Stylist talks stage acting, complex roles and money with Denise Gough

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Helen Bownass
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Passionate, outspoken and in demand on stage and screen, it’s hard to believe Denise Gough was babysitting to make ends meet three years ago. Stylist meets the fiercely driven actress...

Photography: Kate Davis-Macleod

Denise Gough doesn’t really sound like the name of a celebrity. Nor does she act like one. She also doesn’t fit the typical fame narrative: her star finally rose when she was 35 with a role in the National Theatre’s People, Places And Things in 2015, which critics couldn’t praise or award enough. Gough worked for years to get her big break – she moved from County Clare (she’s seventh in a family of 11 children) to London aged 16 and managed to get a scholarship to drama school. Bit parts and theatre roles followed, but just a year before she got the life-changing (her words) role, she was in “Siberia” being turned down for every audition and looking after her sister’s children to make ends meet. But now, aged 38, Gough is swimming in projects. She is everyone’s most wanted.

Which is exactly what she should be. Gough is a multi-faceted and compelling actress – her Twitter bio asserts: “I’m an Actress. Not an Actor. ACTRESS. ActRESSSSSSSSSSSS”. She is the protagonist of the unceremoniously titled Paula, a demanding new BBC thriller about a chemistry teacher and the fallout after her one night stand with a damaged, dangerous builder. She is also in Guerilla, the Sky Atlantic drama about black political activists in London in the Seventies and knee-deep in one of the most anticipated theatre productions of the year, Angels In America. The play is an examination of homosexuality and AIDS in Reagan-era America played out in two parts – with some showings of both in one day. That’s seven hours of theatre. That’s a lot of acting.

Gough isn’t fazed. At least not when we meet in her dressing room at the National Theatre. It’s a den of calm. There’s a Muji diffuser puffing away, her make-up kit is meticulously laid out – we have an enjoyable conversation about the importance of order. Theatre is her happy place and this dressing room has great memories – it’s the one she had for People, Places And Things, a role she will reprise later this year on Broadway.

She is wearing the archetypal East London uniform – stripy T-shirt, high-waisted Levi’s – with a shrug of bleached blonde hair on top. “It’s for a film,” she says of her recent cut. “When I started out I shaved all my hair off to be taken seriously. Sometimes I do that to start over.” Talking to her is exhilarating. She cares deeply about what she does but never strays into ‘My Craft’ territory. She is also incredibly vocal about gender, making a difference and The Real Housewives. Gough is one of a new breed of talent. Long may she reign.

One of the things I liked about Paula was that she’s not ‘likeable’ – she is cold, she’s argumentative. Was that part of the appeal?
I’ve been in [TV shows] with women getting mutilated and the guy who’s doing the killing, although unlikeable, is hot. I wanted to be part of a similar type of thing but with a woman in that position. The first reaction is always ‘she’s not very likeable’, and isn’t that funny; you wouldn’t say that about Jamie Dornan?

We are having those conversations, but we’ve also got the pressure of social media which is perpetuating a need to be liked…
People won’t come out with their political stance in case they lose followers on Twitter, and that’s a dangerous game. I don’t want to get involved, but if you’re on Twitter you can’t help but get involved. I am on the cusp of leaving all social media. It’s a whole other world and this world is enough.

What about diversity that isn’t gender based, is the industry doing enough?
Did you watch that brilliant Riz Ahmed speech in parliament where he says it’s not about diversity, it’s about representation? In Guerrilla there’s a lot of controversy over the casting of Freida Pinto rather than a black woman [in a drama about black activists]. Some black women have come forward saying they’ve been erased from history, and I was thinking, ‘F**king hell, how would I feel if I was in that position?’ On Guerrilla, there was a black female director, black female producer, everywhere I turned there was representation and I find it hard that that may have overshadowed Freida’s performance. But at the same time, if that’s what those women are feeling, they’ve got to have their voice too.

All your roles are very complex, do you ever dream about doing a light-hearted rom-com?
John Ridley [the screenwriter of Guerrilla and 12 Years A Slave] said, “I have to write you a romantic comedy because everything I’ve seen you in is so heavy.” I’m very good at comedy but nobody lets me do it. But at the moment I want everything I do to have a message, otherwise what’s the f**king point? I don’t just want to go out on stage and fall in love with someone.

Did you grow up with such a sense of social responsibility?
I think my parents worried how socially conscious I was because I drove myself crazy as a child. I found every piece of information on the Holocaust, I sent letters to Saddam Hussein, I sat up at night practising what I would say if I met him. I think my parents were so worried about me, because I come from a massive family, so the impetus is to teach your children how to look after themselves and go out and get a job. When 9/11 happened, I was obsessed with the images, and what the world does to itself. How are people not just lying down in the street, how are we continuing? When the Westminster terrorist attack happened and seeing the reaction I thought: if that’s what that feels like at that level, can you imagine what it’s like in Syria? There are thousands and thousands of people walking across the earth right now looking for refuge, and being turned away. I couldn’t live with the thought of, ‘Well f**k it, I don’t need to think about any of that. I’ve got what I need’.

How have you been able to find a peace with these feelings?
I practise meditation, I try to look after my body, myself, the corner of the world I live in, I try to stay connected to the idea that if you put love out you’re doing as well as you can. That’s why, whenever I can, I try to draw attention to things. Sometimes when you get a bit of success, people would like you to stop, but it’s about using your position to talk about things that matter. You’ve got people who are like ‘I don’t want to hear actors talk about it’ but why can’t I talk about it?

Angels In America sold out in minutes, were you surprised at people’s appetites for it?
When you give the public complex stuff that’s truthful, they f**king love it. This play transcends everything. I love how quickly it sold out, and the demographic of people who bought tickets – young people who have never been to the theatre before; I saw a young couple of gay guys outside the theatre, eyes shining. At the end [of the play] there’s a speech that says, “We will no longer die secret deaths” and every time I hear it I feel like this play is an homage to all those men and the women who supported those who died of a disease that wasn’t even recognised by the [US] government because their whole community was shrouded in shame.

What do you do away from the stage?
I watch a lot of crap TV. The Real Housewives of f**king everywhere. I know them all. A young actress said, “Oh my god, I can’t believe you watch that.” Isn’t it funny what people project onto me? Thinking I sit around reading plays and making political placards. I go to yoga, I started Barry’s Bootcamp. It’s hell, one day I’m going to walk out, but it makes me feel great after.

Are you a good cook?
I’m good at it, but I can’t be arsed. If money was no object I’d have a chef. I love going out to eat. I love Okko on Hackney’s Broadway Market and we went to a nice tapas place in Stoke Newington the other day called Escocesa. I’m going to need to be really rich, I spend all my money on food.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about money, it’s still such a taboo...
I was broke. If you’re a creative, from a lower class background, then chances are you’re going to find it difficult. I have no problem with the upper classes doing great work as long as they’re doing great work. But there’s a difference when you walk into a room needing a job because you need the f**king cash. I’m starting to have that lovely feeling that I can rest in those three weeks between jobs, not that long ago I would have had to find something, I couldn’t eat otherwise.

Do you worry that not having that hunger might change you as an actress?
I remember saying to someone who has always been very helpful to me, “Who am I if I get everything I want?” I’ve been a struggling actress for years, you become identified with it. And then you’re not any more, it takes a bit of transitioning. If this had happened and I hadn’t done any work on myself, I might have been pretty messed up. It’s an unnatural life. The hunger becomes about the right jobs, making the right statements with my work.

Given you’ve been acting for years, does it baffle you when you get nominated for new talent awards?
It’s nice to be nominated, but when I was nominated for best newcomer [for two theatre performances in 2012] I was like: if I win this I’m going to have to apologise and I don’t want to ever apologise for winning an award! But there’s no f**king way I could have done that job when I was a newcomer. I have solidly chipped away at this thing I’m trying to create, which is a great body of work, that leads to bigger parts, more complex parts.

Do you find it hard to say no?
No, I love saying no. And I’m much better at being told no. This morning I got told no for a part I would have loved, but I have absolute evidence over the 15 years of my career that I’ve got every part I was meant to get, and I don’t get the ones I’m not meant to. I don’t know the reasoning and I don’t care anymore.

How have you learnt not to care?
Therapy, meditation, spiritual practices, looking at myself... This industry will own you, and f**k that! I refuse, it has enough of me without having to give it my esteem.

Would you ever take a sabbatical from acting?
This year is packed, which is amazing, but I can see myself taking a few months to do nothing if I was financially able. Maybe that time is coming. I was speaking to my brother about it – it’s that idea of ‘make hay’ but not any old s**t hay.

Paula is on BBC Two later this month; NT Live: Angels In America will be broadcast live to cinemas in July;