Emilia Fox: ‘I’m better equipped to deal with life now’

Therapy, an ‘amazing’ new man and wise words from her dad Edward have helped Silent Witness star EMILIA FOX relax into her 40s. She tells Cole Moreton why it took so long for her to say ‘I’m happy to be me’ PHOTOGRAPHS: CHRIS FLOYD

Emilia Fox has won a lot of new fans on Channel 4’s Celebrity Gogglebox lately, watching telly on the sofa with a family member who says outrageous things and swears like a drunken sailor. But it’s not her controversial cousin Laurence who makes ice-cool Emilia laugh and gasp in shock these days. It’s her mother, actress Joanna David. ‘I’m sure they had to cut out quite a lot because she’s got a really filthy mouth, my mum. She’s shocking.’

Emilia Fox
Emilia wears suit and top, Victoria Beckham

Joanna David was a leading lady of 1970s television, elegant and well-spoken in War & Peace and Rebecca, then lending classic English reserve to everything from Midsomer Murders to The Darling Buds of May. But she’s been living a quiet life these past few years in the rural West Country with her husband – Emilia’s father – Edward Fox, star of The Day of the Jackal and A Bridge Too Far. ‘They live in the middle of nowhere and don’t have television, so my heart was slightly in my mouth about Mum going on Gogglebox. But I think that was part of the charm of it, that she really hadn’t seen any of the programmes before– apart from, possibly, David Attenborough,’ says Emilia, 47.

Viewers loved it when Joanna watched a woman on Antiques Roadshow being told a seemingly valueless brooch was actually a sapphire surrounded by diamonds worth £50,000 and declared in cut-glass tones: ‘F*** me!’ Emilia laughs out loud again now, remembering it. ‘People have very strong opinions about what you must be like [as a Fox]. And until now not many have been able to see that Mum is funny and larger-than-life. I enjoyed filming it with her.’

They are very natural on screen, but it runs in the family. Emilia’s brother Freddie played Mark Thatcher in The Crown, and was memorable as murderer Jeremy Bamber in White House Farm. Uncle James starred in 1970’s Performance with Mick Jagger. Emilia’s cousins Lydia and Jack also act.

And then there’s Laurence. Best known initially for playing DI Hathaway in the Inspector Morse spin-off Lewis, he has more recently launched his own noisy, but spectacularly unsuccessful, political movement, The Reclaim Party. I ask if she shares his views and Emilia takes a while before answering very carefully. ‘Laurence is my cousin. My family. And he’s the greatest advocate of everyone being able to have their own opinions. We’ve been through lots together.’ I suggest perhaps that she doesn’t always agree with him, but loves him anyway? ‘My relationship with Laurence is about family, the love that family has for each other, and people are always going to have different views about the world of politics.’

Laurence stood in the election for London mayor last May, opposing lockdown and declining to be vaccinated. He finished in sixth place. ‘I was away filming so we haven’t actually spoken [about it]. I don’t follow Laurence’s politics, because that’s not what our relationship is about,’ she says, clearly wanting to distance herself from all that.

OK, but has it been hard to be publicly identified with one of the loudest, most contrary voices in politics? ‘I understand the relationship in my own life with the public. Because of acting, you’re going into people’s homes, so it’s understandable that they want to know something about the person behind the role,’ she says. ‘Equally I have been brought up believing that your private life is also key. Mum and Dad are very private people. Laurence has a different relationship with the public and that’s his choice.’ As a campaigner seeking support, doesn’t he just seem determined to say ever more shocking things? ‘That’s about him, and his thoughts and views. And that’s a very separate thing.’

Dress, Michael Kors. Sandals, Jennifer Chamandi. Earrings, Bar Jewellery

Emilia relaxes when we leave this subject and talk instead about what it was she was filming that meant she wasn’t around for her cousin’s mayoral bid. Her frown eases and her eyes widen. She was working on a new detective series set in Italy called Signora Volpe. She plays Sylvia, a disillusioned former MI6 spy who chooses the quiet life in Umbria but soon becomes involved in investigating a murder. ‘I loved it there, it was so beautiful.’

The show, created for streaming service Acorn TV by two writers from Midsomer Murders, starts with three feature-length episodes. To give an idea of how much this project has been built around its star you need a little Italian. Signora Volpe translates as ‘Mrs Fox’.

‘I was learning Italian in lockdown anyway,’ says Emilia. ‘Then I got this lovely job and thought: “Oh, my Italian will flourish and I’ll be fluent by the time I come back.”’ Little did I realise I would be learning English lines solidly from beginning to end… But it was lovely being surrounded by the language.’

Emilia was educated at the independent Bryanston School in Dorset and read English at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, before– almost inevitably, given her heritage – becoming an actor.

She appeared on television with the swoonsome Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice, playing Mr Darcy’s sister, then made her big-screen debut in Roman Polanski’s acclaimed 2002 movie The Pianist. But the role for which she is most famous is that of Dr Nikki Alexander, forensic pathologist and star of the long-running crime series Silent Witness. Having played the part for 17 years, Emilia describes the character as ‘the best friend I could have. She’s a great ally and a great strength and I love spending time with her. She makes mistakes and questionable decisions, but that makes her more human. I really value the friendship we’ve had for a long, long time.’

Emilia Fox
Emilia as Dr Nikki Alexander in Silent Witness

Isn’t it a bit, well, weird to talk about Nikki as if she is a real person? ‘I look forward to seeing her. I don’t look forward to seeing myself,’ Emilia says, shaking her head and revealing her own insecurity. ‘I look forward to seeing what she’s going to get up to.’ This sounds like heartfelt honesty rather than luvvie posturing. ‘Acting is like an extension of childhood. So she’s my imaginary friend.’

The cast has just finished filming season 25, in which one of the original stars makes a surprise comeback. I won’t say who that is, because the current series is on iPlayer right now and it comes as a massive twist at the end.

I’m interested in the effect that playing her character has had on Emilia, especially given that she had to watch real-life pathologists at work on human bodies. ‘My initial reaction to the first postmortem I ever saw was: “Is that what life’s all about?” You can end up on a mortuary slab with someone you don’t know literally looking inside you, and the essence of you is gone. Where does it go and what does that mean? So I believe there is definitely something spiritual about us. The second thing I think came to me after seeing the dead body of a young man. His life was tattooed all over him: his family, the dates of his grandparents’ lives, the names of his girlfriends. And he was in the prime of his life. It made me think we never know how long we’ve got. So surely what we learn is that you’ve got to make the most of it.’

For Emilia, that means being with her daughter Rose, 11. ‘Last year Rose was home schooling, so she was around all the time. I loved pottering about and she loved having me there.’ Emilia describes the decade since Rose’s birth as ‘the greatest ten years ever. I went through a massive change, from being someone who didn’t have a child to someone whose whole life is shaped by being a parent. And trying to create a path to still go on working.’

Rose’s father is the actor and filmmaker Jeremy Gilley, but the couple split up a year after she was born. Emilia went on to date the chef Marco Pierre White and was engaged to talent agent Luc Chaudhary, although that relationship ended soon after Covid began. Is she single at the moment? ‘No, I’m not. There’s a direct answer!’ she laughs. ‘I could tell you who it is, but we’re keeping a bit of a lid on it. I’m very happy,’ she says, and it’s written all over her face. ‘I’d really love to tell you about what an amazing man he is, and how very lucky I am to have met him.’ (A few days after our chat, Emilia’s mystery man is revealed when she is photographed strolling hand in hand in London with 43-year-old television producer Jonathan Stadlen.)

Emilia Fox partner
Emilia with her new love, TV producer Jonathan Stadlen

The TV industry has changed a lot since Emilia joined Silent Witness in 2004, when it was still rare for a major thriller to have a 40-something female lead. Now there are many others, including Eve Myles in Keeping Faith, Anna Friel in Marcella and Suranne Jones in Vigil. ‘Luckily we are in a time of making television where people are as interested in seeing characters with life experiences as they are in seeing young, new faces. So it feels like there’s a better balance.’ Looking back over the years she has been in the role, what would she say to her younger self? ‘Keep hope, even when things are difficult. Life is not a straight path. I have a better knowledge of myself now. I’ve done a lot of therapy, so I think I’m better equipped to deal with things in my 40s than I was in my 30s. I asked my dad, who’s in his 80s: “What have you learnt?” And there was a big pause before he replied: “How to be calm”, which I thought was a nice answer.’

Silent Witness plays up the contrast between the beautiful features of the scientists in close up – not just Emilia but also co-star David Caves– and the surrounding carnage, with bodies cut open and organs on show. ‘The female pathologists I’ve worked with really do care about what they look like when they’re off-duty. Maybe that’s to do with the fact that they spend most of the day in scrubs,’ she says. But wouldn’t everyone who works in that job say it comes to nothing when you are looking at a corpse? ‘Certainly what I look like is not something I think about at all when I’m doing the scenes.’

So she doesn’t feel any pressure to look a certain way? ‘I just don’t watch myself. I try not to get too hung up on it. If people want to judge the way you look or have opinions about it, then that’s the deal: you’re putting yourself on television. I go to work and people put make-up on me and do my hair and dress me. They look after all that,’ she says. ‘I’d like to really embrace my age. I don’t feel anxious about it. But let’s discuss it when I’ve got 5,000 more wrinkles on my face.’

OK, but in the meantime what does she do to keep healthy? ‘I like going to the gym. I’m really boring when I’m working: I eat the same things every day, just because it’s such a routine.’ Specifically, oats with oat milk, raspberries and agave syrup for breakfast, chicken salad or miso soup and sushi for lunch with dark chocolate as a snack. Dinner is fish or roast chicken with steamed vegetables. And when she’s not filming? ‘I eat a healthy, normal diet and don’t deny myself anything but I don’t go over the top either. I was a bit crazy at the beginning of the making of series 24: I became so health obsessed because of what was going on in the world [with Covid]. I was getting up at 4.30am to do a workout. It was unsustainable. I’ve just done three months in Italy and eaten pasta nonstop and I haven’t been able to work out at all – and really enjoyed myself.’

Given that her best friend is imaginary and she spends her whole time pretending to be other people, how does Emilia manage to keep a sense of self? ‘I find that very easy. I leave work and go home and shift my life back into parent mode. When I go in the door, there is no chance I’m holding on to acting at all. And I really love that. That’s not to say that parts don’t get under your skin. You can escape into certain characters – and we all need a bit of escapism. But I definitely don’t want to escape from my own life at the moment. And that’s a lovely thing to be able to say, because there have been times I haven’t [felt that way] but I really am happy to go home and be “me”.

The new series of Silent Witness will be on BBC One this spring. You can catch up on all previous series on BBC iPlayer

Additional pictures: BBC, Instagram