Ruth Wilson on ‘Mrs. Wilson’ and The Surreal Experience of Playing Her Own Grandmother

     March 31, 2019

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The two-part, true-life mini-series Mrs. Wilson (airing on Masterpiece on PBS) tells the story of Alison McKelvie (Ruth Wilson) who fell in love with Major Alexander Wilson (Iain Glen) after meeting him while working a secretarial job with the Secret Intelligence Service. During the years of their marriage, Alison believed that her husband was a popular author of spy novels who was also doing real intelligence work for the war effort, only to find out that he actually had other wives and other families, making her wonder whether she ever really knew him, at all.  

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Ruth Wilson talked about the surreal experience of playing her own grandmother Alison Wilson, how this went from an unbelievable family story to a beautifully made mini-series, why she’s at peace with never fully knowing who her grandfather was, and whether she’d ever seriously considered having someone else play her grandmother. She also talked about the experience of playing Alice Morgan on the BBC/BBC America series Luther, the freedom that comes with that role, and the dynamic with Idris Elba, along with what attracted her to her role in the BBC/HBO fantasy adaptation of His Dark Materials, alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda and James McAvoy, and doing a Broadway production of King Lear. 

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Image via PBS

Collider:  This story is obviously just incredible to begin with, but it’s also so beautiful to look at. 

RUTH WILSON:  Good. Yeah, I’m really chuffed with it. It couldn’t have gone better. And the people involved – from executive producer Ruth Kenley-Letts to the director, Richard Laxton, to the cinematographer (Hubert Taczanowski), to the writer (Anna Symon), and everyone – was so sensitive and compassionate about the subject matter and the people involved. They looked after me and the story, and they really did it justice. I’m so proud of all of their work on it and in it. It could’ve gone so differently, in so many different ways. I’m forever grateful to those people involved because it took a lot of work without a lot of money.  

How exactly did this go from a really fascinating and unbelievable family story, to a really beautifully made mini-series with you starring in it? Was there a moment when you decided that you were okay with turning all of this into a movie? 

WILSON:  Yeah. It’s been quite an interesting experience because, when we found out about the four different families, it became funny and absurd. The story is so extraordinary, and it was a really positive experience for a lot of the family members because holes were being filled and puzzles in their lives were being solved, and they were finding each other and connecting with half-brothers. It was a very positive experience, in general. I think there was always a feeling that this is an extraordinary story and we should get it made. I’ve since found out that there’s a number of people in my family that are in the drama field. Not in my immediate family, but new uncles and new cousins. In a way, it felt like the most apt way to tell this story was to tell it through drama. Whenever I told the story, it always shocked people. It was always forever interesting. New things were coming out. I never got bored of telling it, and that just made me think, “This is just a really great story.”  

It’s stranger than fiction. You wouldn’t believe it, if it was just written down, as a fictional story. This is a factual, mad, crazy story, with this man at the heart of it, who’s a complete mystery. That’s why I thought, “Well, this is worth pursuing, as a drama and telling it,” because it’s just such a mad, incredible story. If it wasn’t so great, I wouldn’t have bothered. There was an element of going, “This is incredible.” And we talked about it a lot, never necessarily thinking that it would be a reality. It was one of those things that you just talk a lot about. But once Ruth Kenley-Letts got involved, and then we got Anna Symon involved, and then the BBC signed up, it all just went really quickly. I’ve been talking about it for 10 years, really, and it was only in the last two and a half or three years, that it really started coming together, in a real way. Before that, it was always just something that we thought maybe would happen. There was an urgency to get it made quickly because Dennis is 97. The sense that, if this story is to be told and everyone is keen for it be told, then we need to do it quickly, before other people leave us. 

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Image via PBS

Was it hard to make peace with, knowing that you’ll never fully know the truth about your grandfather, or have you had to learn to deal with that idea that we can’t necessarily ever know anybody entirely? 

WILSON:  I know. Yeah, I’m quite happy with that. For me, that wasn’t the interest, actually. I’m fascinated by him, and I can imagine, or try to imagine, putting myself in his head. I really don’t have the answers. I was more interested in the fact that we can’t solve everything. What’s come of it is the families that were found. What was left behind was these women and their stories. We are gonna have the unsolved mysteries of my grandfather, but the emotional heart of it was those people that were left, and what that does to people, not knowing and not having a definitive truth, and how that felt to my grandmother and the other women. That became the story, really. It was interesting because he’s become a figment of people’s memories, or a construction of people’s memories. We don’t have any written evidence from him. We’ve got his books, we have memories of how people remember him, and we have my grandmother’s memoir, but we don’t have anything from him, so he’s constructed by other people’s versions of him, and that’s really interesting to me. That’s why it was really important not to place the story in his head too much because that’s not how we experience him. He is slightly removed from us. I’m totally at peace with the idea that we still don’t know the truth about him, and maybe we’ll never find out, and maybe we shouldn’t, and maybe that’s okay. What we’ve gotten from it has been amazing and hard, but it’s illuminating and it’s been positive, so maybe that’s what we need to know. That’s part of what the essence of the thing is, that we’ll never know, and that’s what life is. You have to deal with never quite knowing everything. 

You’ve previously joked about needing to go to therapy after making this. How much more surreal was it to actually live in this story, compared to just learning about it? 

WILSON:  I think it was really surreal, and I don’t think that I’ve properly processed it, actually. It was a huge responsibility. I feel like I was holding so much. I was holding my grandmother’s story, making sure that I served her, in the fullest and most truthful way possible. And then, I also had to hold the other families’ stories and make sure that they felt served, and that their grandmothers and our grandfather, or my grandfather, was served properly. There was an enormous amount that I felt like I had to contain and hold, and to really dig in and make it truthful. To me, it was about being truthful, and therefore, you can show good and bad sides of everyone. That’s where truth lies. But then, I had the other thing of actually playing my grandmother, and every day of performing her was really weird. It was out-of-body. I really couldn’t control some aspects of it. It was like I wasn’t making active decisions, in certain scenes. You can watch it and see that I’m finding it hard to breathe in a lot of the scenes, there’s a tension through my neck and body, which was definitely out-of-body weirdness. Something was going on there. It was quite an unusual experience, in that respect. And then, if there were any problems, I knew about them. That was an added dimension, which was exhausting. So, would I do it again? I don’t know. I’m certainly never gonna play a family member again, but it was also an amazing privilege to be able to sit inside my grandmother’s shoes, and to try to understand her, or to feel what she must’ve gone through. Not many people get to do that, and I feel deeply privileged. That experience will never leave me. 

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Image via PBS

At any point, had you ever seriously considered having someone else play the role? 

WILSON:  Not really. There was a moment where I’d wished that I had. Coming up to it, I was definitely like, “Oh, my god, I’m not sure that I can do this.” But I was already committed, at that stage, and I knew that I’d have to play her. I felt that it was the only way to serve her, and that I could protect her. And the way that I mean protect, is actually to show all sides of her. I worried that, if an actor came in, they may feel pressured, with me looking over their shoulder, and they may be concerned. I felt there was something spiritual about the experience, and if I hadn’t done it, I would’ve regretted it. There was a deep personal responsibility, but also this was about a spiritual connection with my grandmother that I needed to go through. I also thought that I could protect her by doing it and by serving her. For me, a lot of the show and a lot of her character is about denial. She was as complicit in the act of denial as he was, and I knew that I had to show that side of her. I don’t know if other actors would choose to do that as much, with the pressure of it being another actress’ grandmother, so I knew that I had to take that burden on myself. 

Your character on Luther, Alice Morgan, is one of my favorite characters on TV, ever. She’s just so fabulous, and it was so great to have you back on this most recent season. Is Alice a character that you had missed playing, as much as people had missed seeing her? 

WILSON:  Yeah, I did. I think she’s hilarious, and I really have fun playing her. Lots of the characters that I play are very emotionally burdened, I suppose is the word, and I love getting deep into that, but I love Alice because there’s a freedom to her. She has no conscience, so she just has fun. She plays, and she’s naughty. She’s dark and she kills people, which is not good, obviously, but that essence of that lack of conscience is quite interesting. Actually, I’m playing The Fool, at the moment, on Broadway, and I find that there’s a similar essence, and I love that. That’s a real relief for me because I’m often playing that deep psychosis. 

I love the relationship between Alice and Luther because we don’t really get to see anything else like it on TV. They’re two people who clearly shouldn’t be together, but just can’t seem to stop being drawn to each other. 

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Image via BBC America

WILSON:  Yeah. From very early on, Idris and I just got on really well. We’ve been playing those roles for eight years now. It’s been a long time, so our relationship has gotten more playful and fun. We love toying with each other, so as soon as we get back in a room together and we’ve got a scene that (show creator) Neil [Cross] has written for us to play out, we have fun with it and we have a lightness, and I think that’s what people like watching and why they like watching that dynamic. The show is so dark, but there’s a lightness between Alice and Luther, which is a bit of a relief. It’s dark and it goes to dark places, but it has got a humor to it and a quirk, which is like none other on TV. So, it’s been a real joy to be part of that partnership. 

You’re doing a Broadway production of King Lear (officially opening on April 4th), which seems like such a hugely daunting thing. How have the rehearsals for that been going?  

WILSON:  Oh, my god, it’s huge. We go into the theater next week (this interview was conducted on February 15th), which is daunting because it’s so big. The play is massive. It’s the longest of Shakespeare’s plays, and his most epic. It’s a bizarre play. It’s so mad. It’s absurd. Humans are absurd, and it pulls out the absurdity, the destruction, and the cruelty that humans are capable of, but also the passion, the humanity, and the love that they’re also capable of. It’s the extremes of humanity, really, and it feels like a bad nightmare, as a play. We’re still working out what it is. It’s one of those plays that you probably never work out, and we’ll be a month into previews still trying to work it out. But I get to play two parts, which is nice. I get to play The Fool, which is really fun, and I’ve got loads of gags, and then Cordelia. It’s the yin-and-yang of the same character, so it’s quite fun. 

Was that material that you had wanted to do, or did it take a little bit of convincing yourself to do it? 

WILSON:  It took convincing. I’ve never done Shakespeare, and I don’t like watching it, all the time. There are a lot of bad Shakespeare performances out there, and it’s done so often, in the UK. There are about five King Lears a year, so it took me a lot of time to decide to do it. But I thought, “Okay, one and done. If I do one, than I don’t have to do it again.” It’s a new skill. It’s talking poetry, for that reason, you have a very weird relationship with it when you perform it. It doesn’t allow you to get too emotional, weirdly, because it’s in the poetry and the words. We’ve got such a phenomenal cast. Being asked to do The Fool is very rare for a woman, and I just thought, “Sod it, if I’m gonna do one, I’ll do a weird one. I’ll do a mix of those two parts.” So, I was eventually swayed into it, but it did take me awhile. I love being [in New York City], and I love theater. It’s a great cast. It’s Glenda Jackson, and I get to sing Philip Glass music. They’ve given me three songs, and I love them. I’ve never sung on stage before. There are lots of firsts for me. 

That’s really cool. You also have His Dark Materials, which seems like a really interesting project. What was the appeal of that, for you? 

WILSON:  Those books are amazing, and that part was described as “the mother of all evil” and “the cesspit of moral filth.” I thought, “Well, that’s great. I like this part.” After having done Mrs. Wilson and The Affair, there was a need for me to have a bit of fun and to not go so deep. So, that’s why The Fool appealed to me, and Marisa Coulter. She’s a dark character, but I get to play in that. It’s really fascinating. In the story, everyone has a spirit animal. Mine is a golden monkey, and I have a very odd relationship with my monkey. We don’t like each other, but we’re a good team. It’s all psychological, and it’s fun. It’s for kids and adults. It’s not deep. I get to work in quite an unusual way, with sci-fi/fantasy and these animals. People are playing them. I’ve got a guy called Brian playing my monkey. It just felt different to me. I’ve never done fantasy before, so I was like, “Okay, I’ll give that a go.” They’re beloved books and the character is iconic, so I thought, “Let’s see what happens with that.” It’s wild. There were big stages and big set-ups, and mad scenes with polar bears. I thought, “That’s very different to Mrs. Wilson. I’ll take that, thank you.” My job is ridiculous. I get to dress up and do all sorts of weird things. I’m very lucky. I don’t take life, at all, seriously. I do, and actors do. They keep moaning about how they’re not pretending well enough, which is ridiculous. We get to pretend and play make believe, and live in a world of fantasy and imagination, which is a total privilege. 

Mrs. Wilson airs on Masterpiece on PBS on March 31st and April 7th. 

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