In This Is England Vicky McClure gave one of the most astonishing performances in decades – yet we know almost nothing about her. Stylist uncovers the artist…
Words: Lizzie Pook Photography: Rankin
You’ve got Elizabeth Taylor eyes, haven’t you?” photographer Rankin asks Vicky McClure as they contemplate a huge projection of her face on the walls of his north London studio. Her response is unintelligible; a gurgled mix of shock, gratitude and protests to the contrary, but he’s right. The actress really is extraordinary looking; surprisingly petite, unsurprisingly slender and with the most arresting pair of icy blue eyes I’ve ever seen. And her modesty is rare in an industry where an actress can be all-too-absorbent of endless compliments.
In fact, the 29 year old from Nottingham seems somewhat bemused by the buzz that’s been raging around her since she was “plucked from obscurity” in 2006 to appear as tough-yet-vulnerable Lol in Shane Meadows’ film about Eighties youth culture This Is England – a role that earned her a coveted Best Actress Bafta (the TV follow-up This Is England ’88 also just won a Bafta for best mini-series). She even comes across a little nervous on the shoot – biting her cheeks, playing with her hair and popping out for countless cigarettes while sporadically exclaiming, “I can’t believe I’m here!” And for those of us who expected a hard-nosed, straight-talking Lol-type to stroll into the studio and glare intensely into the camera all day, Vicky couldn’t be more different. Animated, gregarious, and with one of the largest grins in the industry, the self-confessed “normal girl from Notts” (with the accent to match) is a world apart from the character who catapulted her from a struggling actress to one of the most raved-about talents in Britain.
Her next role is a little different, alongside David Tennant in improvised BBC drama True Love. followed by police thriller Line Of Duty, both out later this month. But one thing’s for sure, Vicky has already earned herself a reputation as an actress who’s willing to push the boundaries. Case in point: a gut-wrenchingly powerful rape scene with Johnny Harris as her estranged father in This Is England ’86 left her somewhat battered and bruised. “I turn my head a little bit when I watch that scene, because I don’t like seeing myself in that scenario,” she tells me later, showing me a photo of the injuries she sustained during filming (she is black and blue), “I’m proud of those bruises”. As the day progresses, Vicky visibly relaxes, chatting almost continuously with Rankin about everything from, bizarrely, the cost of sheep, “I know they range from about 50-200 quid”, to her hermaphrodite dog, Molly, “she’s very sweet and very confused.” She seems eager to shake Lol’s trademark androgynous style and greets all clothing options proffered by Stylist’s fashion director – Acne, Marni, Louis Vuitton, Christian Louboutin – with coos of adoration. And with the last frame shot and Vicky back in her jeans and jumper, we finally get to talk…
Good female lead roles can be scarce, so when characters like Lol come around it must be very exciting…
Exactly. The feedback I got from This Is England was so overwhelming because people were like, “Finally, it’s so good seeing Shane Meadows using a female lead and to see a really strong female character on screen holding all the pieces together”. I think people need to be a bit braver. If they did a Bourne film and they put a female Bourne in, would you watch it? Of course you’d f*cking watch it. It’s like if you see women fighting in the street, people say they look scarier than men. It’s true! We’re a strong sex, we bloody take on a lot and we’re not moaning about it.
Who do you think does female leads well?
Bridesmaids, for me, was absolutely spot on. They just got it. The whole sh*tting themselves thing – I loved that. You know, we’re not the cleanest of clean. We’re women. I like to think if there was a British Bridesmaids, it might even be a little cruder. It was well acted, well cast, they hit the nail on the head. I met Rose Byrne [Helen in the film] at London Fashion Week and I was just like, “Oh. My. God.” We ended up having a really nice chat.
Do you usually get starstruck?
It’s strange because I’ve met the likes of Madonna, Elton John and Matt Damon and it’s not that I’m disinterested by celebrities at all, but I’m just a normal girl from Notts. So I think, ‘Why am I in this situation? This is not normal.’ Having said that, I met Kate Moss and hung out with her after the NME Awards and I was completely starstruck. She told me she was a massive fan of This Is England and that she loved my style in it. I was like, “But you’re Kate Moss.” It was just surreal.
One of your first films was Filth and Wisdom , directed by Madonna. How did that come about?
I’d heard through friends in the business that Madonna had said, “I’m a really big fan of Shane’s work, I really like Vicky McClure, I’m doing this film and I’d love her to be in it.” Then I was at a This Is England event and Stephen Graham [Combo in TIE] who knew Guy Ritchie from Snatch said, “Madonna really likes you.” I just p*ssed myself laughing. But he rang me that night saying she wanted to meet me and before I knew it, the casting director had sent me a script and said, “This is your daily rate and this is when you start filming.” I was like, “When do I audition?” They said, “No, no, she’s insisted that we get you.”
Does watching yourself on screen make you more critical of how you look?
I’m not massively hung up on how I look and I don’t really do glamorous roles, so it’s not really about that. I didn’t have a scrap of make-up on for TIE and yes, I’ve done nude scenes, but only if I’ve felt they’re really real and it’s not going to be distracting. so you’re not one of those people who can’t look at their face on television… I always watch my work. There are definitely times when I’ve looked back and gone, “Ooh, that wasn’t very good; I can tell I’m not in the zone.” But the thing is, for Lol in particular, I can’t see me when I watch her. I lived and breathed her and I can totally see that she is in my head. That job was an emotional rollercoaster so I’m proud of it when I watch it because I know how it takes a little bit from you to actually get to that point.
Was the process of filming This Is England quite gruelling?
Yes. When we shot TIE ’86 we all stayed in a block of flats next to each other, like The Waltons, and it really helped translate that gang feeling on screen. When it came to TIE ’88, I was the only one staying in the flats and everyone else was on the other side of Sheffield. I was isolated from everybody on purpose. There were dark days when I’d wake up completely on my own still in my clothes and I’d just have to try to crack on. At that point, Lol was really in my head. She was all I could think about. I had nothing else
“I’ve seen people get beaten up, I’ve seen the ‘real world’ – so I use that for roles”
Are you and Lol similar in any way?
People expect us to be. And I suppose if you take away Lol’s story and her background there are similarities there. But I’m much softer than her. I spend most of my time happy, smiling, being stupid and generally enjoying life. People think I’m quite intense and tough, but I’m not. I don’t claim to be from the streets. I am working class, though. I come from a family where, when I was younger, it was OK to roam the streets and go to parks late at night because that’s what we did. It doesn’t make me hard; it just means I’m street-wise. I’ve seen people get beaten up and I’ve seen the ‘real world’ so I can use that as inspiration for roles, but it’s not tragic.
You’re about to star in improvised drama True Love with David Tennant. It’s quite a harsh look at love and fidelity. Do you think everybody cheats these days?
I think it’s a generational thing. When you look at my parents’ generation, marriage meant marriage – not a wedding. I think now there’s a really big thing about having the day, having the dress and it’s so easy to get divorced. Commitment-wise something has shifted. All too often I hear, “He’s cheated, she’s cheated”, and it’s just not a surprise anymore. But I’m a massive believer in love. I’m faithful through and through and I’m very loyal.
Are you a bit of a romantic?
I love romance. I like to be treated well and I like a man to be a man – to open doors for me and all those sorts of old-fashioned things. I’m certainly no housewife but I’m a firm believer that a man should look after his missus and she should look after him.
So you find it uncomfortable being asked about your love life? [Vicky is said to have dated her This is England co-star Joe Gilgun but remains tight-lipped about her current relationship.]
I wouldn’t say it’s horrible. Yes, I am in a relationship, but the only reason that I hold back about who it’s with and how long it’s been going on is because, all of a sudden, you’re judged for whatever reason. We’ve all had past relationships and I’m no different to anybody else in that respect.
Are you quite a confident person?
I am confident and have been since I was a child. I started dancing at three years old, so I was entertaining on a stage from a young age. I was one of those annoying children that would be in front of the telly when my family is watching something going, “Watch me!” Now, I’m confident in my skin more than anything
Have you found people treat you differently since becoming famous?
I’ve been coming to London for auditions since I was about 16 and when I first started out, you sat in these rooms with a line of other girls absolutely sh*tting yourself because it’s so scary. Sometimes the casting director would come in and say, “Oh hellooooo”, and they’d know the actress next to you really well so you’d think, ‘She doesn’t know me, she doesn’t really care’. That’s changed a bit now because I’ve been doing this for so long that I know a lot of them too. It makes life a bit more comfortable.
Have you had any disastrous auditions?
Oh I’ve had f*cking loads. Even a couple of weeks ago, I had an audition and a French word came up in the script. I just completely butchered it with my Nottingham accent, like, “Buh, buh, buh”. They went, “Oh, if you could just try it like this.” [Laughs.]
Have you auditioned for anything you really wish you’d got?
Yes, a zombie for Shaun Of The Dead – I’m gutted I didn’t get that part. I had to stand on one side of the room and ‘murder’ a woman by the time I got to the other end. I also went for a Maltesers advert a few years back. The idea was that people would be bouncing round in the sky on Maltesers, drinking tea or putting on their make-up. I get there and they give me this space hopper and a cup of tea and I’m having to bounce up and down on this ball like an idiot. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
This is England ’90 is in the works, do you have any fond nineties memories?
I loved the Spice Girls, I’m not gonna lie. I liked Eternal, New Kids On The Block, maybe a bit of East 17. Neighbours, Home And Away, all that stuff. Kylie and Jason posters had pride of place on my walls.
Last year you were living in your parents’ house in Nottingham, now you’re presenting awards at the Baftas – and winning them too. Are you getting more used to interviews and photo shoots?
Part of me is really relaxed about the situation, because I still can’t believe that anybody’s interested in my life. I don’t think I’m a recognisable face, so the more personal interviews get, the more confused I become. But I’m quite a heart-on-my-sleeve kind of girl. I like talking about my job and I like talking about my experience, because I know it’s extreme.
Were you the type of girl who practised acceptance speeches in front of the mirror when you were growing up?
Maybe [grins]. I definitely went to bed at night as a youngster thinking about what I would say in an acceptance speech and I’ve always watched the Baftas. But winning one is a ‘that’s never going to happen to me’ scenario. I didn’t plan any of this. All these things; winning a Bafta, being in an amazing show and meeting all these people, seem like happy accidents. And you don’t know if that will ever happen again, so you should embrace it now.
True Love starts 18 June, 9pm, BBc1; line of duty starts end of June, BBC2