Keeley Hawes: Life after Spooks

Keeley Hawes is a fine actress, a proud mother, a witty interviewee, extremely gorgeous and married to Mr Darcy (well, Matthew Macfadyen, anyway). Liz Hoggard isn't jealous. Not a bit of it
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If you pay close attention to the video for Pulp's 1995 hit "Common People", you'll spot a delicate, dark-haired girl dancing her heart out. Before she became a full-time actress, Keeley Hawes paid the rent doing pop videos. "I'm the one doing a little dance a bit further along from Sadie Frost," she recalls. "Jarvis Cocker came up afterwards and said [she affects a northern accent], 'That was really cool'."

In fact, Hawes's CV is pretty impressive. She's also the girl in Suede's "Saturday Night" and James's "She's A Star". And these days, of course, she is best known for her more recent role as MI5 agent Zoe in Spooks. But, age 19, she began her career in edgy, auteur-driven films (Dennis Potter's Karaoke, Deborah Warner's The Last September). Then she shot to fame playing the young Diana Dors in the TV film, The Blonde Bombshell, which led to a series of ingénue roles in costume dramas: The Moonstone, Wives and Daughters and Our Mutual Friend.

The other reason Hawes is famous, of course, is for her relationship with Pride & Prejudice star Matthew Macfadyen. They met on the set of Spooks in 2002 and it was a coup de foudre. "Matthew just came straight out with it and said, 'I love you,' in the rain one day. I thought, 'Oh dear, here we go'," she later recalled. Hawes left her marriage of eight weeks (her son Myles was only two) to be with Macfadyen. Predictably the tabloids had a field day.

But it would be a pity if her personal life eclipsed her work. Because Hawes is a fine actor who makes brave choices. She was the dazzling male impersonator, Kitty, in Andrew Davies's adaptation of Tipping the Velvet. And most recently she was a murderous Lady Macbeth in BBC1's modern-day version of the Scottish play.

Although she is now very happily married to Macfadyen (they live in Twickenham with Myles, five, and their one year-old daughter, Maggie), work is incredibly important to her. "My God, I'd be the worst, most depressed person if I stayed at home every day of the year. It would be awful for me and my family. I've nothing against stay-at-home mums, but I would become unbearable, such a horrible, miserable bitch."

I'd expected Hawes to be reticent, frosty even, after the press intrusion she's endured. She's got a bit of a reputation for crying during interviews (last year The Daily Mail ran a prurient piece headlined "Touchy Keeley"). But in fact she's delightful company. Very bright with a strong sense of mischief.

If anything she's more beautiful in the flesh with grey-green eyes, pale skin and a fine bone structure (the film director Robert Altman once compared her to a prize racehorse). After a series of blonde roles, she is back to her natural dark colouring. "This is because I got a box of Nice'n'Easy and threw it on my head. It's gone a bit dodgy really. My colourist is John Frieda, who looks after Madonna's hair, so I usually book out an entire day to go there and listen to all the stories. But I can't get to see him until next week." Is she a low maintenance girl? "I love fashion, I adore it. I love the madness of it. But I simply don't have the time for another full-time job. I already have four!"

In fact for the past 18 months, Hawes has been surrounded by an " embarrassment of men". At Christmas she played Fancy Day in Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree, where she had to choose between three male suitors (to our chagrin she turned down The League of Gentleman's Steve Pemberton).

"I think it may be the last virgin I play," she says archly.

She filmed Macbeth in the kitchen of a celebrity chef, with an all-male cast. "They're such boys," she says indulgently. "At one point, I'd been a bit naughty, having a giggle at James McAvoy, who played my husband, and Joseph Wilson. Then it was my turn to do Lady Macbeth's slipping into madness speech. So they got me back by standing up behind the camera and mooning and bending over. I love having a laugh like that."

And in Michael Winterbottom's superlative A Cock and Bull Story, where she played Steve Coogan's wife, she was literally tripping over male comedians. "David Walliams would come in for an afternoon, then Stephen Fry would appear with his mother. It was quite surreal," she recalls. "Once I was rehearsing around the table with the most frightening bunch of people you could imagine. There was Steve Coogan and Stephen Fry and Dylan Moran and Rob Brydon - and me. I sat there in silence for so long that Rob leaned over and hissed, 'Would you just keep it down?'"

Do comedians bring a different energy to straight actors? "Totally. And they do play off each other, as you would imagine. They're pretty competitive and quite often it's not hidden, in a way that actors would never let show. You never let your feelings surface as an actor unless you really hate someone. You'd never be that honest, I think."

She's very proud of A Cock and Bull Story, although filming was creative chaos. "We had a radio mike on us all day and you never quite knew when they were filming. You sign your life away because a lot of it's improvised. And the South Bank Show were filming us at the same time, so they were shooting a fake crew shooting a real crew, with everybody miked up and too terrified to speak."

I mention that Winterbottom films often have a dangerous erotic charge.

"There are no money shots in Cock and Bull," says Hawes firmly. "That bottom you see in the bedroom scene with Steve isn't mine. I was eight months' pregnant at the time, so it was very silly. I've never laughed so much. Can you imagine what it was like for Steve on top of me, trying to cover up my big belly? For the nude scene, I got to choose a body double with a beautiful hourglass figure who could get up and leap across the room. The funny thing is when Matthew saw a screening, he was like, 'Oooh', and I said, 'That's not me!' So good to know my own husband couldn't tell."

Next she is a woman caught up in a volatile male friendship in the new ITV thriller, The Best Man. Like so many ITV two-part dramas, it's a love triangle where you spend most of your time playing spot the serial killer. But it's redeemed by a great cast (Hawes, Toby Stephens and Richard Coyle).

"It was such a lovely experience filming with both of them," she enthuses, "although it was very hard to keep a straight face. They've just got funny bones. I've worked with Richard twice before. In Wives and Daughters he came f on for one day and asked me to marry him, and I shoo-ed him off. Then I did Othello with him where he fancied a bit of Desdemona, but I was having none of it. Then finally, third time lucky, he gets hitched to me in The Best Man!"

As for Stephens, "You want to take him home and tuck him up. He's been so well brought up." In fact Hawes worked with his mother Maggie Smith on The Last September and is an unabashed fan. "She's my role model. I hold her in such high esteem, she's faultless. And hilarious, she's got it all. I was constantly pestering Toby for titbits, 'Did she mention me? What did she say?' It was really quite sad."

Hawes doesn't come from a theatrical background herself. She is the youngest of four daughters born to a London cabbie. The family lived in Marylebone and every day she walked past the Sylvia Young stage school. She badgered her mum for lessons and eventually got in on a free grant. She stayed for 10 years and school mates included Emma Bunton ("I lived with her for six months. We used to go on caravan holidays"), the Appleton sisters and Denise van Outen.

Hawes left home at 17 and worked in a casino. Then she was spotted by a modelling scout on Oxford Street and signed up by Select. But this was during the Kate Moss grunge period and Hawes openly admits she couldn't stay skinny enough. "I really was the worst model of all time," she says, "because my arse was too fat and I couldn't be bothered to go on diets and things."

Eventually, she ended up doing work experience on magazines with the vague aim of applying to Rada. Hawes can remember the exact moment her life changed. "I was sitting in the fashion cupboard at Cosmo sorting Jimmy Choo shoes, the lowest of the low. Then the phone rang. It was the agent I'd had as a child. She said that the casting director Mary Selway had seen a photograph of me in an old Spotlight magazine and wondered if I was still doing acting. I went to meet Mary and she put me forward for a role in Dennis Potter's TV play, Karaoke. To my amazement I got it. Mary said, 'Now you really must get an agent, darling, and stop messing around'."

Even so, Hawes admits, it took her a long time to believe this could be a career. Today you sense she is ambitious rather than ruthless. She says she and Macfadyen are a good balance temperamentally: "He's very calm. I'm the fiery one." She radiates happiness and finds it hard to stop talking about him. But she's far from smug. The breakdown of her first marriage to the cartoonist Spencer McCallum was devastating. (Hawes described the subsequent experience of divorce as "horrific - up there with death as one of the worst things that can happen".) She eventually married Macfadyen in a quiet ceremony at the Richmond-upon-Thames register office in November 2004 when she was seven months' pregnant. But three years on, things seem far more amicable. McCallum lives nearby and helps out with the childcare.

Hawes filmed Macbeth four months after giving birth to Maggie. "I'd just finished breast feeding so all those emotions were very close to the surface." In one scene, her character, Ella Macbeth, described the experience of having a stillborn child. "It reduced me to tears every take. But I love that scene because it makes you understand her more as a woman. Otherwise when it translates to TV, you just have this greedy, selfish character."

Hawes and Macfadyen aren't a typical showbiz couple. You won't find them hanging out at glitzy premieres. "It's not as much fun as people make it look," she confides. "When you both work, any chance you get, you go home. I prefer watching movies on the sofa, rather than sitting next to Bob Geldof at a premiere and wanting to kill yourself."

Does she mind sharing Macfadyen with his fan club (London is currently plastered with adverts saying "Take Darcy home tonight!")?

"I think he is absolutely brilliant in Pride & Prejudice and it's very difficult to judge your own partner, I find it almost impossible. But I watch that and I think he's such a brilliant, generous actor to work with - and to watch. He's really wonderful," she acknowledges, collapsing into giggles. "And I don't think anybody's very good really."

"He's got so much integrity that man," she continues. "After Pride & Prejudice you couldn't move in our house for scripts - good and bad, the whole spectrum. Anybody else - well, 95 per cent of actors that aren't used to that - probably would have made their way through them. He literally sits there saying, 'No, no, no.' That's all you ever hear him say: 'I'm really sorry but it's not for me. I'm so sorry.'"

Then just in case Macfadyen sounds too much of a paragon, she reminds me that when the South Bank Show filmed him backstage in rehearsals at the National for Henry IV last year, he managed to announce in the opening credits, "Right then I'm going for a piss!" "When we saw it on TV later, Matthew was like, 'Ooooh, no, my grandparents will be watching this.'"

Hawes is just about to start filming a new TV drama about autism with Ben Miles (Patrick in the BBC sit-com Coupling). "It's based on a true story of a couple who had a son who was severely autistic," she says. "He went to a special school, she had to give up her job as a nurse to dedicate her life to trying to bring him out of this world. Then they got him a dog and - miraculously - he began speaking to the parents through the dog. And now this boy is 18 with 10 GCSEs and he's going to collage. It's a lovely story but totally unsentimental."

And she'd like to do some theatre. "It's a brilliant platform to surprise - and push - yourself. I'd like the discipline actually because telly can make you a bit lazy. But it's a Catch 22 really because if you do TV people think you don't want to do theatre. I've been sent a couple of scripts that haven't been quite right. I think if you've not really done any before it has to be the right thing because people will be waiting for you to fall on your arse." She'd love to work with the director Deborah Warner again. "The Last September is the thing I'm most proud of really. If I had time to save only one thing from a fire that's the one I would pick."

As a teenager Hawes was described as "having the face of a boy and the body of a woman". She's matured since then. She admits she's broody for a third child. "I'm 30 tomorrow - 30, oh God. But it's very strange because I'm suddenly going up for things and being told I'm too young. I've been around for quite a long time so often people think I'm older than I am. But it's a good position to be in, I think, because if I have my children young, I'm very happy with that. And when I get to the age where I can actually play mothers, I won't be sitting at home pregnant."

A couple of days after our photographer visited, Hawes had her hair cut into a Louise Brooks-style bob, in a bid for sophistication. She tells the story against herself with wry humour. "I had it done in a mad moment in New York. I was quite pleased with it but then as soon as I walked back into the room, my little boy Myles went, 'Ooh, hello, Willy Wonka'."

'The Best Man' is on ITV1 on 20 & 21 March