From Richard Madden’s wife in Bodyguard to steamy sex scenes with Suranne Jones in Gentleman Jack, Sophie Rundle has had a busy (and headline-grabbing) year. She tells Julia Llewellyn Smith why playing a trailblazing lesbian made her appreciate love.
Sophie Rundle is talking about sex scenes – or, more specifically, the moment, when reading a script, she realises that the character she’s playing will need to strip off and writhe around with another actor. ‘Your heart always sinks,’ she says. ‘I get so excited about the story and then the penny drops, “Oh no, I’m the one who’s going to have to do that!” Filming those scenes is just awkward for everybody on set – the sound boys, the costume people. No one really knows how to react or what to say.’
Yet, despite these misgivings, over the past year Sophie, 31, has become something of a veteran of risqué scenes. Though she’s possibly best known to viewers as Vicky, the estranged wife of Richard Madden’s David Budd in last year’s ratings winner Bodyguard, there have also been plenty of raunchy moments playing Ada Shelby in gangster drama Peaky Blinders. She also appeared topless in one of her earliest roles as Matt LeBlanc’s stalker in the sitcom Episodes.
Most recently, however, she’s been making headlines for her role as Ann Walker, the lover, and later ‘wife’, of 19th-century Yorkshire landowner and openly lesbian Anne Lister (played by Suranne Jones) in the hit drama Gentleman Jack. Based on a true story, the two women’s intimate moments attracted huge amounts of attention, not least after it was revealed that the BBC had enlisted an ‘intimacy coordinator’, Ita O’Brien, firstly to ensure the encounters were realistic, but also to help ease Sophie, Suranne and the rest of the team’s embarrassment.
‘It was amazing, because usually when there’s a sex scene you turn up knowing there are some flesh-coloured pants waiting for you in your trailer and you just have to get on with it; and so often you hear terrible stories about it all going wrong and people feeling exploited,’ says Sophie. ‘But with Gentleman Jack, we were determined to make things different, so we all sat with Ita and talked about our past experiences [of sex scenes]. Everyone was like, “God, this horrible thing once happened to me on set”, so everything was out in the open and that really calmed the nerves.’
Ita insisted all sex scenes were carefully rehearsed, with the women enacting specific moves selected from manuals such as The Lesbian Kama Sutra – rather than improvising, as is often the case on TV and film sets.
‘It meant that we felt so much more empowered than we would normally, and that was important because we also wanted to tell these women’s story in a way that represented them and wasn’t simply for titillation,’ Sophie says. ‘In the end, Gentleman Jack was simply a love story we can all relate to. I’ve never had a breakdown like Ann [Walker], but I’ve had my heart broken and fancied people I shouldn’t have fancied. Everyone’s been through that.’
The show has been recommissioned for a second series and Sophie says she’s been ‘taken aback’ by the scores of supportive messages that she, Suranne and the show’s creator Sally Wainwright have received, many from gay people.
‘It’s been so moving,’ she says. ‘People have been thanking us for allowing people like them to be represented for the first time on primetime television, talking about what a struggle they had when they came out and saying how wonderful it is that a love story between two women hasn’t been depicted as salacious. It makes it all feel worthwhile, that we’ve done right not only by all those people, but also by Ann Walker, whose family were so ashamed of her they tried to write her out of history.’ When Anne Lister died in 1840, Ann Walker’s family had her declared insane, sending her to an asylum for a while. After her death in 1854, she was all but forgotten about until 26 volumes of Lister’s racy diaries were discovered behind a wall panel in the family home Shibden Hall in 1933. They were written in code which a descendant, decades earlier, had managed to crack, but he was so horrified by what he read he hid them again. The diaries were then gifted to Halifax library with a copy of the code, where in 1982 a local teacher rediscovered them.’
Recently, a blue plaque honouring Lister was unveiled in the York church where in 1834 – almost two centuries before same-sex marriage became legal – Anne and Ann privately, but with the church’s blessing, contracted their union. While Sophie is delighted it’s there, she is sad that Ann Walker, who historians and viewers have often dismissed as a mousy wallflower compared to her flamboyant partner, is only mentioned in passing on the plaque. ‘Two women got married that day, which was a really progressive, anarchic thing to do, but it’s as if we’ve sidelined the woman who was in the “wife” role,’ she says.
‘It’s easy to write Ann Walker off, but she definitely had this little spark of defiance. Sally said to me, “Anne Lister was amazing, but she had the charisma to deal with all the opprobrium, while Ann Walker had none of that. Ann was religious, she was homophobic against herself and racked with guilt, so to do this transgressive thing must have taken so much strength of character and I love her so much for that. I just think, “What a hero.”’
Does Sophie think she’d be able to take such a strong public stance? ‘You don’t know until you’re tested, but I think what Ann did must have demanded so much moral fortitude.’
Petite and cheery, in dungarees and leopard-print Topshop sandals, Sophie has only started being recognised in public since Bodyguard was aired, despite being constantly on our screens (she’s also appeared in TV dramas Happy Valley and The Bletchley Circle). ‘It’s because it was the first time people had really seen me in modern outfits,’ she laughs. ‘Now I get a lot of sideways glances and people asking, “Were we at school together?”’
During Bodyguard, Sophie also received a lot of messages via Instagram, ticking her off for her coldness towards her on-screen husband David, an Afghanistan war veteran. ‘They said, “How could you be so hard on him? He’s so troubled!” I didn’t respond, but I was quite tempted to say, “Listen, Vicky has a very difficult job as a nurse and David’s a terrible husband – turning up with a bomb strapped to him; she doesn’t need that!” It was heart-wrenching because David had post-traumatic stress disorder, which puts a huge strain on relationships, but she had to do the tough-love thing – you can’t help other people until they help themselves.’
Created by Line of Duty’s Jed Mercurio, Bodyguard’s success (it was last year’s most watched BBC drama) surprised everyone involved. ‘We thought it would be good because Jed is good, but it turned into one of those rare things that just caught people’s imaginations at the right time – when I realised that, I was, like, “God, I wish I’d put more effort into my part!”’ Sophie jokes.
Fans are clamouring for a sequel, but Sophie has no idea if one is on the cards. ‘Richard [Madden] is very busy,’ she explains. Rumours are he’ll be the next James Bond. ‘I think any actor under 40 who looks vaguely good in a tux is touted as Bond – and any woman too now,’ she says. So what about Sophie for the role? ‘I’d like to be a Bond villain, but I’m not cool enough to be Bond,’ she demurs.
Sophie’s perceived (and quite mistaken) lack of coolness keeps coming up during our conversation. ‘I’ve never felt glamorous in my life,’ she says. ‘I’m very confident on set, but red carpets and designer clothes make me feel very exposed. I didn’t get into acting because I thought I was impossibly good-looking, I was just a kid who loved telling stories. Some actors lead these rock-star-style lives. I like gardening and putting Ikea furniture together. I’m a DIY nut!’
While she’s spent a bit of time in Hollywood, Sophie says, ‘Some of the girls there are like racehorses, everyone is so beautiful and polished – I don’t think I fit in very well.’
I disagree, not least because Sophie cuts such a fabulous figure in the fur stoles and beaded flapper dresses she wears as Peaky Blinders’ Ada, only daughter of the Shelby gangster clan, who in real-life terrorised Birmingham between the wars. They’re a brutal bunch, yet viewers still love them.
‘I sometimes wonder, “Why are these protagonists likable? They’re awful, violent and immoral,”’ Sophie laughs. ‘I think it’s an underdog thing – they’re a working-class family who have fought their way to the top. But it’s also because the show gets the family dynamics so right and everyone can relate to them. Ada’s pretty much the only one who can stand up to Tommy [her brother and the gang’s leader, played by Cillian Murphy]. Some of his values really pain her but, at the same time, she’d do anything for him. I think we’re all like that with our siblings – one moment you’re, like, “You idiot”, but woe betide anyone else who calls them that.’
Not only does the show make criminal life seem alluring, it’s given Birmingham – more usually associated with its Bullring shopping centre and Spaghetti Junction – a sense of grandeur, with smoke-wreathed shots of 1920s slums and canals populated by characters often swaggering in slow motion to a distinctly anachronistic soundtrack by P J Harvey and the Arctic Monkeys. ‘They’ve made Birmingham cool. Many people knew little about the city before and Peaky has given it an identity,’ Sophie says.
Along with most of the cast she struggled to nail the period Brum accent (in reality, she speaks with a hint of her native Dorset tones), largely because it’s so rarely heard on television. ‘But now I love it – there’s a lovely rhythm to it,’ she says.
Now Peaky is returning for a fifth series, with Sophie a veteran, having been cast in the first season fresh out of prestigious drama school Rada. ‘I always look back on those episodes and see a fat child,’ she laughs with that characteristic self-deprecation. ‘Now, filming is a bit like going back to school. Every time you return, someone’s popped out a baby or got married.’
Sophie grew up in Bournemouth, with an elder brother James, a writer, and a younger brother Henry, also an actor, who’s just finished a long run in the West End play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Her father is a business consultant and her mother works for a company supplying books to libraries. ‘I had a really normal and loving childhood,’ she says. ‘It used to worry me when I’d read actors’ memoirs and they’d talk about their early traumas. I thought to be a great actor you had to have something horrible happen to you. Now I’ve realised it’s fine – you can just pretend.’
Today Sophie’s life sounds equally contented. She and her fiancé, fellow actor Matt Stokoe, whom she met making the TV costume drama Jamestown (he also appeared in Bodyguard as a gang leader) live with their adored retriever puppy Buddy in their newly purchased Victorian house in South London.
‘In many ways it was a terrible decision to get a dog because I’m working all the time, but you can just run and run and run on the treadmill and forget to live, so I decided we’d just make it work,’ she says.
The couple have also launched their own production company, which has just made its first film, Rose, described by Sophie as a ‘thriller love story.’ ‘You can feel quite powerless as an actor, so it’s nice to know you have a seat at the table in terms of making decisions,’ she says.
There’s no big rush to have babies, but Sophie is planning a wedding for next year, albeit in an extremely laidback manner.
‘I’m not a very good bride-to-be. I poked my head into the world of big wedding productions and was, like, “Nope!” We’ll figure something out. My parents have seen me in a wedding dress with big hair on screen so many times, they’re just not that interested.’
But that doesn’t mean that Sophie isn’t excited about tying the knot. ‘After Gentleman Jack, that ability to validate your love for a person and declare it publicly, which is still denied to so many people around the world, has become a very poignant thing for me,’ she says. ‘It’s a privilege to be able to do these things and that’s not lost on me.’
The new series of Peaky Blinders starts on Sunday 25 August at 9pm on BBC One