Ruth Wilson Plays Her Own Grandmother In A Searing ‘Mrs. Wilson’

Released     40:28

Related to: Mrs. Wilson

Support Provided By: Learn More
Download and Subscribe to MASTERPIECE StudioDownload MASTERPIECE Studio @ iTunesDownload MASTERPIECE Studio @ StitcherDownload MASTERPIECE Studio @ Stitcher

When actor Ruth Wilson’s grandmother, Alison, died, she left her family a surprisingly candid memoir about her relationship with her secret agent husband, the mystery author Alexander Wilson. The truths that Ruth and her extended family came to learn form the backbone of the new series, Mrs. Wilson. Ruth explores how it felt to play her own grandmother on screen, and what it means to be a tragedienne in film.

Download and subscribe on: iTunes | Stitcher| RadioPublic


Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

Alison Wilson believed she knew everything about her husband, Alec. With a home of their own and two sons, they had settled into a routine, if loving, existence together. But when Alec unexpectedly dies, Alison soon discovers there’s far more to their marriage than she ever suspected.


Gladys: Have I come to the right house? Alexander Wilson?

Alison: Yes…

Gladys: You must be his landlady.

Alison: No, no, I’m his wife. Mrs. Wilson. Alison Wilson. Are you all right? Who are you?

Gladys: Gladys Wilson. I’m Alec’s wife.

Jace: There’s more than one Mrs. Wilson — several more, it seems — and her secret agent husband has been keeping more than his fair share of secrets throughout their two decades of marriage.


Alec: My wife finds it very difficult. I don’t think she trusts me. I think she’s gonna leave me.

Alison: But — no. She won’t actually leave you. I’m sure she won’t.

Alec: What makes you say that?

Alison: Well I wouldn’t.

Jace: Actor Ruth Wilson, who plays Alison, knows this story all too well. Mrs. Wilson is the story of her own grandmother, and it’s one she and her family are still sorting through all these years later.

Ruth Wilson: Every time we talked about the story and any one of us in the family did, we keep getting an amazing response from people and we never got bored of telling it. People never got bored of hearing it. We kept finding out new things.

Jace: Wilson joins us for a look at her complicated, but true family story, what it’s like to play the sociopathic Alice Morgan on Luther, and at her upcoming turn in a new Broadway production of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

And this week we are joined by Mrs. Wilson star and executive producer Ruth Wilson. Welcome.

Ruth: Thank you.

Jace: Mrs. Wilson tells the story of your grandparents Alison and Alexander Wilson. As early as 2012, there were reports you were considering making a film based on their lives. What did it take to bring it to the screen?

Ruth: A lot of talking and patience, I think. I mean I, I found out about the story, you know, 10, 15 years ago, the full extent of it, and I’d been talking to people ever since as an industry about it. So it was one of those things that I never knew would actually become a reality. But eventually, in the last three years I suppose, meeting up with Ruth Kenley-Letts, who exec produced it alongside Neil Blair. And then of course when Anna Symon was onboard, the writer, and then the BBC greenlit it, then it became a reality, and very quickly it sort of came to fruition. So within the last three years, that’s when it became reality. But I’d been talking to lots of people about it, and I’d been mentioning it and contemplating the idea of just — you needed more than just me. You needed those other people to believe in it and think that it was a project, you know worthwhile making.

Jace: In looking back, what were those conversations like with your grandmother? How did she approach the subject of her life with Alec to you, as a young woman?

Ruth: She never talked about it. I mean Alec, I never knew him, he died way before I was born. I mean, I found a photo of him in my dad’s chest of drawers, and I was sort of sneaking around and I found this picture of this man, and I asked my dad, ‘Who is this?’ And he said, ‘Oh that’s my dad.’ And that was all that was ever said. And there was a kind of energy you know in my family that you just don’t ask questions. And it was the norm that I only had three grandparents. And of course when my grandmother gave us the first part of her memoir, she was still alive. And that was all about her life growing up, and meeting Alec, falling in love with him and then finding out about his betrayal. So even then when we knew, and she was still alive, there was still an energy and an assumption that we wouldn’t ask her questions. So it was very odd, that’s that’s a very British thing. I think it’s also a very generational thing that my dad had never asked her questions and we too as grandchildren didn’t feel we could either. Her memoir was kind of her answer and that’s all we had. Then when she died, she gave us the second part of her memoir and we also started finding out more about my grandfather from other sources. So that’s when we found out the extent of how many wives he had, and what his work was in intelligence. So it wasn’t until she died that we found out more, and were able to discuss it actually more freely once she died.

Jace: Was there any trepidation on your part, or indeed your family’s about adapting this very deeply personal story?

Ruth: Yeah, there was huge trepidation, but I think essentially every time we talked about the story and any one of us in the family did, we’d keep getting an amazing response from people, and we never got bored of telling it. People never got bored of hearing it. We kept finding out new things, and strangely it became kind of funny and absurd, the story itself, and that unified us as a family. There was an amazing positive energy that we’d all found each other, eventually, and connected, and my dad had found these half-brothers and half-sisters and they shared things in common like creativity, and storytelling, and poetry. And it suddenly was something very positive to share and to celebrate. And I think that the story was so extraordinary. You know, it’s just essentially a really good story, so any doubts we had about telling it, because it’s a personal story, kind of are overshadowed by how extraordinary the story is and that anyone you told was fascinated by it. And for me and for everyone else in the family that was indication that you could tell it as a drama and it would work and that it was worth telling as a story because it’s so extraordinary. You wouldn’t believe it, if it was fiction. So I think there was an element of that you have to tell this story, it’s so mad, and we all felt quite comfortable in that way, that we’d found each other, we’d got the best out of it with each other. There was no money to fight over. There was nothing in that respect that was going to be an issue. But yeah, it’s deeply personal, it’s putting ourselves out there, it’s putting people on the screen in my family, it’s my dad and my uncle, my grandmother, other people’s parents. So there was this concern to sort of get that right and to serve each and everyone’s story in a truthful and honest way.

Jace: You told The Guardian quote, ‘It would actually be more exposing to make a documentary.’ What did you mean by that exactly, that there’d have to be inherent judgements made about Alec?

Ruth: Yeah I think so, and well from my own point of view, I’d have to sit on the screen as myself and talk about my relationship with my father or my grandfather or my grandmother, which I didn’t really want to do. I think there’s something interesting in fiction, and certainly what’s interesting about this story is my grandfather lived in fiction. My grandmother wrote this memoir. There’s a huge creative strand in my family. So the idea of making a drama out of it felt more apt in some way, it felt like the perfect way to conceive and imagine who my grandfather was, as well as who my grandmother was in her own experience. And I think in some ways, fiction can get closer to the truth. You know, we can imagine those scenes, we can put them on the screen. We can let the audience sort of go there and imagine what Alec was doing in India or the scenario between Alison and Dorothy. You know, we can put that on the screen. So I think I felt more comfortable in a drama, and I thought it was just an incredible story. It would be a shame not to dramatize it.

Jace: The British press had a lot of fun asking you how strange it was to have to give birth to your dad on screen. I mean was it as surreal as they are making it out to be?

Ruth: Well I mean, it was a bit surreal. The whole thing was surreal. I mean you know casting Nigel and Gordon, who, you know, they’re my dad and my uncle, it was all it was always a little weird. I would always catch myself in moments thinking, ‘This is so absurd.’ Every time the clapper board went, there was ‘Mrs. Wilson’ written on it and just knowing, that’s my family story being told was amazing it was like, ‘Wow, this is actually happening?’ But also completely absurd. And look how many people are working to create, to tell this story, this is absurd.


Father Timothy: Any thoughts on the service? Hymns?

Gordon: ‘I vow to thee my country’. Dad was very patriotic.

Alison: He always used to make us stand for the national anthem.

Gordon: I was wondering if I might say a few words about my father’s work?

Alison: Well he worked in the foreign office – as well as his writing, of course.

Nigel: Twenty-one published novels.

Ruth: But yeah, the weirdest thing about the whole experience was playing my grandmother. It did feel quite out of body in moments, because I felt out of control in some of those scenes, you can see me, my neck’s really tight, I’m finding it hard to breathe. And there’s an energy that was going through me that I had no control over. And I do feel, you know, spiritually that was kind of my grandmother flowing through me, or I was certainly holding something for her and walking in her shoes through this story. And I do think that was quite profound, and I probably haven’t processed it entirely yet, but it was an exhausting and very deeply odd experience, if not profound and a deep privilege. You know, getting to dig into my grandmother in that way and understand her in that way. Yeah. So it was it was not just absurd, there were absurd moments, but it was also very spiritual.

Jace: It’s significant to me and likely to the work itself that the title here is Mrs. Wilson and not Alexander Wilson. Why was it vital that our perspective here is Alison’s?

Ruth: Yeah, I mean I always felt that when I told the story to people, they were often very kind of excited and astonished by my grandfather. And he was often the talk of the, you know, of any response about the piece. And the thing was that we never had all the answers about him. He’s always remained a man of mystery. Amongst the family, he has become a construct of people’s memories. We don’t have any written piece about him. We have his own books. But we don’t really have any personal account from him. And we had this really emotional, beautifully written personal account from my grandmother, which was a blueprint of what it was like to be a woman left behind by this man, a woman who could never find out the truth. Who was left in the unknown, and had to kind of find some form of faith, either in him or in something else. And that for me was the most powerful part of the whole story. It was about the women that he had touched and had loved, but also had betrayed. And the families, and the kind of consequences for the families generationally. And essentially, he is a man of mystery and we don’t know. So let’s leave it like that.

Jace: There’s an intensity to your performance here that’s very hard to watch, but harder to look away from. There’s the scene in the first episode where Alison is silently scrubbing the kitchen floor. You’re no stranger to portraying grief on screen. Is it difficult to embody that sense of loss and heartbreak?

Ruth: Yeah, I mean, anything where you’ve got deep psychosis and emotions is really draining and exhausting. And I knew this job was going to be particularly hard, because it was not just the deep sort of rivers of emotion that I had to go through, but it was also shouldering the burden of these characters in this particular personal story, and everyone else’s family, all the other family members that I had to feel responsible for, as well. And so I think there was that was probably an added energy that was running through the show as well, running through the screen. But yeah, it’s hard work, it’s exhausting, and you know that’s why I go onto other jobs which aren’t so much like that. You know I play other characters like…I mean, I find Alice Morgan incredibly easy to play, weirdly because she has no consciousness and she isn’t burdened by sort of suffering.


Alec: So what does Coleman say to you girls? You all arrive scared to death.

Alison: Nothing, nothing much.

Alec: You type up every word! You add nothing, you leave nothing out.

Alison: Something like that. Major Wilson? Could I ask you about your books?

Alec: You could — but it’s not very interesting. I just sit at my typewriter and make things up.

Jace: Is this Alec merely being charming? Or is that a telling clue to his psychology?

Ruth: A bit of both, I would think. You know, it’s like that, I think that’s the cleverness of that lie, in a way. It’s like there’s people that tell truths in their charm, and you can’t tell either way, what he’s saying, you know, and I think you know it’s always hard with that character, because essentially on the page he doesn’t actually feature much, and Iain Glenn did an amazing job of walking that very fine line. I mean, if you had pitched him too much as a cad we just wouldn’t have any sympathy for Alison. You know, so you had to walk a very fine line of this man being completely, seemingly genuine. And I always felt that he must, there must be something in him that women kind of felt they had a huge intimacy with him in some way. They must’ve believed, women fell in love with him, and it could just have been his charm. But I think these women who fell in love with him were clever and they were sophisticated and they were deep feelers and thinkers. And so I think that he must have connected on a level which was incredibly intimate. And I think that was really important for us to get that across, that this wasn’t just women falling at some cad’s knees, that this was a very complex and probably complicated man that women were attracted to, and felt they had some relationship with. That was always a fine line in the writing when we were trying to work out him. We had to sort of imagine what he might be like, and what might best serve the story.

Jace: One of the scenes that I love most is when Alison slips on Alec’s robe and opens it only for Alec to close the robe very gently. It’s Allison who then takes control throwing off the robe. What is this scene say about Allison sense of agency within their relationship?

Ruth: Yes it’s a really important point, because we, you know, the memoir that my grandmother wrote was much more passive in some way. She wrote herself as being slightly more victimized. I mean she definitely acknowledged her denial, but I think she wrote herself more as a victim, generally. I was always like, there’s no way — she was told. I mean, she said in the memoir she was told by various people that he wasn’t good for her. She was, you know, she was warned about him and she had doubts about him and she mentioned this, so I was always very intent that we had to make Alison sort of complicit in the denial. She’s not a victim. She wants to believe what he says. She is wanting to look to believe in someone and something. And I always had this feeling that he was that person that she was looking to believe in, no matter what. In the writing process we changed the character of Alison slightly to make her much more active. And it happens not only in that scene, it’s a very early on indication of her sort of desire to, you know, she’s not going to be a victim. She wants to take control and wants to own the situation. But you see that throughout the show, she’s the one asking questions, she’s looking for truth. She’s looking for the answers, and she’s on a mission and we had to have that. If we made her too passive, you wouldn’t enjoy watching her, you know. And I think we had to kind of keep her on the move, to keep her in search of truth in search of something to believe in.

Jace: You mentioned victimhood. Dennis, Alex’s son from his marriage to Gladys, played by Patrick Kennedy, comes to the house and there’s a haunting sense of symmetry here, the way that both of these people, both these families are in some way Alec’s victims.


Alison: He’s been living with me for the last twenty years. What did you think he was doing?

Dennis: Working, living in digs. Dad said…

Alison: Dad said — You hardly knew him!

Dennis: I did, we did. He sent money — visited — never missed a birthday.

Alison: I’m sorry, what right do you have — coming here? He lived with us. He loved us. Why won’t you just leave me alone?

Jace: What was it like filming this scene with Patrick Kennedy?

Ruth: Yeah, he was brilliant. He was so, so sensitive. Again everyone involved in the whole show was incredibly sensitive to the material and to the people they were portraying or lighting or designing. Everyone was so sensitive and compassionate. And Patrick was amazing, he phoned Dennis up, he talked to Dennis about it. And he’s just got such a gentle energy, which Dennis also has. And I think it was true. I mean, they met, you know they met to organize the funeral. And Dennis always said that he wished he could have seen Alison more. He did ask to see her again, like it’s played out in the drama, and she said no. And they were the same age. You know, what you sort of comes across in the show as well. They were the same age and he just said ‘She seemed such a nice woman, and I wished I could have got to know her better. But she refused any more contact.’ So I think Patrick did a brilliant job of that of that sort of sense of compassion for Alison and understanding of the situation.

Jace: That visit from Dennis leads to Alison forging a decree absolute in order to invalidate Gladys’s claim. What drives her to commit this act of desperation?

Ruth: She is constantly refusing to accept what’s been put in front of her. She’s created a life with this man and built a life with this man, around this man around this family and constructed a truth that she’s believed in, despite people telling her no, despite her doubts. And I think what’s so interesting about the character of Alison is that, you know, she’s as you see it played out, she has many doubts about him, and about their relationship and she’s just dug deeper and deeper and deeper into the kind of false life they’ve created for each other, and the denial. And so I think that takes a long time to break. She wants to have faith in this man, she wants to hold on to who this man is, and she will keep digging deeper and deeper into her denial in order to prove that. And as it, you know, she’s broken by it in the end and she has to give in in the end and let go. So I think that’s what was – there’s the start of many of those moments, that she is willing to go to extremes to protect her sons, but also to protect that sort of world that she has created. Because what does it mean without? It’s frightening, and it means you’ve gotta face everything that you’ve been denying for so long. And that could be the destruction of your family. Destruction of everything that you know. So I think there’s huge stakes for her to maintain. And also, if people find out that she’s illegitimate, her marriage is illegitimate she gets, there’s no pension, there’s no nothing, it’s shameful. There’s huge stakes at that time for women, you know, for that truth to come out would have been an enormous issue. So I think there’s many things at play. But psychologically for herself, I think, you know to pull her life apart and to accept pulling it apart — was very hard.

Jace: Before this next question, a quick word from our sponsors…

Jace: We meet Alec’s second wife, former actress Dorothy Wilson, played by Keeley Hawes. There’s a beautiful moment of reversal on Dorothy’s doorstep when Alison steps into Gladys’s role — the wife knocking on the door of the other woman. Did you feel that sense in the scene as you were shooting it?

Ruth: Yes, that was always the intention with that scene was that we can see that confrontation played out in a different way, and that it’s again, these women on these doorsteps, it’s sort of brutal and a harsh reality and desperate. And that you see that, I mean, I don’t even know if Alison in the moment recognizes that she’s become Gladys, in some way.


Alison: I’m Mrs…

Dorothy: I know who you are.

Alison: I wanted — I want to talk to you.

Dorothy: Sorry, but I’ve got absolutely nothing to say to you.

Alison: Wait, no, no, please, I’ve just come from London, you turned up uninvited to my husband’s funeral. The least you can do is answer my questions.

Ruth: But that was for the watcher, and for the viewer, it was to sort of identify that this is repeating pattern that’s happened. And that Alec has done this to all these women and he’s created this desperation and all these women and this unknowable, you know he’s an unknowable quantity that they have not yet sort of, or they’re looking for, they’re searching for some answers.

Jace: What ultimately stops Alison from telling Dorothy’s son Mike the truth about his father — that he didn’t die at El Alamein in 1942 when she runs into him in the road outside Dorothy’s house?

Ruth: I just think it’s like with all the women there, they don’t want to destroy the image of this man, their father. I mean that was definitely my grandmother’s running theme throughout her memoir, was that she didn’t want to destroy the image of their father. They didn’t want to destroy their kind of memory and their love of their father and their faith in their father. So she in the same way, the same reason why she kept the secret. I mean, in reality she didn’t tell her sons the truth until they were in their 50s and they had families of their own, and Alec had died way before. And I think her reasoning for that was that they were in a place they could understand, they had distance from it and could deal with it better and still had fond memories of him. It’s very interesting that each of the women and this is why I think that there must have been true love, and a form of intimacy and love that was very connected between Alec and his various wives, was because each of them wanted to maintain their sons’ image of him. And all of the sons, all of the children of Alec have very fond memories of him. They talk about him being a great father. Someone that told wild stories, was full of humor, and you know, charisma and taught them great values of how to be a good human being, and taught them faith. And so I think it’s really fascinating that we wanted to get that across, and that came through the women as much as it came through sort of the storytelling, generally, you know how we depicted Alec. But it came through that desire to maintain for their sons a sense of who this man was, that they didn’t destroy the image of their father.

Jace: It’s now 2019. Has there been any forward movement in terms of getting the Foreign Office to release Alexander Wilson’s file which had been deemed security sensitive last year?

Ruth: No, not really. We’ve been pestering them for a while, and we pestered them before the show, and they are probably even more like reluctant now that the show’s gone out, but we’ll keep going. And there’s certain avenues that we haven’t tried yet. I am interested in finding out the real truth, but I think also if we never do, it’s probably okay, as well. I sort of feel like that’s the whole point of the drama, in a way, is that we may never know the truth. We might never know the full truth and we haven’t got control over finding out, and that’s life, you know, and how do you become one with that and find acceptance with that? And that’s what my grandmother, Alison’s story, and the drama is about is about finding it acceptance with the unknown.

Jace: True or false: as a child you tried to sneak into Shepperton Studios.

Ruth: That’s true. I live ’round the corner so it was always exciting when you had Sylvester Stallone or someone. I think he was doing Judge Dredd, actually and we tried to sneak in. Didn’t get in, and didn’t see anything. Never saw a famous person ever, even though I lived there for 20 years.

Jace: I’m your first major role was as the title character in Jane Eyre opposite Toby Stephens as Rochester nine months after leaving LAMDA. Were you daunted at all at the time to be stepping into a role like Jane Eyre?

Ruth: Yeah, incredibly daunted and very scared, and I hadn’t done much camera work, you know, I’d literally just come out of drama school. I don’t think it really hit me, though I’m someone that I just plow into it from something very scary I just don’t really, I haven’t got time to think about it just get on with the job until halfway through, and then I realize actually, this is quite a big deal. I remember having an interview session with loads of press and I thought, ‘Oh God this is actually quite big, because she’s a literary hero and heroine, and and it’s been done a number of times before, and oops! I’m filling big shoes.’ So I had again, and it was I kind of, I mean that whole experience was incredible. I was looked after by everyone at the BBC. I was a bit in a blind kind of panic all the way through, I didn’t really, I can’t remember much about it. and I just remember that I would blush every first take, because I was so unused to being looked at and I kind of hated it but it worked for Jane Eyre. I’m sure they used some of those takes. So it was kind of deeply uncomfortable so I just was so in a sort of blind panic zone. And they looked after me and it was an extraordinary experience really, you know. And I learned an awful lot. I was very lucky.

Jace: You leapt into the zeitgeist with a star-making turn as my favorite television character, sociopathic physicist Alice Morgan in Luther what did you make of the character initially, and the critical and audience reaction to the character?

Ruth: Yeah, I mean when I first read it, I thought, ‘God this is so, you could have so much fun with this character.’ She read like a female Hannibal Lecter. And I thought, I’d never read any female character like that before. And then there was Idris Elba. I had just watched The Wire, and I was like in love with him, I thought, ‘Okay…wow this is I think fate is saying I should do this job.’ And I just, I think we never expected the show to be that successful. It was fun to do and it was great and what a great cast that first season! And Indira Varma and Paul McGann and all sorts. And so we just had a lot of fun with it. And then when it went out, it was huge, a kind of real cult TV. And I think that dynamic of Alice and Luther that was really unusual it was completely unique, it hadn’t been seen on screen before. And I think that that’s why people were really engaged in it. You know they loved that cat and mouse and between man and woman. And I didn’t ever expect that would be the case, to be totally honest. I just thought it’d be really fun to play and who gets to do this? So eight years later we’re still doing it. I love playing her, she’s, as I said, she’s got no conscience. So you can really have fun with that. All my other characters are burdened by all sorts of emotional trauma and she doesn’t have it, nothing sticks much to her. It does, she’s violent, and she’s, you know, bad, and she does bad things but there’s a kind of lightness to it which I really…it’s a real relief playing her, weirdly. That must sound really strange, but it is.

Jace: She does some very, very bad thing she does, in this fifth season of Luther especially. You returned to your role as Alice with a trademark ‘Wotcher’ earlier this year. What was it like stepping back into that role and sort of fulfilling many fans innate desire that Alice was in fact alive?

Ruth: Yeah I think that you know, I felt an obligation really to the fans to bring her back because they love her so much and I love playing her. And I think that she hadn’t really been finished off, you know, in a way. So it was a joy coming back.

Jace: You grew up with three brothers. You’re a self-described tomboy. You’ve also said quote, ‘As an actress particularly, you’re treated as an idiot. They handle you with kid gloves. But they also treat you like a fool.’ How do you strike back against that when it happens professionally?

Ruth: It’s hard, because it’s, you know you get better at it, I think, as you get older and you get more experience and people respect your work more, so your voice naturally becomes sort of more significant in the room. But it is, it’s hard, you know, I think one of the things you have to do is pick your work carefully. Your work has to kind of stand for itself. And I don’t think it’s just women, by the way, I think that men get treated like fools, as well. You know, actors get treated like fools. I mean it is to some extent a foolish profession, and we just have to put on makeup and go and stand there and say lines. And you know, you’re encouraged to sort of act like a fool. You know you’re told, you get in a car in the morning, you’re driven to a location, you don’t know where you’re going. You get out of the car, you’re given a coffee. You know, things, you’re just treated like you don’t really have any brain cells and that you don’t have any of your own, you haven’t got any ability to get there yourself or do anything yourself. So some actors start acting like that. But I think there is a sense, I think it’s about if you if you maintain and build a career that is, and a body of work which is reflective of, you know, of your beliefs and cares and thoughts and passions then people will start listening to you or your voice will be stronger in the room. But it is hard.

Jace: In His Dark Materials, you’re playing Mrs. Coulter, whom you called quote, ‘The cesspit of moral filth.’ Will we get to see more of Mrs. Coulter and her golden monkey in the adaptation than in Philip Pullman’s novels?

Ruth: Yes we will. And Philip has given license for Jack Thorne to sort of develop that character a bit more and see more of her. Because she kind, of in the book she floats in and out. And certainly in book two, she’s not really present very much, and they really wanted to set her up as an antagonist to Lyra. So it’s the two women, it’s mother and daughter who are sort of sparring and chasing each other. And so they’ve given license for Jack to sort of delve in. And she’s such a fascinating character. She really is. I mean, she’s, in the books you never really understand her, or get to. That might still be the case in our series. But we’re certainly going to sort of explore a bit more.

Jace: You’re now in rehearsals for the Sam Gold directed Broadway production of King Lear where you play both the Fool and Cordelia. There’s been a long debate between Shakespearean scholars about whether the roles of Cordelia and the Fool were written for the same actor to perform. How does the doubling here help to serve the text?

Ruth: Yeah it’s really interesting. I mean I think that it’s not specified, obviously, on the page that these two are played by the same person. They never exist on the stage together. And there’s many references in the show itself that connect them. The Fool is pining away after Cordelia when Cordelia’s banished, and at the end Lear says, ‘My poor Fool is hanged,’ when Cordelia is lying dead in front of him having been hanged. There’s lots of references and you can pick them out within the piece. And I think it’s just a really interesting double. They’re both the truth speakers, they’re both the people that try to tell Lear the truth. One does very unsuccessfully, his daughter does very unsuccessfully, and she gets kicked out because of it. The Fool, being a man, and a sort of comic through riddles is able to sort of tell him truths in a way that he can sort of accept and so it’s it’s a really interesting double to bring those two into focus and I think it’s quite moving, because you see the relationship that once Cordelia is gone, the sort of intimacy that you don’t see in that first scene between Lear and Cordelia is played out with the Fool and Lear. And then when that is broken then Cordelia comes back in and you see a reconciliation. I really hope that the sort of audience kind of connect the dots a bit and they see the throughline of these two characters. I mean I’m not playing them as the same person. I’m not playing Cordelia dressing up as the Fool. They are separate people, but I mean there’s something so magical about this piece and so surreal. I think it’s like a Beckett play, it’s like it’s so mad. And everyone, there’s many people in disguise playing other people, not all being there, they’re in disguise, they’re able to be their true selves. And so I think there’s something quite interesting in that as well, perhaps it’s a true self of Cordelia that comes out in the Fool.

Jace: Glenda Jackson is reprising her role as Lear. What is it like working with Glenda?

Ruth: She’s formidable. She’s 82, she’s up there. She knows all her lines. She’s commanding the stage, she’s funny, and dry and she’s…I mean, she’s…the energy of that woman is truly inspiring. And you know, she’s she’s a very particular Lear. And I think that for me certainly playing the Fool, I sort of have to be on her wavelength. And the two of us have to spar. And I’ve really enjoyed that. And I can feel it. It will become more as we get onstage. And we become free with each other. There’s a really lovely language that we have, and I just I think she’s amazing and I think she’s – I mean what a career she’s had, to come back onto the stage after 25 years of not acting, and to do King Lear. I mean that’s extraordinary. And for woman in this day and age do King Lear, it was amazing. So I’m really proud and grateful to be in that production watching her, and working with her, so closely alongside her.

Jace: Finally, you said in an interview quote, ‘I’m a tragedienne in some way.’ What did you mean, exactly?

Ruth: I mean I did say that, yeah, and I think that’s like something…I was saying this the other day, actually, I think, it’s and it sort of connects my grandmother a bit, is that she was a woman who had an extraordinary internal emotional landscape that she never revealed to anyone. She wrote it down, you know, in her memoir. But she was someone that was sort of full of this emotion and I think that I’m quite similar, and that’s sort of why I’ve gone into acting as a way of expressing that stuff that’s inside me. And she did it through writing and I do it through acting. So I don’t know if it’s a tragedienne as such but it’s just a sort of I have a huge emotional internal landscape, I think. As most, as a lot of people do. But I sort of feel that there’s an essential need for me to get that out. And I do that through my work. And I’m lucky enough to have found an outlet for it. By having you know studied my grandmother and read all her passionate poems and it was so extraordinary to me to understand the woman behind who I knew. I mean I didn’t she I never saw that in her, so to sort of see that she had all this inside locked up. It’s quite extraordinary to me and made sense of myself a bit.

Jace: Ruth Wilson, thank you so very much.

Ruth: Thank you. 

Jace: The story of Alison Wilson and her family isn’t over just yet — and series writer Anna Symon will bring her journalistic eye to the story in a special bonus episode of the podcast next Wednesday.

But first —  Unforgotten creator, head writer, and executive producer Chris Lang joins us to explore the current third season of his harrowing MASTERPIECE Mystery! series, in which Cassie and Sunny investigate the remains of a young girl found in the central reservation of a motorway.

Chris Lang: I thought it would be absolutely interesting enough if if they were just ordinary people with the ordinary vicissitudes being visited upon them in their private lives, that seemed to be enough, because, you know, the cases that they were investigating though those were extraordinary and that would then reveal something of who they were as people in the process

Jace: That’s next Sunday, following the broadcast of the first episode of the new season of Unforgotten.

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.



Sign up to get the latest news on your favorite dramas and mysteries, as well as exclusive content, video, sweepstakes and more.