Anne-Marie Duff interview: 'I’m not a crazy fucking actress'

Mrs James McAvoy's skill at representing life’s contradictions has made her one of this country’s greatest stage talents

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© Bohdan Cap


When Anne-Marie Duff was 25, she almost quit acting. She was starring in Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’. ‘I had a proper attack of stage fright,’ she tells me in the green room at the National Theatre. ‘Just walked off stage.’ Another actor followed her and snapped her out of it. ‘He grabbed me and said exactly what I needed to hear at that moment…’ She looks me dead in the eye. ‘“Two hundred and fifty people have paid £25 to see this. Get back out there!” I realised then: I’m not a crazy fucking actress. It’s just a job.’

She may not be crazy but Duff is some fucking actress. She was the heart and soul of ‘Shameless’ in the early years as big sis Fiona, and was hands-down the best thing in ‘Nowhere Boy’ as John Lennon’s naughty, nervy mum Julia. She committed so intensely to playing Joan of Arc on stage in 2007 that her bodyshape changed: ‘I became incredibly boyish,’ she recalls. ‘I lost my bum and my boobs, much to my husband’s chagrin.’ Her husband is James McAvoy. They met on the hit Channel 4 series ‘Shameless’ – and, as Fiona and Steve, had their first sex scene slammed up against a grubby Mancunian kitchen unit. Then, all blushes and loved-up grins, they came out as an item in real life. If they wanted it, they could be London’s Brangelina. But they’re clearly much too sane to want to be a power couple. (What would we call them? ‘McDuff’?) And though her husband mixes posh Brit films with Hollywood fluff, Duff’s first love is theatre.

‘I had a wild time in my twenties. I just sort of went for it.'


Which is why we’re at the National today. Duff is starring in ‘Strange Interlude’, an experimental 1923 play by Eugene O’Neill. Glamorous it ain’t. The green room looks a lot like a university campus canteen. But I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that Duff would take sad sandwiches over posh cuisine in a hip private members’ club any day. She loves the theatre – she got hooked as a shy teenager in Hayes, Middlesex when her parents (her dad worked as a painter, mum in a shoe shop) packed her off to drama club. ‘I think part of it was escapism, growing up on a grey breeze-block council estate,’ she says. ‘I loved reading plays and biographies of actors from years gone by.’ She cuts herself off with a hoot. ‘I was probably a bit of an arse.’ She arrived at drama school still a virgin. ‘I was so obsessed with theatre, I missed out on that stuff. It’s a shame really. But I made up for it later.’ There’s a mischievous glint in her eye. ‘I had a wild time in my twenties. I just sort of went for it. That was my time to make a mess.’

She doesn’t show the scars. Face to face, she’s prettier than we’re used to seeing her on screen. She has perfectly flawless skin, glowing with health (before having her son, Brendan, who’s three, she was a yoga freak). Yet despite this bloom, more often than not she’s been cast as women who have been through life’s wringer. Emotion comes easily to her, she says: ‘I’m someone who laughs a lot and cries a lot.’ But unlike her characters, she’s glass-half-full by nature. ‘Honestly, I’m such a Pollyanna. I always think positively. Maybe that’s it?’ – she stops dead like she’s just made a discovery about herself – ‘Maybe in a dreadfully unhealthy co-dependent way I’m trying to fix all these women?’

© Bohdan Cap


Nothing could fix Nina, her latest character. ‘There are not many crazy islands that she doesn’t visit,’ Duff says. She’s not kidding. ‘Strange Interlude’ is like five emotionally draining plays crammed into one. We meet Nina in her early twenties, mad with grief after losing her first love in World War I and recklessly sleeping around. Later, she marries one man, and has a son with another. The whole thing runs at three hours, spans more than 20 years and Duff is in every scene. She’d not long given birth when the National first approached her: ‘I was in a completely different headspace,’ she says. ‘And I thought: Not in a million years am I up to this.’

It’s a bruising part; why doesn’t she give herself a break – do a bit of comedy? She looks at me as if I’m mad. ‘One day I’ll be 75 years old and I won’t have the energy for all this.’ Who is she kidding? She’ll probably be a grand dame like Judi Dench. ‘I should be so lucky,’ Duff snaps back, her tone a mixture of theatreland and no-nonsense working class. We are talking the day after her guest appearance in the last ever episode of ‘Shameless’, back as Fiona – returned to snatch the kids from pissed-up Frank. ‘When I left, I drunkenly agreed I’d come back for the last episode,’ she confesses. ‘I never thought it would happen.’ Saying that, she loved putting Fiona’s massive gold hoop earrings back in. I tell her that it was nice to see her back playing sexy. Which is true. Never mind all those women-on-the edge roles in potato sacks, she’s brilliant at foxy. ‘Who wouldn’t like to be sexy for a while?’ she says. ‘I’ve got a womb and nerve endings! It’s nice to pretend to be sexy for once.’

‘When you’re young you’ll fuck or fall in love with anyone.'


It’s a very personal comment from a woman who avoids talking publicly about her private life. She claims to be old-fashioned about doing her dirty laundry in public: ‘I try not to spill my guts because no one gives a shit ultimately.’ This particularly applies to her marriage. In the first flush of love she and McAvoy made a vow not to discuss each other. But do they have a no-work rule at home? ‘No!’ She shoots me a don’t-be-daft look. ‘It’s like two doctors living in a house. We read scripts together. I would jump at the chance to work with him again.’ She adds sweetly: ‘My husband is one of my favourite actors in the whole world. I genuinely mean that. His performance in the “Scottish Play” was extraordinary.’ McAvoy has just finished a run of ‘Macbeth’ in the West End. Duff is clearly enough of a luvvie to follow the actors’ superstition of not calling it by its name.

She’s 42 now. It took her until her thirties to learn how to leave her characters in the dressing room – ‘I was all feelings then’. She’s pickier about her roles now too. ‘It’s a bit like love,’ she says. ‘When you’re young you’ll fuck or fall in love with anyone. And then as the years go by you become more selective. You have to be. That way sanity lies.’ Sanity also requires not reading her reviews. ‘Never. It’s like being a junkie. You buy one newspaper, then the next, then the next. They can all be great, great, great, then…’ – she claps her hands – ‘shit review!’ So can she never relax, put her feet up? ‘No. I don’t think that actors ever do. It’s such a bloody roulette. It’s like being a gambler. But I’m not doing too bad. I must have been a cockroach in a previous life. Now I’ve got the good stuff coming my way.’

Perhaps it is karma, but it’s more likely hard work that has got Duff where she is. Not that she’ll admit it. ‘Listen,’ she says, getting up, ready to go back to rehearsals. ‘There are people out there with three jobs and small children. Being an actor is a walk in the park compared to working as a cleaner overnight. I’m lucky I’m not plucking chickens.’


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