Surrey-born Ruth Wilson on her role in BBC’s His Dark Materials

Ruth Wilson (Shutterstock)

Ruth Wilson (Shutterstock) - Credit: Archant

Smart, self-assured, and immensely talented – after putting her name to a string of cult TV shows, Surrey-‌born Ruth Wilson is gearing up for her biggest role to date in brand-new BBC spectacular His Dark Materials

Ruth Wilson may best be known in the UK as serial killer Alice Morgan in the long-running TV series, Luther, which saw her star opposite now-bona fide Hollywood heavyweight Idris Elba. But arguably the most important and deeply personal role of her career to date came late last year in Mrs Wilson, the PBS Masterpiece Theatre three-part series in which she played her very own grandmother.

For those who haven't yet caught the series, it turns out that her grannie's husband Alec Wilson had been an MI-6 agent who wrote 23 spy novels and was married to as many as four women simultaneously, none of whom were aware of each other, and had children with all of them.

"My granny, Alison Wilson, was number three," revealed Wilson. "[After his death in 1963], she discovered all this and wrote a beautiful memoir. The first part was all about meeting him, and then the second part was how she dealt with the betrayal when she found out after he died. She turned to God and became a bride of Christ. It's a fascinating character." It is hardly surprising, however, that playing her own ancestor was a daunting task: "Playing her was really tough. I mean, I'll never do anything like that again. It was weird. And I think I was really in slight denial about it for a while building up to it, and the stress building up to it was quite strange," she said. "[Certain scenes] made me really self-conscious, uncomfortable. I didn't want to be seen by the camera.

"I had this weird adrenaline going through my body. And I kind of think it was Granny passing through me. 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."

Although Wilson, who was born in the Spelthorne town of Ashford, has herself hinted at wanting to settle down at some point and start a family, in a 2016 interview she openly described her dilemma when it comes to relationships, having children and the huge differences in her "glorious" parents' Surrey-centric lifestyle and her own jet-setting Hollywood world.

"My mum had four kids at my age, and all my brothers have replicated my parents' marriage — they've got kids and are settled," she observed. "I have no example by which to live my life, really. I feel I am a bit on my own and have to form it as I go.

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"My parents' lives were in one place, static and maybe routine and my life isn't. Sometimes I think, God, I'd really love some kids, and other times it's like: no way. For a woman my age, it's a constant debate — and again, a really annoying thing to deal with, because it defines relationships and how you approach them. Life will take its paths and you have to believe things will happen for a reason..."

In spite of her prestigious schooling, in Cobham at Notre Dame, and religious upbringing, as a child, Wilson displayed some of the rebellious traits that would serve her art well later in life. Growing up in Shepperton, she spent time as a Brownie while her three older brothers were Boy Scouts. One summer, however, after listening to her siblings recount their anecdotes about adventurous hikes, camping expeditions, and building fires late at night in the woods, she told mum and dad that she was quitting her girls' troupe because she did nothing more than "make beds and peel potatoes".

This early sense of wanting to live an active life may well have fuelled her eventual turn to acting, although there's little doubt that Wilson's childhood proximity to the world-famous Shepperton Studios had a lasting impact on her too. Describing her hometown as "a mystery… glamourous and otherworldly", Wilson remembers catching glimpses of her future industry in motion when exploring with her siblings.

"There was a path through some woods that went around the side of the Studios," she recollects. "My brothers and I would sneak round to look through the fence - we even tried to see the set of Frankenstein with Kenneth Branagh once.

"But I didn't grow up in a family that encouraged acting or knew about it, really. I mean, we're very sporting as a family, but we weren't into acting or writing. For me to choose that profession was really quite odd."

It wasn't until her father managed to sneak her into a screening of Schindler's List in 1993 (she was only 11 at the time) that she decided on her life's calling, and a year later she was acting at the Riverside Arts Centre in Sunbury.

"I was totally gobsmacked," she recalled. "I knew I wanted to be involved in making people feel that way… I felt this enormous excitement at watching the actors' performances. It ignited this spark inside me."

This year, Wilson turns her attentions to yet another strong-willed and morally-dubious female character in the form of Miss Coulter - the glamourous antagonist of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Brought to life for BBC One and HBO, and starring James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Helen McCrory, among others, the series will give Wilson a long-deserved chance to showcase her talents in the modern world of big-budget small screen extravaganzas.

"My job is ridiculous," laughs Wilson. "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."


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