammatory statement in order to get a reaction?"

So goodness only knows what the American response will be to Boudica, Kingston's latest vehicle, which went out on ITV 1 on Sunday. Co-produced by the WGBH network in Boston, the film may well provoke strong comments in the current climate on the other side of the Atlantic.

Many strands of Andrew Davies's biopic about the feisty Celtic warrior queen could have been ripped from today's headlines. The wily old writer's script is full of such current buzz-phrases as "brute force - it's the only language these savages understand," "read my lips," "client state" and "the peace process".

At one point the Iceni leader, Prasutagus (played by Steven Waddington), is furious when Catus (Steve John Shepherd), the ruthless procurator with the marauding Roman army, suggests that the Ancient Britons are terrorists. "What you call terrorism," Prasutagus fumes, "we call defending our home." Prasutagus' even ballsier wife, Boudica (portrayed with characteristic spiritedness by Kingston) then wades in, urging her husband to resist the brutal invaders: "This is our land, and we'll fight for every last inch of it. If we die, we'll die a glorious death." Do these words sound at all familiar?

The sheer topicality of this tale of a defiant people fighting back against an imperialist invader proved irresistible to Kingston. "Andrew [Davies], in his usual naughty way, draws modern parallels," laughs the 40-year-old actress, who boasts the same stunning mane of hair as Boudica, but looks far more groomed and soignée now that she has finally cleaned off the woad. "He cheekily puts President Bush's words into the mouths of the Romans. In an early draft, the Emperor Nero even called his enemies 'the axis of evil.'

"Given what's happening in the world at the moment, you could easily liken the Romans to the Americans. I'm certain that Andrew was influenced by world events as he was writing Boudica," she says, before adding with a mischievous smile: "I will be fascinated to see the American reaction to the film."

There will doubtless be a lot of attention focused on Boudica in America because, thanks to ER, Kingston is now a major-league star over there. In her seventh season as the super-surgeon Dr Elizabeth Corday in the enduringly popular show, she enjoys third billing - behind Noah Wyle (Dr Carter) and Laura Innes (Dr Weaver).

She has gained some sway - and she is not afraid to use it. Kingston was, for example, able to influence the storyline following the death of her on-screen husband, Dr Greene. "I was adamant that Elizabeth would not be put straight into another relationship," Kingston recalls. "I wanted her to spend at least a year being a single mum. We had to allow the end of her time with Greene to settle and honour that storyline. But I know the writers are already planning a relationship for her in the new series."

Kingston arrived in the US at a low ebb after a very public break-up with her first husband, Ralph Fiennes, who in 1995 ran off with Francesca Annis, a woman 18 years his senior. She says that she went to America in order to "get away from that past and those memories" and "begin a new life". The Rada-trained actress has achieved that in spades. ER has given her a global profile that she could never have attained if she had stayed in this country appearing in well-regarded but worthy RSC productions (King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing) and art-house films (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Carrington).

Kingston admits, "I never imagined this would happen to me. I sort of imagined that by my age my career would have dwindled away and I'd have four children and live in a cottage in the country, growing vegetables. Whether ER will give me a lot more years in the industry or not, I don't know. What it has done is given me a lot more confidence to imagine that I could have a lot more years in the industry, and that I'll be performing like Jessica Tandy was, into my eighties, until I literally drop dead. That would be marvellous!"

The actress is also contented in her private life. Soon after coming to America, Kingston met the German journalist Florian Haertel on a blind date. "I started to relax and our relationship just progressed," she remembers. "I think a lot of Englishmen are uptight and not at ease with expressing their feelings, but having a relationship with Florian was never difficult."

For the past four years they have been happily married, and she beams as she talks about him. "Florian taught me to trust. I always wanted someone to be there for me. Someone to hold me, to love me. I wanted to be cuddled and held. But when Florian first did all those things, I couldn't handle it because I wasn't used to it. I'd built such a wall of resistance around me that it was too much. Florian has taught me to break that down and to accept all the love he wants to give, which is wonderful. We're amazingly in tune." Aaahh.

The couple underwent fertility treatment, which, according to Kingston, also "pulled us together. The shared experience created a bond that is incredibly strong. It had been hard when we were trying normally. I knew my ovulation window, and I would immediately attack Flo and say 'We have to have sex right now,' and he felt used."

It all proved to be worth it, though, when two and a half years ago she gave birth to a daughter, Salome. Kingston is still evidently bowled over by the experience. "It's amazing. All mothers will say this, but it's all at once fabulous, frustrating, exhausting and all-consuming. When you've believed for 10 years that you're never going to be a mother or go through the experience of giving birth, when it finally happens, you really appreciate it and never forget how lucky you are."

The arrival of a child has made Kingston re-evaluate her life. "It's not that I'm not hungry, it's just that I feel life is so much bigger than work," she reflects. "It happens to every actor who becomes a parent - your priorities change fundamentally. I love what I'm doing, and I'll do it till I die, but I'll always give myself breaks when I can spend time with the family. I feel blessed that I work, but I'm not driven to work all the time. I've earned enough money to choose not to work for six months if I want to. That's a very privileged position - I'll never take it for granted. It's so important to spend your free time with little people. They grow up before you know it. Childhood is gone in the blink of an eye."

For the time being, Kingston's only worry is the patriotism that is foisted on youngsters in America. "In most schools there," she sighs, " children have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag every morning. That stunned me because young children won't know what they're saying. They should be allowed to choose whether or not to say it. I remember people used to laugh about the Chinese making their children do that, but what they do in American schools is surely not that different."

Despite her qualms about aspects of US politics, Kingston is very settled in LA. After some turbulent times in the past, she is now - to borrow that excruciating Californian-ism - "in a good place."

She and her family lead a tranquil existence out of the limelight in a quiet part of town. "I live a very boring life," she reveals. "We were never heavy party-goers, and we don't go to the top restaurants. Basically I'm just with my husband and daughter and the dogs. We are very low-key."

Her life in LA sounds infinitely preferable to what she endured while filming Boudica. Shot outside Bucharest in the bleak mid-winter, the production was, in Kingston's words, "a huge ordeal. We went through a lot of difficulties getting the project started - it seemed as if the spirit of Boudica didn't want us to make it. It was absolutely the wrong time of year to be filming in Romania, but the snow and the slush made us feel like Celts. We certainly toughened up - there were no luxuries. But we had the great British trench mentality - literally. We just sat in the mud and pulled through."

Kingston came to revel in the discomfort. "I loved getting down and dirty," she declares. "My face and body would be covered in dirt and grime, and my nails were filthy. Sometimes at the end of a long day's filming, there was no water left for us to wash it all off. So we would get into our cars for the one-and-a-half-hour drive back to the hotel and then stomp through the reception area covered in blood and gore."

So how would an American crew have dealt with these most insalubrious conditions? Kingston does not hesitate with her reply: "Oh, everyone would have walked off the set immediately!" Clearly, you can take the girl out of England, but you can't take England out of the girl.

The new series of 'ER' will be on Channel 4 in the New Year