Juliet Stevenson: 'I'd much rather live a useful life than be rich'

One of Britain's best actresses is happiest when playing taboo roles – but would rather not suffer the awards shindigs that mark her success. Emily Dugan meets Juliet Stevenson

Let's not beat about the bush: most actresses would give a body part just to be nominated for a Bafta. An evening with the stars of stage and screen, being anointed the best of the best, would be one of the happiest moments of their lives. For Juliet Stevenson, not so much. It's not that she is ungrateful: she could not be more flattered. And the award itself is lovely. The problem isn't the gong, it's what comes after: the dreaded showbiz party.

Tonight's feast of air-kissing and glad-handing looms courtesy of her genuinely harrowing performance as a grieving mother in the BBC television drama The Accused. Stevenson is dreading the prospect so much, she has avoided even trying on her party frock. "I've been lent some dresses by Armani, which is very kind of them, but I haven't had the chance to try them on yet," she says.

"I find gatherings of the industry a bit of a challenge. I try to be grown-up and tell myself they're to be enjoyed but, truthfully, I don't. I don't quite know who I am at them: dressing up and all that stuff. I feel I'm playing some sort of role but I've got no script and no director."

Ordinarily, the actress takes along a touchstone of normality in the form of her long-term partner and father of her two children, the anthropologist Hugh Brody. This year, however, Brody is away for work so she has called on her teenage daughter Rosalind, an aspiring actress. "She will love it. My daughter will want me to head for the fittest-looking twentysomething young men, but I won't be. I'll be looking for my mates."

As well as leaving the dress to the last minute, writing an acceptance speech is low on her list of priorities. "I'm delighted to be nominated but I'm absolutely sure I won't win," she says.

Of course, this could all be construed as English reticence and false modesty. But it isn't. A few minutes with the actress as she makes tea in her north London home confirms that there are few household names whose lives can be more deliberately un-Hollywood than Stevenson's.

"Milk, no sug, yes?" she shouts, her head buried in the fridge. Filling a battered saucepan with water and plonking it on an Aga, she starts to clear a space for us on a table piled high with old bills, papers and letters.

It was not always thus. Twenty years ago, Stevenson seemed poised on the brink of global superstardom: the Keira Knightley of the time, only better.

After establishing herself on the stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Eighties, she made her film breakthrough, starring alongside Alan Rickman in the 1990 weepfest Truly Madly Deeply.

It seemed manifest destiny that she would join the roll call of British actresses who clambered up towards the Hollywood A-list. But, although she has rarely been out of work since Truly, she has maintained a relatively understated profile. In the Nineties she was nominated for three Baftas; now, aged 54, she has been shortlisted again. And she is unrepentant about her career path.

"I really don't aspire to do something that's not interesting, however glossy the frame around it," she says. "I've done a few films like Mona Lisa Smile, Being Julia and so on, but I haven't ever gone over to live in America, which is what you have to do to make it in Hollywood.

"They did try to get me to do that years ago, before I had children. I went to LA and was supposed to stay there and pursue a career, but I didn't feel comfortable hanging around in LA and schmoozing. It's just not my cup of tea."

So what is her cup of tea? The one she has made for me is really rather good. Strong, with just the right amount of milk. Not the sort of slosh concocted by someone used to having their beverages served by the help.

Perhaps this is another small clue as to why she has largely chosen British roles over Hollywood ones. She chooses quality over multimillion pay packets and glamour; a real home and family over flitting around the world.

Born to an army officer father and a teacher, she inherited a "thing about being useful", from her mother, mainly. "I'd rather be useful than rich. It's more essential to feel you're doing something that's worth doing, rather than making a lot of money," she says. "I wouldn't work at the Royal Court otherwise."

There has been no string of actor boyfriends: she has been with Brody for nearly 20 years now. And there was little glitz in the way they met: "at a friend's house one evening, at a small supper gathering".

She is grateful for the difference between their careers. "I'm very glad, personally, to be married – or rather living with – somebody who's not in the industry, because I think I'm a bit of an obsessive. I get very submerged in a piece of work, and I think if I lived with another actor, or someone who was in the same profession, it would be a bit suffocating."

She is fiercely proud of her husband. She genuinely seems to get much more enjoyment from talking about him than herself – an almost unique attribute in a profession dominated by narcissists. "Hugh's work is fantastically interesting," she says, wide-eyed. "He's doing incredibly valuable projects with the Bushmen in South Africa and Botswana, and has worked for a long time in the Canadian north with the Inuit. It's great to come home and talk to someone about work they are doing which is so exciting and different."

Which isn't to say she is less enthusiastic about her own job: she revels in difficult, ambivalent roles: think Paulina in Death and the Maiden. Her stint as the climate-sceptic scientist Dianne Cassell in The Heretic at the Royal Court showed her willingness to take on taboo subjects, despite her own left-leaning politics. The role won her plaudits from The Daily Telegraph while drawing anger from many on the left.

"The character I played is very resistant to science being spun; that's her argument. It's not mine, but I can't just play people who I agree with. You wouldn't play Lady Macbeth otherwise, or Medea. You can't always agree with the person you're playing; the main thing is the overall piece and what it's exploring. It's nice being in something a bit controversial. It's fun."

This spirit is also evident in her campaigning. She has become an increasingly outspoken voice on the treatment of asylum-seekers in Britain, a group that she has chosen precisely because they are unpopular.

"I've been more and more engaged with this subject over the past few years. It's a subject that is extremely unpopular and unsexy. We can all agree that children shouldn't be trafficked; we can all agree that child poverty should end; we can all agree that the National Health Service should be maintained and supported. I'm sure we'd all reach a consensus about those things.

"But we certainly don't agree about what we should do with asylum-seekers and it's partly because people simply do not know what the reality is."

The politics in Stevenson's latest project are much more historical. She is part of an all-star cast in the television drama The Hour, which goes out on the BBC later next month.

The series, which is set in the 1950s and is billed as the UK's answer to Mad Men, portrays the BBC as it struggles for its post-war identity.

Performing alongside an impressive cast, including Ben Whishaw, Dominic West and Romola Garai, she plays Lady Elm, part of the old school that believes the broadcaster should remain a mouthpiece for the Establishment.

Unlike many actresses, Stevenson seems to have had a steady stream of roles on both stage and screen, even in middle age, but she is frustrated that her experience is in the minority. "There's still a massive inequality between the genders. If you look at the trajectory of a male actor's career, there's no hesitation or hiatus. But women after the age of 35 to 40 are rarely placed in the centre of the story."

While the parts keep on coming, there are few signs of Stevenson being held back by her gender. The bigger question now is whether this usefulness-obsessive will carry on in an industry that is so often defined by its self-interest.

"Sometimes I think it'd be fun to do a completely different job for a while. You've got one life and you do the same job for the whole of it, and you think – was that a good use of a life?"

Before I have a chance to interject, she answers her own question: "I suppose it is, as long as I'm not getting worse at it."

Curriculum vitae

1956 Born in Kelvedon, Essex, to Virginia, a teacher, and Michael, an Army officer.

1965 Attends Berkshire's Hurst Lodge boarding school (her father's job meant the family were moving house every couple of years). Later attends St Catherine's School in Surrey.

1977 Wins a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she is part of a "new wave" of actors, including Alan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh and Imelda Staunton.

1978 Joins the Royal Shakespeare Company.

1984 Nominated for an Olivier for her performance as Isabella in RSC production of Measure for Measure.

1990 Appears in Truly Madly Deeply: nominated for Best Actress Bafta; wins Best Actress in Evening Standard British Film Awards.

1992 Appears in Death and the Maiden which wins her an Olivier and a Time Out award for Best Actress.

1993 Meets her long-term partner, anthropologist and writer Hugh Brody.

1994 Daughter Rosalind is born.

1999 Created a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List for services to drama.

2000 Son Gabriel is born.

2002 Plays Keira Knightley's mother in Bend it like Beckham.

2010 Nominated for Best Actress Olivier for her portrayal of a disabled musician in Duet For One.

2011 Bafta-nominated for her portrayal of a grieving mother in The Accused.

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