In an age when it sometimes seems that every young actor has been to either Eton or Harrow, or at least has parents earning enough to support them through drama school, it's refreshing to meet Faye Marsay, whose father and brother are both steelworkers – or at least her brother was a steelworker until being laid off after the blast furnace at SSI in Redcar closed last October.
“Unfortunately that's him unemployed at present”, says the 29-year-old Marsay. “We are a typical working class northern family, big into our football... no one in the family was into acting. But I remember seeing a panto when I was about six and thinking 'yeah... I wouldn't mind doing that'.”
And since graduating from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in 2012 that's exactly what she's been doing – acting, at least, not panto. Marsay began by playing Anne Neville, Richard III's wife, in BBC1's The White Queen, before joining the cast of Channel 4's student comedy Fresh Meat, as oddball Scottish housemate Howard's girlfriend Candice, and playing Lizzie Lancaster in ITV's The Bletchley Circle.
Her film debut was the Bafta-winning Pride, in which she starred alongside Dominic West, Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton, before being cast as the gobby Shona in the 2014 Doctor Who Christmas special, Last Christmas, and the Arya Stark-tormenting the Waif in the two most recent series of Game of Thrones.
Now however she has landed her first leading role, playing the title character in BBC1's Love, Nina, Nick Hornby's adaptation of Nina Stibbe's best-selling autobiographical account (told through letters to her elder sister Vic) of being a naïve young nanny from rural Leicestershire in 1980s London, looking after the children of Mary-Kay Wilmers, founder of the London Review of Books. Wilmers's Camden house was a home-from-home for such literati as Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Michael Frayn.
“I'm quite nervous about it coming out, to be honest, because this is my first leading role,” says Marsay. “I might be out of the country anyway, filming...”
She needn't worry. Marsay, her hair cropped and barefoot for most of the six-week shoot (Nina Stibbe apparently eschewed footwear), more than holds her own with Helena Bonham Carter.
“Helena... that was a dream come true”, she says. “It was like a master-class every time I did a scene with her... it was kind of 'ah, okay, that's how it's done'. She proper took me under her wing – she's very funny and very kind, and she's meticulous in her preparation and you felt really safe around her.”
Hornby has part fictionalised the characters so that Alan Bennett, who in the book famously fixed the family washing machine, is now a grumpy Scottish poet called Malcolm (played by Jason Watkins) who complains about Nina's cooking but nevertheless invites himself to supper every evening. On the other hand, Nina's love interest, the carer for Claire Tomalin's disabled son and who featured in Stibbe's epistolary memoirs, appears under his real name, Nunney. He is now Stibbe's real-life partner and the father of her two teenage children.
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Marsay met the real Nina at a dinner before filming. “She's full of energy, she's got this mad spirit, she's very chatty”, says the actress. “I remember looking at her and thinking 'How am I going to play this woman?'.”
It helped that she herself came to London from somewhere semi-rural, albeit on Teesside. “When I first moved [to London] I was like 'wow... the pace'... the pace of this world isn't something I was used to. I think Nina wasn't so much scared as just intrigued by the whole thing – where with me it was just pure fear. But now I just love it.”
You get the sense that this actor is going to have a long and fruitful career, one that even survives rumours of being the next Doctor Who companion. The Daily Mirror was so convinced that Marsay was going to succeed Jenna Coleman as Peter Capaldi's latest co-star that it announced she was “poised” to take over the role. Instead it went to Pearl Mackie.
“Yeah, that was the first I'd ever heard of being 'poised' for the new Doctor Who companion,” says Marsay. “I actually know Pearl, she was at the drama school I went to. I think they're going to be in safe hands with her because she's a wonderful actress and a really nice lass. They've made a great, great decision to cast her. I think she'll smash it.”
If Marsay can afford to be generous it might be because she is now part of a far bigger show than Doctor Who, playing the Waif in Game of Thrones, an acolyte of the Faceless Men, who has been whacking a blind Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) with a stick since the start of season six (Stark recently regained her eyesight). The Waif may have been trying to teach Arya how to fight without her seeing her opponent, but there's a suggestion that she also takes a certain sadistic pleasure in the process.
“She's a right meanie, the Waif,” agrees Marsay. “I've already had a bit of abuse on Twitter, not personally to me but about the character.” She says she thinks she won the part because she was relaxed at the audition because Game of Thrones didn't mean a great deal to her.
“I hadn't watched any of it because for some reason I just didn't get into it,” she says. “It's one of those things I would get to eventually, like Homeland, for example. I've only just discovered Homeland.
“To be honest I really think it helped me with my audition because I went in thinking 'I'm not going to get this, it's Game of Thrones, it's huge', I'll just go in and enjoy myself, it'll take the pressure off. Then they called back and gave me the job.”
She's cagey about whether she has already received the show's version of a redundancy notice – being killed off unexpectedly in as bloody a manner as possible. “Erm, erm, no comment. I didn't think I would be going back for another season this time but got the call,” she says. “There's some really exciting stuff coming up with those two characters without spoiling anything, without saying anything that gets me into trouble.”
Marsay and Williams use stunt doubles, but do “85 per cent” of their fighting scenes themselves. She's typically generous about her co-star. “I adore her, we get on really well,” says Marsay. “There's a ten year age gap but you wouldn't think it, I'm just really silly around her and I think she's an incredibly talented young lass. I'm excited to see what Maisie does next when Game of Thrones eventually comes to an end.”
Williams will doubtless go on to great things, but so, I believe, will the modest Marsay. It might just be the stealthiest climb to the top that we've seen in a long while – or as she puts it in her earthy Middlesbrough manner: “The thing is, you go in and do the job, you move on and you're self-employed and you're looking for the next challenge.”
Love, Nina begins on Friday 20 May at 9.30pm on BBC1; Game of Thrones continues on Mondays on Sky Atlantic.
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