Keeley Hawes: ‘For this to happen at 43 is perfect’

From hot sex with her bodyguard to being seduced on a Greek beach, Keeley Hawes has had her pick of roles this year. The reigning queen of must-see TV tells Chris Harvey why she’s happy it took a while to get there.

Keeley Hawes
Jumper, Baum und Pferdgarten, Fenwick. Skirt and shoes, Dior. Earrings, Apples & Figs. Image: Alan Gelati

There was a little moment at the recent television Bafta awards when Keeley Hawes, drop-dead gorgeous in an off-the-shoulder silver ballgown, turned round in her seat to look at fellow actress Ruth Wilson, who winked as Keeley broke into a smile. Here were two brilliant talents sharing a standout moment in their careers (both were nominated for best actress). ‘It was a little bit of hand-holding,’ says Keeley now. ‘We’re friends.’ Moments later, BBC’s thriller Bodyguard would win the Must-See Moment award (for the assassination of Keeley’s home secretary Julia Montague). ‘That award was really nice,’ she says, ‘because the public vote for it.

In fact, the public effectively voted for Keeley twice over: the series finale of her hit Sunday night drama The Durrells was a clear ratings winner over that evening’s Bafta coverage on BBC One – with the actress starring in one of the year’s most heartbreaking love scenes. Her delightful Louisa Durrell left fans bereft – and desperate for more – when she and Greek heartthrob Spiros (Alexis Georgoulis) declared their doomed passion. ‘We know they love each other, it just can’t be,’ Keeley says wistfully, ‘and sometimes that’s better, I think.’ 

Keeley Hawes The Durrells
That kiss! Keeley with Alexis Georgoulis in The Durrells. Image: ITV

Keeley’s Corfu tryst may have steamed up our TV screens but – if anything – her turn in last year’s Bodyguard (in which her unbending home secretary got together with Richard Madden’s hunky protection officer) was even more smouldering. I can’t resist asking Keeley, who is happily married to fellow actor Matthew Macfadyen, if both shows gave hope to single women of a certain age. ‘Firstly, I don’t think 43 is middle-aged!’ she splutters indignantly. ‘If you can’t find love at that age, that’s a bit sad. I’d hope that people everywhere can find love at all times of their lives.’

Part of an A-list elite of British actresses, Keeley is proof that age is no barrier to sex appeal – nor to mesmerising new career challenges. She may have been lighting up our screens since her 1999 breakthrough role as Diana Dors in TV drama The Blonde Bombshell, but now, in her 40s, she’s absolutely flying. And she is clearly relishing every moment, not to mention the reaction she’s been getting in Hollywood as well as at home. ‘I had to go to Los Angeles last week for a shoot,’ she says. ‘It’s amazing how different it is when you have a show that is recognised there – it’s a new world of possibilities. But for this to happen now, at 43 instead of at 19, is perfect because I can stand back and go, ‘This is lovely but… back to work everybody!’ 

Keeley Hawes
Dress, Roksanda, Harvey Nichols. Earrings, Girls Crew. Sandals, Aquazzura. Image: Alan Gelati

Today Keeley is in a reflective mood, as she collects a tiny spider trying to dive into her cup of tea. We’re sitting beside a beautiful, carp-filled pool in the magnificent Great Conservatory of Syon House in West London. She used to visit the (now closed) butterfly house and reptile house, and loves how the YOU shoot has transformed her: ‘It’s not my natural place to be running around with no shoes in a big Christian Dior gown.’ We’ve been talking about class; more specifically, how Keeley pronounces Marylebone, where she grew up, close to Paddington Station. Popular belief would have it that upper-class folks say ‘Marleybun’, working-class people say ‘Marrabun’, and the lower middle-classes say ‘Marry-le-bone’. 

Keeley says the last, but it could turn out to be misleading. She grew up in a council flat, the youngest daughter of a cab driver and a housewife, but she had years of elocution lessons, and makes a very convincing aristocrat. She was Lady Agnes in the remake of Upstairs Downstairs and is currently playing the wife of a blue-blooded Tory MP in Stephen Poliakoff’s six-part 50s thriller Summer of Rockets on BBC Two. ‘I love those parts,’ she says. ‘Probably because they are so far removed from what I am – it’s laughably the other end of the social spectrum.’

Amusingly, she confides that Poliakoff had one very useful piece of advice to help her with the role. ‘I’m a people pleaser and he got me to rein that in a bit, because very posh people don’t give a s***.’ She laughs, ‘No, it’s not fair, is it, to tar everyone with that brush.’ She corrects herself slightly. ‘They don’t care as much.’

Keeley Hawes
Dress, Roksanda, Browns Fashion. Earrings, vintage Chanel. Shoes, Rupert Sanderson. Burly the dog, hairstylist’s own. Image: Alan Gelati

Not that she’ll be taking her work – or aloof attitude – home with her. ‘I don’t think I’ve changed at all,’ she insists of her working-class roots. She loves going to restaurants now, she says, whereas the only two she went to as a child were Pizza Hut and Garfunkel’s. But there is still a place in her heart for chicken kiev balls. Since she married the middle-class and privately educated Macfadyen in 2004, whom she met on the set of TV drama Spooks, she says she’s been skiing twice, but as a teenager she did own ‘a full ski suit from C&A in pink and white’. She giggles at the memory – it never occurred to her that it might actually be worn by people to go skiing.

Today she’s dressed in cool-chic black trousers and jacket, low-cut black silk top and white Christian Dior sneakers. She’s delightful company, happy to make fun of herself and generous about her friends (of Spice Girl and stage-school mate Emma Bunton, whom she used to go on caravanning holidays with, she says success ‘couldn’t have happened to a nicer person… when I see her now, she just looks the same’). Keeley laughs a lot and swears a little. You can imagine she’s great fun on set. 

Later she’s set to catch up with the close-knit cast and crew of The Durrells to watch the final episode. ‘It’s been such an adventure. I’ve made friends for life.’ Her Greek is still terrible, she admits with a what-can-you-do? grimace, despite the years spent filming in Corfu, and she’s never quite fully embraced the Durrell family’s dedication to skinny-dipping. ‘There was a lot of leaping into the sea after cast dinners and stuff,’ she confesses, but ‘I always had something on.’ She fixes me with an amused stare, daring me to think otherwise, then – unexpectedly – her eyes well up as she talks about narrating the documentary on the real-life family, What the Durrells Did Next. ‘It really brought home that it was the end… It means so much to me.’

Keeley Hawes
Dress, Carmen March. Image: Alan Gelati

For most of our time together Keeley is playful, funny and slightly shielding her emotions. She’s spoken before about suffering from depression. ‘It’s something that never goes away. I think it’s in your DNA if you suffer with it… I have become better equipped at looking after myself. I’ve tried various things over the years.’ Work does help, she says, despite doing a job in which she is on show in the most literal way. ‘Keeping busy helps, being forced to carry on, because inevitably it will pass.’

She sometimes suffers from anxiety, too, although she says, ‘It’s a very human thing, isn’t it, to worry about what you say and how you are perceived.’ Right now, she is being perceived as one of the finest actresses of her generation. She had been brilliant as the sullen officer-on-the-take Lindsay Denton in series two of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty, but it was her turn in Bodyguard, also by Mercurio, that has really got her noticed, especially since US viewers began watching it on Netflix. Keeley woke up one morning, she says, to find Barry Jenkins, the director of Oscar-winning film Moonlight, was following her on Twitter and had written a series of tweets rhapsodising about the show and her performance. ‘Hawes is riveting,’ he wrote. ‘She’s a buzzsaw just chewing through everything and everyone.’ ‘That was like a mini-Bafta,’ she says. ‘I sent him a direct message because I was so overexcited, and he got straight back to me.’

Keeley Hawes
Dress, Carmen March. Image: Alan Gelati

So can she reveal the secret of the sizzling chemistry between herself and her Bodyguard co-star Madden, 32. ‘The secret is we didn’t stop laughing,’ she says. ‘You know when someone just tickles you… and also, I think I can say this on his part, too, we’re not the most confident people you could meet and that’s nice to recognise in someone. I felt safe with him. We had some very odd things to do together’ – from being covered in blood while being shot at by a sniper to secretive sexual trysts – ‘which means you have to trust each other, and I really did trust him’. If he became the new James Bond (he’s currently the 3/1 favourite), would she like to play a Russian agent opposite him? ‘Yes!’ she says with glee. ‘Of course I would, creeping around after him, that would be the most fun.’

Although, actually, wouldn’t she like a shot at playing Bond herself? ‘I quite like Bond being a man,’ she retorts. ‘Controversial. It’s a bit like, would Lara Croft ever be a man?’ (Keeley once voiced the Tomb Raider videogame character.) ‘There are some things that just wouldn’t translate. Let’s create something new… like the Bourne movies but with a woman in there. Yeah, Jed, write me something like a female Bond.’ She’s joking. Mercurio doesn’t write parts specifically for her, she insists.

Keeley Hawes
As Home Secretary Julia Montague with Richard Madden in Bodyguard. Image: BBC

Her modesty is endearing but she can’t hide her joy at her recent run of hits. There’s doubtless a hint of ‘pinch me’ disbelief, too – Keeley has admitted in the past that she expected the job offers to dry up in her 40s. ‘It just shows you how much has changed in the past decade,’ she says. ‘The MeToo movement was long overdue, but people were terrified for their livelihoods.’ Are there things in her own career she looks back on and isn’t happy about? ‘I always had quite a nice time of things, really,’ she admits. 

She has said that she’s not a fan of cosmetic surgery. Does she still feel that way? ‘Excuse me…’ she says, pointing to a hint of a wrinkle above her brow. ‘I’m in my 40s. Of course I do this [she pulls a face as if looking in the mirror]. But no, I’m not there yet, you’ll probably notice when I am.’

Considering her obvious natural talent – and ‘very mobile face’ as she describes it – it’s intriguing to discover that Keeley might never have become an actress if the Sylvia Young Theatre School hadn’t opened close to where she grew up. She has two elder brothers and an elder sister, but was the only one to go, smitten by the world of stories that she watched on TV. Would she go on Strictly like many of her stage school contemporaries including Emma Bunton and her friend, EastEnders star and 2015 runner-up, Kellie Bright? ‘In my mind, I go on Strictly all the time. It’s fabulous. It’s also a bit scary,’ she adds, clearly now considering it seriously. ‘That would make me anxious.’

Keeley Hawes
Coat, Dries Van Noten, Browns Fashion. Image: Alan Gelati

She credits a starter career as a model with thickening her skin a little. A brief spell in her late teens ‘set me up well for rejection’, she says. ‘It’s much crueller [than acting] in that way because it’s purely based on your looks.’ Her acting career got started when she appeared in Dennis Potter’s 1996 TV drama Karaoke. Keeley then worked her way through a series of period roles before causing a stir in 2002’s Tipping the Velvet as a male-impersonating music hall artiste who has a torrid lesbian love affair. 

There was an even bigger stir in the same year when she left her husband of a few months, Spencer McCallum, father to her young son Myles, now 19, for Matthew. ‘Of course divorce is awful,’ she says, ‘but it seems a very long time ago. My ex and his girlfriend… I love them, they’re my family, they’re my children’s family. It was one of those things to be got through, but like anything it gets better with time.’ 

She has something she wants to correct, though, which she’s read in almost every article about her – ‘My ex-husband’s a cartoonist… No. Arrggh! He was a DJ and he still is. It doesn’t really matter, but it’s very odd reading things that aren’t true.’ Another is that she went back to work three weeks after her son Ralph, now 12, was born (she and Matthew also have Maggie, 14). ‘It’s simply not the truth and I would like to put that to bed. I did just two days on the last episode of The Vicar of Dibley because Mr Curtis [Richard, the show’s writer] asked me very nicely. I think my son was four months.’

Keeley Hawes
In BBC Two spy thriller Summer of Rockets. Image: Little Island Productions/ Sophie Mutevelian

Would she like to have another child? ‘I’m 43!’ she says, then, ‘I’d always like another little one…’ Then, ‘I’m getting quite good at work/life balance and another one would make that trickier.’ She pauses. ‘Great though, aren’t they, babies?’

I wonder how the relationship between her and Matthew – one that began as a passionate romance – survives over a long marriage. ‘You have to work at it,’ she says. ‘We still fill up the dishwasher and put a wash on – that’s life – but you also have to make the effort to be romantic. When life takes over, going out to dinner together isn’t top of your list, but before you know it, the children are older and around less and you’re sort of back together again.’ She pauses, then adds softly, ‘I couldn’t love him more. It helps that he’s the nicest man in the world…’ 

As for his success in the satirical drama Succession – a hit in the US for channel HBO and cult viewing here on Sky Atlantic – she’s thrilled. ‘People are seeing this side of him and going, “Wow, he’s so funny… and so weird”… and I’m like, yeah, well,’ she raises an eyebrow, ‘I know.’

Keeley Hawes
With husband Matthew Macfadyen at this month’s TV Baftas. Image: David Fisher/BAFTA/REX/Shutter​stock

Do they straight-talk to one another about their jobs? ‘I mean, he’d never say, “God, you were stinking in that” because he loves me, but I’d know if he thought it was a bit off.’

We’ll see lots of Keeley this year. In Summer of Rockets her character Kathleen Shaw invites Toby Stephens’s Russian-Jewish inventor Samuel Petrukhin into their powerful social circle at the height of the Cold War, where he’s suspected of being a spy. The drama shows the antisemitism of the time; does Keeley have thoughts about its return in the UK in 2019? ‘It’s horrendous and not something you think you’re going to witness in your lifetime, something that’s been consigned to the horrible bucket of history, and back it is.’

She’s also in the upcoming Channel 4 comedy Year of the Rabbit and stars as Miss World co-organiser Julia Morley in the soon-to-be-released film Misbehaviour, about the first time the beauty contest was won by a non-white contestant. It proved to be eye-opening. The film is set in 1970, when Miss World was the most-watched show on British TV. ‘Some of the footage, with [US comedian] Bob Hope mooing at women and saying, “This is like a cattle market” – it’s astonishing and awful,’ she says frowning.

Keeley Hawes
Coat, Maison Albino, Fenwick. Image: Alan Gelati

However, she’s not going to let me go without a very British dose of cheeriness (Louisa Durrell would be proud) and she brightens when she tells me that a joint project with Matthew may be on the cards. He has often spoken about his love of the stage. Keeley hasn’t done much and, in 2013, quit a West End production of Barking in Essex after a reported clash with co-star Sheila Hancock. Has the experience shaken her confidence? ‘I would love to do a play and I would love to do one with Matthew,’ she says. ‘So no, [it hasn’t]. I’m quite excited at the thought of it.’

Summer of Rockets continues on BBC Two on Wednesdays at 9pm. All six episodes are available on iPlayer. What The Durrells Did Next and series four of The Durrells are both available on ITV Hub