‘She didn’t give a f*** about convention’: Katrin Cartlidge was the greatest actor you’ve never heard of

Before her death in 2002 at the age of 41, the British actor marked herself out as a performer of unusual depth and daring. As her star-making film ‘Naked’ is re-released in cinemas, Adam White speaks to Mike Leigh, Lesley Sharp and David Thewlis about her on-screen magnetism and off-camera brilliance

Thursday 11 November 2021 06:30 GMT
‘She threw herself into things, she was a free spirit, and she took no s*** from anybody’: Katrin Cartlidge in 1994’s ‘Before the Rain’
‘She threw herself into things, she was a free spirit, and she took no s*** from anybody’: Katrin Cartlidge in 1994’s ‘Before the Rain’ (Polygram/Alamy)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


In the summer of 1997, 11 British women gathered on the promenade of the Cannes Film Festival, each having been anointed as young, talented, and soon to be famous. Kate Winslet stood on one end of the line-up, a few months away from Titanic. Nearby were Rachel Weisz, Emily Watson and Lena Headey. Also there, sandwiched between Kate Beckinsale and Anna Friel, was another, and the only actor in this murderer’s row of Nineties up-and-comers you may not immediately recognise. Katrin Cartlidge was tall, enigmatic and bewitching, the coltish scene-stealer whose torso had decorated the poster for Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), and who had parlayed that film’s success into a thrilling career working with filmmakers including Lars von Trier and Lodge Kerrigan. She was one of the greatest actors the UK had ever produced.

Cartlidge died unexpectedly in 2002 at the age of 41, reportedly from complications of a rare tumour. What she left behind – considering she starred in just a dozen or so films in her lifetime – is startling. “We can lament the fact that she stopped being with us,” Leigh tells me, “but the small clutch of films that she will be known and remembered for are a legacy. People should watch them and celebrate her.”

“When you get to the end of a career, or the end of a life, and look back at your body of work, the money and the [acclaim] is great,” says Lesley Sharp, her friend and co-star in Naked. “But actually, it’s what has meaning to you that’s truly important. She understood that earlier than a lot of other people do.”

As Emily Watson’s protective sister-in-law in Breaking the Waves (1996), Cartlidge is a vessel of pure, unconditional love. In Leigh’s underrated Career Girls (1997), she effectively performs two roles in one: a twitchy university student, and the far more polished yet emotionally reserved woman she grows up to be. In Leigh’s earlier film Naked, which is being re-released in cinemas this week, she plays Sophie, a lost young woman spellbound by the arrival of David Thewlis’s Johnny. He’s an alluring genius whose thoughts and theories tumble out across the living room floor like dominos, and before long Sophie is hanging on his every word.

Cartlidge had enormous range. Metropolitan beauties. Tender realists. Vigorous anarchists. Most compassionately, though, she played the women we pretend we don’t see – ones who are stifled or self-destructive, who seem to fall through the cracks in the world through no fault of their own. “Why do we always have to fall in love with our leading ladies?” she once asked. “Why can’t we be just intrigued, or puzzled, or horrified, or amused?”

You don’t so much hear of Cartlidge’s brilliance as discover it by accident. Outside of the industry and critics’ circles, she wasn’t a name. Her ascent occurred pre-internet, and many of the interviews she gave were in print magazines with no digital footprint today. Her chameleonic qualities – from the constant changes of her hair colour to the way she seemed to modulate her speech pattern and accent in every role – made her difficult to pin down. Naked and Breaking the Waves are also anchored by colossal performances by Thewlis and Watson, with Cartlidge providing understated ballast. Indeed, her supporting turns are so fundamental to the power of those films that you can’t imagine them working as well without her. Who is that, you find yourself asking.

Cartlidge and Lesley Sharp in ‘Naked'
Cartlidge and Lesley Sharp in ‘Naked' (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

In Naked, Sharp plays Louise, Johnny’s ex and one of Sophie’s flatmates, a woman by turns protective of Sophie and endlessly exasperated by her. Sharp and Cartlidge had first met in 1987, during a National Theatre workshop for a play. “To me, who was blonde and squat and northern, she was the total antithesis,” Sharp says. “She was so glamorous, like a racehorse. Those cheekbones and those beautiful, dark, intelligent eyes. I think she had this effect on people when she was in a room. There was something compellingly attractive about her in all senses. You leaned in to her.”

Back then, Cartlidge had already been vaguely famous and hated it. While she had had no formal training, drama classes at London’s Royal Court theatre had led to a role in Channel 4’s Brookside in 1982. Her character – a stroppy teenager forced to drop out of her posh private school and move into the eponymous cul-de-sac with her family – was immensely popular, and she’d be pestered on the street by baying fans. Bemused, she’d quit the show less than a year in, deciding to tour Manchester schools with a theatre troupe instead.

“I don’t think she gave a s*** about fame and all the attendant bollocks,” says Amy Raphael, author of Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh. “I think she was in it for the process and the craft, and the kick she got out of creating complex characters. I think that’s why people in the acting world still talk about her in the way they talk about her. If you’re really honest, it’s quite rare to be someone who just wants to act.”

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Leigh first spotted her in 1989, in a Steven Berkoff production of Salomé at the National. “It was very heightened, over-the-top stuff,” he remembers. “But she was outstanding, and I auditioned her.” He offered her the part of Sophie while she was touring Salomé in Tokyo, and she quickly fell in love with his filmmaking process – a rigorous one based on improvisation, with his actors building the fibres of their characters from loose ideas Leigh wished to explore. “She was an incredible enthusiast,” he continues. “Every day she would say, ‘This is such a gas!’ She threw herself into things. She was a free spirit. And she took no s*** from anybody, which is important as well.”

It took a while for Cartlidge to recognise her own talent. “The first time I see what I’ve done I always think I’ve ruined the whole film,” she told The Face in 1997. “Then time goes by and I look at it objectively and realise it’s not quite that bad.” Thewlis remembers her being just as self-deprecating. One evening, after a long day of rehearsals for Naked, the pair stopped off at a coffee shop, Cartlidge pressing him about his family history. He didn’t tell her anything particularly noteworthy, he says, but Cartlidge was fascinated all the same. “She was saying, ‘Oh God, this is so interesting, I don’t have any stories like that’ – I said, ‘Sure you do, if you talk to anyone about their family they’ve got stories.’” She had a think, eventually pulling something from the recesses of her mind. “Well, my mother was spanked by Einstein.” Cartlidge’s mother was German, Thewlis recalls, and as a child she’d once stolen apples from Einstein’s orchard. “He’d caught her, bent her over his knee and gave her a little slap.”

Cartlidge and David Thewlis in ‘Naked'
Cartlidge and David Thewlis in ‘Naked' (BFI National Archive)

Cartlidge and Thewlis became good friends on the US press tour for Naked, where they enjoyed the fruits of industry recognition. One night, which Thewlis dubs one of the happiest of his life, the pair were encouraged by an associate to ring up David Hockney and try and snag an invite to his home at the top of Mulholland Drive. Remarkably, the artist acquiesced. Thewlis and Cartlidge sat in on one of Hockney’s business meetings – grabbing the leftovers from the chicken and rice he’d ordered for all – and toured his studio, followed by a proper hang-out. Hockney had snagged an advance copy of John Waters’s dark comedy Serial Mom, and the trio watched it together. “We sat drinking wine, having a bit of a smoke, and watching Serial Mom while eating strawberry pie,” he laughs. “And all night, me and Katrin kept looking at each other [mouthing] ‘Oh my God!’ It was excellent.”

They remained close once Naked had been and gone from cinemas, even if their own career trajectories diverged. “I envied what she did with that newfound reputation,” he says. “Whereas I got seduced into Hollywood and some silly action and fantasy things, she went the European route. I watched from afar, saying, ‘F***ing hell, why am I doing films about dragons and monsters? I should be in Europe working with these great people and hanging out with Ingmar Bergman’s son, you know? This wasn’t the plan!’ But it seemed very natural for her. She was an extremely cultured woman. That was her world. It wouldn’t have fitted for her to go off to Hollywood.”

“You wouldn’t see her for a bit, and then suddenly you’d find out she’d been in Slovenia making a film, or she’d been working with folks in Bucharest,” Sharp says. “She just didn’t give a f*** about a conventional career path for a British actress in the Nineties. Whatever she did, whether it was something far-flung or whether people would even see it, it didn’t matter. She was an artist and a bohemian, and followed that.”

Cartlidge prays with Emily Watson in ‘Breaking the Waves’
Cartlidge prays with Emily Watson in ‘Breaking the Waves’ (Zentropa/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Take her CV. She is beguiling as a photojournalist in Milcho Manchevski’s Macedonian triptych Before the Rain (1994). In Lodge Kerrigan’s Claire Dolan (1998), she plays an Irish immigrant sex worker in New York, and moves through the film with the eerie still of a vampire. Vincent D’Onofrio, her co-star in the latter, once said that “standing next to her made [him] feel like a legitimate actor”. Performers who love her tend to thrive in surprising spaces. “Through following Katrin’s career I started to piece together what I wanted my own to look like,” Heavenly Creatures star and indie stalwart Melanie Lynskey, who worked with her on 1999’s The Cherry Orchard, said earlier this year. Natasha Lyonne once tweeted that she was “never the same” after watching Cartlidge and Thewlis play off one another.

In the months before her death, Cartlidge had signed up to play Sean Penn’s wife in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, and had shot a handful of ultimately unused scenes in Dogville, reuniting her with Von Trier. Then everything stopped. “She’d gone to Paris with her parents and her boyfriend for a birthday, and when she came back, she got poorly and died,” Leigh recalls. “And nobody’s ever quite established what it was that caused it. It came out of the blue, and it was devastating.” He is convinced she would have become a filmmaker had she lived longer. Raphael believes she would have been a Leigh regular, along the lines of a Ruth Sheen or a Lesley Manville. “There’s a vast chasm of ‘what if’ whenever one thinks about her.”

Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman in ‘Career Girls'
Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman in ‘Career Girls' (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

For Thewlis, Cartlidge’s death marked the first time he had lost someone close to him. A few days ago, he watched Naked with a packed-out audience. He hadn’t seen it in 25 years, and all his thoughts were on his co-star. “It was enormously emotional to see Katrin up there, big and alive and vibrant and breathing,” he says. He’s recently given pride of place in his flat to a prop from the film – a silver “S” Sophie makes off with at its climax – that Cartlidge gave to him before she died. “It’s one of the most precious objects I have, because it’s so loaded,” he says. “I’ve been looking at it more recently. I moved it, gave it a dust.”

Sharp has a memento, too. Seven years after Naked, she and Cartlidge worked together again on the Johnny Depp thriller From Hell. They played sex workers offed by Jack the Ripper, with filming taking place on the cobbled streets of Prague. Cartlidge, as was her wont, would roam the area whenever she wasn’t shooting, searching for hidden treasures. One day she came back from parts unknown with a gift for Sharp: a long string of beads made of gorgeous blue-green pearls, coloured like the deepest of oceans. Sharp holds them up to her Zoom camera, letting the daylight glisten off them.

“She was always looking for things, and then sharing what she’d found,” Sharp says. “She was just that kind of girl.”

‘Naked’ opens in cinemas on 12 November, with a season of Mike Leigh films currently running at London’s BFI Southbank until 30 November. The 4K remaster of ‘Naked’ will be released on Blu-ray on 29 November

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