The new queen of primetime TV Charlotte Riley opens up to Kat Brown about royal connections, life lessons from her dad and the (hilarious) way actor husband Tom Hardy made her insanely jealous.
If you were celeb-spotting the guests arriving for Harry and Meghan’s wedding back in May – and let’s face it, who wasn’t? – you may have noticed actress of the moment Charlotte Riley, wearing a vintage-look dark floral dress and strolling up to St George’s Chapel hand in hand with her husband of four years, Mad Max: Fury Road star Tom Hardy. It was a rare appearance in a supporting role (supporting the royal couple, that is, not her husband) for Charlotte, who seems to be grabbing more TV screen time than any other actress this autumn.
She was the idealistic deputy news editor, torn between duty and her personal life, in BBC One’s newspaper series Press; the family lawyer in Trust, BBC Two’s drama about the John Paul Getty III kidnapping; and she’s about to star as a young mother dealing with the aftermath of her parents’ unsolved murder in ITV’s police thriller Dark Heart.
In the satirical stage and TV drama King Charles III, Charlotte played a fictionalised version of the Duchess of Cambridge, though sadly the paps didn’t get that coveted shot of Kate and Charlotte together at Meghan and Harry’s wedding. ‘Other than the level of security and the crowds, I can honestly say it felt like a nice, normal wedding,’ she says, ‘a really beautiful day full of a huge amount of love.’ Her dress, incidentally, was by The Vampire’s Wife, the label founded by Susie Cave, wife of musician Nick Cave: ‘I’d worn one of her dresses before, to a Bafta event. They are quite demure and I felt great in it, really elegant.’
Charlotte may have been demure on that occasion, but at the moment she’s looking distinctly goofy – sitting opposite me with her fist in her mouth. I mean literally – almost up to her wrist. Not what you’d expect from a 36-year-old pregnant with her second child. But goofiness was her party piece when I knew her at Durham University 18 years ago, typical of the beautiful girl who loved to show her clownish side, and she’s delighted to prove that she can still do it.
I knew her as a star of the university Revue, completely comfortable in who she was – sweary, funny, energetic; no university crises here. That said, it’s still quite odd when the woman you went to toga parties with in freshers’ week, and who painted a sunrise on your bedroom wall, turns up as a guest at the royal wedding. (Her invitation came via husband Tom’s work with Prince Harry for the Prince’s Trust.) She’s been to the Oscars, for heaven’s sake! And she’s married to a heart-throb: Tom has collected as many fans for his own Instagram account (he has 3.4 million followers) as for his macho film roles.
The couple met when he played Heathcliff to her Cathy in the 2009 ITV adaptation of Wuthering Heights. They also starred alongside each other in BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders, where Charlotte plays racehorse-training socialite May Carleton. Tom’s gang leader, Alfie Solomons, was killed off in the last series. Will Charlotte be back for series five or has pregnancy pressed pause? ‘No, due to no reason other than I just haven’t been asked. At least, I don’t think I’ve been asked.
Famously private (they married in a low-key ceremony), the pair now live in West London with their toddler son and French bulldog Blue. Charlotte grew up in Teesside, the youngest of three children. She still has her soft accent (‘Having the threat of a Northern father telling you that if you lose your accent you’re not allowed to come home is a good way of keeping you grounded’), although it’s taken years of acting for her to develop the confidence to use it when auditioning for parts (she used it as Holly in Press). After Durham she studied at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art (Lamda) and went on to Ecole Philippe Gaulier, the Paris clown school whose alumni include Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter.
She appeared on stage with Diana Rigg and Maureen Lipman (in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard) and with Jessica Biel and Kristen Scott Thomas in the 2008 film of Noël Coward’s Easy Virtue. Wuthering Heights won her a wider audience, as did roles alongside Tom Cruise in 2014’s sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow, written by Unforgotten creator Chris Lang.
In Dark Heart, her character Juliette is enduring ongoing tragedy: her parents were brutally killed in her teens and their murderer was never found. She’s in what Charlotte describes as ‘a fairly dysfunctional relationship’: in the first episode she turns up in the old family home with her young son and a black eye courtesy of her murky new boyfriend. Meanwhile her brilliant younger brother Will, a detective, is struggling to balance worrying about his family and his on-off girlfriend with catching a vigilante serial killer who is targeting unconvicted paedophiles.
‘I’ve lost people myself, so there was plenty for me to draw on,’ Charlotte says. ‘But those two characters were orphaned at the ages of 16 and 17 – how do you cope with that? That’s what my job is, to fill in those gaps and figure out what that leaves you with in terms of psychological scars or how that person interprets things in their life.’ Oddly, it was her clown training that helped her convey the emotion. She explains, ‘If you’re playing something that’s quite dark on screen, people don’t want to see the actor’s pain – they want to see the character’s. It’s not about you going to a painful place, it’s about finding the pleasure in portraying the pain.’
Fortunately, she finds switching off from difficult parts relatively easy. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done roles that physically challenged me. I did a tough one at the Royal Court [Laura in the 2009 play The Priory] where my character was slitting her wrists every night. That was exhausting physically, but mentally – no. Particularly now being a parent – you have the journey home and you’re, like: right, different gear!’
Life at home with Tom is a happy, quiet affair. A perfect Saturday night for them is watching a documentary over a meal from their favourite Indian takeaway. ‘What’s important for me is stability – that’s what I aim for in terms of my friends, my family and my children. The best you can hope for is to create a warm, loving, safe and consistent environment.’ Her most treasured possessions are their photo albums. ‘I’ve got my mum and dad’s photo albums from their childhood, too. They trigger so many memories, don’t they? Although I’m terrible at recognising, “Oh, this is a moment, get your phone out!”’
How do she and Tom combine their careers with parenting? ‘We do it the same way everyone else does: a combination of juggling and help.’ There’s obviously going to be a bit more juggling soon, with a new baby due imminently: the working hours are tricky in terms of childcare. Becoming a mother led Charlotte to realise how very different life was for parents in her industry, and being able to take her baby son with her to work on King Charles III inspired her to join Raising Films, an initiative launched by a group of filmmakers aimed at providing childcare facilities on set. ‘I was able to do my job and be with my child, which was a complete blessing for an actor. But in the meantime there’s the rest of the cast and crew who are struggling to see their children because of the ridiculous hours we work.’
Part of the issue is where childcare is coming from: Charlotte’s own parents live hundreds of miles away, so, she can’t call on them for help easily. ‘We don’t live in this nuclear family any more, where you’ve got aunties and uncles and grandmas living on the same street. We lead isolated lives.’ One way to improve things, she says, is providing flexible childcare that both men and women can use. ‘In our industry, you’re not working all the time. So if somebody’s got an eight-week project it would be great if they could bring their child and breastfeed, or if they could job-share, because a lot of positions on set are perfect for job-sharing.’
Except for acting, of course. Charlotte has been cast in several period roles – in Marple, Stephen Poliakoff’s 1940s drama Close to the Enemy and as the bewitched Mrs Strange in BBC One’s big-budget tale of Victorian wizardry, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. If she has no personal experience to draw on, she researches her roles, but hasn’t had therapy.
‘Does talking to friends count? Having an amazing group of friends and family certainly helps me if I’m struggling with anything. I’m lucky, particularly with friends I made at Lamda. People have all stayed in touch and helped each other through the ups and downs of acting and daily life. In terms of life experiences I’ve had, the opportunity to live with women in a shared house is probably one of the most important.’ And it’s good to do it when you’re a bit older, I say. When we started university in 2000, there was very much a feeling that feminism was completed, that we were all equal in our laddishness. ‘Do you think it was the naivety of youth or because we were coming out of that Spice Girls era?’ asks Charlotte. ‘We did dress in quite an androgynous way. I wore baggy skater trousers and trainers, and was, like, “I’m set!” But no, you can’t just dress like men and suddenly it’s all equal. Female remakes of male dominated films just don’t do it for me,’ she says of titles such as Ocean’s 8. ‘Why can’t we just make an entirely new film that has amazing women in it?’
This did happen with Edge of Tomorrow, where she starred alongside Emily Blunt, ‘but it’s still quite male-dominated’, she says. ‘Emily was awesome. She’s totally nails, that woman. I remember when we were doing the training for it, she was so ripped it was unbelievable.’
Charlotte auditioned for the role of Catwoman in her husband’s film The Dark Knight Rises, and is amused by the mystique surrounding big Hollywood superhero films. ‘It’s so veiled in secrecy that you don’t know what you’re auditioning for half the time. The directors watching it must be, like, “What are these people doing?” because you have no direction. I don’t know who [the character] is talking to, I don’t know who she is. Some of them were aliens.’ She shrugs cheerfully. ‘I’m useless when it comes to superhero things.’
The real world is easier to understand, especially if there are animals involved. Charlotte and Tom are both huge pet lovers, and time on Peaky Blinders was even more of a family affair thanks to guest appearances from Tom’s labrador-cross Woody, who died last summer. Their French bulldog Blue is a new addition to the household, although he has yet to make an appearance on Tom’s wildly popular Instagram. ‘I didn’t know he had an Instagram account until about three weeks ago,’ says Charlotte. ‘I don’t do anything like that.’
Does it ever feel odd that so many people are invested in pictures of her husband with animals? Tom posts pictures of Battersea rescues to his own followers, and he is also the star of the hugely popular tomhardyholdingdogs fan-run account. ‘He’s always been a bit of a Doctor Dolittle. There are numerous friends and family who now have dogs, that didn’t know they wanted one until Tom happened to find a dog that didn’t have a home. Even when we get a dog that’s intended to be mine, it always loves him more than me.’
Her husband’s appeal also extends to one of Charlotte’s favourite people. ‘I was very cross when Tom got to meet Paul O’Grady at Battersea Dogs Home and I didn’t. That caused a rift for a little while.’ Paul O’Grady? Not, say, someone snazzy at the Oscars? ‘I’ve read all his biographies and I’m slightly obsessed by him. I need to meet him.’
I get the feeling that’s not going to be a problem for Charlotte Riley.
Charlotte in short
Describe yourself in three words How do you do that?! I don’t know, it changes minute by minute.
What’s your motto? It’s six and two threes. You can apply it to anything in life. Do I do this or do that? It’s probably going to amount to the same thing in the end.
What are you listening to? Radio 2 or Warren Zevon, AC/DC and stuff like that so we can have a little boogie with the children.
What are you watching on TV? Ozark is quite gory but so good. And the most recent season of Homeland.
What embarrasses you? I’m bad at remembering names. I get people mixed up.
Your fashion icon? My friend Bonnie. I hate shopping, and when I do go, I’ll say, ‘Bonnie, I’ve found a nice pair of jeans,’ and she’ll say, ‘Buy them in every colour!’
Dark Heart starts at 9pm on Wednesday 31 October on ITV