Vexed - Miranda Raison interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
MIRANDA Raison talks exclusively to us about playing DI Georgina Dixon alongside Toby Stephens in BBC2 comedy-drama Vexed (which airs on Wednesday, August 1) and some of the challenges the role delivered, including keeping a straight face.
She also discusses her career to date, including her role in Spooks, working with Woody Allen, playing Anne Boleyn at The Globe and wanting to win a couple of Oscars.
Q. How would you describe DI Georgina Dixon in Vexed? She appears quite uptight when we first meet her in episode one, but then she seems to let herself go a bit…
Miranda Raison: She’s somebody who puts a lot of pressure on herself, and whether her father has actually said that he wished he had a son or not, she allows that pressure to be there, to try to give him the son that he never had. At school, she would have been the perfect prefect, with straight A’s, but she’s completely dysfunctional in every other sense. But in the first episode, you can see the glue starts to unravel. At first, she look as though she’s going to wipe the floor with Jack [Toby Stephens]. But her weaknesses are actually Jack’s strengths… the ability to relax and chill the f**k out a bit [laughs]. But it’s always fun to play somebody who isn’t what they seem at first.
Q. Your chemistry with Toby is really good. Did you have long to work on it together? You seem like a natural fit, especially during the sillier moments such as when you’re drunk…
Miranda Raison: We didn’t really know each other [prior to shooting]. He came and saw me in a play I did last year because he is a friend of the playwright. But I hadn’t really met him prior to my audition. And for that they had to match us up for chemistry and perform a chemistry test. He was already Jack, of course, but I had to audition for Georgina, so they [the producers] narrowed it down to a few people who they thought might have good chemistry. And I felt quite confident in casting because I’d heard they’d seen quite a lot of people and thought we might work together. But Toby is so easy and so silly… he’s not at all intimidating, so it was quite easy to do all that stuff [the drunk scene]. If you play chemistry, it can feel forced but we got on and by the time it came to doing the drunk stuff we were really comfortable with each other because they didn’t film episode one first – they did two and three first.
Q. And of course, the new police team in Vexed is one part ex-James Bond villain and one part ex-Spooks agent…
Miranda Raison: [Laughs] And now we’re being quite inefficient police officers!
Q. Was that fun, too, to play the other side of things… to not be as serious as you were in Spooks?
Miranda Raison: Definitely! With Spooks, there was always that feeling of it being a very serious, serious drama, with not many smiles… but there was always a slight hysteria between takes when we would sometimes break the tension with some chuckles in between running around with guns and stuff. But with Vexed, it was really nice just to be able to keep it light throughout… not that Jack and Georgina are ever in on the joke. I mean, they don’t know they’re being funny and they take everything seriously. But it’s nice to have some in between bits written where they’re maybe saying something inappropriate about a corpse or something. They have a lot of very un-PC moments… most of what they say are things that if they ever got published in their reports, they’d be fired pretty quickly!
Q. How are you at keeping a straight face in comedic scenes?
Miranda Raison: I’m rubbish and Toby’s worse [laughs]! He’s really bad. I’m one of those people who can be OK if I can hold it for a few seconds. But Toby lasts for less than a second before he’s off. And he sounds like Mutley! And when he goes, he sets everybody in the crew off, so if I do keep it together, I’ll then see the camera shaking and think: “Great! Why did I bother?” [Laughs] So, yes there were certain things we were asked to do that we did find quite hard, although I think the worst moment was when he was doing his song on the guitar. I wasn’t there but from what I’ve heard it was a really difficult scene for Toby to get through without cracking up because he was making up all those terrible lyrics, like ‘let me look inside your purse’. They’re such awful lines!
But once that button’s been pressed, it’s difficult to stop and it becomes infectious to everyone around us. We had another moment of ridiculous hysteria with episode two, which was supposed to be quite a serious scene. But at one point we were laughing so much that I think they were thinking we’d have to change the feel of it [the scene] because we couldn’t keep a straight face. So, you do start to feel guilty when that happens. But that said, it’s always fun to go home with face ache – although I am surprised we weren’t shouted at more!
Q. Was there any sense of nerves walking onto something that’s already established? I mean, you replaced Lucy Punch in Vexed and you also became a part of the Spooks world several seasons in…
Miranda Raison: I think that because the producers are very conscious of that, they make you feel fine. They never made me feel like I was taking over from somebody. Georgina is very much a new character. And I think they’re clever about the way in which they go about things. I wouldn’t know what techniques they used but certainly with a show like Spooks, the producers were used to a turnover of people. So, they work hard to see you in and settle you in. And [in Vexed] Toby was crucial too. I mean, he could have said ‘it was better last year’, but he was always very supportive. So, I never felt that it was too daunting.
What is daunting is the feeling that you want to do something justice. With Georgina, I was keen to do the writing justice because a lot of how she talks is very quick fire and she reels things off in an almost OCD kind of way. So, I wanted to be really on it in terms of the lines because I wanted to be able to make Jack baulk at how much she was talking, or how many facts and figures she knew. When I was learning my lines, I tried to say them as quickly as possible, so that I had them down by the time I came on set. I’d slow it down during the takes but it was important to me that I got that pacing right in her delivery.
Q. I’d imagine there’s a lot of out-takes on a show like Vexed then?
Miranda Raison: There must be a lot of outtakes and they won’t be pretty [laughs]! I mean, when you reach that moment when you realise that you’re going to have to cut because make-up needs to come in…. you say you’re fine but you’re not fine! You look awful and make-up has to patch you up.
Q. Did you go straight from Vexed back into theatre with The Physicists?
Miranda Raison: I did. We finished filming Easter weekend and then I went straight into rehearsals for The Physicists. But it was good. I love theatre. Before 2010, I hadn’t done anything in the theatre for seven years and I had really horrible stage fright. I was able to deal with it but it was a horrible feeling. And I knew it was my own fault. So, I told myself that I was going to do one play a year at least from then on. I know it won’t always be possible. And even after saying that to myself in August of that year, I finished doing the play in August and then suddenly went off to do Sinbad [for Sky], Dirk Gently, Merlin and then straight off to Vexed and before I knew it, it was April and I hadn’t even kept my promise in the first year!
But now I’m doing The Physicists, which is great, and I do have my agent to thank for that because a lot of agents try and talk you out of doing theatre. They don’t push theatre because you can make more money doing television, whereas theatre wages are pretty shocking. But it’s something I’ve always been keen to do and have been encouraged to do so, which is nice.
Q. You mention the stage fright you experienced when coming back after seven years. But playing Anne Boleyn twice, back-to-back, in productions of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn at The Globe is a pretty intimidating comeback point I’d imagine…
Miranda Raison: Well, doing Henry VIII first made it seem less daunting because Anne Boleyn only has two scenes of dialogue. But actually, the stage fright was for Henry VIII because I wasn’t on-stage for the first half an hour and then had to come on… and the first few nights of doing that gave me this horrid feeling. But after that, I then started rehearsing for Anne Boleyn and when that opened there was huge pressure because the beginning of the play opens with a seven minute monologue and the first preview was sold out and we hadn’t even had a full dress rehearsal! But somehow that was less terrifying because there was less time to actually be scared and think about things. You just thought something was bound to go wrong, so you prepared yourself for that eventuality. It was almost quite therapeutic.
Q. Did anything go wrong?
Miranda Raison: You know, I don’t think it did. It was a superb night. We got a stand ovation… I mean, people are mostly standing at The Globe anyway, I know, but those that weren’t stood up to applaud us. We had a really good reception. There were a few things that went wrong throughout the run, as there always are…. Oh, I couldn’t get my head out of the bag at one point. It’s a fake head, of course, but there’s an early scene where I take the head out of the bag and it was a bit of a struggle.
Q. I read that prior to playing Anne Boleyn you had yet to make up your mind about her. Having now played her twice, do you feel you know her any better?
Miranda Raison: Well, no… but it’s a funny one. When you read the really good historians, what they really say about her is that ‘our best guess is’ this or that. And it’s always tempting to believe the most interesting things that are written… especially when you’re playing somebody, you want to be on their side, even if they’re the worst dictator in history! So, it’s tempting to believe all the things that are appealing to you, the things you’d tell someone over a pint. But there’s very little I’d confidently say about her if I was talking to a kid who was asking questions about her from a historically accurate point of view. I could count on one hand the things I could say as fact. I mean, even her year of birth is debatable – there’s a six year discrepancy.
Interestingly, Shakespeare called her Anne Bullen when he wrote about her, but it was her father who insisted she be known as ‘Boleyn’ to make it sound more exotic… much in the same way that Hyacinth Bucket always liked to have her named pronounced ‘Bouquet’. And the way that she’s written in Henry VIII, she’s definitely a climber. There were a lot of people who felt she was an upstart. But then Howard Benton did his research and fell in love with her. And he’s very methodical about things. He’s very no-nonsense when it comes to his work and he’s not going to over-romanticise things. But he came out quite sympathetic towards her.
Q. I guess that’s why that part of history continues to be such a rich source of inspiration for artists to revisit and re-interpret…
Miranda Raison: Absolutely. It’s such a crazy time and it’s so enthralling. On the one hand, you have all the velvet and the riches, and on the other there’s so much death and execution. It changed the course of English history. But anything that’s extreme captures our imagination, like the Horrible Histories. I mean, somebody once said to me, ‘is it true that Anne Boleyn had three tits?” But of course not! But back then, they wanted to believe she had three breasts and 12 fingers because of the witch-craft angle. But the minute you read somebody who has done their research, you find there’s no evidence to support any of that. And yet those rumours have still come down through the years.
Q. Do you feel you’ve finished with Anne, or would you play her again?
Miranda Raison: I would play her again. If I read a script that was anything like as enlightening as Howard’s. I loved the play, I absolutely loved it. Obviously, I wouldn’t want to tarnish the memory of that by appearing in anything not as good. But I’d certainly play her again if the right script came along.
Q. Perhaps on film?
Miranda Raison: Wouldn’t that be great?
Q. Talking of film, you’ve crossed over on several occasions, mostly recently in My Week With Marilyn, which featured a who’s who of British acting talent. How was that?
Miranda Raison: It was lovely. I had such a small part in the film… there was more of my character in the script but they had to cut it, which made perfect sense for the film. So, there’s always that moment where you have to go, ‘never mind, chin up’ and get on with it. But I so enjoyed my five days on the set with Eddie Redmayne, who was lovely, and one of the handsomest men I’ve ever seen, and Michael Kitchen. I didn’t know what I would feel when it came to watching the film because I know Marilyn Monroe so well. But Michelle Williams was so brilliant. It was a really lovely feeling in the screening room because everyone sensed they were seeing something special. It wasn’t an impression or an imitation by her… it was a beautiful performance that captured this vulnerable girl.
Q. Is Heaven And Earth still happening?
Miranda Raison: Not at the moment, sadly not. I first got cast in that in 2004 and then when it was revived I was the only surviving cast member to come back. We went out to South Africa to start shooting at the beginning of 2009. But it fell through [again] while we were out there. I’m pretty ignorant about the producing side of things, but I can’t imagine the pressure of that job. It only takes one thing to happen and before you know it you’ve got all these beautifully made costumes and sets and you have to walk away from them all. But it’s an amazing story [about Lady Helena Langrish Smith, the first woman doctor] and it needs to be told. And Natascha McElhone would play it so brilliantly. We had some rehearsals and she was perfect.
Q. Going back a little further, how was working with Woody Allen on Match Point?
Miranda Raison: Woody Allen was amazing. It was the first film he’d done in a long time and the first of his England ones. I remember I got a call saying: “Can you go on tape for a Woody Allen film? We can only send you these lines and they’re not for your character…” They also said they might want me to improvise with it a bit. I literally had no idea who the character was they wanted me to play. So, I put on some black converse boots, because I’d heard he likes those, and hoped that maybe he’d see the shoes and like them because I had nothing else to go on.
So, I had those lucky boots on, went in and gave it my best shot and then got this amazing call-back… I was standing outside Somerfield in a not very glamorous part of London and the caller said: “Woody really likes you.” That was so f**king cool! Again, it wasn’t a huge part. I was part of the family. But the nature of how he works meant that I had a few weeks on the set. I kept trying to remember everything that happened each day because I had to tell my mum!
Q. How much do you learn from spending time with someone like Woody Allen?
Miranda Raison: It’s invaluable. But everybody is different. I think working with different people anyway is like life and meeting different people… as long as you can be empathetic, you can take a bit of them on and see what you can do to help their process. That said, my relationship with Woody was trying to hang on his every word so that I could tell everybody what he said afterwards. But certainly, he was a very good example of somebody who you didn’t hear talk above a very low volume for the entire time he was on-set.
What I’ve grown to hate in my ‘old age’ is shouting directors. I find anybody who screams and shouts to be difficult to work with… especially because the people who scream and shout tend to do it at runners, and not at the main actors. They make a great amount of noise and it’s often at someone who is an easy target. I love working with people who are calm, even if my role is as peripheral as it was in Match Point. I like people who realise that this is just a film… that we’re not going over the top in No Man’s land and screaming for our lives. There’s just nothing to be gained by volume.
Q. I was at a junket with Michael Caine once where he said that anger is a very intimate emotion that should never be shown in public. He did it once on-set and felt so ashamed that he never did it since…
Miranda Raison: I’ve never thought about it that way but he’s so right. Anger makes people feel uncomfortable, because the minute somebody shows it, it puts you in a position where you can’t laugh or make light of something… not to trivialise it I don’t mean. But your reaction to anger is supposed to be fear or returned anger. So, you’re really trying to control a situation when you show anger and it’s a very weak position to take. It often works on people who aren’t in a position to fight back.
Q. Moving on to Doctor Who… how does it feel to have been a part of that world and to have worked with David Tennant?
Miranda Raison: Doctor Who was a lovely experience. I think David Tennant, who I only worked with for seven weeks, and Toby [on Vexed] are two of the best actors I’ve worked with because of the way they are on set. They’re lead actors know their lines, who know what they’re doing, who are confident in everything, so they don’t throw their weight around. And that makes for a really lovely experience. It was a really fun part, too, being a showgirl and singing on the New York stage. I mean, I can’t sing, so I won’t have another opportunity to do that! It’s funny, I’m doing the play [The Physicists] now and quite often the people who come to the stage door afterwards reference Doctor Who. They have a top trump card or something. It was a brilliant thing to have been a part of.
Q. Likewise Spooks I’d imagine? And you had one of the memorable deaths. How was that when you found out?
Miranda Raison: It was awful when I read what was going to happen to her but fortunately I was already filming Married Single Other, so I didn’t have that horrid thing of ‘oh God, they’re killing me off, now go and sit at home’ [laughs]! We filmed that scene at the end of the day and in sequence. It’s rare to shoot things sequentially on anything. But that scene was literally the last thing I filmed before I went up to Leeds for a night shoot and had to have my hair extensions glued on. In the car on the way up to Leeds I remember that I rang my mum and burst into tears. It felt really odd. I’m not method or anything and I don’t usually take my work home.
But suddenly Jo was dead. I’d seen her name on a call sheet for so many years and been called Jo so many times. If people said Jo in the street, I used to turn round because I was so used to being called Jo for five years on Spooks. You do get so used to being called something. Often, it was someone calling their young son… but sometimes it was people calling after me because they recognised me from the show. So, it was a big deal when it happened and it was quite an emotional end.
Q. What did you think of the Spooks finale? Did you watch?
Miranda Raison: Well, I only saw the last episode, so I have to admit that I had no clue what was going on. But I knew about the Peter and Nicola stuff, so I could see why they had to do that. You couldn’t have them living happily ever after in some flat in Islington. Harry needs to be a tortured soul. But I loved the idea of bringing Matthew Macfadyen’s back for that short time.
Q. Finally, I read a lovely quote from you in which you said it was your ambition to join the RSC and win two Oscars. Has anything changed?
Miranda Raison: Oh, definitely. I’m more grown up now. But definitely while I was growing up, I said one of my ambitions was to win two Oscars by the time I was 21. I think the youngest Oscar winner at the time was 21, so I thought I’d beat that [laughs]. Probably, if I was asked again I would modify that now to say that I would love to do more film and more theatre…. but also TV. I think that if anything has changed in the industry in terms of dreams it’s that TV is now something to aspire to as well.
I think only a few films of the past few years have got to me as much as television shows like Breaking Bad or even Modern Family, which I can watch over and over again. I think that is a change and that is something to aspire to more. I also have a clearer perspective on theatre now, which I had lost for a few years… and that’s that theatre makes you better at everything. It makes you a better company member, a better cast member, a better actor… there’s no hierarchy in theatre. It’s a very sobering and important part of what we do. And I think I was almost scared to say ‘no’ to TV work [in favour of theatre] in case that door closed. But since I started doing theatre, more doors have opened for me in other avenues and it’s something that I’ll always be grateful for and something I will continue to do. I love theatre. But I’d also still like to win an Oscar or two as well!
Vexed airs on BBC2 on Wednesday nights at 9pm from Wednesday, August 1, 2012.