How We Met: Anna Chancellor & Mark Umbers

'He's innocent and quite easily shocked, so I get a lot of enjoyment by trying to corrupt him'

Anna Chancellor, 48

Following an early role as Duckface in Richard Curtis's 'Four Weddings and a Funeral', Chancellor has carved out a successful career in film, TV and on stage.

I couldn't believe how incredibly beautiful Mark was when we met, in rehearsal for the Terence Rattigan play The Browning Version, in Chichester a couple of years ago. It's about the last days of an ageing schoolmaster and I played his wife. I knew I was going to have to enact a love affair with whoever played the character of Frank. Mark was well-mannered, but quite shy. So I wondered how it was going to work, as I was going to play a sexually voracious woman examining deep sexual frustrations with Mark's character.

We fumbled around a lot to begin with. I felt I was very overbearing and brutal compared with Mark. In rehearsals I'd leap on him and start tearing his clothes off, while he'd be trying to keep them on. I decided we needed to get to know one another to make these intimate scenes work. So in breaks, we'd go lie outside on the lawn and chat.

We're very different people; he's reserved, he studied Classics at Oxford, and he was a chorister, but very understated about all his talents. I'm more emotional and I'd tell him stories of when I was 21 and pregnant.

He had such a gentle manner that I started to become fond of him, and once he was over the initial difficulties we became quite free to have physical intimacy with one another without it being a problem. Sometimes when we were mucking about we'd do some sexy dancing together up on the stage. I'm older and married – and in a good relationship – which gave us a lot of freedom.

When The Browning Version transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End the following year, a companion piece [David Hare's South Downs] ran alongside it, which I was in, but Mark wasn't. But every day when I was preparing for that play, he'd come in to my dressing-room to hang out with me.

He's innocent and quite easily shocked, so I get a lot of enjoyment by trying to corrupt him. I tease and flirt and shock him by talking about things such as periods. I can be slightly brutal and filthy in that way. But I'm also so proud of him. He's in a play in the West End and I really want to encourage him, and for him to do well and enjoy life.

I don't think his classical good looks have been a help to Mark. When we first met I judged him [as being just a pretty face], too. But it doesn't represent the depth and breadth of his character. People who are very good-looking get projected on to, and he's had a lot projected on to him. But I feel as he gets older and less caught by those projections he'll find a greater freedom to be himself.

Mark Umbers, 39

Since appearing in the Trevor Nunn productions of 'The Merchant of Venice' and 'Troilus and Cressida' in 1999, Umbers has appeared in theatre and TV productions including 'Mistresses'. He lives in London.

Anna is a curious combination of the ultimate mother figure crossed with a femme fatale. I was aware of her from Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which she was in some incredibly memorable scenes. She brilliantly managed to depict this vain, uptight character, but it was nothing like the real Anna.

We met on the first day of rehearsals for The Browning Version, in Chichester, and I was introduced to her by a mutual friend. He said to Anna, "Do you know Mark?" And she replied, "No, but I'm about to know him very well; we're about to have a torrid affair." I realised instantly that we were very different.

She's very funny in quite a dry way and has a permanent sexy smirk. She's someone who's been there and done that, and she's unshockable. I, on the other hand, am incredibly gullible and I was constantly shocked at some of the things she said.

She was brilliant in the play, and I loved that she could keep the words alive: a lot of actors go stale quite quickly when performing night after night, but she remains alert and likes to shift things around a bit.

We stayed in touch at the end of the run, and when the play moved to London the next year, we saw even more of one another.

Professionally, I've always had an Achilles' heel with dancing, while Anna will break into dance anywhere; I've seen her do it in the street, in a coffee shop and even in a wine bar. She has less confidence in her singing. After the play finished and when I was auditioning for [the Sondheim musical] Merrily We Roll Along, she was about to do [Noël Coward's] Private Lives. I occasionally sing for a living, so she called me up to say how nervous she was about the moment when she had to sing this Coward song – she claims to be tone-deaf – so I offered to give her singing lessons. I was in this room with her and she was getting so stressed about singing that she started crying and sobbing with embarrassment.

She's a great deal ahead of me career-wise; she says that her career trajectory has been on a slight gradient. One of her catchphrases is, "Have you legislated for when you lose your looks?" As a woman she feels that if you get offered roles because of your looks when you're younger, chances are that those sorts of roles won't be there when you're 40.

Anna Chancellor appears in Noël Coward's 'Private Lives' at the Gielgud Theatre, London W1 (0844 482 5130, privateliveswestend.com) from 22 June to 21 September. Mark Umbers stars in 'Merrily We Roll Along', at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1, to 27 July (merrilywestend.com)

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