Miranda Raison was a little uncertain when she was called to audition for Kenneth Branagh's new season in the West End.
"I had done a horrid audition for his 2013 production of Macbeth to play Lady Macbeth opposite him," explains the former Spooks star. "We have never spoken about it but it was one of those auditions where I just wanted to say, 'Can we just stop?' I was thinking, 'I've got to connect with him – I'm [playing] his wife'. But I couldn't get my head out of the book as we walked around."
This time around she has been cast not only as Hermione, wife to Branagh's Leontes in The Winter's Tale, but also in Harlequinade, a rarely seen Terence Rattigan comedy in which she and Branagh play Edna and Arthur Selby, actors in a classical theatre company.
"I got a text from my agent that night saying: 'You're a frontrunner – Ken really liked you'," recalls Raison. "It was a quick and relatively painless process."
This is Branagh's first return to the London stage in seven years. He will both direct and star in a season of five plays at the Garrick Theatre over the course of a year-long residency, opening with The Winter's Tale at the weekend, in which Branagh and Judi Dench, as Paulina, will act together for the first time in more than 20 years.
The season also includes Rattigan's monologue, All On Her Own, performed by Zoë Wanamaker; Romeo and Juliet with Richard Madden and Lily James, the stars of Branagh's hit movie Cinderella; The Painkiller, a classic French farce in which Branagh and Rob Brydon reprise the roles they played to great acclaim at Belfast's Lyric Theatre; John Osborne's The Entertainer, starring Branagh as Archie Rice; and the multi-award-winning Red Velvet starring Adrian Lester.
Raison, 37, has been following the lead of Dench and Michael Pennington, who plays Antigonus in The Winter's Tale, as to how to behave in Branagh's company. "Ken said, 'I want no drama in the rehearsal room', says Raison. "The old-school actors are drama-free – they are polite, work hard and are unbelievably professional. I love it. I've previously been in atmospheres with big egos and it is fear-led. Before the first night of The Winter's Tale we all know we will be bricking it, but you don't dare share your neuroses."
Branagh and Dench are the only two actors in the company to have their own dressing rooms – the rest of the cast double up; Raison shares hers with Jessie Buckley (Perdita). "I tend to bring in something to sleep on – a blow-up bed," says Raison. "And a pillow my godmother gave me with 'Miranda' and mice embroidered on it, as well as a little blanket." Her dressing room is full of rails of clothes and buckets of designer Mac make-up. "Jess and I are both messy so it makes it easier."
The Winter's Tale is co-directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford, following their hit collaboration on Macbeth, which transferred from Manchester to Manhattan. "You would have thought it was complicated to have two people directing. It can be in a film," says Raison. "But I haven't seen them tread on each other's toes. They respect each other and don't let their egos get in the way. Certainly if they do, it is behind closed doors." As director/actor, Branagh has to step out of a scene to direct it, but "the closer we get to the opening night, the more he has his actor hat on", says Raison. "As a director he is not intimidating. It could potentially be an intimidating atmosphere, an 'Oh God, Judi Dench is watching me' sort of thing, but it isn't. But Ken did insist we arrive having studied the play at home."
Raison, who grew up in the tiny Norfolk village of Burnham Thorpe, attended various boarding schools from the age of nine after her parents divorced, before training at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. Her TV break came in 2001 when Stephen Poliakoff cast her in Perfect Strangers; then, in 2005, she played Scarlett Johansson's love rival in Woody Allen's Match Point.
She is best known, though, for her role as M15 junor field officer Jo Portman in five series of the BBC1 spy thriller Spooks. "I was always covered in blood and bruises – I was a punch bag," she recalls. "I loved playing Jo and I was inconsolable on the last day. Jo Portman was dead. It was real grief. I'd never had that before."
She married her fellow Spooks actor Raza Jaffrey in 2007 but they divorced two years later (he's now married to Lara Pulver of Sherlock fame). In 2010 she starred as a model called Abbey in the ITV comedy Married Single Other and dated co-star Ralf Little for four years, until they split in 2013.
She now lives in Fulham and is in "the early days" of a new relationship with a man who is not an actor. She dashes off to the countryside when she can, to stay at her cottages in Suffolk or Norfolk. She would like to write a screenplay with her cousin about one of her ancestors – "a crazy lady" who led a scandalous life.
Her work on stage – in Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn at Shakespeare's Globe in 2010 and 2013 and Jez Butterworth's The River at the Royal Court in 2012 – has been highly praised. She will not play Hermione as whiter than white, "which can be nauseating", she says, but is instead "trying to make Hermione quite warm". "Sometimes she can be a cold and pious figure – hopefully we can make her a loving mum with everything to lose," she says. "I have played other strong women characters on stage, like Anne Boleyn – they feel deeply and love deeply. They love these men and have a strong sense of self. I envy these women and feel inspired. I constantly worry about whether people like me. But playing parts such as Hermione, I have to bash that insecurity away and become that person. It is a good form of therapy for me as I have to learn to be more comfortable in my own skin."
In the meantime she is starring in a new TV crime thriller, Spotless, opposite Brendan Coyle, which will air later this year. She plays the wife of the lead character, Jean Bastiere, a crime-scene cleaner for the police who switches to the wrong side of the law. "It's like Breaking Bad meets Dexter. My character is similar to Skyler in Breaking Bad. She has kids, and her husband is hiding the fact that he has swapped allegiance and is working for London gangsters, which puts the family in a lot of danger."
With the opening night of The Winter's Tale, just days away, Raison admits to nerves – not that she will let them show in front of the rest of the cast. "The best part of being in the company is that the old-school actors just want to have a nice day, rather than angst and drama."
'The Winter's Tale' and 'Harlequinade/All On Her Own', Garrick Theatre, London, in rep to 16 January. 'The Winter's Tale' will be broadcast to cinemas live on 26 November (branaghtheatre.com)
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