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Helen McCrory on Fearless, Peaky Blinders & the Rise of Females on Screen

Helen McCrory OBE explains why her latest role in ITV’s new prime-time thriller Fearless is the “most refreshing” she has ever played

That Helen McCrory is starring in a new prime-time thriller called Fearless is rather apt. This is a woman no stranger to playing feisty, fiery, even controversial characters. Her stage roles range from Lady Macbeth, Medea and, most recently, Hester Collyer in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, while on film she has played Cherie Blair and Queen Elizabeth I. She’s perhaps most loved as matriarch Polly Gray in the BBC’s Peaky Blinders or Madame Kali in Penny Dreadful. 

Her latest role is the lead in new ITV political drama Fearless. She plays the chain-smoking, vodka-swilling, but brilliant solicitor, Emma Banville, who is known for defending some of society’s most abhorred suspects. The plot follows her as she attempts to free a man she believes was wrongly convicted of killing a schoolgirl in East Anglia. As she delves deeper into the case, she sees that there is much more to it than she first imagined – and that police and intelligence services around the world will do anything to stop her.

Fortunately, there is nothing fierce about McCrory in person. The 48-year-old actress sits poised and elegant in London’s Soho Hotel where she has arrived, right on time, for our interview. It’s midday and so she apologises when, halfway through our chat, a spinach omelette arrives. 

“Do you mind?” she asks politely. “I’ve already had a breakfast very early today so I’m having another.” While not intimidating, McCrory certainly knows her mind. Between dainty mouthfuls, she carefully considers questions before answering them in her well-spoken lilt. Sharp and astute, her self-confidence is unwavering and a mark of her successful career playing complex characters.

“I really like Emma,” says McCrory when I ask why the part appealed to her. After all, she must have her pick of scripts. “I hadn’t read a female character for television that doesn’t explain herself. She’s entirely unapologetic. She’s courageous, focused and tenacious, and quietly chips away until she gets to the truth. The show is celebrating people defending and sticking up for each other. I liked that. 

“I think particularly at the moment, when reading the news is so depressing, creating someone who is fighting for what she believes is justice, and not trusting anybody but herself, is really refreshing.” The only time McCrory doesn’t go into as much depth with her answers is when I broach the subject of her husband, fellow actor Damian Lewis OBE. Is discussing work at home off-limits?  “Like any other couple we talk about work as far as scheduling is concerned with the kids and where we’re going to be living and filming, but that’s it really.” Who does the bulk of the cooking at home? “Whoever is there.”

Point taken. Today she is here to discuss her work, not her husband. There is an interesting parallel, however, in that Fearless is written by Patrick Harbinson, one of the scriptwriters and producers of Homeland, in which Lewis starred. “I didn’t know Patrick before and I’m not sure if he wrote the episodes Damian was in because he came on much later, quite a few series on from when my husband left."

“However, there are clearly similarities,” she continues. “You can tell that Patrick has worked in America. Fearless covers more plot in an hour than most British dramas will cover in six hours. Plot is king in American drama and you see it in this. So much is introduced in the first episode.”

“We have proven again and again that people don’t expect women to behave in a certain way; nobody expects anything anymore. We’re all breaking barriers”

While it may read like an American drama, McCrory is quick to poke fun at the fact that it was made on a very British budget. “We do it slightly differently,” she laughs. “You’re not going from Hawaii to Lebanon to Berlin. On £7.50 you’re going from Solihull down to Peckham then up to Tufnell Park. But it doesn’t matter in a thriller – what matters is the plot. Most of it is London and Suffolk, but then she crosses continents.”

The cast also includes Sir Michael Gambon – with whom McCrory starred alongside in the Harry Potter film franchise, in which she played Narcissa Malfoy – and the comedian John Bishop as Banville’s policeman boyfriend; “so charming and fantastic”, says McCrory. 

In preparing for the role of Emma Banville, McCrory read and listened to interviews with Gareth Peirce (“the obvious one”), a leading solicitor who famously represented the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot dead at Stockwell tube station in a bungled terrorism raid. She also befriended a human rights lawyer whom she happened upon by chance.

“I was on the tube and heard a man chatting about human rights and I thought, ‘oh Christ, I’m late but I don’t care.’ He got off at Embankment and I ran down the Strand after him, asked him if he was a human rights lawyer and he told me, guarding his wallet closely, that he was.” 

“I said, ‘I promise you I’m an actress and please can I just come and talk to you?’” she continues. “I would go and chat to him after rehearsals for The Deep Blue Sea in various cafés by the Strand. It was fascinating.”

The actress is now mid-way through filming the fourth series of Peaky Blinders, the hit set in 1920s Birmingham starring Cillian Murphy as blue-eyed mob boss Tommy Shelby, McCrory as his Aunt Polly and a host of other top British talent including Tom Hardy. “I love Polly,” says McCrory. “One minute she’s a badass with these great one-liners and shooting a gun with a flick-knife in her garter, and the next she’s got a really beautiful love story or a breakdown, then she’s put through a rape and then a revenge. The whole season is brilliant, the best season we’re going to do.”

While she may be known for playing tough characters in gritty performances, home life in the Tufnell Park McCrory/Lewis household involves lots of satires and comedies. Her favourite shows to watch are “Catastrophe, Veep, Curb Your Enthusiasm. I mean, I’m still on The Simpsons.” She’s also “a bit of a news junkie, so I listen to and watch a lot of current affairs”. 

McCrory has two children with Lewis: Manon, 11, and Gulliver, 10. She tells me, proudly, that her daughter walked in the Women’s March in January. “I didn’t march because I was working and my son didn’t because he was playing football but, yes, Manon did. She also had to dress up for school and so made a suffragette’s outfit and took the placard she had used for the march, which was great.” 

As highlighted by shows such as Big Little Lies and House of Cards, roles for women on TV are getting better and better. “It’s interesting where writers are taking women now,” McCrory muses. “We have proven again and again that people don’t expect women to behave in a certain way; nobody expects anything anymore. We’re all breaking barriers.” 

Speaking of her latest role, McCrory is quick to point out that Emma represents so much more than just a solicitor. “She’s a lone warrior,  a new type of woman that Patrick is looking at who discovers things for herself and trusts no one. A 21st century heroine.” A 21st century heroine? Now that sums up McCrory.