Emma Chambers: From dappy Alice to parasitic Sheila

Emma Chambers, 38, is best known as the dappy Alice in The Vicar of Dibley and as Hugh Grant's sister in Notting Hill. She has also appeared in a number of stage productions including Tartuffe and Invisible Friends. She is currently touring with the Michael Frayn play, Benefactors, in which she stars opposite Neil Pearson. Emma is married to the actor Ian Dunn. The couple live in Hampshire and London.

Have you always wanted to be an actress?

I think so. I enjoyed showing off as a little girl and went on to do lots of plays at school. I was at a girls' boarding school in Winchester called St Swithuns. I was given the opportunity to do a lot of acting at Winchester College, where I also got to meet boys. At that age I was a mad little muppet who loved boys. I never did anything and was very square, but I giggled a lot. I also played lacrosse for Hampshire and toyed with doing that. But I think I always knew I would act.

Tell me about 'Benefactors'

It is a play written by Michael Frayn about two couples and their idealised views on life, relationships and architecture – which never quite live up to reality. My character, Sheila, is married to a very controlling and unloving husband. The only way she can survive is by visiting the couple next door, through whom she lives vicariously. She is a parasite, feeding on other people's happiness.

What is it like to return to the theatre after seven years?

It is frightening. I felt like giving myself a shot of terror and I am definitely doing that.

Sheila is a very different character to Alice in 'The Vicar of Dibley' ...

Yes, and that was a calculated decision. I have just had a two-year break from acting and I wanted to dip my toe in, to remind myself why I went to drama school in the first place. I had fallen slightly out of love with the job.

Did you miss acting?

Not at all. I am a very private person and I have other things that I enjoy.

Such as?

Tending to the courgettes in my garden, lots of walking and lots of food. I am mad about cooking.

When was the last time you got drunk?

Oh dear, it wasn't long ago. I am very embarrassed. I booked Neil Pearson, Sylvestra Le Touzel and myself into what I thought was a rather charming establishment in Milton Keynes, but it turned out to be not what I expected at all. I was rather stressed at having let my friends down. We all had to move hotels sharpish. That night we had only done three hours of the technical rehearsal when I raided the mini-bar. I wasn't very well the next day. That was a week ago, but I have been very good since.

Are you anything like Alice?

I'm not sure. You do inevitably bring yourself to a role. Like Alice I am vulnerable, emotional and caring, but I am not thick. I think she is gorgeously naïve, like a child. And that is one thing I am not: I am a cynical old bitch.

What was your wedding day like? Were you followed down the aisle by Teletubbies?

No! My wedding was very short. I was playing the lead in an Alan Ayckbourn play and was only given one day off. My sister, Sarah Doukas, is a model agent and one of her bookers made me a dress which cost £180. I still look at it in my wardrobe and think it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The wedding itself was in the New Forest. I loved it because I had never had a big party before as we had always been on the move when I was a child.

My father wasn't there for personal and geographical reasons – he lived in Australia. But I had been living with Ian McKellen and he was a sort of father figure to me. We didn't have a honeymoon. I was back at work on the Monday.

Do you believe in God?

I don't know. Sometimes. Sometimes I think I very selfishly believe in God when I am pleading for something or other. Sometimes I desperately hope that there is a God.

Has the fact that you are more famous as an actor than your husband ever caused problems?

No, because he is just such a lovely man. He would never think about it in that way. He couldn't be more supportive, happy and pleased. He just glows with pride.

What was it like working with Julia Roberts?

I just remember thinking, "You are completely beautiful" and smiling a lot, so she probably thought I was a lesbian, which I am not.

What is the weirdest dream you have ever had?

I am a voracious dreamer and I have had the classic anxiety dream a few times before starting this play. I am on a stage, in a play, but it is Oklahoma!, and I am standing in front of an audience thinking, "But I can't sing!" and, "Where's the script?" It is absolutely terrifying.

Is today a good hair day or a bad hair day?

It's an interesting question. I am having to curl my hair with tongs for the play so I have burns all over my face. They look like love-bites. I have also had some colour put in it, so it feels a bit like a Brillo pad by the end of the evening. But this morning I washed my hair and so it feels a little softer than usual. So as far as I am concerned today is a wonderful hair day, because my hair actually feels like hair.

'Benefactors' opens on 25 June at the Albery Theatre, London

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