For most of Is Anybody There?, Anne-Marie Duff stays selflessly in the background, as Michael Caine’s decrepit magician Clarence takes centre-stage. But when she lets rip at her lazy husband (David Morrissey), then lets a shattered Clarence heal himself by kissing her, her face becomes a glowing powerhouse of emotion, lit with fervour. It’s a part typical of a career which took off when the then-34-year-old Duff played Fiona, the 20-year-old daughter lifting feckless father Frank Gallagher’s family on her shoulders in Shameless. She talks us through a career that goes from strength to strength.
LWLies: Your new film Is Anybody There?’s got a gentle, funny, whimsical tone but there’s also a lot of desperation. I know you once said you’re “always drawn to people who bruise themselves – anyone who has an addiction.” That’s true of your character, Mum. She’s got this need to love and serve everyone in her home…
Duff: I know, she completely loses track of herself, doesn’t she? She has that thing that I think a lot of people have for their families, to make a good life for themselves, to be a good person. And it seems to me in life there are two things, aren’t there? To make yourself happy and to be nice along the way. And if you get either of those off-kilter…and she certainly does, doesn’t she? She becomes a people-pleaser, ends up pleasing nobody.
LWLies: She’s in the background for most of the film, but then her face lights up with this glowing, almost saintly fervour in two later, crucial scenes. Did that feel powerful as you played it?
Duff: I suppose it did seem quite powerful. Whenever people are suddenly honest, it’s always incredibly engaging. You always think, 'Oh my God' – you’re always arrested by honesty. And when it’s someone who doesn’t voice their needs, that’s when the whole room starts to rock.
LWLies: Do you have to open yourself up to a large extent, to really beam those feelings through?
Duff: I think I always try to be as open as I can be, in every aspect. If the character’s closed off, for example, you try to feel open in that closing off. [laughs] Sometimes then it can lead to being quite judgemental and self-critical of your work, but that’s the chance you take, isn’t it? You have to strive to be as good as you can be, and leave yourself vulnerable, so that the audience is allowed in. That’s the objective, anyway.
LWLies: Do you bruise yourself sometimes, when you’re getting at those moments?
Duff: I think so. Any character you play, there’s always an element of osmosis, and if you’re playing someone who’s really facing the human condition, who’s absolutely up against the wall, of course it bleeds in. It does batter you a little bit. But you know, it’s only ever for a few months at a time. It’s not your whole life. You become quite deft at healing.
LWLies: There are two transcendent moments for your character - where she says what she thinks to Dad, and when she lets Clarence [Michael Caine] kiss her, and heals him. Can you equate some of the power Mum has in those scenes with characters you’ve played as diverse as Elizabeth and Joan of Arc – where there’s that sudden potency?
Duff: It’s funny, isn’t it? There are different levels of potency. And when you’re playing a character like Elizabeth I, she’s always on. In a way, her power is something you are accustomed to, and perhaps it has less immediate effect. Whereas someone like Mum is so gentle and so self-effacing. Then when she does defend yourself, it becomes much more potent. I’m like you, I’m like everybody, those things rise in me quite often, too. I don’t find it difficult to channel them.
LWLies: It’s stupid to ask if you're closer to Mum than Elizabeth I. But do you damp those strong feelings down more than let rip with them?
Duff: I have a big old Irish family, who usually shout and scream whenever they feel the need to, without any judgement. I don’t think I do too much. Like most people, I worry what people think of me when I’m in the outside world. I guard myself. But I’m not someone who inhibits myself emotionally.
LWLies: When you did play Elizabeth, who was on all the time, could you identify with her in the sense of how you felt playing that part? I think you had some fear going into it, playing such an iconic role. So did you have to be on all the time, almost let no one notice your weaknesses, skate over them to keep it all going – as I imagine perhaps she had to do, running the country?
Duff: Do you know what? It was. It was the first time I’d ever really felt like that. I did feel that I had to assume a level of confidence, which I don’t usually have to worry about when I’m working. And that was kind of odd and a bit alien. But maybe it was necessary. I think sometimes you’re instincts make you do what’s necessary. And without becoming Christian Bale and screaming at people, you try and be what you need to be. If I’m playing someone gregarious, I tend to be the one cracking a joke. You just try and have nerve-endings. Whether you’re in a royal palace or a house in Liverpool, you’re just trying to be a person making sense of the world.
LWLies: Your roles in Is Anybody There, Shameless, and Born Equal are all young women trying to carry a family on their shoulders in difficult circumstances. As far as I know, you grew up in a fairly happy, stable home. Did you reference other people around you, playing parts like that?
Duff: Probably, yeah. I did grow up in a very working-class environment, and I have a lot of extended family, that isn’t perfect. You just see the world, don’t you? Unless you’re very sheltered. Because I grew up in a very loving home, I still saw lots of things, but I was helped to deal with them. You just see a lot of life, and if something’s well-written, it enables you to take the leap.
LWLies: Did you know particular women, who were like those sacrificial women you tend to play?
Duff: No, I think it’s an amalgam of women really. When I worked with Dominic Savage [on Born Equal], we did go to women’s refuges and meet with victims of domestic violence, and I talked to them and talked to them, they were very generous with their time. And it’s very interesting what things do to you – how you’re affected by acting with a four-year-old, or by acting with a big pregnancy bump. In one of the scenes that’s been cut down hugely in the Savage film, we had a real social worker on set, who was just talking me through the realities of what I’d be dealing with, which was absolutely terrifying – and suddenly I didn’t have to work so hard. Once you begin to immerse yourself in a story, different receptors open up, and you just think in a different way and breathe in a different way. You’re open to it all. We’ve got loads of data, all of us, if we’re prepared to accept it. Everybody’s had terrible experiences. You can have lived in the most divine family in the world but we all know terrible, terrible events that nearly broke us.
LWLies: Are there things in your own life that are on that level?
Duff: Oh yeah, of course. There were terrible sadnesses in my youth. I ran away from home and did lots of silly things. But I suspect that’s part of everybody’s evolution.
LWLies: As long as get through to the other end, it’s alright…
Duff: Yeah. And that’s it. I always find this very interesting when I meet people. You either choose to wear your tragedies like a fedora hat. Or you go, [determined voice] 'Yeah. I’ve been there. So have a lot of people. Let’s just try and get on with it.' We’ve all met those people, and you do think: 'I know your heart was broken. I know this happened…but come on now.' You have to stretch yourself a bit, don’t you? And I think it makes you a better storyteller. Because it puts things into perspective. I think as well it’s why actors can often play characters who are much younger than they are. Because you’ve learned to think. You’re not just all about feelings. You’re able to file everything and work it out in terms of story.
LWLies: You talk about terror a lot, when talking about the acting experience. Is part of that because the whole world of acting was such a stretch from the world you grew up in in Haye? Did you have to stretch yourself twice as hard as some people to become an actor at all?
Duff: Maybe I did. It’s funny, I was so bloody-minded about it, and it felt like such a safe haven for me, because I didn’t feel like I really fitted in. It was at the height of Thatcherite bollocks. And so I didn’t want to go and work in a bank, I didn’t want to wear chinos and a blazer. It wasn’t who I was, and so it became this special sort of paradise. And I think I just needed it so much, and wanted it so much that I just…you know the way it is. When you’re 19 you’re absolutely committed, and you feel invincible. Otherwise you wouldn’t leave home, go to university, do whatever you do. You need it. I’m sure that most people I went to school with thought I was an arsehole for wanting to do it. And everybody probably thought it would never happen. And it must have terrified my mum and dad. But they both came from childhoods where they were not able to pursue any ambitions, or jump at chances. So their philosophy was, just try. And if you fail, it doesn’t matter.
I went to youth theatre. But all I thought was, 'If I can just get into drama school, if I can just become an actor.' I didn’t know any other way. I think unless someone like Ken Loach lands in your town and plucks you out of obscurity, really you don’t feel if you’re working-class there’s a way in at all. I learned my trade.
LWLies: It sounds like it hasn’t changed so much since the days of Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney, all those people who came down from the north – and Michael Caine, indeed – starting that tradition of working-class British actors.
Duff: Yes, exactly. And funnily enough, that’s always been my absolute favourite period of films, the British New Wave. I’ve always been obsessed with it. And maybe on some level I feel a connection with it. But then, the other thing I think too, is that when people have to be resourceful, wonderful things happen, don’t they? And that movement was probably born out of the fact that people didn’t have the money to make epics, and so something incredible evolved. And I hope at the moment, because we’re in this weird climate, some amazing movement may be born.
LWLies: I’ve talked to musicians too, and they think, bleak as things look, it could lead to some absolute renewal…
Duff: I was talking to a musician the other day, having exactly the same conversation. And [artist and director of Marie-Duff’s next film Nowhere Boy] Sam [Taylor Wood] as well, at work – her world is changing so much.
LWLies: It could be the final death of Thatcherism, and something else could rise from it…
Duff: Please God…
LWLies: Watching those British New Wave films, even thought it’s 40 years ago and more, can you still recognise those people and that world?
Duff: I think certainly you can. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning could be made now, if you think of binge-drinking culture, and all that pent-up…and even Billy Liar, about a young man who’s too frightened to fulfil himself. That’s an archetypal story. I did see lot of those films early on, I studied film at A-level. And also my mum made me watch A Taste of Honey, because for her generation that [abortion theme] was such a big deal. They’re still very relevant, aren’t they?
LWLies: Billy Liar’s a key British film to me – he either gets on the train to London at the end or he doesn’t – and he’s got all these dreams and they’re so extravagant. That could certainly connect to how you thought, 'Should I leap to be an actor, or not?'
Duff: You’re at a crossroads at some points in your life, aren’t you? And I could’ve, I suppose. I was bright, good qualifications, I could have done something completely different.
LWLies: Did you get much chance to talk to Michael Caine about acting, or how he came up?
Duff: We did a wee bit. Not as much as you’d want to, because you’re just like a greedy pig aren’t you? You want to sit down and go, [stern] 'Come on, now. Scene 1.' You want the whole story. And I was so in love with him in The Ipcress File, that when I first met him I found it very difficult to talk to him for a while. He’s very funny about it all – about his beginnings, and how different it was when he started. There were lots of great stories about when he was sharing a flat with Terence Stamp. You just want to sit down and open a bottle of something, and force him to let rip.
LWLies: In later years, he’s made a lot of very interesting small British films – almost a similar career to yours, casting around looking for good work.
Duff: I tell you one thing, he’s such a grafter. He works so hard. I don’t know why. You imagine once you get to a certain point in your career, and become a huge legend…but he works as hard as if it’s his first job. And that’s very inspiring, and so thrilling.
LWLies: One other thing that connects him to you is that he was in his thirties when he got famous, which meant he knew who he was, so you don’t get too knocked off course by superficial things – fame and all that.
Duff: Yeah, I don’t know what I would have done, if I’d had a huge amount of success like some actors do at 20, I don’t think I had the strength of mind to handle it.
LWLies: Have you been careful to make sure that being an actor, and well-known, doesn’t change you too much? Just do good work and go home, don’t get too distracted from who you are…
Duff: Yeah, I think if you can that’s the best way forward. You don’t need your social life to be your work-life, and so all-consuming. It also helps with the kind of work you choose as well. That means that certain aspects of the nonsense, they’re just not interested in you. Which makes it a bit easier. Incredibly commercial work can completely alter your life. Some people treat is as fun, a bit of old nonsense. But for the rest of us, it’s just bit too invasive.
LWLies: Looking at the cast of Is Anybody There? – Sylvia Syms, Leslie Phillips, Peter Vaughan, David Morrissey, yourself; they’re all people who might have had bigger parts. But they’re all struts in the story…
Duff: It’s a lot to do with John Crowley, such a brilliant director. I knew him as a theatre director, where he started. But both Intermission and Boy A are incredible pieces of film work. Actors generally like to be in an ensemble production, especially if all the parts fat and juicy. You get more kicks being part of the company.
LWLies: Was there much difference between you and David Morrissey, and those older actors? Were you all on the same wavelength, or did they seem interestingly of a different generation?
Duff: You do feel it, of course you do. And obviously David and I felt fabulously young every day. You do feel like they’re of this other world. When they all started they were all in repertory theatre. It was just post-war for most of them. Their days are legends for actors now. Pre-television mania, it was all about potential and slowly building a career, and now things are terribly rushed, you have to achieve things by 24 or you’re fucked! But in a way, both David and I are actors who pootle along and try and do interesting work, and so we could talk to them about lots of things. But it was great to just sit down and have a cup of tea with people who between them have worked with all of our heroes. To get them talking is just brilliant.
LWLies: Your next film will be The Last Station, playing Tolstoy’s daughter Sacha – another loyal, unselfish family member.
Duff: It’s a subject of which I knew very little, I had no idea of Tolstoy’s Jesus-like stature, in terms of his huge following and the communes. That was absolutely new to me. And again it’s an incredible cast – Paul Giamatti, Christopher Plummer. It was three months as a proper company, nobody ran off to their trailer. I play an hilarious obsessive, total Elektra complex, completely in love with her father. I got to have a bit of sparring with Helen [Mirren]. It’s another brilliant thing born out of low-budget productions…
LWLies: The growing celebrity world seems like it’s designed to tear actors away from what they should actually be doing.
Duff: Yeah, because people try to make it strategic. You should do jobs for awards, instead of because they’re really interesting and brilliant.
LWLies: You’ve just started Nowhere Boy, about John Lennon’s childhood. Was Sam Taylor-Wood a very different director, because of her background?
Duff: Yeah, it is really different. I had a notion she might be really lateral-minded. It’s a much more visual approach. Sam’s so open and warm.
LWLies: Lennon’s relationship with his mother, who you play, was almost the core one in his life - where that later pain came from…
Duff: The film also respects his Aunt Mimi, because she was incredibly influential too. But she’s not as fascinating and enigmatic, because she was always there. Julia is an astonishing woman. She’s another one who’s 150% in the moment, whether she’s depressed or full of joy.
LWLies: The way you play Julia, can you see points of connection with how John became?
Duff: You can almost, actually. The wit, the creativity. That fluidity of John. His was a much more intellectual, mercurial quality, his was more emotional. You only have to listen to tapes and tapes of interviews to know he was this incredible wordsmith. And because of that he was capable of moments of terrifying honesty. He was so bright, you wonder at times: “Is it terrifying honesty? Or is he fucking with us? Is he playing with us?” It’s a fascinating world.
LWLies: It’s going back to just before that period of the British New Wave, and Northern life?
Duff: Exactly. And it is a great time, because it is the birth of cool for us in this country, in the mid- to late ‘50s. Liverpool is where it’s at, the gateway to America. So no wonder the music explosion happened three, four years later.
LWLies: You’ve played a lot of Northern and Irish roles - the former you’re not, the latter only second-hand. Having become actor, you’re seen as things that you’re not…
Duff: Isn’t it weird the way it goes? I’ve only been Southern and working-class once. They’ll phone my agent and say, 'Is it possible for Anne-Marie to do an English accent?'
LWLies: It keeps the real you hidden, in a way…
Duff: Yeah. It’s also good for character. It’s something else to taste - a different flavour to yourself.
LWLies: Is acting where your addiction lies?
Duff: Oh, yeah. I’m a total junkie for it. I don’t feel like I have a director’s genes. I have no hankering for those other things. What really pisses me off is actors in interviews saying, 'Of course, it’s a stupid job…' No it’s not, it’s a bloody brilliant job, you get to tell stories for a living. To either help people sort their own shit out, or to entertain people for two hours. But I am an absolute junkie for it, and if somebody told me that I had to stop tomorrow I would probably kill somebody. I’m terrified or fulfilled in equal measure, if I come off-stage and I’ve hit all of the marks in the story. “I really believed that”. I’m proud of that. If someone has one of those road to Damascus moments, it spreads like wildfire, turns everyone on. I know sometimes I have days where I hate myself, think, “I can’t do this, why am I even kidding myself?” But it’s like an abusive lover – the moments that are really good make up for the crap!