Gustav Temple meets the star of Peaky Blinders, whose character Aunt Polly not only holds the entire Shelby family together, but also wears the most stylish outfits.
I’ve talked to your co-star Paul Anderson and creator Steven Knight about the men’s styling of Peaky Blinders. What was your experience in the costume department? Did you have any say in what you wear as Aunt Polly?
I’m a real pain in the neck when it comes to costume, because it’s really important to me. I’ve always really designed what I’ve been wearing alongside the designer, because it makes an enormous difference to how you move, how you’re perceived and how you feel. So right from the beginning when we started Peaky, I wanted Polly to have a very tight silhouette, so they were saying, ‘This is the period, it’s drop-waist…’ and I said, yeah, I’m not wearing that. We need a corset and a hobble skirt and boots up to the thigh, and everything a size too small, tailored within an inch of its life. We need massive hair, with pins I’m going to stab people with, things I can whip out of fur, I need a gun on the inside thigh in a garter. It should all make me feel a certain way.
For the last few years we’ve worked with Alison McCosh, who sources costumes from museums, costume houses, places people don’t usually use. She’ll go as far as Washington, Barcelona or Rome to find the right piece; she’s as obsessive as I am. So before we even start filming, we’ll have entire outfits, complete with shoes, gloves, earrings, hats, for the entire season. Polly definitely wears her clothes as armour and is comfortable in her own skin.
What can we expect sartorially in season 5? I saw some stills and you looked a bit more masculine than usual, in a sexy Marlene Dietrich sort of way.
I really like the masculinity that Polly has. We couldn’t do the hobble skirt again, because a woman wears what she’s comfortable in and then you’ve got to move it on. Those were exactly the references we were looking at, Marlene Dietrich, even Katherine Hepburn, which is slightly later, but pulling that feeling of Polly still smelling of Gitanes, but now it’s Gitanes with a splash of eau de cologne.
Your first acting credit, at least that I could find, was as “second whore” in 1994’s Interview with the Vampire. You then went on to play, among others, The Countess of Castlemaine, Victoria Frankenstein, Evelyn Poole, Medea and Polly Gray. Would you admit there’s a bit of a theme there?
When I first left drama school I only wanted to do theatre, I wasn’t interested in doing screen work whatsoever. It took a long time for my agent to persuade me. As well as the ones you mention, I’ve done my prudes, my purists, my lawyers, the shy giggling one with glasses in Lucky Jim. I’ve always been interested in transforming. I think there are two types of actors: the ones who play themselves, like Clint Eastwood, and the ones who transform into someone else. I’m definitely in the latter category.
Are you particularly drawn to those roles that express a darker side of human nature?
I don’t think I’ve ever been interested in any play about the happy, successful, lighter moments of life. I think that’s a very modern, pervasive idea in our entertainment, whether it’s on Instagram or in fiction, to show only the good and the perfect side of yourself. It’s just a lie and it’s very dull, and it’s nothing that anyone should even strive for. Obviously when you’re younger, all the dark side of life holds a lot of interest. Every teenager listens to the Doors and reads Sartre.
Is it harder for a woman to make such roles as likeable as their male counterparts? Everyone loves a rake like Lord Byron or Casanova, but are audiences less comfortable with female characters who occupy the darker end of the moral compass?
It’s never occurred to me that they wouldn’t be likeable. I grew up in a house and a world where it was never explained to me that things were off-limits because I was a woman. When I read my feminist literature like Germaine Greer or The Golden Notebook, they were fascinating, but as alien to me as reading Terese Raquin or The Idiot. It was all fiction to me. Polly is very in touch with her instincts and spirituality. I never really feel it’s my job to worry about how the character might be perceived. My job is to be an advocate for the character. How it’s received is your business.
How much backstory for the character were you given at the start of Peaky Blinders?
When I first talked to Steve [Knight, series writer and creator] I said ‘Aunt Polly? Where’s the aunt?’ And he said, you know those women who were just around and they were your ‘aunt’ or your ‘uncle, but they weren’t really your aunt or your uncle. What they were was someone who your parents were saying, this person is special. ‘Get your feet off the table and sit up, because Aunt Polly’s coming over.’
Read the entire interview, plus an interview with Peaky Blinders costume designer Alison McCosh, in Chap Autumn 19