Helen McCrory, the lead in the BBC’s big new drama series, opens up about her co-star’s wow factor, the show’s ‘pornographic’ sex scenes – and why she always preferred ‘naughty boys’
She stars opposite a legendary Hollywood heart-throb in the ambitious new BBC drama MotherFatherSon, but Helen McCrory was never going to swoon over Richard Gere. ‘I was a naughty girl,’ says the actress with a chuckle, explaining why she didn’t fall for Gere’s clean-cut charms like so many her age – 14 – when his first hit, An Officer And A Gentleman, came out in 1982.
‘I was a Jimi Hendrix girl. I liked my rock ’n’ roll. I liked the naughty boys – Bob Dylan was going to wake me up in a harem in Morocco. So it wasn’t that I didn’t have a crush on him, I didn’t see the films.’
Helen McCrory stars opposite a legendary Hollywood heart-throb in the ambitious new BBC drama MotherFatherSon, but she was never going to swoon over Richard Gere
Even now, there are women of a certain age who would stammer and blush to find themselves in the same room as Gere, but McCrory is immune. She even laughs openly at the plot of his biggest movie, Pretty Woman, in which Gere’s suave businessman saves Julia Roberts from sex work. ‘You’re a prostitute, but then you have a bath? Whatever!’
And McCrory can afford such teasing confidence because she is one of our finest actresses, best known for playing Cherie Blair in The Queen and Auntie Polly in Peaky Blinders. In fact, she was cast before Gere in MotherFatherSon as the female lead, Kathryn, the former wife of Gere’s ruthless media baron – and was surprised when she heard he would be her co-star. ‘I thought it was fascinating to choose as an alpha male someone who is naturally softly spoken and gentle in movement. Richard has a steeliness, but he also has a very soft quality about him, which is why he was the young girls’ pin-up. The little girls don’t fall in love with guys who look like they could strangle you. They like An Officer And A Gentleman!’ Not her, though.
‘I knew who he was, of course,’ she says. ‘But I had a crush on Adam And The Ants back then. It was all London, it was all street, it was all edgy, it was all the smell of carbon monoxide and marches and DMs.’
I look down and notice that she’s wearing them again today. Patent boots with a white-and-blue dress and a black, feathery jacket thrown over her shoulders. An elfin crop frames a lively, mischievous face – but that becomes bemused when I ask if she was paid the same as Gere. ‘Do you know how much he was paid? Are you about to tell me?’
Why was she drawn to the character of Kathryn, who starts the story as a weary, wary divorcee, volunteering in a homeless hostel? ‘I’ve met a lot of these women who are English, well behaved, incredibly modest and sometimes have had really awful things happen to them. But they keep swimming on. She is all those things, but she chooses to change herself’
I’m surprised she doesn’t know, given the uproar there’s been in recent years about female stars not getting as much as their male counterparts at the BBC. All I can tell her is that there has been a single, unlikely, report of Gere getting £5 million. ‘Richard was given five million? No f****** way!’ She laughs, not believing it at all. She’s learnt to take such rumours with a hefty pinch of salt. ‘According to my mum – she looked up my estimated wealth – I’m worth 78 million, thank you!’
She’s clearly suggesting that’s nonsense, although the household can’t be doing badly. Her husband Damian Lewis became a massive star in America after appearing in the mini-series Band Of Brothers, and is a Hollywood leading man himself, from the series Homeland and Billions.
What’s fascinating though is that in the case of this new BBC drama, McCrory has no idea what her fellow lead actor did get. She jokes: ‘There is an awkward pause as McCrory leaves the room to talk to the producer… If it was that much, then I certainly wasn’t on favoured nations pay!’
That’s a contract clause that says an actor has to be paid as much as the highest earner in the cast. McCrory knows about these things as a Hollywood veteran herself, having been in Skyfall, Hugo and the Harry Potter series, as Draco Malfoy’s mother, Narcissa.
More recently McCrory led the ITV legal drama Fearless and has spoken out about pay equality: ‘If you’re doing the same job, indisputably you should have the same money.’
Shouldn’t that apply to MotherFatherSon? ‘This is a really complex issue. It depends. Say you’re making an independent film. If you think you’re going to get enough bums on seats by using Richard Gere’s name, or it will help you raise the finance to make the film, is it then right or not to say: “I’m going to give him a million now because I know he’s going to get me £4 million in box office”? This is the debate that’s raging.’
Helen McCrory with Richard Gere in MotherFatherSon. McCrory on her co-star: ‘I thought it was fascinating to choose as an alpha male someone who is naturally softly spoken and gentle in movement’
But MotherFatherSon is a BBC production, which means it didn’t need to raise money in the same way. Wouldn’t she expect equality to apply here? ‘No, I wouldn’t,’ says McCrory.
Why not? ‘If you take the argument that with experience and success comes increased salary, maybe I believe in reward for longevity,’ she says slowly. Gere is 69 years old, she is 50. ‘We all know we’re not equal. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have equal opportunities. But we’re not equal.’
There’s a scene in which Gere’s character, Max, arrives at the offices of one of the British media titles he owns and everyone falls silent. Was it anything like that when he first turned up for work? ‘Oh, yes – there’s definitely an acknowledgement that when he walks on set, no one else has made that much money. Who else is standing there whose films have grossed that much? And even if it’s not about the money, he’s a film star. Of the old guard. So the role is perfect for him.’ What does she mean? ‘When Max walks in the room, everybody goes, “Wow, it’s Max!”’
She’s acknowledging that people treat Gere differently. ‘I suppose if we were of equal status and age… the truth is, I have absolutely no idea how much he was paid. And I’ve no idea how much any of us is paid.’
‘I was a Jimi Hendrix girl. I liked my rock ’n’ roll. I liked the naughty boys,’ says Helen McCrory
She does know – and is proud to say – that she was given her part long before her more famous co-star. ‘I was cast six weeks before Gere was! MotherFatherSon: it’s in that order for a reason, as in every family!’
McCrory and Lewis have a son and a daughter, Gulliver and Manon, who are 11 and 12. They live in a Victorian townhouse in north London, having tried Los Angeles for a while before returning home.
Why was she drawn to the character of Kathryn, who starts the story as a weary, wary divorcee, volunteering in a homeless hostel? ‘I’ve met a lot of these women who are English, well behaved, incredibly modest and sometimes have had really awful things happen to them. But they keep swimming on. She is all those things, but she chooses to change herself.’
Rupert Murdoch seems an obvious model for Gere’s character. Did she research his ex Wendi Deng or his current wife, Jerry Hall? ‘I’ve met both those women,’ says McCrory. ‘But, no, the writer [Tom Rob Smith] was emphatic that it was not based on anyone and he didn’t want any of those reflections. That is a red herring.’
McCrory in Peaky Blinders. McCrory led the ITV legal drama Fearless and has spoken out about pay equality
Gere plays a very powerful man with deep secrets. ‘If somebody is as beautiful and perfectly dressed as he is – wearing Armani, a Rolex, loafers and in the back of a Jag – what is the cost of being like that? It might be the absolute brutalisation of a person, continuing in an abusive cycle [from father to son].’ The first episode demonstrates this in a way that is shocking as their son Caden (On Chesil Beach star Billy Howle) hires and degrades a sex worker, played by Katrine De Candole. The scene involves De Candole taking part in disturbing role play, as Caden takes control of her. ‘It’s pornographic,’ says McCrory. ‘It’s supposed to be pornographic. That man is unable to have intimacy even in the most intimate situation. The damage done to him as a son is so ingrained that it even affects the moment that is most intimate for all of us.’
As a fellow actor, what were her feelings watching De Candole play such a challenging scene? ‘She’s an actress and she wanted to do that part. If she didn’t want to, she wouldn’t have done it.’
She feels more for Howle. ‘He was naked in that scene, too. And his character is the one who is revolting. And it’s a lot harder to show the ugliness. He is disgusting in this.’
Could she challenge Gere? She nods. ‘It was constantly a work in progress. I come from the British tradition, which is all about the script. The word is God. He comes from an American tradition, where you improvise around it. I’ve never worked with anyone like that.’
Helen McCrory with husband Damian Lewis (left). McCrory met Lewis when they were cast opposite each other in a play called Five Gold Rings at the Almeida Theatre in London in 2003
Could they go for a beer at the end of the day? McCrory frowns. ‘We were all in London, so it was very different to when you are on location in Manchester or Leeds – you’re staying at the hotel, everybody goes down to the bar and has a beer. We were in London, so I go back to my family. He goes back to his wife who was pregnant at the time.’ (Gere’s third wife, Spanish publicist Alejandra Silva, 33 years his junior, gave birth to a baby boy earlier this month.)
McCrory met Lewis when they were cast opposite each other in a play called Five Gold Rings at the Almeida Theatre in London in 2003. They came from different worlds: he’s an Old Etonian, she’s the daughter of a working-class Scot who became a diplomat, so she grew up in far-flung places such as Cameroon and Madagascar. At the time they were both in their 30s and established actors. The chemistry between them was instant, according to director Michael Attenborough, who said it was ‘like directing a fire’.
Lewis had recently been nominated for a Golden Globe for Band Of Brothers. He subsequently won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for Homeland and now stars in the banking drama Billions. Lewis said recently: ‘Helen and I made the decision that while we would be hands-on parents, we’d still keep working and not derail our careers entirely. It’s a difficult decision but we need money.’
With all that success between them, surely they must be loaded? McCrory laughs, squints and leans forward. ‘Are you my mum? Are you asking to see my bank balance?’
She’s frugal, apparently. ‘I don’t spend money. Damian is constantly on at me. I still have the same towels I had when I was 20. I have the duvet I had when I was 16. I grew up in Africa, I don’t throw things away because they look like s***. Because they are still towels. I spend money on eating out, travelling, taxis – those are the great pleasures of life as far as I’m concerned. I work for the BBC. I work for theatre. Just because my husband is playing a billionaire doesn’t mean he actually has those clothes and those yachts.’
Sure, but they’re major stars now. ‘Do you know how much I cost a year? Huge bill. Huge maintenance for his wife.’ She’s joking, of course. ‘But remember, we are freelance. We’re very aware that this could end tomorrow. If you want the freedom to be able to choose your projects, that costs a lot of money. We didn’t work for some of last year and spent six months at home with the kids. We don’t have a nanny. We worked here and were with the kids, that’s all we were doing. It’s all we want to do.’
When she’s not acting, McCrory is involved in a local charity in north London. ‘We take art to kids in schools that are struggling. We go in and we mentor. We’re talking to Camden Council about trying to get a youth club in our area. There is a lot to do other than acting.’
The last word on Helen McCrory
‘I, Nomad by Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge. It made me howl with laughter’
Last gig you went to?
The Rolling Stones – Ronnie Wood got us tickets. We’ve known Ronnie and his wife Sally a long time. They call us ‘the babysitters’ because when their twins were little, we used to see them at parties and we’d look after all the kids that played with ours. We were chatting and I said, ‘I’ve never seen the Stones,’ so he got us tickets. They were fantastic. I am going to see Billie Eilish next month.
Last play you saw?
The last night of Richard II (at the Almeida Theatre) on Saturday. Actor Simon Russell Beale is so good. His understanding of text is so effortless, you think he is improvising in verse.
Last book you read?
This is not highbrow, but it was one of the happiest experiences of my life – I, Nomad by Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge. It made me howl with laughter.
Last box set you watched?
Killing Eve. Oh my God! I’ve got a crush on all of them. I loved it. I hadn’t seen Jodie Comer [who plays assassin Villanelle] before. I loved her beauty and fabulous wit and how she was totally committed to it.
Where do you get your news?
Radio 4 is on constantly, and I’ll always buy a newspaper every day. I want my Letter To The Editor, I want my Comment section. And we get Time, Vanity Fair, The Economist, The Spectator, The New Yorker, and sometimes The Lancet – for showing off!
She’s so busy that she missed an envelope offering her an OBE in 2017 for services to drama. McCrory explained later that she thought it was a bill and therefore her husband’s responsibility: ‘It’s quite old school. He pays most of the bills.’ They can pick and choose parts now, but how do they decide what to take? If one of them gets a lead at the National Theatre but the other is offered a well-paid Hollywood role, who wins? ‘Right, like there’s order to this? I love that idea! No, we haven’t got a map. We’re like everyone else, we just make it up as we go along.’
When I ask for her opinion on James Bond, she sighs. Her husband has been considered one of the frontrunners for a long time, but has joked himself that by the time the producers make a decision he will probably be dead. So should 007 be a person of colour now, such as Idris Elba? Or a woman? How about her? McCrory’s eyes flash. ‘I think it would be absolutely wonderful if they just started again and went for a period Bond, made it absolutely exact and as close to the books. That would be fascinating.’
Some have compared McCrory to Olivia Colman, who is up for an Oscar tonight for The Favourite. I’ve met actors who would barely be able to conceal their jealousy at the success of a ‘rival’, but her face lights up at the mention of the name.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever felt jealousy for another person. I’ve produced plays and you realise that people can walk into the room for an audition and be absolutely brilliant, but they’re just not what you want. It’s so instinctive. It’s about the essence of people.’
She’ll surely get her own awards for MotherFatherSon, because whatever she is being paid, the essence of Helen McCrory is something really rather priceless.
‘MotherFatherSon’ starts on March 6 at 9pm, BBC2