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The Trial Of Christine Keeler’s Sophie Cookson on why we’re still living in a misogynistic world

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Megan Conner
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Sophie Cookson

Following her breakthrough role in The Trial Of Christine Keeler, actor Sophie Cookson is ready to make her mark on Hollywood.

If you were one of the four million viewers who were gripped by The Trial Of Christine Keeler, you’ll know Sophie Cookson. Her performance as the 1960s model and society girl who became embroiled in one of the biggest political scandals in British history was so devastating and brilliantly nuanced that I thought about it for days after it finished. 

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Still, when I meet the actor at a coffee shop in London’s Bloomsbury, she’s hard to pick out among the throng of remote workers tapping on their laptops and hunched over their espressos. Tucked away in a corner in a black polo-neck, Cookson is staring intensely at what appears to be a largely blank sheet of white paper with a furrowed brow. “Oh, hi! Sorry,” she says when she sees me, breaking into a wide smile. “I’ve been on a bit of a breakfast date for one.”

Although she’s loath to give much away, the 29-year-old is working on the admin side of what actors do: “prepping for meetings” that I’ve no doubt are with the pick of casting directors. With the conclusion of the BBC series only just off our screens, Cookson is in the enviable position of wondering what you do after you’ve been at the helm of one of the most talked-about dramas of 2020 so far.

So, is she batting off offers? “A little bit,” she laughs. “It’s kind of a fun time. I’m in a good position where it’s all very exciting. But at the same time, I’m trying to keep a bit of time back for myself because I don’t want to feel like I’ve been bled dry.”

The Trial Of Christine Keeler: Sophie Cookson in the BBC's latest drama about the Profumo Affair of 1963.
The Trial Of Christine Keeler: Sophie Cookson in the BBC's latest drama about the Profumo Affair of 1963.

When you consider the buzz she and the show have received, you can understand why she might need to reflect and build herself back up. With a script written by Amanda Coe and produced by an all-female team, The Trial Of Christine Keeler was a bold success to kick off the year and a huge, complex role to take on.

But it seems it’s only the beginning for Cookson: next comes Greed, the latest film mockumentary from director Michael Winterbottom in which she plays the reality TV star daughter of a lead character played by Steve Coogan (who is said to be based on the controversial British retail magnate Philip Green). 

Then there’s Infinite, a high-concept thriller from the producer of The Matrix in which Cookson stars alongside Mark Wahlberg – her first lead role in a major Hollywood studio film. She might not have time for idle breakfasts for much longer…

The Trial Of Christine Keeler has been such a talking point. How does it feel now that you’re out the other side?

I think the overriding feeling at the moment is a sense of relief [laughs]. It was such a big job. I’d never been number one on a call sheet before, so there’s all the pressure that comes with that. But also it just felt so important to tell her story correctly. The show has opened up a massive dialogue about a lot of different topics that still feel so relevant today, which is really interesting. Hopefully it has also surprised a few people who weren’t sure if I could play a part like that.

The show has signified a real breakthrough moment for you. Are you finding you’re being recognised more now?

No, I don’t think people recognise me at all [laughs]. Maybe it’s the hair… at the moment it’s quite a bit lighter than I had it for Christine, more the colour I was before. Clearly it makes me look a little different because whenever I see the Keeler crew now, they go, “I’m sorry but it’s so weird that you’re blonde,” and I’m like, “Noooo! This is so much more me.” 

You’ve said that by retelling the tale of the Profumo affair through Keeler’s eyes, you wanted to “reclaim” her story. Why did that feel so important?

I think once I started looking into her back story it became very evident to me that she was a woman who just got a really rough deal. A big starting point for preparing to play her was watching her TV interview with presenter Sue Lawley [in 1989], around the time the film Scandal [based on the Profumo affair] came out. I was so horrified when I watched it, Christine really is just ripped to shreds and made to feel so much shame. That interview became massive fire for me when I was filming.

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The project started development in 2017, just a few months before the #MeToo movement gained momentum and the same year that Keeler died. It must have felt very timely when you were making it?

On the one hand it felt like the absolute perfect moment to tell the story. I think Amanda Coe said it was like history came up to meet us in terms of everything that happened with #MeToo. But at the same time, it was always going to feel relevant because not much has changed. We’re still living in a misogynistic world. The team was in touch with Christine through her biographer before she died and she said there were two things she wanted us to get across: one, that she wasn’t a victim. It was so important to her that she wasn’t seen like that. The other thing was how frightened of Lucky [Gordon, her ex-boyfriend] she was. I really do think her fear of him defined her as much as the Profumo affair did.

Your latest film, Greed, is as much a social commentary as it is a comedy. What drew you to it?

Initially it was the fact that it’s directed by Michael Winterbottom. He’s such a genius director – I’ve loved watching films like 24 Hour Party People and I’m a big fan of The Trip. He’d also put together this really bonkers cast – Steve Coogan is playing my dad, Isla Fisher is my mum and Shirley Henderson [aka Jude in the Bridget Jones films] is my gran. Just working with Shirley was an education. The film was improvised so she’d be in character when the car picked us up every morning to go to set [laughs]. Then in terms of the film, I just thought it was a brilliant satire with lots of important themes smuggled in. The character Steve plays is loosely based on Philip Green, so it looks at things like the exploitation of workers in sweatshops and the perverse distribution of wealth – this idea that certain figures we’ve held up as good or successful may not be what they seem.

It feels like we’re seeing this theme a lot in filmmaking right now – would you agree?

It’s definitely an interesting time in terms of what we’re dissecting. I’ve just finished watching The Morning Show, which also dismantles a real person and organisation that previously had so much power [it’s said to be based on the US presenter Matt Lauer, who was fired from NBC’s Today show following allegations of sexual misconduct from female colleagues]. It’s an unbelievable series, actually. I honestly felt like my jaw was on the floor the whole time I was watching it. And by the end, I was bawling my eyes out.

Lily, the character you play in Greed, is a reality TV star. Did you base her on anyone specific?

Obviously I’ve watched some reality TV over the years, so there were a few reference points. When I was younger I used to watch Made In Chelsea – and weirdly enough [MIC cast member] Ollie Locke is playing a role in the film.

Your next film, Infinite, will see you co-star with Mark Wahlberg. What was it like to work with him?

It was funny, because as soon as I started working with Mark I felt like everyone wanted to talk to me about Boogie Nights [laughs]. So obviously I started watching Boogie Nights for the first time when we were about halfway through filming and I got a bit of a shock. I actually had to stop, I couldn’t look at Mark in the same way. My personal trainer, who never seems to know who any of the actors I work with are, absolutely did know him and also gave me an education in Marky Mark’s hip-hop past. I googled that when I got home and was like, ‘Wow, this is the not the Marky Mark I know…’

What was it like to step into such a big-scale Hollywood production?

It sounds really glamorous but it was actually shot in Isleworth [in west London] so there was a lot of commuting on the North Circular. It’s made by the director of Training Day and the producer of The Matrix, so it’s a really great high-concept action thriller and I got to do stunts, which I’d never really done before. We used the same stunt guy I worked with on Kingsman, but the stunts I did on Kingsman were non-existent. I remember going to stunt training and being so disappointed because all they asked me to do was a forward roll.

Kingsman was your first job out of drama school. At 18, did it feel daunting to be cast in such a big film?

I think it’s very easy when you’re a young actor starting out to just let everything unfold around you – you’re not that clued up or confident, so you don’t have the same opinions as you do when you’re more experienced. I was so lucky to be cast in that film, though. [The director] Matthew Vaughn took a punt on me and I left drama school early to do it because I knew what an amazing opportunity it was.

So you didn’t graduate?

No! And I didn’t get my degree either because I dropped out of university to go to drama school. Having said that, my drama school did recently get in touch after I mentioned my lack of qualifications in an interview. They said they’d like to give me my qualification now [laughs].

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What were you studying at university?

I was at Edinburgh doing history of art, Spanish and Arabic. I was originally supposed to do Italian instead of Arabic but when I went to see one of the lecturers they told me I should really do something more curveball. So I did. I thought, ‘That’s a bloody good idea,’ and marched over to sign up. I don’t regret it because I love a challenge but it was so hard.

You’ve said you find fear very motivating. Is there much that scares you?

It’s quite perverse really, isn’t it? But I do get a slight sense of enjoyment out of feeling like I might fail [laughs]. It’s definitely not in the sense that I’m an adrenaline junkie, I just really enjoy high stakes. I think if you want to prove something to yourself and not fail there’s only one choice and that’s to work.

You’ve lived in London for over a decade now. How do you retain a sense of normality when you’re not working?

I’m quite a simple person really; I love pottering about, walking and swimming. There’s a lido near where I live in north London, or sometimes I’ll go to Parliament Hill, which is ridiculously cold in winter. It sounds strange but I had a weird thing when I started acting where if there was water in the script, I thought it was a sign that I was going to get the job [laughs]. And most of the time I did: so far I’ve had a swimming scene in Moonfleet, Kingsman, The Crucifixion, Emperor and The Trial Of Christine Keeler. Some people go their whole careers never having done that.

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What are your other hidden talents?

I can sing. It’s something I used to love when I was younger and I ended up touring with the National Youth Music Theatre. The other thing I love is baking. When I had a bit more time I used to put together little hampers for people that I would fill with muffins and cakes and different things that I’d made.

What was the last thing you baked?

It was actually on a hen do last weekend. It was my first ever hen do, can you believe that? I’ve had to miss a few due to working. The activity that was planned was to do one of those Bake Off challenges in a tent in London, so we all made cakes. The money was going to charities and the theme was Australia, so I put a bright yellow cockatoo on mine and made him a lemon peel headdress. He was kind of cool but I still only came second.

Greed is in cinemas from 21 February and Infinite is in cinemas from 7 August.

Images: Getty, BBC

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