Helen McCrory’s most memorable roles, from Harry Potter and The Queen to Peaky Blinders

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Celebrated actor Helen McCrory, best known for her memorable roles in Harry Potter, The Queen and Peaky Blinders, has died after a battle with cancer. Here, we take a look back at her prolific career. 

In 2000, Helen McCrory penned a piece for the Guardian about her leading role in Anna Karenina. “How should a woman live her life?” she mused. “Survive to the age of 70, fearfully, being as everyone else instructs her to be? Or play the heroine, passionately, in the knowledge that trying and failing need not equal defeat?”

McCrory unquestionably lived according to the latter. A majestic actor across stage and screen, and a passionate advocate for the causes she believed in, McCrory’s husband Damian Lewis announced on Twitter yesterday that she had died peacefully after a “heroic battle” with cancer.

“She died as she lived. Fearlessly. God we love her and know how lucky we are to have had her in our lives. She blazed so brightly. Go now, Little One, into the air, and thank you,” he added. 

Best known for playing the fearsome matriarch Polly Gray in the BBC’s period crime drama Peaky Blinders, McCrory won plaudits for playing powerful, complex characters. She appeared as Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise, featured as MP Claire Dowar in the 2012 James Bond blockbuster Skyfall, and played Cherie Blair in both The Queen and The Special Relationship. Most recently, she starred as formidable QC Sonia Woodley in the ITV series Quiz, prime minister Dawn Ellison in the political drama Roadkill, and voiced Lord Asriel’s daemon Stelmaria in the BBC series His Dark Materials.

McCrory also had a long and prolific career on stage. She played seven lead roles at the National Theatre, including standout performances in Medea and The Deep Blue Sea, and won two Olivier Award nominations, first in 2006 for her role as Rosalind in As You Like It, and again in 2013 for The Last Of The Haussmans. In a tribute, the National Theatre’s artistic director Rufus Norris said she was “unquestionably one of the great actors of her generation”.

When asked about her future aspirations in a 2011 interview with Stylist, McCrory was remarkably clear-sighted about her career. “I’ve always found it quite simple to live in the moment,” she said. “I don’t reflect a lot and I don’t worry about the future, but I am really happy with my next few choices.”

It was a sentiment she echoed in an episode of Desert Island Discs last year. Looking back on her accomplishments, she said: “When I was asked to look at different bits of my life for this program I had to look on the internet to see what I’d done. I’ve lived life at 150 miles an hour. I just think that is the truth of it and I’ve never really stopped.”

McCrory leaves behind an extraordinary catalogue of work amassed over the course of her thirty-year career. Here, we take a look back at just a handful of our favourite transformations.

Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders

Helen McCrory as Aunt Polly in Peaky Blinders
Helen McCrory played the fearsome family matriarch Aunt Polly in the BBC TV series Peaky Blinders.

In recent years, McCrory gained widespread attention for her portrayal of Elizabeth “Polly” Gray in the Bafta-winning BBC TV series Peaky Blinders.

A fearsome family matriarch with a fierce love for her family, McCrory brought a level of emotional intensity to the role that was central to the show’s authenticity. The definition of a force to be reckoned with.

Sonia Woodley in Quiz

Last year, McCrory took on the role of the QC Sonia Woodley in the ITV series Quiz, which tells the story of the infamous Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? cheating scandal, which saw Major Charles Ingram and his wife Diana accused of using a coughing code to win the £1 million jackpot.

As the Ingrams’ formidable criminal defence barrister, McCrory delivered a rousing closing speech that convinced many viewers that a miscarriage of justice had taken place following the 2003 trial.

Narcissa Malfoy in Harry Potter

McCrory won legions of fans when she starred as Narcissa Malfoy, the mother of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts nemesis Draco Malfoy and wife of Death Eater Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and both parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

In a 2010 interview with EW, Helena Bonham Carter, who played Bellatrix Lestrange in the franchise, revealed that McCrory had initially been cast in her role, although she dropped out when she fell pregnant. Luckily for us, McCrory returned to the Malfoy family a few years later, giving us many memorable moments, including the scene where she makes the Unbreakable Vow with Professor Snape. 

Dawn Ellison in Roadkill

Helen McCrory as prime minister Dawn Ellison in Roadkill
Helen McCrory as prime minister Dawn Ellison in the BBC political drama Roadkill

Last year, McCrory took the spotlight as steely fictional prime minister Dawn Ellison in the BBC series Roadkill, which tells the story of Peter Laurence, a high-ranking politician whose professional and private lives are on the verge of collapse.

In an interview with the BBC, the actor said that she had “a lot of fun throwing my toys around in the pram” in the role – and we definitely appreciated watching her in powerhouse mode once more.

Madame Kali in Penny Dreadful

From 2014 to 2015, McCrory played Evelyn Poole, aka Madame Kali, in the Showtime horror drama Penny Dreadful

She stole many scenes as the villainous practitioner of the dark arts, although in typical McCrory fashion, she brought plenty of nuance to the character. “Evelyn Poole is not a rasping Troglodyte that comes up from the cellar, “she told Collider in 2015.  She has a voice thick with seduction and promise and temptation, as need to, if you’re going to capture what you need.”

Cherie Blair in The Queen 

McCrory has form playing political figures, of course, and one of her most celebrated roles came in 2006 when she played Cherie Blair in the biopic The Queen.

It was such a commanding performance, in fact, that she would go on to reprise it in 2010 in the 2010 The Special Relationship, which traces former UK prime minister Tony Blair’s relationships with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Helen McCrory at the premiere of A Little Chaos in 2015
Helen McCrory at the premiere of A Little Chaos in 2015

Anna Karenina in Anna Karenina

One of McCrory’s most memorable roles included playing the lead in Channel 4’s 2000 production of Anna Karenina.

In an essay for the Guardian, the actor described how she endeavoured to elevate the characterisation of Karenina beyond the realm of her aesthetic. “Many people have compared me unfavourably with Greta Garbo, who played the part in 1935,” she wrote. “But why shouldn’t an actress be cast because of her passion for the role rather than because of her looks? 

Clair Dowar in Skyfall 

McCrory’s turn as UK Home Secretary Claire Dowar in the 2012 James Bond blockbuster Skyfall is a classic example of how the actor took a supporting role and turned it into a scene-stealing moment.

Case in point: when she questions Judi Dench’s M during a parliament enquiry towards of the end of the film, and utters the unforgettable words: “Are we straining your attention?”

Images: Getty/BBC

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Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.