Belfast Telegraph

Margaret Clunie: It was just impossible to get a job, so I decided to apply for drama school

Actress Margaret Clunie
Actress Margaret Clunie

Smart, funny — and the best thing about Victoria, fact. No wonder the fashion world has fallen for Margaret Clunie, writes Alice-Azania Jarvis.

A balmy Monday afternoon and, in the quiet courtyard of Bloomsbury’s October Gallery, Margaret Clunie — hair slicked back, face wiped clean of make-up following our shoot — is talking me through the various stages of anxiety that a red carpet appearance induces. “It’s terrifying,” she says, eyes widening. “They are all, ‘Over here!’, screaming your name because someone’s just told them. Then you get off the carpet and they’re like, ‘Who the hell was that?’ And you think, ‘Thank you so much, I’m dead inside’. You just have to hope you haven’t pulled a really bad face.”

It’s difficult to imagine Clunie — 5ft 10in, all anime features and long limbs — “pulling a bad face”, though she insists this is a very real danger. “I went really hard on the blusher the other day because I thought it would look spring-y — I looked like I was in the menopause.”

Admittedly, this does sound fairly traumatic, but Clunie (30) might need to get used to it. Having landed the career-making part of Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland — arguably the best character — in ITV’s blockbuster drama Victoria, her star is on the rise.

It isn’t just the acting world taking note: she has become a regular on the front row, photographed in cool-girl labels such as Vilshenko and Alexachung. Most recently, the Italian label Weekend Max Mara tapped her up as an ambassador for its new Ascot-inspired collection.

It’s a smart bit of casting, with the self-deprecating, Peckham-dwelling Clunie injecting the 10-piece line, which features embroidery by the American artist Richard Saja, with a youthful insouciance.

“They’ve done these little pointy slippers, which are really easy to wear,” she says. “It’s all designed for summer events — very useful to have a flat shoe, because stilettos and grass, not a good combination …”

Growing up in Rickmansworth (“at the end of the end of the Metropolitan line”), Clunie didn’t imagine she’d be an actress. The daughter of a business consultant and a medical secretary, for a while she harboured ambitions to be a fashion journalist: “I saw The Devil Wears Prada one too many times and just decided that was for me.” She still has her old collection of Vogue magazines dating back to 2010, as well as one from the month she was born, October 1987, a 30th birthday present from friends.

But it was in a different area of the industry that she ended up working, at least for a while. Scouted by a model agent on the Tube aged 14, as a teenager she spent her weekends on shoots, later walking at London Fashion Week and working as a showroom model.

She found much of it “soul destroying”, with “seedy photographers giving me s***” and a confidence-crushing conveyor belt. “You see all these gorgeous young girls being told they’re not good enough, that they’re fat and look awful,” she says.

It was only when she left university that acting beckoned. Studying English at Newcastle, she had been involved in student drama, playing Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest. “It was impossible to get a job and everyone was doing master’s degrees — I thought, ‘I’m going to apply to drama school. Now’s the chance’. From there it sort of happened. I went to the Oxford School of Drama and graduated in 2010.”

She landed an early role as an aristocratic hospital patient opposite Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm in Sky’s A Young Doctor’s Notebook, about a village doctor in revolutionary Russia. Victoria followed a few years later. “I got the phone call as I was walking to my friend’s house to hang out. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I think this might be quite a big deal!’ We had a bottle of Prosecco — it was great.”

The first two series saw the cast, which includes Jenna Coleman as Victoria and Tom Hughes as Albert, holed up in hotels in Harrogate for six months at a time, “which was hilarious”. They’d kill time by doing jigsaws and dined out together every night. Coleman and Hughes, she says, are “lovely”, while Rufus Sewell, who plays Lord Melbourne, “is really silly, very fun — we did a dinner scene once and he tried to start a food fight. He was throwing grapes and I was like, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got to stop doing that! In this beautiful stately home.’”

The production features actors from across Europe, including German actresses Daniela Holtz, as Baroness Lehzen, and Catherine Flemming as Victoria’s mother. For Clunie, it highlights the problem Brexit will cause. “It’ll be the same issue as for America. Actors in January do loads of pilot tapes and if you get the part you have to suddenly magic a visa out of the air. It’ll be really difficult. I’m so sad about it.”

Brexit isn’t the only issue Clunie feels passionately about. The accusation that millennials aren’t interested in current affairs is “really odd and largely wrong because I’d say all of my friends are pretty engaged”. She has followed the Time’s Up and equal pay campaigns closely. “Salma Hayek said that if men really believe in equality, they need to take a pay cut, because if there’s a budget for a film and it’s $10 million, and the lead actor is getting $9.7m, how’s the rest of the film even meant to function? I thought that was a really good point.” So far, she says, “I’ve never come to a negotiation where I’ve been like, ‘And how much are all the guys being paid?’ I could see it happening in the future. I’d be more willing now”.

Following a brief turn in Sky Atlantic’s Patrick Melrose, Clunie has a busy few months. She’s just finished shooting an indie horror, Here Comes Hell, about a 1930s dinner party that goes wrong. And as well as the Max Mara gig, she will soon be appearing in the BBC’s Death in Paradise.

Then there’s the small matter of the flat she and her musician husband Tom Bull — whom she married 18 months ago at St Giles’ in Camberwell — have bought in Peckham. “I can’t remember a life before not worrying about paint colours,” she laughs. Still, there are perks. “You have to go down and get pizza at Theo’s. It’s so good. The Camberwell Arms is amazing as well. On a Sunday you get a pie with a suet crust and a bone sticking out of it. It’s so good.”

When she isn’t filming or painting or eating pizza, you’ll find her watching The Handmaid’s Tale, vintage shopping around Portobello (today she’s wearing a vintage denim jumpsuit from Reformation in LA) or writing in her diary, which she does daily. “I suppose it’s a bit meditative — you’re letting go of what happened in the day and you can wake up and start fresh.”

Next she’d love to add theatre credits to her CV. “I like the idea of doing Shakespeare, but it’s also terrifying. Some cool new writing is always good, too. I’d like to work at the Royal Court, the National.” Watch this space.

The Trophy Day collection by Weekend Max Mara is available exclusively at Fenwick stores

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