Telling tales

Rachael Stirling talks frankly about pranks, playing the part, pulling pints and finding her place in London

Rachael Stirling is taking a break from last minute rehearsals for her latest project – The Winter’s Tale at The Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. “We do it tomorrow night in front of an audience for the first time, and I hope – I think – we’re about ready,” she grins.

It is a project that she is excited to be a part of, not only because the story is an absolute joy – “the truest examination of humanity, and love and betrayal” – but also because the venue is one of her most favourite in London. Its location, right beside the Thames – “the blood vein that runs through our city” – takes some beating. Then there’s the theatre space itself: candlelit and intimate, it is, Rachael explains, “as close an approximation of the Blackfriars Theatre that Shakespeare’s own troupe played in as we have.” Something about the flickering light lends performances a sense of magic, and “the bits that can seem creaky in a big production, end up like pyrotechnics on stage.”

The daughter of Bond girl and Avenger Dame Diana Rigg, her passion for acting isn’t surprising, but she’s quick to point out that if “ma” had got her way, she wouldn’t be where she is today. “Did she encourage me? F**k no, she actively dissuaded me. Because you don’t want your child to suffer rejection constantly; this is a harsh world where you are judged on things like your looks and your talent.”

From the shape of her resume, rejection doesn’t seem to be something Rachael knows a great deal about. Probably best known for her part in Tipping the Velvet (“nakedness and gold-ness and sporting of large, leather-bound dildos probably will end up getting people’s attention”), since December we’ve seen her appear in the BBC’s Capital, an adaptation of John Lanchester’s state-of-the-nation novel; alongside onscreen hubby Mackenzie Crook in the quietly brilliant second series of Detectorists; and just last month in ITV drama Churchill’s Secret. And with Their Finest Hour and a Half due for cinema release later this year, there’s more to come. She admits that everything is going “brilliantly” and that she is feeling “very lucky at the moment.”

But it wasn’t always so. An actor’s happiness depends on the quality of the writing, and she recalls a time about five years ago, when, fed up with fielding mediocre parts, she cast aside thespian ambitions in favour of a job down the local. “I just stopped working all together for a bit – this was a period when I was not brilliantly happy – and I decided to just go and work in a pub. And from that moment I vowed to only take scripts that I could walk into a room and talk to the director about and not feel that I was sort of fibbing in order to get the job.”

Scripts like that of Churchill’s Secret, which was so beautifully written, Rachael tells me, that she accepted the part on the strength of just one scene: “this incredibly beautiful scene of fragile creatures around the table. The best portrayal of a family in crisis who are not communicating, and are all highly flammable and emotional – it is so credible.” And, of course, she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to film a bedside scene with the “naughty and playful, and brilliant” Michael Gambon, who she tells me she has known and loved since an unforgettable day when she fired a water balloon at it him from between her thighs, across the quadrangle at the National. The mind boggles.

More evidence of Rachael’s playful character comes to light when we move on to discuss her upcoming film, Their Finest Hour and a Half, adapted from the novel by Lissa Evans (“You know it’s going to be a good egg because she used to produce Father Ted and has got a brilliant sense of humour!”). Rachael plays an “outrageous, acid-tongued, raven-haired” 1940s script editor for the Ministry of Information, doing her bit on the latest propaganda film (in 1940, every draft of every film script had to be approved by the Ministry of Information). It was a part that necessitated several fittings for bespoke suits at a tailor on Savile Row. She cackles with laughter, recalling, “having to take my clothes off and wearing absolutely inappropriate underwear and making the older gentlemen suit makers taking my measurements blush.”

Yet for all the laughs Rachael’s work provides, this is a job she will always find hugely rewarding. “It’s something which allows you to engage your intellect, and your head and your heart simultaneously.” The reason, she explains, is because acting always comes back to reading and telling stories. It is no real surprise, then, that Rachael spends her Saturdays engrossed in books, teaching deprived children to read and write. She tells me she has been volunteering for literacy charity Real Action, near her home in Kensal Rise, for several years, because she believes that, “there is an inevitable connection between child gang behaviour and illiteracy.” And she reaps the benefits, too: “I think you can feel a bit out of place, a bit lost in a city like this if you don’t find a community to which you belong, and I’ve really invested in this particular area. Giving your time in your neighbourhood, however you can, reaps dividends. The people I’ve got to know give London the colour that it has for me, and the energy.”

Talking to Rachael is easy, like chatting to an old friend; there’s so much more to be said, but at this point her publicist interrupts, to remind us that time is ticking, and they are waiting in the rehearsal room. I wish her luck for tomorrow, wondering if the nerves are kicking in now. “Ah, I always feel apprehensive,” she laughs, “but the worst case scenario is that you walk into a piece of furniture, which I have done, or you forget your lines, which we’ve all done. The thing is, the only time that is really embarrassing is when an actor pretends it hasn’t happened. You just want to access your audience really, and get at them, and move them or make them laugh or whatever it is, and the best way to do that is to just not have too much of an ego, I find.” Which is something nobody could accuse Rachael of having.

The Winter’s Tale runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 22 April