The Crimson Field – Alice St Clair interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
ALICE St Clair talks about playing volunteer nurse Flora Marshall in new BBC First World War drama The Crimson Field and reflects on her own family’s experiences of serving for their country (including her great-great grandmother, Sheila Chisholm, who was also a volunteer nurse).
She also reflects on her own career to date, including her passion for theatre, what it was like playing Kate Middleton and how she first got the acting bug from an early age. The Crimson Field is on BBC1 on Sunday nights from 9pm.
Q. You must be really pleased with the response to The Crimson Field so far – 6.2 million viewers for the first episode?
Alice St Clair: I’m so, so pleased. Everyone has been so supportive. But it’s hard to get your head around that figure. It doesn’t really make sense to me at the moment. It’s a lot of people.
Q. So, how would you describe your character, Flora, and what appealed to you about playing her?
Alice St Clair: Well, I’ve used this word a few times, but enthusiastic is probably the key word to use. She is a young girl, who is naive and innocent and she doesn’t really know what to expect. But what really appealed to me about playing her is that she is very determined and strong-minded. So, despite her naivety she has this resilience and toughness that also comes out. When she starts a task, she feels like she’s going to finish it no matter what. And I feel that way about a lot of things in my own life.
Q. What kind of research did you do? I gather you have at least a couple of family members who served?
Alice St Clair: Yeah, I already knew a bit about my family history but I hadn’t delved too far into it. So, when I found out I had got the part, I looked into it a lot more and learned that not only was my great-great grandmother [Sheila Chisholm] a volunteer nurse in Cairo, but my great-great aunt [Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, The Duchess of Sutherland] set up her own ambulance service and wrote a book, Six Weeks At The War. So, I had her actual original diary, with her own handwriting, and was able to use it. I actually started reading it and then realised that I almost didn’t want to read too much because a key part of Flora was that she was not supposed to know a lot of things, so for me to go in and know how awful it was, the reality of the harshness of war, would have been detrimental to playing my character.
Q. But did you continue reading once you’d complete the role?
Alice St Clair: Oh definitely. It’s funny, I almost did it backwards. But I also did a lot of research into the history of the time and what was going on politically and socially… stuff I would actually have known as someone living in that period.
Q. I guess another part of the appeal of the series is that this shines a light on something that people might not necessarily know too much about – the important role that women played in the First World War?
Alice St Clair: I think that’s exactly why it’s so exciting because it is a different perspective that we’ve not seen before, to have it told from the perspective of these women. In fact, it kind of surprises me even now, having just seen the first episode… I hadn’t realised just how much it is our story in a way. I knew that from the script, obviously, but you don’t really realise it until you’re watching it.
Q. How did you go about bonding with your co-stars?
Alice St Clair: Oh, that was very straight-forward because they’re all so amazing. We all got on incredibly well. It was a really good and fun environment.
Q. Did you go to any kind of boot camp?
Alice St Clair: We had a slight nursing boot camp in the sense that we had to learn how to make a bed professionally and learnt about hospital corners…
Q. And using a mangle…
Alice St Clair: [Laughs] Yeah, I learnt all of those skills. But it was really interesting to get a sense of how differently things were done – and how difficult they were to do. We also had this amazing medical advisor on set, and she was always there to answer questions. But I love all of that kind of stuff because there would be nothing worse than half doing these things and not knowing what you were doing.
Q. So, can you still make the perfect bed in two minutes?
Alice St Clair: [Laughs] I can make a fantastic bed!
Q. How was shooting that scene? Was there any pressure to get it right?
Alice St Clair: Oh yeah. But what was really great about that particular scene is that my character is supposed to be really bad and not get it done. The others had to learn it really quickly and be really good at it, and we didn’t have that much time to learn and practice. But I was kind of allowed to be really bad at it. So, I was lucky in that respect [laughs].
Q. How much does putting on the uniform help to inform the character?
Alice St Clair: Massively. For me, it’s so amazing how much it is such a key element. I have got really short hair, so I had a wig on every day. So, from the moment the wig got put on I would slowly feel the transformation, and then came the corset and the high socks. It was a gradual transition but it really did change the way we stood and moved. And it informed some of our behaviour because we were moving so much – lifting and making beds was very constrictive in our corsets, so our body movement was very different.
Q. What do you make of the comparisons the show has garnered with Call The Midwife and Downton Abbey? Are they accurate in your opinion?
Alice St Clair: I think it’s funny because everyone wants to compare stuff. But I don’t actually see many similarities at all. I think this is something completely different.
Q. And of course it brings an important reminder of The First World War as it commemorates its centenary. How important do you view that? I ask that because during a recent interview I conducted with the director of Second World War movie The Book Thief, he said a lot of this generation wasn’t even aware of The Holocaust? So, what that must mean for their recollection of World War I is mind-boggling…
Alice St Clair: Oh my God, is that right? If that’s true, it makes me think that a show like this is even more important. I mean, I don’t necessarily want to remind people of how horrible it was but I think it’s important to continue to pay respect to the courage and sacrifices of these people and to spare a thought for them. Most of us have members of our family who would have been involved in some way.
Q. Coming back to your great-great grandmother, Sheila Chisholm, is she someone you’d like to play in a drama one day?
Alice St Clair: It’s so funny, a lot of people have put that idea to me and I’ve been thinking the same thing myself anyway. I’ve been reading her biography, which was just recently released, and I do feel a lot of similarities with her. So, if anything is being made, I would love to know about it. We have a lot of stuff around the house of hers and all of her photo albums and pictures. My father is very good at keeping things like that safe. So, with this book that’s been written about her, and what we have at home, I feel like there’s a lot of stuff I can root through. She was a really inspirational person.
Q. Was she alive in your lifetime at all?
Alice St Clair: No, she wasn’t.
Q. If you could speak to her now with the benefit of having played Flora, what would you like to ask her?
Alice St Clair: That’s such a great question. [Pauses to think] I really don’ know. I can’t say. One thing I thought was lovely and amazing about her was she met her first husband while nursing him [in Egypt]. He was a wounded soldier and they were married within a month. But I really don’t know what I would ask her. I’d have to think a lot more about that one.
Q. How do you think a show like The Crimson Field will raise your profile as an actress?
Alice St Clair: Well, we’ll see. It’s been seen by six million people, so it’s going to help. But I really have no idea. I’m not expecting any real dramatic change. But it is really, really exciting for me to have something I can now show to people and something that I’m really, really proud of, that’s a reference point for people. But I’m just going to continue in the same fashion that I have been so far and keep going to auditions and reading scripts.
Q. How do you find auditions?
Alice St Clair: I find them terrifying, I really do. Someone once told me, and I can’t remember who… but when I was living in New York, I used to get so nervous about going to them. And they said that if you don’t learn to enjoy them, then it was going to be a miserable existence because the amount of time you’re going to spend at them without necessarily booking a job is quite significant. So, you should view them as a mini showcase or job. And that’s such a good way of looking at it. It really helped me. So, instead of fearing it, I now try and go in thinking this is my moment to show people a little bit of me. It might not be right all of the time, but this is my time. It’s easier said than done, of course. But it does make things better for me when I approach them.
Q. When did you first get the acting bug and know you wanted to pursue acting as a career?
Alice St Clair: I think I’ve probably always known. My whole life, I’ve always been interested in showing off and acting and making little films at home. I got my brothers and sister to be in home movies that I made. So, that’s been continuous. In fact, I was watching through some of those films the other day and they are so funny. But it was when when I moved to Bedales, which is really focused on the arts and theatre, that I really started to consider this as a possible career. They have an amazing theatre there. But no one in my family is involved in acting, so it wasn’t about following in anyone’s footsteps. I just thought I’d finish school and then see where it led me.
Q. And how would you describe your path to where you are now – challenging or easier than you expected it to be?
Alice St Clair: It’s probably been more challenging. It’s a lot of work. I’ve worked really, really hard and been through lots of different stages. In fact, I’ve not stopped working since drama school, but I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been given some really good opportunities and I feel that I’m going in the right direction – enough has happened for me to know that I’ve chosen the right thing. And there’s been enough encouragement for me to keep going.
Q. You mentioned theatre previously and you’ve done some already. Would you like to keep doing more?
Alice St Clair: Definitely! I would love to do more theatre. When I moved back from New York, myself and two friends actually put on three George Bernard Shaw comedies [Overruled] at the Old Red Lion Theatre [in London]. I hadn’t done theatre for four years. But these involved comedy and farce and it was unbelievably good fun. Obviously, it’s the same approach [to acting] but it’s a completely different feeling, that instant vibe of the audience. So, I would love to do more theatre. I think it’s great to be able to do as many different kinds of things as possible.
Q. And which actors inspire you?
Alice St Clair: Well, there’s a crowd of young actress around at the moment who I love – one being Brit Marling. I look at her think she’s incredible. She does her own stuff. And I love Greta Gerwig and Juno Temple. So, those are the people of my age that I look up to. But then there are the older actresses… there’s so many. I think Helen Mirren is absolutely amazing. I love her.
Q. Would you like to follow in Brit’s footsteps and eventually produce and even direct?
Alice St Clair: You know what, I would love to. I think it [directing] is such an amazing skill. I have ideas. And I’d love to give it a go on day. But I think, right now, it’s one of those things where I need to be on a lot more sets before I try anything. Whenever I do any acting, I like to see what’s going on. I’m always interested in all of the other elements of production, so I nosey around a bit. I don’t just stay in the trailer. But directing… I don’t know if I even could. Right now, I look at what a director does and think it’s amazing. But I’m up for challenge at some point.
Q. You have previously played Kate Middleton for a US drama. How was that? And is it true that you know Prince Harry?
Alice St Clair: I don’t actually know Prince Harry. I’ve seen it written but I think I must have been misquoted somewhere. William & Catherine: A Royal Romance was an exciting experience because I had just come out of drama school and, if you take away the fact that it was Kate Middleton I was playing, it was a lead role in a film. So, just for that reason alone it was amazing being able to be in so many different scenes and experience a film set. But the fact that it was Kate Middleton I was playing also meant that it got a lot of attention, which was good because a lot of people saw me.
Q. What was your favourite memory of the whole Crimson Field experience?
Alice St Clair: I think bringing a character that Sarah Phelps wrote to life. I just knew her so instinctively. It was almost like without knowing it, Sarah had written an element of me when I was younger. So, when I read the script I thought I knew how to do it. I would have felt so sad if someone else had gotten to play that part.
The Crimson Field airs on Sunday nights on BBC1 from 9pm.