Anne-Marie Duff is a wonderful actress and wonderful to look at - those huge eyes, such dreamy skin! - which you'd think would be enough for anyone. It would me. But, oh no. Why settle for that? Why not also marry the equally gifted actor James McAvoy, who is dishy, dishy, dishy, and whom I've fancied like mad for ages. Cheers, Anne-Marie. Thanks a lot. As someone who is neither talented in any way nor wonderful to look at - those piggy eyes, such smoker's skin! - you'd think you could have left me with that one thing, or at least the hope of that one thing, but oh no, you had to have it all. A plague on you. A plague on both your houses, in fact. May your children be born with freakishly big feet and hair on their knuckles. May you go for the last bit of cheese in the fridge and find it gone. May the sex be a wash-out. Mind you, that sex scene in Shameless, the one in which you, as Fiona, and James, as Steve, did it so ecstatically against a kitchen cabinet, didn't exactly give that impression. Was it fun to shoot? Bet it was. "No!" she exclaims. Well, thank God for that, at least. That's some comfort. Really, though? No fun at all? Sex scenes, she continues, are never fun. No way. "It's like Sumo wrestling in knickers in front of a group of strangers," she says. "It's a closed set, so all the doors and windows are shut, it's boiling, everybody is dripping with sweat, you've got bits of nylon stuck to you with toupee tape and all you are thinking is: 'Does my derrière look the size of Canada?' " Anne-Marie, I say. It so did. I was even thinking of booking my holiday there. "Cheers," she laughs. "Thanks!" Don't mention it, I say. You're most, most welcome.
I would dearly like to say that Anne-Marie Duff is a bag and a hag and that my James will soon tire of her, but she isn't and I'm sure he won't, goddamn it. She is the business, I think, but she's guarded as hell. She and James, she says, have a pact to never, ever talk about each other. Her heart "is not up for public consumption". She is, she adds, fond of something Henry James said in The Wings of The Dove, which goes something like: "If you give too much of yourself away people will swallow without tasting." Fair enough, I say. Very sensible. But can I just ask one teeny-tiny thing? As I understand it, you and James live round the corner from me, so all I'd like to ask is: when James does the grocery shopping, f does he go to Tesco or the smaller, independent shop, Woody's? Come on, I only want to be able to gaze at him every now and then. She says: "I'm not saying." Tesco, then? "Not saying." Woody's, then? "Not saying." Goddamn her. May her bath overflow and her home insurance be out of date. Meanwhile, I hope she realises that she and James are going to have to put in a great deal of work if they're ever going to become the next Chantelle and Preston.
We meet at a rehearsal studio in south London, just round the corner from the Young Vic where she is due to open shortly as the blissfully conniving Lady Dunce in Thomas Otway's restoration comedy The Soldier's Fortune. I'm not just saying this, but I'm really keen to see it. She is such a wonderful actress. Indeed, as the director Howard Davies once remarked: "She throws herself at parts as if bruising herself on them." She is remarkably arresting to watch: as Elizabeth I for the BBC; as Cordelia in King Lear for which she was nominated for the Ian Charleson Award; and, of course, as Fiona in Channel 4's Shameless, for which she was nominated for a Bafta. Plus, she was nominated for an Olivier Award for her work in Collected Stories with Helen Mirren. "When I got to work with Helen, how lucky was I?" she asks. "Just to breathe that in." You know, I say, I think I've just worked out why so many blokes fancy Ms Mirren. Don't you think that, aside from everything else she has going for her - intelligence; talent; a rare kind of beauty - she looks like she'd be really dirty in bed? "She has got a twinkle," Anne-Marie says. She laughs again. Go on, Tesco or Woody's? "No!" She does not add: "Now, chop, chop. I've still got Grazia and Heat and In The Know to do."
She doesn't get the whole celebrity thing at all. Why would people want to read magazines like that? "It's not like you learn anything." Well, I suggest, you might learn that someone from Girls Aloud has a bit of cellulite and if that isn't worth knowing, what is? That's her point, she says. "All the magazines do is point fingers at people and laugh. Generally, it's about bullying and saying, 'Look at them, aren't they repulsive?' Or, 'Look at them, don't they have cellulite?' Because the readers don't? People are addicted to finding fault in other people. It's strange. It's very, very strange." So, you're unlikely to appear on any reality-TV programme, then? "I'd rather," she says, "pluck out my own eyelashes." True, she is quite a serious person, but if she weren't, I guess she wouldn't be the serious actress she is.
Anyway, although I suggest we retire to the pub opposite, she declines, so we end up in some featureless back room. I compliment her, first, on her eyes. I say I wish I had such huge, dazzling eyes. I say that if there's a next life and I can choose what I will look like, I'm coming back with eyes just like yours. She says they are all very well now, but that wasn't the case when she was little. "As a child, my brother used to call me Frog Eyes. They were this size even when I was four. I looked like a camel." She is plainly yet stylishly dressed in black shirt and jeans. Odd, to see her so nicely attired when we're so used to her in Shameless as Fiona, the bold, big-hearted sister in the New Look-ish wardrobe of pink velour and boob tubes and earrings like gold hula-hoops, only bigger.
I love Shameless, that aggressively funny and quirky series set on a Manchester council estate, written by Paul Abbott. It's just returned for a fourth series, minus Anne-Marie, who left with James (he played Steve, the charming car thief) after series two. A hard decision? Very, she says, "but I knew, creatively, it was time to move on. We filmed the second series for seven months and I just didn't want to be doing something for that long again that was the same. I think Paul was quite cool with that." Did you think, when you first received the script, that it was going to be the belter it became? No way, she says. "I thought it was very different to how it turned out. We all did. We thought it was a dark drama and didn't get the comedy at all. For some strange reason none of us sniffed that out. I thought it was brilliant and clever but we were all like pioneers, we really didn't know what we were doing as there had been nothing akin to it. It was uncharted territory." She was amazed, she says, even to be cast as Fiona. Fiona was meant to be 20 and Anne-Marie was 33 at the time (she's 36 now). She so got away with it, though. It's that terrific skin. What I wouldn't do to have skin like that. Meanwhile, may her bread always drop butter-side down.
She was born and brought up in the London suburb of Hayes. I say I've never been to Hayes. What's it like? "Just a suburb. It's not exactly a holiday destination." Her parents - Brendan, a painter and decorator, and Mary, who worked in a shoe shop - are Irish immigrants who met in Shepherd's Bush in the Sixties. What's your mother like? "A great woman," is all she will say. And what is your first memory of others acting? What's the first thing you saw that made an impression? She thinks it was the original television production of Shadowlands sometime in the early Eighties. "It was with Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom, I think, and I can remember it made everyone in the room cry their eyes out. I was very struck by the potency of that, the union of it, the fact that everyone was as moved as they were."
Anne-Marie was a shy child, which may have had something to do with looking like a camel, or may not have, but either way she was encouraged by her parents to join the local youth theatre which they hoped would bring her out of herself. Her older brother, she says, had already joined a few years earlier. "He was the one who was always the performer, actually. When we were tiny we'd do skits. I was always the straight man. I was always Ernie to his Eric. I was only there to make him look good! We'd do 'The Trail of the Lonesome Pine' by Laurel and Hardy, and Eddie always, always, got to be Stan Laurel."
She did all right at her comprehensive school - "you can only do so well because the bar isn't set very high" - then applied for London's Central School of Drama. She failed on her first attempt, left it a year, tried again and was accepted. She worked as "London's worst waitress" while studying. "I'm just so clumsy. I can remember spilling gravy all down a woman's shirt and she stood up to insist I was fired." Were you? "No, for some reason the manager had taken a shine to me and he insisted I stay on. Bizarre."
I reckon she must be pretty well-off by now. After all, she hasn't been out of work since leaving drama school. Are you good with your money? "I suppose I am. I suppose it comes from coming from a family where we didn't have a great deal of money, so you just think it's not always going to be around. When I was younger, the first time I earned money that was more than the Equity minimum I did blow it, but that's kind of your job in your twenties; to have a bit of fun and then be broke." We agree that we don't get "must-have" handbags. Must-have or what? Your guts explode out your ears? I say I saw one in a magazine the other day for ... wait for it ... £4,800! "That's some cow, isn't it?" she gasps. "I could never bring myself to spend that amount of money on a bag." She likes shoes, though, "but that's biological, isn't it. It's in a woman's genes."
What does she like to do that doesn't have any bearing on acting? She likes camping, she says. "I know, I know ... I'm a geek." I say that I refuse to go on any trip unless I'm sure that there is a proper lobby and a proper toilet involved. Camping, ugghhh. She says: "It is something you either love or loathe, isn't it?" She is also, and always has been, a big reader. "I used to be obsessed with the classics. When I was a teenager I read Hardy because it was full of passion and heaving bosoms and then I went though a big Dickens phase. I discovered modern literature quite late, not until I was about 25. I think Birdsong was the first book I read, and I went: 'Oh, crikey...' I'd been a ridiculous snob."
Anyway, she has to go back to the rehearsal now. Before you go, I say, please, please tell me which it is: Woody's or Tesco? "Maybe," she says, "it's both." Oh, terrific, now I have to ricochet between the two. Cheers, Anne-Marie. Thanks a lot.
'The Soldier's Fortune' opens at the Young Vic, London SE1, on 16 February and runs to 31 March. Box office: 020-7620 1011 or www.youngvic.org.Reuse content