Helen McCrory: The ‘feral’ childhood and dangerous sex appeal of a star whose greatest role was motherhood
Dazzling on stage and bewitchingly good fun off it, Helen McCrory will be best remembered by many for her small-screen turn as the terrifying matriarch Aunt Polly in the BBC drama Peaky Blinders, or as the equally striking Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter films.
Yet it was the theatre that was her true domain. Her award-winning Medea at the National in 2014 was hailed as ‘electrifying’ and career-defining, her ‘formidability and vulnerability are brilliantly entwined,’ according to one awe-struck reviewer.
As Lady Macbeth she was ‘icily intimate’ with a ‘powerful whisper that vibrates with menace’, while as Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea she gave a ‘commanding portrayal of a woman exhausted by unreciprocated desire’.
Helen McCrory’s life was lived at full tilt —whether on stage, in front of cameras or at home in North London as wife and mother
McCrory was married to Damian Lewis (pictured), two years her junior and an actor who has established a hugely successful Hollywood career
Their children were always the priority and both McCrory and Lewis turned down roles to keep the family fires burning. (Pictured, Damian Lewis and children)
Critics admired her dainty, feline sensuality, that thrillingly husky voice, and her dangerously wielded sex appeal. Friends adored her fearless wit and swagger, her love of parties, dancing and good times — and her trademark self-deprecation.
She claimed to pass unrecognised at stage doors, and while fans and interviewers might gush over her delicate bone structure, she would insist: ‘I resemble a little gerbil.’
Once, after an unforgiving pixie cut, she remarked that she’d hoped to emerge from the hair salon looking like singer Sharleen Spiteri — instead it was ‘more Roy Orbison’.
And when in 2017 she was awarded the OBE, she initially failed to open the envelope inviting her to take the honour because she assumed it must be a bill.
Helen McCrory’s life was lived at full tilt —whether on stage, in front of cameras or at home in North London as wife and mother.
In June last year, on Desert Island Discs, she said: ‘I don’t really reflect. When I was asked to do this programme I had to look at the internet to see what I had done. I have lived my life at 150 miles an hour, that’s the truth of it.’
And that was key to what she believed was the secret of her acting success. ‘You have to be completely alive and in the moment, otherwise the audience get bored,’ she said.
McCrory was married to Damian Lewis, two years her junior and an actor who has established a hugely successful Hollywood career, starring in hit dramas including Band Of Brothers, Homeland and Billions.
But she was never in his shadow and despite their joint A-list acting success, the focus of both was family life, with daughter Manon, 14, and son Gulliver, 13.
‘Damian is naughty and I have always loved my naughty boys. We are completely different as people but we are very similar in our values and rarely disagree on fundamentals like parenting,’ she said.
In 2007, the family moved to Los Angeles for a year to support Lewis’s career, but they soon returned to Tufnell Park.
It was McCrory’s choice to keep what her husband described last night as ‘her heroic battle with cancer’ private.
In an interview on Good Morning Britain from her home only four weeks before her death, given to promote their work for the Prince’s Trust, presenter Kate Garraway remarked on her ‘croaky’ voice, once so distinctively honeyed. ‘I’ve got children,’ she explained with a smile, implying that it was a bug she’d picked up from one of them.
And during that Desert Island Discs appearance, she told interviewer Lauren Laverne only that she was suffering from a ‘very sore throat’. She did remark that she had given up smoking in 2017, saying gently: ‘Everything that’s agreeable is bad for you.’ One of her musical choices was Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry ’Bout A Thing, which she said she hoped was a message she could convey to her children.
McCrory was the daughter of Iain, a Scottish diplomat who had grown up in poverty in Glasgow, and Ann, a physiotherapist of similarly humble background. Her parents instilled in her the idea that life was ‘an adventure’. As a child, McCrory said that she was ‘feral’, prone to rages and telling tall tales. As a teenager, she boarded at Queenswood School in Hertfordshire, but after A-levels was rejected by the Drama Centre in London. She opted to travel the world instead and on her return a year later, acquired offers from five other drama schools.
The Drama Centre then took her on and her teacher was Thane Bettany, father of actor Paul. ‘When I was a little girl, I had wanted to win the sprint or be the best at high jump or whatever it was. Now I wanted to be an actress and I was incredibly lucky,’ she said.
Within weeks of graduating she was playing the lead in Trelawny Of The Wells at the National.
Not that there was anything effortless about her art. As she explained: ‘I am obsessive. As soon as I am offered a part, I write down similarities and differences between me and the character, then I just work on the differences.’
For Medea, she read Plato’s The Symposium, a philosophical text.
From the stage, she moved into TV, adopting bleached blonde hair and a pierced nose for a Royal Television Society award-winning turn in Karl Francis’s 1995 Streetlife, playing a young woman living in Caerphilly who kills her baby.
In 2003, she appeared in the BBC drama, Charles II: The Power And The Passion, and fell for fellow actor, Rufus Sewell, who played Charles.
It was a brief interlude because that same year she met Old Etonian Damian Lewis when they played lovers in Five Gold Rings at London’s Almeida Theatre.
The attraction between them was instant. The play’s director later said that their scenes together were like ‘handling fire’.
They married in 2007 — in between the births of their two children. McCrory said she had ‘no broody instincts’ before they met but that she had been overcome by Lewis’ great genes and skills on the dancefloor. ‘Damian is a superb dancer,’ she purred. ‘Marriage and motherhood was certainly not an ambition of mine’ but raising their children proved absorbing and joyful.
She reflected: ‘My parents were very un-neurotic, so I was quite un-neurotic. I think that gives you a bedrock emotionally from which you can take risks, you know, playing Medea or being in The Deep Blue Sea and every night contemplating suicide. Obviously, it’s all still acting, but I wouldn’t want to if there were some deep, nasty cracks down there [emotionally].’
Thanks to his role in the hit American drama Homeland, Lewis was soon one of the biggest British stars in the world. He and McCrory were invited to a state dinner at the White House for then prime minister David Cameron, and were amazed to be seated at the top table with the Obamas — both of whom were great fans of Lewis.
Their children were always the priority and both McCrory and Lewis turned down roles to keep the family fires burning.
They aimed never to work at the same time, so there was always one of them at home — with or without a nanny in London or at their second home in Suffolk during the school holidays. ‘Helen and I made the decision that while we would be hands-on parents, we’d still keep working and not derail our careers entirely,’ Lewis said.
But as his own TV and film career took off, Lewis was routinely away for months at a time, leaving McCrory at the family helm.
She said: ‘My agent jokes I’m the only actor on his books who says “Yes, the script is great but can I play the best friend?” I’ll do that if it means I spend more time at home. I’m finding my children need me more and more.
‘The other day my daughter asked this quite big question about the world and I thought, “I’m so glad I was here in the house to have heard you ask this”. We sat in the garden for 40 minutes and talked about it.’
But when she did take on roles, she made them her own. She played Cherie Blair twice, once in The Queen in 2006 and again in Peter Morgan’s follow-up The Special Relationship in 2010. More recently, it has been the role of Aunt Polly in Peaky Blinders, the de facto matriarch of the violent Shelby family, that has captivated audiences. Sexy, menacing, yet worthy of sympathy, one TV executive described her to me as ‘possibly the greatest character in TV drama’.
Indeed, McCrory’s greatest roles tended to be strong women, caught in conflict. Her friend and colleague, the late Alan Rickman, observed: ‘Helen has a kind of darkness of spirit to bring.’
She agreed, saying: ‘That thing of always trying to be jolly and positive, that has never really interested me. Darkness is so much part of our lives. If you deny that in your performances, if you airbrush that out of life, you make people feel lonely.’
She told another interviewer: ‘People are looking for powerful female characters. I am very lucky, I have just been playing them anyway.’
As for the #MeToo movement, McCrory said that she could not count herself as a victim of the culture. ‘I mean, there have been times in my life when somebody’s put their hand on my thigh in an inappropriate moment and I just said, “What are you f***ing doing, you weirdo? Get off!”’
The red carpet side of the business didn’t much interest her. ‘I love dressing up but I’m very low-maintenance; the week before an event, I’ll choose something as quickly as possible and that’s that. If I can do my own hair and make-up, even better. It’s very odd when you meet people a month before the occasion and they say, “I’m going to wear so-and-so, what are you wearing?” and you think “I haven’t any idea, love. That’s in 28 days’ time. I’ve got the school pick-up”.’
Nor was McCrory one for conspicuous consumption — she could not understand why anyone would want matching crockery, or be bothered about what colour their walls were.
She did, though, love a party. A regular at Soho’s Groucho Club, she was effortlessly sociable.
Friends included Rolling Stones star Ronnie Wood and Bond actor Daniel Craig, whom she took on a rickshaw ride through Soho to celebrate him landing the 007 role.
Her 50th birthday involved a private visit to an art gallery, then an afternoon in a luxury hotel with Lewis, somewhat marred by the fact she had a really bad cold.
‘[I] said “Let’s just get a burger and a bottle of red wine and watch telly” and he said “OK”. But then I thought “F*** that, I’m 50!” so we got out of bed and went downstairs.’
There she found her family and dozens of friends waiting to greet her. ‘Damian is very good at throwing surprise parties, and because I always dress up, I just happened to have on a 1920s backless blue velvet evening gown — with a pair of old Fila trainers,’ she said.
And they danced the night away.
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