Ruth Wilson on Diving Into Her "Own Family History" for 'Mrs. Wilson': "Provocative But Healing"

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The actress, known for her four seasons on 'The Affair,' steps into her own grandmother's shoes in the PBS series and reveals what happened after 50 of her family members saw the finished product, about a woman who discovers that her late husband had secret families.

"Not many people get the opportunity, if ever, to delve into their own family history and put their origin story onscreen," says Ruth Wilson, 37, of Mrs. Wilson, the PBS Masterpiece miniseries she's made about her own grandmother. The actress and producer (best known for her four seasons on Showtime's The Affair) stars as her father's mother, Alison, who discovers that her late husband had secret families. Wilson tells THR that she found the process cathartic. "We did a viewing of it to 50 family members and had this four-minute silence at the end," she says. "We were in tears, hugging each other. It was very provocative, but healing for all of us."

What was it like to step into your grandmother's shoes?

I don’t think I’ve been able to properly process it. There was so much buildup, as I was deep inside it before I started performing it. I had to move away from who my grandmother was and create what was on the page, which was a benefit in some ways. I couldn't remember her voice, which gave me anxiety because it felt like you're trying to remember someone you think you knew pretty well. But I remembered how she walked, that she'd always hairspray her hair and what her outfits used to look like. I brought all that into the character and that made me feel more connected to her. But it was bizarre. I'd be filming and every day there was a clapboard that said "Mrs. Wilson" and it reminded me that I was doing my own family's story.

Developing the project as a producer, did you know you wanted to play your grandmother?

As we focused on the story being told through my grandmother’s eyes as the emotional blueprint, it became clear that I would play her. I felt like I could protect her by showing her in all her complexity and truth. I thought it was interesting how people live with denial and what it does as a result, how it infects you and your own sense of self. I worried that another actress might feel self-conscious playing my grandmother or feel too much pressure that I might be looking over their shoulder. 

When did you decide that you wanted to adapt your family’s story for the screen? 
 
I don't think she'd ever imagined this would be made into a drama. We’re gonna publish both parts of her memoir for the public this year, call them Before and After. She said that if her story was ever to be told, it should be told in its entirety. This way it’ll feel like we've really satisfied her ask. But she died before she ever saw me act professionally. What I've found in the family is there's a real strand of storytelling. In these new families, there's writers, actors, directors, poets. My grandfather himself was a novelist. So, interestingly enough, it wasn't me that was pushing for the idea but the whole family. Everyone kept saying, "You've got make this into a drama." [One relative] was like, "You've got to do it and do it quickly; I'm 97." There wasn't resistance to dramatizing it at all. It felt like a very organic step to take with an extraordinary story.
 
How did all the grandchildren finding one another come about?

My grandmother died around 2005 and we found out the full extent of this story. I was about 21. My uncle and dad knew about [one secret] family because my grandmother wrote about that in her memoir. When she died, they received two more correspondences saying, "I think we've got the same dad." It became quite absurd and funny. Like, "Right, let's meet these people." My uncle organized a gathering at his house. There were 40-plus people and we all had name tags, "son of," "daughter of." None of the wives were still alive. It was down to the next generation. We all feel that it's amazing to be part of this grander story.

How is it being back on Broadway in King Lear?

I hadn't done Shakespeare before so it was about time, and why not do it in a gender-bending kind of wild interpretation? I love that I get to play two characters, the truthsayers that stand up to Lear. They’re like the yin and yang of the same character. Shakespeare is difficult, a slippery fish. Every night you’re like, "What's going to happen this evening?" But it's good. It's exhausting. Lear is the longest of the Shakespeare plays, so I thought, "OK, if I do it, it'll be one and done." Get it done and do an epic one. (Laughs.)

Had you read any of the novels or seen The Golden Compass before getting involved with His Dark Materials?

You know what? Really embarrassingly, I hadn't. They did an amazing stage play at the National Theatre like 10 or 15 years ago, which I remember hearing about but never saw. Then this came up and my agent goes, "It's one of the best books written in children's fiction and adult fiction and also the part is phenomenal." So I started reading the books and they're so clever. Even though they're designed for children, I think actually adults get much if not more out of the books than kids do. In the descriptions of [my character], you have, "She's the mother of all evil" and the "cesspit of moral filth." You're like, "OK, I want to play her!" And she has a golden monkey! I wear great outfits and it's all set in the north and there's bears and Lin-Manuel [Miranda]. It's just really exciting.

A version of this story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.