Mistress of the roles

Watch actress Shirley Henderson, says Heather Neill, she's going far

Sunday 13 October 2002 00:00
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Shirley Henderson enjoys extremes – professionally, that is. She likes dressing up, adopting different voices and personalities, singing, improvising and inventing dialogue. She's in the right business. In the next few weeks alone she will be seen as Ella, a tough boarding house cook in the gothic romance Villa des Roses, and as a weepy ghost in the next Harry Potter blockbuster.

Villa des Roses, set in an English-owned boarding house in Paris in 1913, also stars Julie Delpy, Harriet Walter and Timothy West. Ella is irrepressible, a survivor who brooks no nonsense from her eccentric employers (Walter and West) and is both humorous counterweight and earthy support to the ethereal Delpy. In November, Henderson will waft on to screens everywhere as Moaning Myrtle, the loo-haunting ghost in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Her latest manifestations follow closely on her acclaimed Marie Melmotte in The Way We Live Now for television and her roles in 24 Hour Party People (in which she is the Bohemian wife of Mancunian record producer Tony Wilson, played by Steve Coogan), and Shane Meadows' Once Upon a Time in the Midlands. For this, she developed the role in improvisation, a process she finds liberating, drawing on her observation of real life.

Small, dark and speaking off-screen in her native Fife accent, Henderson exudes a mixture of energy, down-to-earth common sense and eager enthusiasm. Van Passel, she says, allowed her to experiment in Villa des Roses. "He was very easy-going, very gentle. He makes you feel brave. He could have gone, 'That's way too much', but he let me play around and find a voice. I could be quite extreme because Julie isn't; she's more naturalistic."

Delpy plays Louise, a young widow and mother who comes to Paris to earn a living and falls in love with a footloose German artist, one of the guests at the seedy hotel. Ella, more worldly-wise, tries to protect her new friend. There are harrowing scenes as Louise undergoes an abortion, an experience obviously familiar to Ella.

The tone of Villa des Roses with its Miss Havisham-style neglect and its mixture of naturalism and the absurd, provides a happy hunting ground for Henderson. Ella is both sympathetically humane and quite alien at the same time.

At 36, Henderson is pleased by the slow burn of her quietly successful career. Despite critical plaudits and years of work in British and European cinema, in theatre and in television, she is only now becoming widely known. She was Spud's girlfriend in Trainspotting and, four years later, sang and acted a sad soprano in Mike Leigh's Gilbert and Sullivan tale, Topsy-Turvy, for which she received a London Film Critics' Circle nomination for best actress.

Singing was what first put her in front of audiences, as an eager kid entertaining in clubs, charity shows and the Ayrshire Butlins. She had no experience of drama ("I just knew I wanted to do it. My family didn't go to the cinema"). After a year at Kircaldy Tech she made it, at 17, to the Guildhall in London. Following that, Henderson returned to Scotland to cut her teeth on stage at the Glasgow Citizens, but in no time she was at the National Theatre in London.

Henderson seems to adapt successfully to all media, different periods and any directorial style, which may account for her being so often unrecognised. No doubt living in Fife with her boyfriend and near her family keeps her feet on the ground, but her versatility may be about to thrust her into the public eye at last with the uncompromising insistence of a Quidditch broomstick.

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