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'I should really refuse to take roles unless I get paid the same as the man'

The Affair star Ruth Wilson talks about equality, infidelity and clowning around at drama school

By Rosamund Urwin

Ruth Wilson is telling me what Lamda was like when she studied at the drama school. "There were these old flat-pack buildings by the car park," says the star of The Affair. "They leaked a lot, the floors sloped. The rehearsal rooms there were smelly and revolting, though they had their own charm."

Now, it's all change. Lamda, whose Talgarth Road site was inherited from the Royal Ballet School, has a new building housing the theatre where the Portakabins once stood, having raised £20m through donations.

"I drove past it recently and it was, 'My God, it's huge'. It looks imposing from outside but inside it's airy. I'm envious of the students - I wouldn't want to leave."

After studying history at Nottingham University, Wilson applied to drama school as a means to an end: "I thought I needed an agent and I didn't know how to get one or what one was, but I knew drama school would help."

She enjoyed being challenged at Lamda, though: "It was frightening every day. You had to keep creating: characters, monologues, dances, choreographing your own fights. It forced me to overcome a lot of inhibitions. Part of me hated being looked at as an actor."

She picks out two particularly intimidating exercises: senior tutor Colin Cook's "infamous" booths where students improvise a monologue in an old-fashioned sound-recording booth and clowning classes - "They are some of the best things I've learned. You find your clown in a point of humiliation, like when you've been caught out - how do you react? Do you go naive? Or are you: 'No, I'm right'? Or do you use a distraction technique?"

Did this make her thick-skinned? "Yeah, it helped. After drama school you face constant rejection." Now she faces the opposite problem: too many good scripts coming her way.

The 35-year-old is currently taking a mini-sabbatical after working non-stop for three years. She has just been to Rwanda, where she saw the gorillas. "They're amazing. One pushed my leg away. Though you can't help but think they're men in suits."

In March, she finished her run as Hedda Gabler at the National, a big hit. She had turned down the part before but felt this was a fresh version, with a text "economised" by Patrick Marber and Ivo van Hove directing. "I cut short filming of The Affair - it was an opportunity I couldn't miss."

One night a woman fainted at the dramatic climax. "I was on all fours, covered in tomato juice, about to kill myself - and someone shouted, 'Is there a doctor in the house?' The lights came up and I froze, still on all fours."

The cast eventually went off before returning: "I liked it in a way - theatre is about moments when the audience see behind the façade, and you realise it's a contract between you and them. I feel most free on stage. On screen, I'm confined to a box."

Gabler is, I say, one of too few good roles for women. "Yes, there's only a smattering and they're all old plays. It's difficult to find modern female roles that have a lasting impact. Certain plays get done over and over again because they're the only good female parts. Let's make some new ones."

Her big upcoming project is BBC series The Wilsons, in which she'll play her grandmother Alice, who found out after her husband's death that he was a bigamist with four families. Alice had to phone another wife to tell her not only that her husband had died, but that she was another wife, not the cleaner.

At the funeral, there were two widows and the children were told their half-siblings were distant relatives.

"I'm nervous to tell a family story. It was devastating for my grandmother. This is her journey of discovery, and then understanding how complicit she was in that lie. There was a lot of stuff in the relationship that was unnerving, but she refused to ask questions."

Working on this and The Affair has made Wilson less black and white about infidelity. "At university, my housemate was dating a friend of mine and someone else. I was outraged. My poor friend. But a university relationship? That means nothing. I have definitely softened on this."

Her parents - probation officer Mary and banker Nigel - have been married for 40 years. "I really admire that, but I don't judge people who step outside. Expectations of what marriage should be are so high, and that's probably where people fall down.

"If I were in a marriage and my partner stepped outside it I don't know how I'd feel - but I would hope I'd understand that it could happen, and it wouldn't be the end of my life if it did."

Wilson is also laudably outspoken about sexism in Hollywood. When the industry pay gap became a hot topic Wilson's agent told her: "Well, Ruth, after eight years in the industry, you're getting paid the same as a first-time male actor straight out of drama school."

Wilson calls that "outrageous" and adds that this shouldn't just be actresses' fight: "It's also up to agents, producers. And I have to be strong and refuse to take jobs unless I get the same as the man with the same experience. Though when I do, they say, 'We're not going to go above X'. So am I willing to throw the job away?"

Has she? "No. It's a hard fight to fight, because it's difficult to measure your value in the industry."

This isn't the only issue for actresses. "There's a pressure to be a product, to sell outfits. This is a privileged problem, but if you're being papped or on the red carpet, you're a commodity. You could decide to wear jeans and a T-shirt, but no one does. Fashion magazines won't put you in, and there's pressure to build up your brand." She grimaces at that last word. "Men can just wear a suit."

She has questioned whether it is necessary to appear in style magazines. "In the 1970s, actors would wear their own outfits, let their personalities come through. There wasn't such a relationship between fashion and Hollywood. Now, what makes you different as an actor is rubbed out so everyone fits the same mould."

Wilson was briefly a model - "a one summer thing" - and she found that even worse. "They'd analyse your legs, pulling up your trousers and looking at your skin. There was no creative discussion - it was totally boring."

Recently, she's been cheered to see women confronting these issues. "They're saying they are fed-up with entrenched behaviour. If you feel exploited, speak up. We also need to build a network of women. Men have that - they're in cahoots with and provide support for each other."

She believes Hollywood is starting to realise there's a market for female-led films too: "It's a myth women don't make money at the box office."

Next up, she has a cameo in the coming-of-age film How to Talk to Girls at Parties, based on a Neil Gaiman short story. As the interview wraps up, Wilson shows me a photo of herself on set, wearing a black bodysuit and neon tights: "It's punks versus aliens in 1970s Croydon."

She smiles. "You can't go wrong."

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