You know you’ve made it as an actor when you inspire someone to write a whole television series around you. And that’s happened for Hattie Morahan: scriptwriter Barry Devlin created new BBC One drama My Mother and Other Strangers with her in mind.
Having said that though, Devlin hardly sounds like he’s describing your typical muse: he based it around Morahan, he says, because “she somehow manages to combine a magical serenity with a capacity to be daft as a brush”.
Over tea in west London, I read this back to Morahan. Does she mind being called “daft as a brush”? She snorts a little.
“No, I don’t mind! But you do go, ‘Oh right – is that how the world sees me?’” says the actress. “He’d seen me in Outnumbered, a comedy show [she played ditsy friend Jane] and I couldn’t see the correlation between that really annoying woman and this part. So I have to shrug and go, ‘I’m not quite sure where you’re coming from, but how marvellous.’”
Morahan plays Rose, an English woman who’s married into a tight-knit Northern Irish farming community – and whose life is changed irrevocably when an American airbase is established in their midst during the Second World War. Aaron Staton – best known as Ken Cosgrove in Mad Men – plays her illicit love interest. Was she a fan of that show?
“I’ve watched every single episode,” she laughs. “I haven’t watched much TV, so I was really thrilled! It was lovely having the Americans arriving after a few weeks, it really reflected the story – these exotic creatures coming in with their different ways of doing things…”
The show is based on real wartime history: some 4,000 US servicemen were stationed in rural Northern Ireland. “The show is about a particular time in the war, but it’s really about marriage and morality and how to be true to your heart when you’re locked into a community,” says Morahan.
Although the actress promises that My Mother and Other Strangers is also funny, she admits troubled wives are something of a recurring theme in her work. In last year’s TV adaptation of Sadie Jones’s The Outcast, Morahan played a young mother stifled in Forties suburbia; as an anguished wife she proved an unsolvable case in last year’s film Mr Holmes and, on stage, there was an award-winning turn as Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which skipped from the Young Vic to the West End to New York.
The theatre is a particularly deep-seated love – not altogether surprising considering her mother, Anna Carteret, is a renowned stage actress (as well as the former lead in Eighties police drama Juliet Bravo) and her father Christopher is a theatre and TV director.
“There was a sense of glamour about [Mum’s job]. I felt really proud; I’m sure that’s an ingredient in why I was drawn to acting,” she says.
There won’t be any stage roles any time soon, though: Morahan, 37, has just had her first baby, a daughter, with her partner, fellow actor Blake Ritson, and is taking some time off. Has she asked her parents for advice about juggling acting with parenting?
“We had nannies!” she says. “My mum went to work quite quickly, and felt quite guilty. But they could afford a live-in nanny in those days; I never could. Things have changed.”
Today, you’d need to do blockbusters rather than Ibsen if you want nannies and private schools – but blockbusters are not quite Morahan’s style.
She is, however, one of a wealth of British thespians appearing in Disney’s forthcoming live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, in which she will appear as the enchantress who turns Prince Adam, played by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, into “The Beast”.
“It’s mad, the Disney thing,” she says. “One minute Dan was practising with his huge animal boots and the next it was all CGI, and he was just wearing a body stocking.”
Most of us might not complain about seeing Stevens in a body stocking, but Morahan cries, “I wanted to see the beast outfit…”
The thought of plastic figurines of Stevens as the beast prompts further giggles, but, for all that, Morahan obviously takes her work very seriously. She has been steeped in the acting business long enough to know not to pay too much attention to the fluff and fame that comes with the job. She’s not so daft, after all.
My Mother and Other Strangers is on Sunday 13 November at 9.00pm