Annabel Scholey on sexy roles, Harvey Weinstein and women on screen

Annabel Scholey is on a roll. The actress has hit that point where the high-profile parts just keep coming and she has suddenly become a name to be reckoned with. From Britannia (award-winning writer Jez Butterworth’s answer to Game of Thrones) to The Split, a new six-part series about the lives and loves of a family of female lawyers, Annabel’s face will rarely be off the screen this year.

The Wakefield-born actress, who made her name in the BBCs supernatural drama Being Human, grins. ‘It does feel like something is really happening,’ she says. ‘I always used to beat myself up thinking if I hadn’t made it as an actress by my mid-20s I’d be washed up. But my career rocketed from the moment I hit 30 [she is now 34], which is absolutely perfect. I spent my 20s grafting away in the theatre and in small television parts and now it seems to be paying off.

In Being Human – which ran from 2009 to 2013 and remains hugely popular on BBC iPlayer – Annabel played the darkly sexy vampire Lauren Drake. In Britannia – the lavish Sky series about Britain after the Roman invasion – her portrayal of the lustful, duplicitous Amena has won her ‘a whole load of abuse on Twitter. Everyone hates Amena. The fact people were venting took me aback at first before I realised it wasn’t about me, it was about my character, and if I was getting a reaction then I was doing my job.’

Annabel Scholey
Helene Sandberg

In the BBC’s The Split, Annabel plays the glamorous, scatty lawyer Nina Defoe who works – along with her mother Ruth (Cranford actress Deborah Findlay) and elder sister Hannah (Unforgotten’s Nicola Walker) – in a successful legal practice specialising in divorce. When Nina is promoted by her mother to the same level as her hard-working, dedicated sister, Hannah quits the family firm for a rival company and immediately goes head to head with Nina in a bitter divorce case.

‘There’s a lot about Nina I love,’ says Annabel. ‘For a lawyer she’s a bit wild and inappropriate – she loves a drink and does on occasion sleep with her clients. But there’s something vulnerable and lovable about her. She adores her sister Hannah and is devastated by her leaving. To me this series is less about divorce and more about love: the love between sisters and the love you need in your life. While Hannah appears to have the perfect marriage and the siblings’ younger sister is engaged, Nina is a girl who just can’t commit to anyone.’

The real drama of The Split – created by Abi Morgan, who also wrote The Hour – is that this is a family of female divorce lawyers whose own lives and relationships have been moulded by their father walking out on them when Nina was just eight. The series starts with his unexpected return two decades later.

Annabel Scholey
Helene Sandberg

‘They all grew up in a family where a split had occurred,’ says Annabel, ‘and you realise what a deep effect it has had on all of them. They were told by their mother from a young age that they didn’t need a man in their lives because a man would leave them. I know people whose parents went through messy divorces and it does have an effect on your life – whether good or bad. It definitely shapes the way you look at relationships.’

The Split provided Annabel – who had, ironically, just got married to the actor and writer Ciarán McMenamin before filming started – with an insight into the world of divorce lawyers. ‘Until I began working on the series I had no idea that London was the divorce capital of the world,’ she says. ‘In the early days of shooting, Nicola and I had a scene where we are talking shop. When the cameras stopped rolling, we both burst out laughing because we didn’t sound convincing as lawyers. So the director sent us to spend a day with a top female divorce lawyer, which was fascinating. She was immaculate, rather intimidating but also very kind. You felt she was totally on your side and absolutely together at all times. I left thinking I never wanted to get divorced but that if I did I’d go straight to her.’

Annabel has, she says, been ‘extremely lucky’ in that she has never been involved in a divorce herself. Born to a fireman father Richard and mother Helen, who worked as a nurse, she grew up with her younger sister Rosie, hoping to emulate the happy marriage of her parents. ‘My mum and dad had the usual rows but they love each other. That definitely gave both me and my sister a blueprint of what we wanted from our relationships.

‘My sister got married two years before I did and I got married at 33. I wanted to be at an age when I was absolutely sure I knew what I was doing. I can’t imagine walking into a marriage thinking: “If it doesn’t work I’ll just get divorced.” I thought, “This is for life.” You need to work at a marriage, but divorce is not an easy option.

‘Spending a day with a divorce lawyer brought home how brutal the process is; how much it affects kids and how hard it is on fathers as well as mothers, which all comes across in the series. It’s such a big issue for our times but there has never really been a drama that addresses it. I think it’s going to be a real talking point.’

Annabel is one of those down-to-earth, fully engaged women who immediately connects – particularly with other women. She has become a protégée not just of Nicola but of Zoë Wanamaker, too, alongside whom she starred in Passion Play at London’s Duke Of York’s Theatre and then again in Britannia. ‘When I did Passion Play with Zoë she requested that I share her dressing room because she likes to have company. What amazed me was how she’d often ask what I thought about the way she’d changed one little nuance or action. It made me feel so much better, because I realised I was with someone who, even at her level, still doubted herself and questioned everything. It was the same with Nicola. She’s one of the most natural actresses I’ve worked with but she would try to make every line as good as possible. With both of them I felt completely free to express my worries, to talk through everything – they’ve been amazing friends to me.’

She adds: ‘We’ve all worked a lot in the theatre and I think actresses become very supportive. I played Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Judi Dench as Titania. I was 26 and she’d played Hermia at 26, so she gave me a lot of help with the part. I didn’t expect her to think of helping me. But these are all extraordinary women who are completely committed to the art of acting.’

Although Annabel appears to have cornered the market in very sexy roles, this is something she plays down: ‘I don’t see myself as sexy but it’s definitely a thread that goes through the roles I’m offered. In a way you have to view it as flattering, but too much sexy can be boring. I don’t want to be the sort of actress who relies on her looks because I want to be known for the performances. I am a fairly sensual person, so I channel that for roles like Amena and Nina, but I would never be so overt in real life.

Annabel as Amena in Britannia. Image: Stanislav Honzik

‘What I loved about playing Amena is that the whole look and feel of Britannia is very messy and grubby, so it’s not self-conscious sexiness – there’s a lot of dirt and ripped clothes. To me Britannia is more like Peaky Blinders because of that scruffiness. There’s a tiny bit of nudity but nothing like in Game of Thrones, which I was very happy about. Amena is an absolute snake but she was brilliant to play because she is so focused on being queen and having power and she goes for it 100 per cent. That’s the part of me that is like Amena: I’ve always been 100 per cent focused. There was never a plan B for me.’

Although there was no acting history in the family, Annabel fell in love with the stage as a child. ‘I was a hyperactive kid,’ she says. ‘My mum took me to dance classes, which I adored. Then, when I was ten, she enrolled me for speech and drama classes. I was obsessed with both dance and drama. But by the time I became a teenager my body had developed and I was a bit too curvy to be a dancer. I’d also worry that I’d forget my steps. At the same time I’d do speech and drama competitions where I would act or read a passage of Shakespeare or a poem in front of an audience, and I never had a moment of nerves when I went on stage. When it came to working out what I would do after school, it was my dad who said: “Drama school.”’

She was offered a place at The Oxford School of Drama (alumni include The Crown’s Claire Foy and Sherlock’s Catherine McCormack), from where she graduated in 2005.

‘I was lucky in that I was rarely out of work. I did EastEnders, Holby City, Doctors – and I learned to deal with rejection. There was a phase where I’d get down to the final two in auditions and then not get the job. I was down to the final two for Peaky Blinders. As the audition was last-minute I knew it would be disastrous to attempt to do it in a Brummie accent so I just went the full Yorkshire. I didn’t get the job. But you have to keep the faith. The one thing my father said to me before I left for drama school was: “Don’t let the buggers grind you down.” It’s probably the best advice I’ve ever been given and something I’d pass on to any young actress.’

Annabel has spoken regularly about the need for more female dramas and with The Split – a virtually all-female cast – she couldn’t be happier. ‘It’s written by a woman, directed by a woman and produced by a woman so it’s a real sign that things are changing and women’s voices are being heard.’

She pauses. ‘What happened with Harvey Weinstein has changed a lot. I personally have never experienced anything like that and I hope it will not happen to any other actress again.’ She did, however, spend almost a year working with Kevin Spacey, on a touring production of Richard III. She nods her head as she talks about his fall from grace for having allegedly sexually abused young male actors: ‘I didn’t know what was going on. He was very private but he was incredible on stage and very generous. I was shocked and disappointed when the story came out and it has changed that whole experience. I used to be proud of having played Lady Anne in the Sam Mendes-directed production, but now I rarely mention it because it feels tainted.’

Annabel with husband Ciarán McMenamin: ‘He’s the rebel to my goody two-shoes’. Image: Dan Wooller/REX/Shutterstock​

In Annabel’s own private life, however, things could not be happier. She fell for Ciarán after seeing him in a production of Timon of Athens. ‘I thought he was rather amazing but we were both in relationships so nothing happened. Several months later we met in a bar. I didn’t get his sense of humour because it was very dark and Irish and he didn’t get mine because it was very straight, but we kept seeing each other. Two years later he came out to Italy where I was filming Medici: Masters of Florence [the Netflix show that also stars Dustin Hoffman and Sean Bean]. He had a bad back but insisted we walk up a hill in the rain to this archway. He then got down on one knee and pulled out a beautiful 1920s diamond ring. He couldn’t get up again because his back had locked so we were just laughing and crying. I’m completely crazy about him.’

After buying a house in Hastings, they recently married, with a traditional Irish wedding on the tiny island of Lusty Beg in Fermanagh. ‘We had a ceilidh band and lots of musicians. No cake, just chocolate sundaes. The great thing about Ciarán is that he is my polar opposite. I was such a goody two-shoes all my life – I was head girl at school, I’m very controlling – and he is a rebel who was a wild boy. His first book, loosely based on his teenage years in clubs, is Skintown, which he’s now adapting into a film. I read it and thought: “Yes, that’s my boy.” He has knocked off a lot of my smooth edges and I have smoothed some of his rougher edges. We had to wait six months for our honeymoon because of my filming schedule in The Split but we spent January in Sri Lanka, which was heaven – the beginning of an exciting year for both of us. Long may it last.’

The Split is coming soon to BBC One. Britannia is on Sky Atlantic and streaming service Now TV

Interview by Louise Gannon