Helen McCrory and Sarah J. Edwards discuss feminine balance when in a male dominated environment and the strengths of funny women. Helen ad-libs her way through character traits and scenarios given to her by Sarah and the pair break down the art of receiving a compliment.
The original story was first published in BLAG Vol. 3 Nø 4 print edition in 2013, this is an edited version.
Interview and Photography by Sarah J. Edwards
Art Direction by Sally A. Edwards.
Styling by Sarah J. Edwards, Sally A. Edwards and Helen McCrory
Hair by Keiichiro Hirano
Make Up by Terry Barber
Location: Elms Lesters Painting Rooms, London
Helen McCrory is a British institution and a treasure. She’s a multi-international award winning actress, who's game for a laugh. If you haven’t experienced Helen perform on stage, you’re most likely to have seen her on screen, as MP Clair Dowar in Skyfall, as Cherie Blair in The Queen, Narcissa Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Parts 1 & 2 or heard her as Mrs. Bean in Fantastic Mr. Fox. More recently she stars alongside BLAG cover star (Vol.2 Nø 5) Cillian Murphy as Aunt Polly Gray in Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders. From spending a few hours together at our shoot – which was riddled with jokes – we discovered Helen is tough, funny and the sort of woman you know you’re most likely to get an honest answer from – especially as she seasons her more passionate or funny sentences with a good frank swear.
Here we talk about women, character, compliments and humour and discover we’re all pretty bad at taking compliments.
THAT FEMININE BALANCE
I was really interested to hear your thoughts – and this question is relevant to me having photographed you – about femininity verses being tough and strong. How you make that balance where you want to still be attractive and feminine, yet you know what you want. We talked a little bit about not being too much into self-praise...
“No, self-praise, but also, as you say, I don’t think there’s any dichotomy between femininity and being strong. I grew up in Africa and so all those visual media images of women being feminine in a certain sort of passive, attractive way, I never got it as a kid. So for me, a women was as easy with a machete in a field as a man was and I never had that feeling of what I could or couldn’t do as a woman. I really think that stood me in great stead as an actress, because I think it makes you not vain. Of course, you’re vain, of course there are shots and you go ‘Oh, dear God, I think the lighting could’ve been kinder. The screen could’ve been higher.’ But you have to just get over that, because that’s not your job. Your job is to depict all of humanity and if you just see yourself as somebody who wants to be attractive and feminine on screen, you really limit yourself. You limit your ability to transform and so I think you really sell women short. I don’t think that seeing women depicted like that makes you feel great about being a woman, I think it means you feel lonely, because you don’t look like that and you don’t necessarily react like that and it’s a lie. Women don’t go around in pink feathers smiling at their men all the time and laughing. I think it’s just as feminine to change a spark plug and run a race and be ambitious and want to fulfil yourself, not just in relationships with your family. I think that’s as feminine as anything else.”
IN A MAN’S WORLD
Yes, I completely agree. The reason I bring it up is, like I said to you at the shoot, I’d been involved in hip hop where it’s a very masculine place and I don’t think it’s really been a great stage for women – or for me – to be involved in and I think there are certain areas of it where it is men only. It can be quite closed off. I think from my experience you have to work out how you can be tough but still be feminine and not get branded a certain way.
“Tough, in what way?”
I think you can get de-feminised if you’re in a masculine industry. I’ve worked with big, big groups of men and because they don’t want to treat me differently they can end up seeing you a bit more as one of the boys, I suppose.
“Yeah, yeah, I also think women have to be responsible for that confusion in men, because I was talking to a woman [in the city] a couple of days ago – there’s a company that lost many of their colleagues, in fact their whole office, I think it was over 700 people on 9/11. So, each year they mark that by giving all their profits and dealings on the markets for a day to the loved ones who lost people that day from the company. I think all their profits from London go to different charities and charities fight to get their charity seen that year, you’re only allowed to go once and I met one woman on that floor and [laughs] I was laughing with her, going, ‘God, you’re lonely, love. Come on, what the hell? Why are no women in this room?’ And she said, ‘Well, I shouldn’t say this, but one of the reasons is because the women that have been on this floor have sued the company, when they see what’s seen as sexist remarks about them.’ So, it’s very hard, on one hand I know exactly what you’re saying, well it’s right and proper we should be treated as women and feminine and shouldn’t have to masculate ourselves to be in that situation, but on the other hand... But when women are treated as women and therefore sometimes things do get un-PC, if you’re flirting with someone and you don’t like it. You can now say, ‘Well, they’re bothering me. I don’t want to flirt with them anymore.’ It’s a real shame that litigation has come into our society at a point that often people don’t work things out on the floor and will take it higher and that scares people from situations. That’s the only world that I’ve been into recently that I really noticed that. I really noticed the male presence in the room and the lack of women. That’s quite interesting, on one hand you’re saying in the world of hip hop I want to be seen, I want to express myself in a female way, but I don’t want to become one of the boys all the time and yet at the same time that’s come about because men are very, very confused about how to treat women now.”
I think that’s true.
“It’s not just new ground for women [either], I mean we are a first generation of women who were told we could have it all and you can see the results of that around. Some people believe it’s true, other people are screaming and shouting and going, ‘I can’t fucking believe I’m here. I missed my boat, I wanted kids and I followed this, you told me I could have it all, to get to this stage in my career, to get to where I want to be. I can’t have it all.’ So, women are confused and I think men are as confused as we are.”
HOW TO TAKE A COMPLIMENT
It’s really interesting to get a different perspective. I wanted to talk to you more about compliments – which we ended up discussing too, about how Sally and I were looking at that comedy sketch where women down themselves if they get a compliment. I’m really curious and I’d love to set a bar as to where is acceptable to agree on a compliment and to accept it without sounding big headed. There’s a line in a film, it’s a goofy film, it’s ‘Mean Girls’ I think, where one of the girls says, ‘You look really pretty,’ and her reply was ‘Thank you,’ and she fired back with ‘Well, you obviously thought it already because you’ve just accepted the compliment.’
[Laughs] “That’s nice.”
I know, exactly!
“Friends like that? Not part of the fucking sisterhood is it?”
“Well, I’m really bad at taking compliments, but I remember and obviously people give you compliments as an actress, they feel they can. They feel they can say to you [laughs] ‘You were wonderful, darling.’ Lay it on with a trowel dot com. I do remember going up to somebody after a show that I’d seen and I’d really enjoyed it. I said, ‘You were fantastic, I really enjoyed the evening,’ and this actor turned around and said, ‘It was a really shit night. It was a really bad night, I just feel really bad about it. I’m sorry I’m not going to go for a drink, I’m just going to go home.’ It really struck a chord with me because I thought, that’s spoilt my fucking evening. Why couldn’t you’ve just said ‘Thank you.’ And from that moment on, I realised it’s important to accept a compliment because it’s actually very rude to the person who’s giving it to you if you put them down by not receiving it. I think you should be gracious. But I think that as Brits particularly, we frown on any sort of self-congratulation. Although I think it’s difficult I would always choose that over the alternative which is the certain American, ‘Yay, I’m great, look at me. I rule the world, I’m on top of the world,’ which I find quite simplistic and child- like actually. But, it’s all to do with self-worth, isn’t it? I played Rosalind in As You Like It and there are scenes which Shakespeare doesn’t write whether it’s a man or a women in the scene and I remember coming to it in rehearsals and thinking, ‘Well, what is she supposed to be, am I supposed to be the bloke or the girl?’ And as soon as you start rehearsing those scenes you know exactly who you’re supposed to be, because in the scenes that I played the man. I was far more judgmental. Far more domineering, far more direct, far more... go into a scene, see a problem, try and solve the problem. Rather than the scenes that he writes as a woman, [where] you’re much more flexible, much more yielding, you put yourself in a listening position and even if you do solve a problem, you [laughs] make somebody else think they did it. It was really interesting.”
“It was much more relaxing than some of the scenes being a man, because it was so much simpler. The want was so much simpler and the action was very cleanly executed.”
I like that. Ok, I have a character traits role play game for you. I thought it would be really fun if it’s a bit ad lib, so if I give you a situation and I’ll give you a character trait and you can act out how this girl may react and we’ll chat about it. I thought that might be quite fun. Does that make sense?
[Laughs] “Yeah, totally.”
The first character trait is Staunchly Unique and the situation is: The girl is on a first date and there’s a problem with her order when it arrives at the table. What would she say to the waiter and at the same time impress this guy?
[Adopts gentle American accent] “Oh my god, you’ve just brought me vegetables? I have a real problem eating vegetables, I need really high fat foods. I was wondering if you had any kind of foie gras. Do you have foie gras? I really love foie gras and if I could get any kind of quails eggs on the side. Could you just take my... could you just put that down there. Um, if you could just bring this back, if you could just bring this back and if you can bring any kind of high fat, that’d be great.’”
[Laughing] Great. I didn’t expect that at all. That to me is really funny because she would be [desperately] trying to get uniqueness across and I think she’s going to frighten the life out of this guy that’s she’s trying to impress.
“Yeah. Yeah, because to be unique is to say, ‘I am out of society, I am not part of all of you. I am an individual.’ And therefore that can be celebrated but it’s quite terrifying because it’s like saying, ‘Where are you going to find your way in with me.’”
Exactly. Let’s have a look, I have another one, which is interesting because I mentioned passive to you at the shoot and I said to you I didn’t think it was a positive trait and you said to me, ‘Well, it depends.’ So, this next one is going to be Passive and it’s a lady on a train, the handle has broken on her suitcase and there’s someone close by.
“[Adopts apologetic, very soft, posh English voice, often pauses] “Oh my god. I’m sorry, did you knock this? Oh, sorry, it’s just that when I got on the train, the handle was attached. Can you see it? My eyes are quite... I don’t have my contacts. Could you tell me, has the handle come off? Um...oh...shit. It has. I thought it had, cause I went to pick it up. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know, it needs kind of a tie around. Well not a tie, but you know, a men’s tie. You’re offering me your tie. No. Don’t you think it would lift this weight? I don’t know? Really? Could you try it? No, I mean, you probably need that tie. It’s a beautiful tie... Oh no. I do think it’s a beautiful tie. You never liked the tie? [Laughs]. Could you try it on the suitcase? I’m sooo sorry, you should get off? Really? Well, that would be really kind, if you wouldn’t mind just trying that. My god, you’ve done it. That’s amazing. Can I try and lift it now? Thank you so much. Now you’ve missed your stop. Ok, night.’”
“I’m coming up with all these psychotic characters.” [Laughs]
[Laughing] They’re good.
“You can tell it’s raining in Holloway on a Friday night.”
I was starting to imagine what she might look like. I think...
[Laughs] “What did she look like?”
Very thrift store and quite clashing I think. [Laughs] And pale.
[Laughing] “Yeah, pale. You can almost see the veins on the back of her hands when she picks up the suitcase.”
[Laughs] Exactly. It’s quite a funny trait because it’s apologetic a lot of the time. I wondered when you think it’s useful to have?
“I remember reading somewhere, ‘You can never listen your way out of a job,’ and it really stuck with me and I do think the more I work or the more I’m with people, the more I’ve learnt to listen and listening is pretty passive. But actually I think that when I was younger I was much more interested in what people thought of me in a situation. Particularly if I’m nervous, I’ll talk a lot and now I’m much more interested in what I think of people and therefore I listen a lot more and when I sit next to people, ask questions and try and find out who they are and why they are. I find that more interesting now and so I think passivity is very important actually in life.”
Yes. I’m not going to do anymore of those without us having video.
[Laughs] “You’ll turn into my therapist actor workshop, love.”
[Laughs] Yeah, I know!
“You’re like, ‘Right, I think I should charge for this.’ So, moving on!”
[Laughs] No! Not at all. I’m keen to understand your perspective on women and senses of humour. I actually started doing some research and it’s allegedly quite a rare trait – funny women. And that men are gifted with it more to impress and women seem to be more there to laugh. Kind of nuts. Mind you, this could’ve been a study of 123 people.
“I think I prize it almost more than any other characteristic. If someone can make me laugh, I will frankly forgive them [for] anything, so I look for it in woman and men. One of the greatest compliments I ever had was Whoopi Goldberg asking me to do stand-up on her show after having dinner with her. Perhaps we seek to be what we find attractive in others, if a man can’t be funny I tend to find him a bit dull after a while or perhaps I don’t care if a man finds me physically attractive but I would care if they found me intellectually dull. Or maybe I flirt like a man? I do find girlfriends of mine who are funny are the least vain, I don’t know, it’s interesting. I have never found it difficult to find a woman to have a laugh with. The researchers were obviously hanging out with the wrong people .”