Henrietta Bredin talks to Ruth Wilson about her role as Stella in the Donmar’s Streetcar
If Ruth Wilson doesn’t very soon become a major force to be reckoned with, as an actress, director, producer, screenwriter (probably all four), I’ll eat my entire, quite extensive collection of hats. She is bursting with talent and possesses a gleefully voracious appetite for a challenge. This is probably just as well as she is about to take on the role of Stella at the Donmar Warehouse in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
‘I love Stella,’ she says, leaning back in her chair and gulping a mug of tea. ‘I think she’s quite an opportunist, very modern and forward-thinking. She’s left the life of the Deep South and the old family home behind her and she’s moving on, getting herself a new life.’
We are having this conversation when the cast is only halfway through the second week of rehearsals, so has she got a feel yet for the whole shape and balance of the play?
‘I hope we’re about to reach that point. Last week we were working on placing and movement, how to make sure that the focus of attention is in the right place at the right time. It’s crucial to establish how Stella and Stanley’s relationship works from the beginning, and how that’s affected and disrupted by Blanche’s arrival. She brings so much clutter with her, both physically and psychologically; her fear of ageing and being alone. It’s great that we’re all the right age for this piece. It’s so often played with an older actress as Blanche that people think she’s supposed to be in her mid-fifties but she’s not, she’s in her mid-thirties, and Stella is in her mid- to late-twenties. Stella’s been awakened sexually by Stanley and as a couple they’ve got an extraordinary power and vitality. They’re the new America. We’ve worked our way through to the end of the play now but it’s the first full run-through of it that I’m looking forward to. That’s when you get a real sense of the journey.’
There’s quite a journey to make, both to the heart of the character and to the heart of steamy, louche New Orleans. ‘When I knew I’d got the part, I decided to go on a proper road trip, down to the South. I started in South Carolina, then went to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and ended up in New Orleans during the jazz festival. It was intoxicating. I completely fell in love with it. The people there have an incredible sense of pride in their city, a sense, after the floods, of having survived the worst and become stronger as a result. And I went to Clarksdale as well, which is where Tennessee spent a large part of his childhood. It’s a strange, isolated place. I felt that I had a sort of licence, knowing I was going to be playing Stella, to ask questions. And it was a good opportunity to listen to voices.’
Ah, the accent. Easy to imitate badly and difficult to nail precisely. Did she try to get that right before rehearsals started? ‘I did, and I had this idea that, although Stella came from a Southern Belle tradition and naturally had a soft, flirtatious sort of drawl, that’s what Blanche still has, whereas Stella’s roughed it up a bit round the edges. She’s a bit more grounded, not so lilting, up and down. But we’ve been doing a lot of work with the voice coach, Penny Dyer, and she’s trying to make sure that Rachel (Weisz, playing Blanche) and I sound as if we come from the same place. The other characters come from all over, so each of us has to find our own sound and hang on to it. That’s one of the exciting things about this play, that everyone has a past, a different background to deal with. They all end up jumbled together in New Orleans, a place with an extraordinary hot, pent-up energy, where people are jostling to survive and tempers flare really easily. It’s a sticky, sweaty play.’
Wilson says this with relish and I get a glimpse of the ability to convey tumultuous, suppressed passion that made her portrayal of Jane Eyre so compelling. She landed that one, for BBCTV, straight out of drama school and has not really had to worry about unemployment since. ‘I’ve been incredibly lucky but — I hope I don’t sound ridiculously spoilt — it’s been quite hard to deal with. One thing you do get thoroughly prepared for at drama school is the prospect of rejection and being out of work but you don’t get any sort of preparation for success. You expect to be in a situation where you take whatever comes your way, just to get the experience, whereas I had this amazing opportunity right away and have had to make choices about the things I’ve been offered since then. Obviously it’s great to be in that position rather than struggling, but not everything that’s offered is necessarily good and assessing that is tough.’
I imagine that Ruth Wilson is a pretty shrewd judge of what’s good and what isn’t. And the next project she’s planning will put that ability to good use. Along with fellow actors Emma Thompson and Hayley Atwell she is setting up a film festival. ‘We started talking about it last year and formulated the idea of commissioning a series of short films written by women and directed by women. It’s not that we want to ostracise men — we love them — but we want to celebrate women and what they can achieve. There still aren’t enough good roles for women, especially when you get beyond a certain age, and there certainly aren’t enough women writers and directors. It’s the writing we’re really keen on, concentrating on that, making sure they’re good scripts. We’re looking for people through the Script Factory and the Royal Court, and the plan is to have six shorts, each about 15 to 20 minutes long, that are connected by a single theme and can be distributed as one film.’
Does she intend to take part in any of these films herself? ‘Devising and producing is already a huge undertaking but I wouldn’t mind performing in one. And I certainly do want to direct at some stage but I’m not ready for it yet. I absolutely love acting but you can become very self-involved so I always want to do other things as well. It keeps your mind supple and stops you sinking into those dull moments where you start worrying and having doubts about what you do. This way I’m doing something for other people as well. And I love that.’
A Streetcar Named Desire runs at the Donmar Warehouse from 23 July to 3 October.