Hermione Corfield: 'All generations have a threat, so it's tapping into that fear that drives the characters'
Actress Hermione Corfield tells Liz Hoggard about trading guns and bikinis in Hollywood blockbusters for the more sedate wartime world of ITV's popular hotel drama The Halcyon
Hermoine Corfield, the 23-year-old star of hit ITV drama The Halcyon, has more than 28,000 followers on Instagram. She's acted in films opposite Tom Cruise, Vin Diesel and Ian McKellen, and yet she says she finds it easy to go out in London incognito. "No one's ever recognised me," she laughs. "Which is how I like it."
Today, dressed in a black jumper, skirt and black-rimmed specs, she looks like a typical student. "I'm normally quite tomboyish," she acknowledges, adding that her "round face" means she can play 14 when she's not wearing make-up.
The Halcyon, a drama about the inner workings of a top London hotel during the Second World War, has won rave reviews as ITV's "new Downton Abbey". Written by playwright Charlotte Jones and produced by the people behind The Crown, it looks gorgeous. There's political intrigue as well as storylines focusing on betrayal, infidelity, interracial relationships and homosexuality.
And Corfield is the heart and conscience of the drama. She plays Emma Garland, daughter of the manager of the hotel, who is caught in a love triangle with Lord Freddie Hamilton (Jamie Blackley) and American reporter Joe (Matt Ryan).
In many ways Emma represents the "new woman" liberated by war. "It's such a brilliant arc to play," says Corfield. "She really moves up a ladder in her professional career. Later in the series we'll see her move out of the hotel and get involved in the real world."
We see Emma blossom from a shy young thing to a woman in love. "When I first put the red lipstick on I remember somebody said: 'You look nicer in colour,' because I'd been so plain with no make-up. I spent three-and-a-half months in the same grey dress and Olivia Williams, playing Lady Hamilton, would come down in these unbelievable satin dresses."
There's an irony that we've fallen for Corfield playing such a demure character because on the big screen she's usually wearing a bikini or firing a gun - or both. She was an undercover agent in 2015's Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, alongside Tom Cruise, and in the new Vin Diesel film xXx: Return of Xander Cage she plays an ex-MI5 agent.
These Hollywood turns have led to Corfield fast becoming a red-carpet professional. For xXx's premiere in LA she wore a catsuit by female art-fashion collective Galvan, based in Ladbroke Grove. "I worked with Neil Rodgers, a UK stylist in LA, who designed my shoes as well." As for the cameras: "You learn to put on a persona. You have to block out the noise because everyone's shouting at you: 'Look this way. Chin down. Smile from behind'."
Corfield grew up in London and Gloucestershire. Her mother is the shirtmaker Emma Willis, whose clients include Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Craig. Corfield attended boarding school at Downe House, near Newbury. She joined the National Youth Theatre at 15 and was hooked.
During the holidays she worked in her mother's shop and modelled to earn the money to spend three months training at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York. At 19, Corfield was snapped up by an agent in LA, then returned to study English literature at UCL (she has deferred the final year of her degree). She secured a role in Mr Holmes, opposite Sir Ian McKellen, and then the blockbusters came calling.
She is heartened to work with so many women. "My last three auditions were all with female film directors. There's a different chemistry with an all-female production," she says.
Eight months ago Corfield moved into a house in Brixton with two female friends. She skilfully dodges questions about any romantic relationships, but enthuses about nearby parks, pizza places and local pubs.
With two episodes left to go, she's tight-lipped about how The Halcyon's love triangle will end. "It's going to be a long drawn-out one," she says. "Secrecy was so tight," she explains, "that the cast only got scripts a week before filming."
For all the cocktails and Art Deco furnishings, she relishes the way the series mirrors world events now. "There are horrible things happening in Syria. In the same way, during the Second World War it was easy for people to go: 'Oh well, it's not happening here, I can close my eyes'."
The director told the actors to take the fear of the big threats of our time, such as terrorism, and to put it into their roles.
"Every generation has a threat, so it's tapping into that fear that drives the characters," she says. "The show starts off with everyone thinking there's no way the war will make its way to Britain, but as time progresses they realise it's becoming more and more of a reality."
Corfield knows how brutal war can be. Her mother started the charity Style For Soldiers, which makes bespoke shirts for injured servicemen and women to help them enter the workplace.
"Mum goes to Headley Court, the Help for Heroes rehabilitation centre, to measure them up. The aim is to help soldiers feel that they can step back into the world looking and feeling great," she says.
She's keen to act on the London stage but in the meantime we'll see her next in Guy Ritchie's latest film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (out March 24). She plays Syren, a character she describes as "a villainous creature, sort of like one of the three Macbeth witches". Most of her scenes were filmed in water. "It was a very physical role so I did a scuba diving course."
In the meantime she's auditioning again. "It teaches you to be more relaxed," she insists. "Because everything can change in a split second. You might have to be on a plane tomorrow. You might have to cut your hair off. You're constantly in a state of: 'What's next?'"
The Halcyon is on ITV on Mondays at 9pm.