‘I’m destined to be put in white dresses for ever more!’ laughs Olivia Vinall, as she wafts into the photo studio in a floaty frock. Such is your fate when you’re the headline act in The Woman in White, BBC One’s major new period drama. The five-parter is an adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s 1860 gothic suspense novel, aka the world’s first psychological thriller, in which Olivia plays asylum patient Anne Catherick and also Laura Fairlie, the naive sister to the forthright, proto-feminist Marian (played by War & Peace’s Jessie Buckley).
Right now, our woman in white, with matching white-blonde hair, is reclining on a white armchair in the middle of a room with all-white walls and floorboards. Blinding rays of pale sunshine stream in through the windows further bleaching out the ghostly tableau.
Later, over lunch, Olivia emanates equally pure vibes. She sits still and poised, pondering how best to articulate her answers. She’s very focused on her work. What does this hotshot theatre actress – in recent years both an acclaimed Desdemona in Othello and Cordelia in Sam Mendes’s King Lear at The National Theatre – do for kicks when she’s not working? She, er, goes to the theatre. She enthuses about her burgeoning campaigning spirit and how she feels ‘newly enlightened’, having recently marched in London for women’s rights and against period poverty (when women are unable to afford sanitary products). And she turned vegan six months ago for environmental reasons.
There’s nothing wrong with being serious-minded, of course. But as we chat, Olivia becomes more irreverent. She has recently been nominated by movie industry magazine Screen International as a Star of Tomorrow – previous winners include Benedict Cumberbatch, John Boyega and Carey Mulligan, to whom she has been compared. ‘I’m a poor man’s Carey Mulligan!’ she laughs. ‘If she needs a stunt double I could help out, I guess. People see the blonde hair and say, “Oh, you’re exactly like her.” It’s just another label, isn’t it? That said, she is phenomenal so it can only be a good thing.’
As for the nomination, she points out that her screen career is nascent: ‘I have imposter syndrome!’ she says, wrinkling her nose. ‘The Woman in White and [her next movie] Where Hands Touch haven’t come out yet. It’s very bizarre.’
Olivia’s accent is hard to place: one moment plummy, the next with a US twang, the next vaguely French. It’s down to her nomadic upbringing: the child of a diplomat father and a teacher mother, she lived variously in Washington DC, London and Brussels. She also has surprisingly deep, mellifluous tones – if she ever needs a plan B, she’d be a shoo-in for voicing guided meditation. ‘My voice dropped after doing so much stage work – you do a lot to expand it and find your natural register. It broke, basically!’ she smiles.
That theatre training was great preparation for the demands of playing two leads in The Woman in White, as she had just done a stint performing an epic Chekhov trilogy at The National. She would arrive at the theatre at 9am and perform three plays consecutively through the day until 11pm. ‘I’d be really wired after that – physically exhausted but unable to turn my brain off,’ she says. ‘With The Woman in White it’s the first adaptation where the same actress has played both parts, and that challenge attracted me. When I read the novel I thought it so interesting that a man of that time could write about women’s lives with such insight, empathy and understanding.’
Women’s lives weren’t exactly a barrel of laughs then, as the book explores – the woman in white is incarcerated due to the flimsy, false testimony of a duplicitous man who has good reason to want her out of the way. ‘Women were put in asylums for the most ridiculous reasons,’ says Olivia. ‘When I was researching the part, I discovered things that could get you locked up as a woman: reading too much, looking at someone in the wrong way, having period pain. It was horrific.’
On the plus side, Olivia points out, we’re much better at dealing with genuine mental-health problems these days. ‘A lot of people I know have experienced issues but they feel that talking about it is no longer taboo. They don’t worry that they’ll be stigmatised or labelled,’ she says. Why does she think there’s such an epidemic of these problems? ‘There’s an overwhelming pressure about how we should live our lives, ideas of perfection from Instagram… Life can feel like a competitive, fast race.’ How does she navigate that? ‘You have to filter out the negative – everyone has their opinion and you can’t be liked by everybody.’
Olivia thinks it’s the strength of the sisters’ relationship ‘as they work out how to navigate this man’s world’ that will make this Victorian tale resonate with a modern audience, in an era when women are kicking back against sexism en masse. ‘It was written at a time when honour was so important, and Laura feels she has to honour her father’s wish that she must marry [a man she doesn’t love]. But Marian is able to see that there is another way, that money isn’t everything and that love is important.’
The Woman in White was filmed in various National Trust properties in Northern Ireland. Of Charles Dance, who plays Laura’s uncle, she says, ‘He was lovely but he’s so tall! When he unfurls himself from his chair, he has this really commanding presence.’ Jessie Buckley is now a firm friend: ‘To play her sister was a real honour. I feel as though we had a wonderful connection. At one point we were filming in the grounds of this beautiful house, standing next to a tree. We must have both had the same vision for how we thought the scene should be because we looked at each other and then just both started climbing the tree. Before the director could say anything we were lying among the branches in our corsets.’
Although this is Olivia’s first major TV role, you might recognise her from Apple Tree Yard, last year’s tense BBC One thriller about an adulterous midlife affair with devastating consequences, starring Emily Watson. Olivia played Emily’s character’s pregnant daughter who wonders why her mum is acting so strangely. (Answer: she’s a bit distracted after having sex with a stranger in a House of Commons cupboard two minutes after meeting him.) Some questioned the plausibility of the plot, but at least it acknowledged that older women have a libido. ‘Yes, it can be a taboo, because we still live in such an ageist society, especially for women,’ says Olivia. ‘Men become silver foxes and women become old crones. So it was great to celebrate the fact that women have sex throughout their lives and enjoy it.’
Then in 2014, aged 25, she landed the gig of a lifetime as Desdemona, opposite Adrian Lester’s Othello. Adrian, she says, was a huge support. ‘I had this feeling like I didn’t deserve to be there. Adrian said, “You need to believe in yourself. You shouldn’t be thankful all the time. Accept it.” I still find that challenging.’ She was, nevertheless, nominated for a theatre industry award for that role.
For now, though, she is focusing on screen work. Alongside Abbie Cornish and Christopher Eccleston, she’s in the upcoming Where Hands Touch, an arthouse film by Amma Asante (director of Belle) about an interracial relationship in Nazi Germany. A mixed-race girl, Leyna (played by The Hunger Games’ Amandla Stenberg) falls in love with the son of a prominent SS officer. She ends up in a concentration camp, with Olivia playing a Jewish girl she meets there, who becomes her confidante. ‘I’ve found it hard to let go of the weight of this film,’ she says. ‘It got completely under my skin. Anything set in that time has to deal with things very sensitively, you feel a huge responsibility. But there’s so much hope and beauty in spite of the struggle. The two women develop this camaraderie to help them survive.’
Olivia shares a flat in South London with her English-teacher boyfriend (‘He’s very creative – a poet, too’) along with their cavapoo dog Maple. However, she’ll be spending the next few months in Copenhagen, filming the lead in an indie movie called Let’s Get Killed. ‘It’s a dreamlike and surreal love story set on a small Danish island. Tomorrow I’m going to have my hair dyed pink for the role. I love changing [my appearance] and becoming immersed in something completely different.’ Speaking of which, she’s apparently considering clown school. Really? ‘Oh yeah!’ she says, erupting in a low rumble of laughter. ‘I love Charlie Chaplin and silent movies. Maybe one day I’ll go to clown school in Paris. It’s good to be silly, isn’t it? Don’t take yourself too seriously.’ Not a sentiment you often hear from a thespian, it must be said.
Favourite film: I was blown away by Lady Bird. It’s such a great reminder of teenage life – it made me nostalgic for living in America.
Fashion picks: Second-hand clothes are cool. I go to a lot of flea markets and vintage shops, and I wear Veja trainers because they use ethical rubber.
Dream dinner-party guests: Robin Williams, Greta Gerwig and Oprah.
Currently reading: Purity by Jonathan Franzen. The main character Pip is so great with her crazy, chaotic lifestyle – I’ve never read about anyone quite like her.
Style icon: Vivienne Westwood – I like her ethical stance.
Guilty pleasure: Slumping on the sofa and binge-watching Netflix. I’m loving The End of the F***ing World – it’s unsettling, unexpected and so funny.
Tipple of choice: Lots of Belgian beer – my mum drank it when she was pregnant with me.
Perfect weekend: Cooking dinner for all my friends or going to the theatre. Then on Sunday a big dog walk followed by a pub lunch. Can’t live without Good, dark Belgian chocolate.
The Woman in White will air on BBC One this month.
Interview by Kerry Potter