'If you have done nudity once, every job you get after that assumes that you'll be up for it'
Tuppence Middleton, star of War and Peace, talks to Jimi Famurewa about on-screen nudity, her dread of going to the gym, battles with anxiety and her role in the acclaimed Channel 4 sci-fi anthology Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams
Tuppence Middleton fiddles absentmindedly with the bejewelled skull ring on her finger as she says: "That period was pretty full-on. I'm sure people thought I'd made a pact with the BBC and just said, 'Put me in everything!'" She laughs, twirls the ring again. "It just happened, though. It was basically weird timing."
The period she is referring to is the early portion of last year, when - thanks to high-profile roles in prime-time blockbusters Dickensian and War and Peace, not to mention Netflix's mega-budget curio Sense8 - there was a sudden bout of Tuppence-mania.
And 18 months after all those "Tuppence Middleton real name?" Google searches (it is) and that general frenzy of public interest ("I think a newspaper called up my school and got loads of photos by tricking them," she says, wearily), the 30-year-old actor is still feeling the after-effects of making such a pronounced dent in the cultural consciousness. Specifically when it comes to the long shadow cast by her deliciously shameless turn as the adulterous Helene Kuragina in Andrew Davies's Tolstoy adaptation.
"After doing War and Peace I suddenly got lots of seductress roles," she says. "It's easy to put people into a category after you've seen them in one thing that you feel fits with them. But I'm trying to make a conscious decision to do different things."
These professional left-turns include an upcoming psychological thriller, a period extravaganza alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Philip K Dick's Electric Dreams, the splashy Anglo-American anthology series we have primarily met to talk about today.
She arrives alone at Barbecoa on Piccadilly, weighed down by Waterstones bags ("Crew gifts for the film I'm working on," she explains) and is funny, forthright company from the off, barely able to keep a straight face as my mint tea arrives in a comically huge gold teapot ("It's like the Genie's lamp in Aladdin").
In Middleton's Electric Dreams episode, titled The Commuter, she stars alongside Timothy Spall's downtrodden train guard in a dreamy riddle - written by Jack Thorne - about passengers making the pilgrimage to a rural station that should not exist. It's a deftly acted puzzlebox of a thing, and Middleton's involvement is all the more impressive if you know Dick's original tale. "In the short story my character is a little man with glasses, but Jack Thorne made him into a woman," she beams, her punky brunette hair backed by a rainy window. "How cool is that?"
She is equally enthusiastic about the current boom in shape-shifting, anthologised TV shows such as Black Mirror, in which she also made a 2013 appearance ("I think in this world of instant gratification it's much easier to commit to an anthology series"). What's more, her turn as the vaguely mystical, titular commuter in Electric Dreams is another role rooted in the dystopian or futuristic. Is she naturally drawn to sci-fi? "I've done a lot of sci-fi, weirdly," she agrees. "And I like that a lot of the sci-fi being made these days is very rooted in reality. But I don't know what it is."
One high-concept Middleton project that has had a rocky year is Sense8, which was passed over for season renewal in June. Was Middleton, who plays Icelandic DJ Riley Blue in the show, surprised by the cancellation?
"It wasn't a total shock, because I know how expensive that show is to make," she admits. "I've never known a schedule like it. We were shooting for nine months in 16 different countries and moving constantly as this one group. Logistically, it was crazy and really hard to organise. Everyone thinks Netflix has this neverending money-fountain, but it was an expensive show and it didn't have the audience to justify spending that much money on it. Even though the audience it had was really loyal."
As revealed in the summer by showrunner Lana Wachowski, a petition started by those loyal fans has forced Netflix to commit to at least a feature-length finale. But Middleton acknowledges that, despite its "inclusive, representative message", the globe-trotting story of eight telepathically-linked characters has not had the same mainstream impact as, say, Stranger Things and Narcos. But one thing that did prompt headlines, after 2016's festive special, was a pansexual bit of group lovemaking involving most of the main cast. Is it frustrating, after two seasons of transgressive sci-fi, to be known to some people as "the orgy show"?
"Look, I get it," she says, with a smile. "But we had such a conversation about that and it was never referred to as 'the orgy'. The context is that it's various people who, because they're connected psychologically, can experience the same thing. And Lana (Wachowski) wanted to shoot (it) almost like you're looking at a Rembrandt. She lit it like a painting and it's about what it's like to connect to people. So when people go, 'Oh yeah, the orgy' it's kind of like, 'Guys!' But I do get it." Sex scenes, Middleton believes, are very much part of the job when you're a young female actor "always playing the love interest or the girlfriend". She handled the tittering hysteria around "Phwoar and Peace" (Dining table sex! Incestuous undertones! Skinny-dipping soldiers!) with maturity but, today, she notes that her decision to consent to nude scenes in the past has been wielded against her by some directors.
"I don't have a problem with nudity within reason but (if) you've done it once, every job that you get afterwards just assumes you'll be up for it," she says. "It's manipulative. Maybe I don't feel like it's right in this context. Maybe, at the moment, I don't feel like showing (a particular) part of my body. Maybe I just want to take a break from it. I don't have to give a reason."
It's a confident attitude that contrasts sharply with her early years as a self-confessed "shy kid". Born in Bristol to a hairdresser mother and investment manager father before she trained at the Arts Educational Schools in Chiswick, Middleton - it comes from a childhood nickname given to her mother - also battled OCD and anxiety in her youth. "It was very much about routines and counting when I was growing up," she says. "Then I moved away and it became much more about generalised anxiety and panic attacks. Medication can be really great and I've done that short-term before.
"Therapy, too. Talking to people is one of the most helpful things I've done. But it's never cured. I still kind of crumble when things get more stressful."
Today she works with mental health charity Sane, and is clearly blossoming personally (she is settled near Hammersmith after years in Highgate and in a happy relationship with painter Robert Fry) and professionally. Those newly acquired books are for the crew on an adaptation of Jane Lythell's novel The Lie of You ("It feels like one of those Eighties genre films and I play the bunny-boiler") and in January she'll be on screen as the wife of Benedict Cumberbatch's Thomas Edison in fact-based awards tip The Current War.
As our time runs out and we engage in a good-natured debit card duel over who gets to settle the bill (she wins), it begs the final question: does she crave that multi-franchise level of global enormousness? Would she be interested, say, if Marvel came calling?
In short, no. But perhaps not for the reason you'd expect.
"They always make them train really hard for those things," she says, laughing. "I've only done that once for Jupiter Ascending and it was hell. I've been told so many times that I should go to the gym to get my anxiety and frustration out. But it just makes me feel pure, concentrated dread."
It's hard to blame Middleton for sticking to her guns, in this respect. Whether she's avoiding femme fatale typecasting or swerving superhero fitness regimes, doing her own thing seems to be serving her pretty well.
- Philip K Dick's Electric Dreams: The Commuter, tomorrow, Channel 4, 9pm