Ruth Wilson on Tackling Shakespeare For the First Time in 'King Lear'

King Lear-Ruth Wilson-Glenda Jackson-John Douglas-Production still-H 2019
Brigitte Lacombe

The Tony Award nominee chats with THR about playing dual roles on Broadway in the classic tragedy and discovering her "origin story" through the life of her grandmother in 'Mrs. Wilson.'

The idea of doing a Shakespeare play for the first time scared Ruth Wilson, which is exactly why she wanted to do King Lear. Sam Gold directed Wilson’s final episode of The Affair, and he initially asked her to play Cordelia, the tragic monarch's outspoken youngest daughter, who stands up to her father's demands. Wilson wasn't sure.

"Cordelia's a cool role, but she doesn't feature that much," Wilson tells The Hollywood Reporter. "She kind of has three scenes, and I thought I don't know if that's enough for me to get my teeth into. Sam said, 'Actually I've always considered doubling the two parts, the Fool and Cordelia,' and suddenly it felt like a really interesting proposition."

Wilson received her second Tony nomination (her first was for Constellations in 2015) for her dual performance in those roles — one a loyal wronged daughter, the other a beloved surrogate son — in Gold's gender-blind production of Shakespeare’s tragedy. She appears alongside British acting royalty Glenda Jackson in the title role, which heightened the challenge, given that Wilson hadn't done Shakespeare "since drama school."

"The Fool is famously difficult as a part," she says. "He speaks in riddles and the jokes are 400 years old. I took a long time deciding whether or not to do it or if I had an idea or what it might be. But I just bit the bullet and thought this is going to be a major challenge in every way. I never usually get offered those kinds of roles. I wouldn't get offered the Fool and I wouldn't probably get offered Cordelia much. So I thought why not? I'm not likely to get this offer again. So take it."

In addition to Lear, Wilson stars in the upcoming HBO fantasy drama His Dark Materials, which premieres later this year, and the PBS Masterpiece miniseries Mrs. Wilson, in which she plays her grandmother, on whose memoir it was based. The show depicts Wilson's family story, detailing how her grandfather was a secret spy and a bigamist. After his death, a woman showed up on her grandmother's doorstep claiming to be his real wife.

"I'm quite a private person so I wouldn't usually be airing my family's dirty laundry in a public arena, but this story is extraordinary," says Wilson, who also executive produced the series. "It's been amazing and the most profound thing that I've experienced in my jobs that I've had, and a real privilege to sit in my grandmother's experience and get to understand her and my dad more and my grandfather I never met."

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Wilson about tackling her first Shakespeare play, sparring with Jackson and what she's learned about herself from delving into her family history.

Some Shakespeare scholars have posited the Cordelia and the Fool could be the same character since they're never seen onstage together. What are your thoughts on that idea?

I felt they were separate characters, but there was definitely a symbiotic relationship between the two. They are connected. There's lots of references to the Fool being upset that Cordelia's been banished and then at the end, Lear says "My poor fool is hanged" when he's holding his hanged daughter in his arms. When he first wakes up, she says, "Do you know me?" to her father, and he says, "You're a spirit, where did you die?" So I felt like the Fool was a mystical kind of character that was in some way his conscience or the reminder of Cordelia within that character.

They never exist on the stage together. The Fool has the middle, but not the beginning and end, and Cordelia has a beginning and end but not a middle. So I felt together they create an arc. They're very much both the truth-speakers of the piece, the people that stand up to the king. One's a woman he doesn't listen to and one's a boy he listens to until his manic mind goes mad.

Can you elaborate on that idea of Lear not listening to Cordelia but listening to the Fool?

In the play there's a palpable sense of sexuality and misogyny. I've found one thing playing Cordelia is you don't get much opportunity to speak, and I think that's the case for all the women. They're standing around a lot and listening to the king talk a lot. They don't get the opportunity to voice their feelings or their thoughts, so it's a very male. There's lots of virility and sexual conquest.

And of course you have Glenda Jackson playing King Lear.

Yeah, we never really talk much about it to be perfectly honest. Gender didn't really come up in the discussion. She didn't feel it was much of an issue. She said at that age, all gender kind of disappears. You become the same thing, men and women. In some ways, within two minutes, you're not even thinking about her being a woman, you're just thinking about her being the king, but more about the essence of power and not letting go of power and how power corrupts.

How has the experience of working with Glenda been?

It's phenomenal. She's an amazing inspiration. Her stamina and her work ethic are incredible, and she's also so fluent and precise with the language. We've found a lovely intimacy with Cordelia and the Fool and tactility with Lear. She's really allowed me free reign to do what I want with her and to play, and she engages in that play. So I really have an interesting time on it with her.

I've really enjoyed her company. Before we go onstage before the storm, we're both behind the curtain and the music's playing and there she is dancing away to the music. I just think this is her lifeblood, and it's giving her so much. I'm amazed. We all are. Her energy levels never go below a certain point that she has. She has this incredible stamina. I don't know what juice she's on, but I need some.

In addition to being your first Shakespeare play, this is the first time you're singing onstage. Did you have vocal training before, and how did you prepare?

No, I'd done it in drama school like you do everything else. I wouldn't say I was particularly good. I can hold a note, but I was never very confident in my singing. I knew I wanted to sing at some point. I thought there's a voice in me, and I love that I could do it as the Fool because it meant that it didn't have to be perfect. It could be a bit crap if it needed to be. If I wasn't particularly good, it wouldn't matter so much because it's the Fool, so I can play into that.

Compared to working on a television or movie set, how do you maintain eight performances a week?

Sleep and cancelling social life. You always think you're going to have loads of time off because you have the day to yourself, but you don't. This play, for me, is really physical. It knocks you out. Someone said to me the other day, what happens with time when you're doing a play like this? When you're in a three-hour play and you don't look at a watch, you're not conscious of what time it is. You're just being in the present moment of performance. It's quite amazing in that way. You're doing three and a half hours in present moment, not conscious of time or anything else, like an alternate universe. It's really unusual and strange and brilliant. But I just sleep basically. Sleep and massage.

On Mrs. Wilson, what made you want to turn your family's story into a miniseries?

People were always amazed by the story and fascinated by it, so it kind of felt like, well that's a reason if any to make it into a drama. The reason we really wanted to do a drama instead of a documentary is you can really go into the characters. So much of it was so cinematic. The times we were in the '40s and then the '60s and then out in India. It would have been a missed opportunity. My family are such storytellers, it turns out. My grandfather was and his kids from other families were actors and writers and poets. We actually come from a family of storytellers, so it felt like the most natural way of telling that story.

What have you learned about your family and yourself in the process?

I suppose this drama, in a way, is a bit like my origin story. I didn't think that when I was doing it, but actually doing it, what I discovered is my connection to these two grandparents of mine. My grandmother wrote this beautiful memoir that it's sort of based upon, which we're publishing this year and are really chuffed about.

I read that memoir just a year before I went into acting after my granny died. I think a lot of my choices in performance have been influenced by that memoir because it was this woman who was deeply passionate and full of emotion and had this extraordinary internal landscape, but on the exterior was very shy, private and in some ways secretive. A lot of my characters have sort of had that really extraordinary inner monologue and inner emotional landscape going on. Whether it's Alison Bailey [on The Affair] or Jane Eyre, I think that memoir in a way made me understand women like that. She's sort of been within my life a lot more than I realized.