By Charlotte Pearson Methven
Downton star MyAnna plays a pregnant detective in the BBC’s latest crime drama. Now a new mum herself, she talks to Charlotte Pearson Methven about giving birth – on and off screen.
A rotund woman in a purple coat is throwing her arms around me. I have been waiting barely ten minutes when Swedish actress MyAnna Buring – nine months pregnant with her first child – waddles into the café of the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank, where we have arranged to meet.
Dropping her belongings in a heap, she reclines into the seat next to me, cradling her bump and apologising profusely for her (very slight) tardiness and for the addled state she finds herself in at this advanced stage of pregnancy: ‘I seem to be losing my words. I see why people say that creating a new life is the most extreme human experience you can have.’ Her son is born just days after our meeting.
MyAnna, 37, has the elfin prettiness, penetrating blue eyes and – baby bubble aside – pixie-ish frame that one might expect of a Scandi starlet. She is also warm and without airs. This authenticity is due, perhaps, to the fact that MyAnna only found fame in her 30s, when she landed back-to-back parts in two era-defining dramas: as a vampire in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (parts one and two) and as a much-hated maid in Downton Abbey. She followed these up with a starring role as a brothel owner in the BBC drama Ripper Street, set in Whitechapel during the time of Jack the Ripper (the fifth and final season is currently screening on BBC Two).
We are meeting to discuss MyAnna’s upcoming part – her grittiest to date – as a pregnant police detective investigating grisly crimes in BBC One’s four-part drama In The Dark (the role required her to dye her hair, formerly a perfect Swedish blonde, mouse brown). MyAnna wasn’t yet pregnant herself when playing detective Helen Weeks, who is feisty with a vulnerable side and a complicated childhood that haunts her when a case pulls her back to her home town. We see her become entangled in dangerous work, inspired to make a safer world for her unborn child. To add to the turmoil she has a complex relationship with the baby’s father, also a detective.
‘I became pregnant after we finished filming. I feel for my character as she has a difficult pregnancy, working intensively throughout it. I have barely worked during mine – just a bit of writing and recording the odd audiobook – and, apart from extreme morning sickness at the beginning [MyAnna, like the Duchess of Cambridge, suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum], it’s been great.’
The first two episodes of In The Dark focus on the first trimester of Helen’s pregnancy, when we see her confronting her past, while the second two focus on the final trimester, where she explores her present and future. ‘Pregnancy does that to you: it brings up your past and your future and makes you look at core issues of your identity. It certainly has for me.’
MyAnna’s identity is not straightforward. Born in Sweden to Swedish parents, as a child she moved to the Gulf state of Oman, where her father worked as an orthopaedic surgeon. She attended international schools, before boarding at a sixth-form college in England, aged 15 (following an unsuccessful year at school in Sweden).
‘I didn’t enjoy the school, so I dropped out. I worked briefly as a pot-scrubber then decided I might like to finish my education after all. I did some research, found the most relaxed English school [St Clare’s in Oxford] where they treated the students like adults, and decided that was where I wanted to go; my parents, who are very liberal, were happy to go along with it.’
MyAnna went on to study drama at Bristol University and won a three-year scholarship at prestigious drama school Lamda to continue honing her craft. She now lives in Northeast London and considers England home.
‘People refer to me as Swedish and I find that confusing as I’ve barely lived there. I first visited London when I was 13 and thought, “This is my soul city.” I had English friends through the expat school system in the Middle East and classes were taught in English, so it has always been my first language. [She is also fluent in Swedish.] I just “get” the culture here. I feel English; this is what makes me sad about Brexit – it’s such a step back. Hopefully, I won’t get sent back to Sweden! The only thing now is to focus on local, community-level politics because that’s where you can make a difference; the big picture is too depressing. I love my little neighbourhood. People think London is large and lonely, but for me, the fact that it is a cluster of small villages is the best thing about it.’
MyAnna is clearly in nesting mode now. She feels motherhood has come to her at the perfect time. ‘In an ideal world, I would have given birth about a decade earlier but, aged 27, I was struggling to look after myself, so I wouldn’t have been ready to look after another human being. I never thought it was a given I would have children. I also wasn’t sure I would find someone I wanted to have a family with.’
She will not reveal the identity of her baby’s father but they have been ‘together for a few years’. She cryptically mentions that, ‘between us, we have three languages, English, Swedish and Portuguese, so this baby should be a good linguist. My partner is not a celebrity, but if you want you can say that it’s Daniel Radcliffe! I tend not to name him because the more people know about you, the less believable you are playing different characters on screen – and now I am described as “very private”,’ she laughs. ‘I’m not sure if that’s valid. In many ways, I’m very open.’
What MyAnna is keen to put on the record is how lucky she feels to be with someone who ‘is incredibly supportive. I bow down to single mothers, or to anyone with an unsupportive partner. But the good news is that people now accept that family doesn’t have to be a “perfect” nuclear unit. You create your own support network with whoever is around you, often your friends.’
MyAnna’s own parents – now divorced – are fairly far flung, with her mother still in the Middle East and her father in Scotland. Will they come to see the baby? ‘I hope so! There’s a closeness that comes when you live far from your parents. You miss each other.’
Her father is still a surgeon and her mother she describes as ‘a jack of all trades. She has worked in everything from education to tourism. She is very resourceful and has been a great role model but when it comes to my child I will make my own way. I want to be the mother that is right for my kid. My plan is not to give him chocolate or Coca-Cola. I’ll let you know how that goes! I will try to cook healthy food but I’m not going to break my back over it. They say you crave what your grandmother ate when you’re pregnant and, sure enough, all I wanted was bland, beige Swedish food like macaroni and rice porridge. Luckily, that didn’t last throughout the pregnancy.’
When we catch up a few weeks after MyAnna’s son has been born she tells me that, unlike her In The Dark character Helen ‘who breathed and moaned her baby out’, she ‘positively roared my little boy into life. Nothing in the world could have stopped me making that remarkable sound – I’m surprised half of London didn’t show up telling me to shut up.’
She is not in any hurry to return to work. ‘I have no hard and fast rules – it will depend on what the job is, where it is, the hours, how much I want to do it and if my bills are stacking up.’ As with motherhood, MyAnna came to acting ‘late’ – by other people’s standards – and she feels no panic about letting work drift for a while.
‘It was not until I came to live in England that I realised acting was an actual thing that people did as a job and that there was something called drama school. Growing up in the Middle East, there was no one who acted to look up to. I wanted to be a scientist, then an astronaut and then a dog-walker. When I came to England to study and was exposed to drama as a subject, it dawned on me that by becoming an actress I could do all of those things.’
And though she has yet to play an astronaut or a dog-walker, her big breakthrough came in 2011 when she was cast as ‘vegetarian vampire’ Tanya Denali in the last two Twilight movies. At the same time, she was given the female lead in the British horror film Kill List (directed by Ben Wheatley and critically acclaimed, earning her a best actress nomination).
‘All of a sudden I was allowed into rooms that I’d never been in. I was 30 when the work changed and the better roles came along – the interesting, varied, gripping ones. We are sold this illusion that if you haven’t made it in your 20s you’re a failure or over the hill. That couldn’t be further from my experience. I think it’s amazing when someone young can be emotive and nuanced, but usually that’s something that gets better with age. Watching an actor in their 50s or 60s – now that is interesting.’
MyAnna was 33 when – fresh from her stint on The Twilight Saga – she was called to read for Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and within a week had landed the role of Edna Braithwaite, for which she is now most famous. Edna was vilified by viewers when she tried to elevate her status by making a play for widower Tom Branson after his beloved wife Lady Sybil died in childbirth.
‘I would get shouted at in the street. People were confusing me with my character. I’d say to them, “Blame Julian! If you want to be angry, be angry with him.”’ For her part, MyAnna felt only fondness for Edna. ‘It’s hard for women like us who have been born with opportunities to imagine what it was like for someone back then with no prospects – who woke up every morning, broke her back doing manual work, went to bed and then did it all over again, every single day. There was something admirable about Edna having the imagination to dream bigger and better.’
And what of rumours of a Downton reunion? Could it be a chance to redeem poor Edna? ‘I might be on board. I loved the cast and crew – the family atmosphere that was created from the top down was magical – but having moved around a lot as a kid, I tend to take the view that it is good for things to end, to be able to say, “that’s it”. Then again, Take That got back together and I am thoroughly glad they did! Reunions aren’t bad but they’re not always necessary. We will have to wait and see.’
Would she play to type and get involved in a Scandi crime drama, a genre becoming ever more popular? ‘Absolutely. If the right one came along… People have always been drawn to detective series and it’s brilliant that there are so many female-led ones now.’
Moving forward, MyAnna is taking decisions one day at a time, partly because of the baby but also because ‘part of the joy of acting is that element of not knowing what will come next and which characters you will become fascinated by. I could never have known I would feel such affinity with the ruthless but very human qualities of Edna, or that I would feel so compelled by playing Helen Weeks; to have that chance to follow a human being at one of the most interesting, vulnerable, life-changing moments of her life, on the cusp of becoming a mother.’
A bit like MyAnna now? ‘Yes, I feel that. Who knows where I could go from here?’
In The Dark will be on BBC One from Tuesday at 9pm
Styling: Alexandria Reid. Hair: Fabio Nogueira at Frank Agency using Bumble & Bumble. Make-up: Kenneth Soh at Frank Agency using Clarins