Gina McKee: ‘I’ve only seen Notting Hill once – and that was at the premiere’

The prolific British actor plays a fiercely committed nun in Black Narcissus this Christmas. She talks to Ellie Harrison about visiting a convent for research, how she’s spent lockdown, and what it’s like being part of one of the most cherished romantic comedies of the Nineties 

Sunday 27 December 2020 06:30 GMT
Gina McKee
Gina McKee

There are few experiences as soothing as speaking to Gina McKee on the phone. Her voice, with the faintest glimmer of a Geordie accent, drifts down the line like a sprinkle of Rescue Remedy as she tells me how she’s spent the last few months “ensconced” in her East Sussex home, hiking on the Seven Sisters and watching British indie films.  

The 56-year-old actor has also been a consistent presence on our screens since 1996, when she had her big break in the landmark drama Our Friends in the North. She played Labour MP Mary Cox alongside a twenty-something Daniel Craig in the gritty, political, multi-layered series that followed the lives of four friends from Newcastle between 1964 and 1995 and often tops lists of the greatest dramas of all time. She’s hardly been out of our sight since then, with almost 100 film and TV credits to her name, including Atonement, Phantom Thread, Croupier, The Forsyte Saga, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Catherine the Great and, of course, Notting Hill, in which she played Bella, the wheelchair-bound ex-girlfriend of Hugh Grant’s hapless bookseller.  

This Christmas, she’s starring in the new BBC adaptation of Rumer Godden’s 1939 bestseller Black Narcissus. Amanda Coe’s reworking is a hybrid between a romance and a ghost story, which follows a group of Anglican nuns battling their demons as they try to introduce their faith and culture to a remote Himalayan community. Gemma Arterton plays Sister Clodagh, who struggles to repress her sexual desires. McKee is a no-nonsense nun who does not tolerate those who stray.  

Read our Q&A with McKee below, in which she discusses lockdown life, the Sisters of St Faith, and her Nineties break-out roles.  

How has 2020 been for you?  

In different phases of lockdown, I've felt different things. Overall, I count my blessings. I know people are facing huge challenges and in comparison mine are minimal. Initially, I found it a really useful time and I was very productive. I did the Couch to 5K and lots of clear-outs. I'm in a bubble with my husband, so we've been together.  

How do you feel about the future of theatre and the arts?  

The creative community is phenomenal. I spoke to a friend the other day who was very emotional about the absence of it all. I think there'll be a lot of catching up after lockdown, and that catching up will be done in really interesting and stimulating ways, when we can. It will bring about really fantastic things and I’m just going to immerse myself in any way possible.  

Can you introduce your Black Narcissus character, Sister Adela, in your own words?  

We meet Sister Adela at the end of episode two, when she arrives at the palace with Father Roberts [Jim Broadbent]. Sister Adela is rigidly devout. She is a very unyielding nun in that she has a fierce belief in her faith and is rigorously committed to god, the community and the sisters within her order. She is unsentimental, blunt, and from an older branch of the order, the first house in India. Her arrival acts as a catalyst for the other nuns to begin to see how they've changed during their time at the palace.  

As Sister Adela in Black Narcissus

Sexual temptation and repression are big themes in the series – how did you try to relate to the nuns and their abstinence?  

Before we started shooting, Gemma, Charlotte [Bruus Christensen, the director] and myself went to meet two nuns. That was a big eye opener for me because my knowledge about that kind of lifestyle was virtually non-existent. Obviously, a contemporary Anglican nun's life is nothing like the life of a 1930s nun. There have been masses and masses of changes in the church, so it's not directly comparable. But what have remained are the same core tenets of faith and selflessness and devotion to the cause, and so it's fascinating. It’s a constant calibration, that’s the truth. You’re questioning where you’re at in terms of your spiritual practice, especially when you’re in a place that tests your faith. One of the tenets is that you always keep your gaze inward. To get to understand that kind of devotion, even on a beginner’s scale, was incredible.  

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You played Bella in Notting Hill all those years ago. What’s it like having starred in a film that’s such a treasured part of British cinema?  

I've only seen Notting Hill once and that was at the premiere. Perhaps I should watch it again. I really enjoyed being a part of it, I met some fantastic people. But I don’t remember the film that well. If you watch anything at a premiere you never really watch it properly because it’s such a heightened situation.  

I do remember turning up on the first day in the exact same trousers as Julia Roberts. Black corduroy trousers from GAP. I kept my coat on all day, in summer, because I didn't want her to think I was weird or embarrass her or make her feel uncomfortable. It’s stupid but that's how my nervousness came out.  

With Tim Mcinnerny in Notting Hill

Did you have a sense, when you were filming, of how popular the film was going to be?  

I knew it would get a lot of attention, but you can never tell. You can have the best ingredients in the world but if you don't mix the cake properly or get the temperature right then it ain't gonna rise.  

You got your big break just a few years before that with Our Friends in the North. What memories do you have of that time?  

I learned a lot about myself as an actor. I was given the opportunity to portray somebody from the age of 18 to 52 and to try to play a character going through all those stages of their life. Huge, formative, seismic things happen in that time, from births to deaths. To have the opportunity to show a character going through those decades was just wonderful. It's like being given the best feast in the world, you can really sate your appetite creatively. And the reaction, from all different kinds of people, felt incredible.

Black Narcissus airs at 9pm on Sunday 27 December on BBC one

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