Now and Hereafter

Lyndsey Marshal is one of our best stage actors but it’s only with her role in the new Clint Eastwood film Hereafter that she’s becoming well known, says Dan Whitehead

Lyndsey Marshal may well be the most successful British actor you’ve never heard of. This week she plays a pivotal role in Hereafter, a globe-trotting meditation on life and death that marks Clint Eastwood’s 35th film as director, but this is really just the culmination of a slow burning career that stretches back ten years and shows very few mis-steps along the way.

“I didn’t really excel very much in any other area,” Marshal confesses of her childhood love for performance. Born in Manchester in 1978, it was while at Lostock High School that her drama teacher suggested she put her name forward for the National Youth Theatre. Duly accepted, this then led to the Manchester Youth Theatre, and work at the Yard Theatre in Hulme, all before she finished her GCSEs. Drama A-levels followed, along with more stage work. But despite a burgeoning career, she resisted the lure of full-time thespianism.

“I did consider doing a classics and French degree,” she admits. “I was reluctant to go into acting, which is why I took a year out. My family were like: ‘You’ll always be out of work, there’s no security.’ I kind of wanted to do anything apart from acting, because I was aware of how hard it was. In the end I thought I’ve got to give it a go, or I’ll regret it.”

Marshal had an eye-catching role opposite Nicole Kidman in the Oscar-winning The Hours

Few gambles pay off so handsomely. During the last term of her final year at the Royal Welsh College of Drama and Music she was offered the role of Olga in Dominic Cooke’s Fireface at the Royal Court. Within a year she’d been named best newcomer by the London Critics Circle. “That was a big break for me,” she laughs. “It took me out of the cattle market.”

More recognition followed, including a nomination for an Olivier award in 2002, along with an eye-catching role opposite Nicole Kidman in the Oscar-winning The Hours. But success on the stage and in supporting roles is a far cry from being hand-picked by the likes of Eastwood to help anchor his latest movie. The news came as a surprise to Marshal as well.

“You get auditions, your agent calls you,” she says of the treadmill that most actors endure. “I got an email saying I should go for this Clint Eastwood film and I was like ‘yeah, yeah’. It’s like a marathon. You never really expect to win.”

In the end, what may turn out to be the most important role of her career so far came with very little fuss, especially considering Eastwood never met her in person. “I didn’t meet him until the first day of filming,” she explains. “He doesn’t meet anybody. You put yourself on tape for him. I auditioned on Portobello Road, I was in there 20 minutes and came out. Two weeks later I got a phone call saying: ‘Yeah, he wants you to do it.’ Usually it’s so hard to get a job. When I did Rome [the HBO series in which she had a recurring role as Cleopatra] I think it was six months of auditions. You get so near and you think: ‘God, this is just not going to happen.’ So it was a bit strange how quick it was. Surely I’ve got to go through months of pain and agony?”

In Hereafter, Marshal plays a single mother addicted to drugs who loses one of her twins

More familiar with period dramas, Marshal nevertheless found herself drawn to the role of a struggling drug addict single mother who loses one of her twin sons in a car accident. Her tale is one of three threaded through the film, exploring how we cope with loss and the urge to believe that something more meaningful awaits us after we die.

What of working with such a legendary figure as Eastwood? “Amazing!”

“I’d played a couple of addicts before, and a few women who were not terribly stable for one reason or another. I know addicts who’ve got themselves together, so I’ve been around that world. I understood the character. It didn’t require too much research. I felt like I knew who she was.”

But what of working with such a legendary figure as Eastwood? “Amazing!” she gushes immediately. “It’s very odd being in a room with someone like that. The first hour was very odd. Very, very strange. I was really nervous. After a few hours, once you’ve got to know each other, you realise you’re all just doing a job.”

Luckily, it seems that Eastwood’s iconic stature hasn’t affected his demeanour. “It’s incredible being directed by someone who’s an actor,” she enthuses. “He gets it. The set that he runs is so quiet, very calm, no noise. It’s just a nice working environment, and he’s incredibly respectful to every department. Everyone he works with, he’s worked with them for ten years and they all love him. They’re like a family.

“I’ve got a couple of emotional scenes and that’s when it was really amazing working with him, because it was so quick. There’s no waiting for two hours, standing there with tears and snot running down your face and then you’ve got to hit that emotional point again. It can be a fractured process but he’s very calm. He orchestrates you. He’s right there, behind the camera, talking you through takes. I just thought please, please let me be in another film for him!”

Hereafter arrives in cinemas just as Garrow’s Law, the 18th century legal drama in which Marshal plays the well-to-do love interest to Andrew Buchan’s crusading lawyer, leaves the small screen. It’s a double whammy that threatens to tug her into a more public arena of recognition. Like so many others who have worked their way up by treading the boards, she’s wary of succumbing fully to the camera’s embrace. So theatrical work isn’t being pushed aside in favour of the glamour of the screen?

“I love theatre,” she insists. “It’s always a worry that if you’ve done TV then you’re a TV actor. I’ll continue to do theatre. It’s something I feel I have to do, and I always feel at a loss if I’ve not done it for a while. It’s my soul food. It’s where I get polished up and get sharp again. It’s a very different feeling for an actor. It’s enjoyable when you do film or TV, but it’s very much a director’s and editor’s medium. They have the control. When you’re on stage, you have the control.”

It’s perhaps indicative of how poorly we treat theatre in this country that an award-winning actor with a decade of success behind her is only now being properly introduced to the world, thanks to Hollywood. Does it feel odd to be treated as a newcomer again after so long in the business? “It’s so strange,” she muses. “I have been doing it ten years now, but I suppose I’ve never really done any interviews. I’ve either been reluctant to, or it’s just not something I’ve thought about. With Garrow’s Law coming out, and now Hereafter, it changes things and people start asking: ‘Well, who is she?’”

Not that she would want to aspire to the sort of fame that her one-time co-star Kidman enjoys. “I think you do lose something,” she says of the magnetic pull of celebrity. “Fame gives you choice. It puts you in a different strata, and you’re always considered for parts because you’re a star. But you do have to be careful what you wish for. Even doing interviews now, I’m aware that I can get on the Tube or go to the supermarket and nobody ever recognises me. It’s a double-edged sword.”

Hereafter opens in cinemas on 28 January.

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