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Cobra's Victoria Hamilton: I was told I had a period drama face, then I cut all of my hair off

Ahead of her role in Sky One's Cobra, Victoria Hamilton talks with Ellie Harrison about politics, feminism and why she'll now ask how many breasts her characters have


Prolific career: Victoria Hamilton

Prolific career: Victoria Hamilton

Prolific career: Victoria Hamilton

Victoria Hamilton couldn't wait to tear off her costume as the Queen Mother when series two of The Crown came to a close. In fact, she took out a lighter and almost torched the sagging bodysuit she wore to play the beloved royal.

"Every day I had to climb into that and leave the truck with a large cup of coffee, walking like a farmer with four t**s and a grey wig. It was a huge privilege to play, but it is quite nice to play somebody who has two breasts and not four. That's how I look at my parts now. How many breasts does my character have? If she's only got two, I'll consider playing her."

Having to portray the miserable queen consort while sitting next to the "gorgeous, beautiful and radiant" Claire Foy and Vanessa Kirby, who played her daughters Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret, only made it worse, she says.

The 48-year-old actor, with her peroxide pixie cut and floral dress, is almost unrecognisable today from her turn in The Crown. As she delivers this anecdote, she reminds me of a guilty child who has just emerged from behind the sofa having chopped off her hair. Hamilton tells stories in a conspiratorial tone, her posh voice oscillating between husky and high.

Still, The Crown was a long way from Hamilton's first television role as Mrs Forster in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, with Colin Firth as Mr Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet. "I'm this little pink cherry face on top of this enormous pair of knockers," she giggles. "You can't really see my face at all, I'm just knockers and a headband, it's hysterical."

Since then, Hamilton has enjoyed a prolific costume drama career, having appeared in The Merchant of Venice, Mansfield Park, Victoria & Albert, To the Ends of the Earth and Lark Rise to Candleford. In the past decade, she has become a fixture on British television, starring as a spy in The Game, a concerned neighbour in Doctor Foster and a gay Republican senator in Deep State.

We meet to discuss Hamilton's latest project, Cobra, a pacy Sky drama set in the heart of government during a national emergency. She stars opposite Robert Carlyle's prime minister as his punchy chief of staff Anna Marshall. "It's such a rich, witty part," says Hamilton. "She's a woman who has a sense of humour. There aren't many female leads in serious dramas where you also think, I would actually quite like to get p****d with you."

In one stand-out scene in Cobra's first episode, Hamilton's character Anna has an unsettling encounter with the home secretary, played with convincing menace by David Haig. When he tries to intimidate her out of recruiting someone he disapproves of into the policy unit, she rebuffs him with, "Get your hand off my arm and back the f*** off. I'm not some little volunteer that you can get handsy with on the battle bus". It's the perfect mic-drop moment, delivered with profound dislike and a wan smile.

Hamilton felt powerful delivering that line. "Anna doesn't meet adversarial conversations like that in the way that a man would. I feel very much that she takes absolutely no c**p from anybody but does it in a way that is very feminine - what I regard as real femininity, which is tough and witty and all of those things."

Hamilton also felt the weight of many women's stories - of bullying and harassment in government - on her shoulders when performing the scene. "That line was so loaded," she says. "It's essentially saying, 'You are known for groping girls'. Things like that are coming out every third day of every third week at the moment, but I love the fact that (screenwriter Ben Richards) doesn't allow Anna to be defined by it. He doesn't allow it to become that her battle is facing sexual bullying in the workplace. It happens, and she deals with it."

While it's not explicitly said that the government in the show is Tory, "it smells Conservative to me", says Hamilton. When we speak, it's one week before Boris Johnson's landslide victory in the Christmas election, and Hamilton deftly avoids confirming which side of the political divide she is on, but it's clear she spent a lot of time pondering today's leaders when filming Cobra.

"Disdain for politicians has never been greater," she says. "It's almost a dirty word to call someone a politician and we forget how relatively recent that is. Even in the Blair years, we weren't at a place where politicians were reviled in the way they are now."

Hamilton says making Cobra made her "feel for the human being" behind the political figure. "When you play someone on the inside, regardless of what camp you're in, it does make you feel for the person making huge, life-changing decisions."

Compared to her role in The Crown, Hamilton herself had a "very normal upbringing" from "a stay at home mum who was all about the children and a dad who went to work and made the bucks" in advertising. After school, she gave up her place to read English at Bristol and decided to pursue a career in acting, instead. Hamilton then trained at Lamda and did several years of classical theatre before becoming frustrated with repetitive casting calls.

"Austen after Austen was being made," she says, "and the amount of casting directors that had said to me back then, 'You have a period drama face'. I don't know what that means. I think it means sort of round and quite sweet. It's very difficult to break out of that bracket once you start being cast as that."

Hamilton says she was desperate for complex, gritty roles in her twenties, and would try to convince people that "this is my face, but really I'm evil!" to avoid yet more "vapid" parts in costume dramas. "One of the great things about getting older, and for some reason cutting all my hair off, is that finally my face has caught up with my personality," she says.

"I feel so lucky to be in this profession in my forties now because, probably less than 10 years ago you'd have been celebrating your 40th birthday thinking, 'Great. I get to spend the next 25 years of my life standing next to a man asking what he's going to do next'. Basically wife and granny roles. That's all there was."

For Hamilton, the "seismic shift" from older women having one-dimensional roles on screen to fuller, richer parts arrived about 10 years ago. "For decades, actresses have been acting the male fantasy of what female sexuality is," she says.

"Suddenly, those dramas like Borgen and The Killing started coming over, where the lead was a woman who was in her forties and the sexuality was real, where her face was original because she hadn't been to the same plastic surgeon as the eight other actresses she was on screen with, where her intellect was extreme, her talent was extreme, and she was also vulnerable and complicated and conflicted and all of those things. And everybody went, 'Oh my God. Not only have I never seen this before, but it's sexier than a lot of the sex scenes we've been watching for the last 20 years.

"It's exciting and it's thrilling and I believe it'."

Cobra starts tonight at 9pm on Sky One

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