“My most latent, visceral fear is of someone getting into the house,” says Juliet Stevenson. “When I was a tiny child I believed I could hear whole conversations between the murderers who hid in the cupboard outside of my bedroom. I couldn’t call my mum, because if she passed the cupboard they’d jump out and kill her as she was trying to reach me.”
She gestures at the sleek, modern space that clearly extends far beyond the range of her laptop camera. “Even now, here in New York I’m in this big apartment, and I’m still scared. I was here alone for a month before my family came out, and before I went to bed I would check every cupboard and drawer. Stupid. Places too small for anybody to fit into. But then, I suppose somebody else will have a key, so…”
The Olivier Award-winning actor – who usually lives in the Suffolk countryside – is in the US, scoring five-star reviews in the Broadway transfer of Robert Icke’s play The Doctor, which premiered in London pre-Covid. Stevenson gives an electrifying performance as a brilliant-but-unbending secular Jewish medic who refuses to allow a black Catholic priest to give the last rites to a teenage girl dying after a botched, self-administered abortion. Tackling gender, race, faith and suicide, it’s a play that leaves no hot button issue untouched and has been praised for “giving Woke a workout”.
But today, Stevenson is video-calling to discuss her role in the BBC’s bone-chilling new six-part thriller, Wolf. Based on one of the late Mo Hayder’s DI Caffrey mysteries, it’s the story of a wealthy white family taken hostage in their own home by a pair of eccentric sadists whose motive is – for a long time – unclear.
Stevenson plays home counties housewife Matilda Anchor-Ferrers – all quilted gilet and perfect sponge cakes – whose husband Oliver (Owen Teale) is recovering from serious heart surgery when there’s a knock on the door of their country pile. Soon Matilda is chained to a radiator and trying to communicate with her oddball grown-up daughter by talking through the pipes.
As a viewer, you have to check your sadism. Is any part of you enjoying the sight of these posh, privileged folk stripped of their entitlement? Their basic rights granted or denied on the whim of their captors. Oliver’s attempt at the usual “Don’t you know who I am?” bombast is met with childlike giggles.
The British murder mystery has its roots in bringing the toffs down a peg or two. Crime trumps their right to privacy, allowing us commoners to rifle through their dirty laundry (all that adultery and shame!) and to have a good poke around their otherwise-inaccessible estates. No surprise that the “golden age” of British crime fiction (when Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers got going) flourished against the economic doldrums of the 30s: a decade during which world trade slumped and the value of British exports halved, plunging industrial areas into a vintage cost-of-living crisis.
“Yes!” nods Stevenson, earnestly. “You’re absolutely right. Agatha Christie came from a very posh family [who had fallen on harder times] so she was writing about those kinds of people. Maybe there is a pleasure in seeing them brought down. And, of course, the rich also live in very remote areas. They can afford the privacy of a mile-long drive. If you’re living in a block of flats on a housing estate it’s more difficult to commit crimes in secret. People would see or hear.”
We are speaking the week after newspaper headlines had been dominated by the expensive search for the five super-rich tourists who’d been lost in their Titanic-seeking submarine. Meanwhile, boatloads of refugees had sunk to the ocean bed without serious attempts at rescue being made.
Stevenson – who has spent decades campaigning for refugee rights – says the disparity in the value of human life exposed by the stories had left her “raging, absolutely raging. I was speechless about the contrast in how people were treated. Hundreds of refugees were lost at sea last week. Nobody knew the names of the people whose lives were lost. Nobody apparently cared. The value of one life against another like that? It’s abhorrent.”
She takes a deep breath. “Those people in the sub knew exactly what risks they were taking. And of course I am sad for their families. But, the disparity was shocking.”
It’s interesting to note that, in Wolf, Matilda manages her relationship with her captors more effectively than Oliver, who is used to greater agency.
“I approached the character thinking that she’s probably not had that much testing or challenging life experience because she’s been so privileged,” says Stevenson. “But actually women spend their whole lives learning to negotiate, mediating between their husbands and their children, mediating between themselves and the world. Because the world has expectations of women which may not tally with their sense of themselves. Very often women are told to be a smaller version of themselves, in terms of their ideas, ambition and appetite for life.”
She purses her lips and shakes her head. “My generation of women very much felt that. I grew up constantly being told to fit into a smaller shape.”
Born in Kelvedon, Essex in 1956, Stevenson is the daughter of a teacher mother and army officer father. She grew up absorbing her mother’s frustrations with the “constrictions” of marriage and the subordinating role of the army wife. She went from boarding school to Rada where she became part of a “new wave” of edgier talent including Fiona Shaw, Jonathan Pryce, Kenneth Branagh and the late Alan Rickman.
She picked up her first rave reviews for performing Shakespeare on the stage, became a household name starring as a grieving cellist opposite a ghostly Rickman in Truly Madly Deeply (1991), and won a new generation of fans as the brittle Essex mum of Keira Knightley in Bend it like Beckham (2002).
Today she remains “incredibly proud” to have been part of a film that helped shift Britain’s cultural attitudes to women’s football. Last year England captain Leah Williamson, who led the Lionesses to victory in the 2022 Euros, credited Bend it like Beckham with inspiring her to start kicking a ball around as a kid. “Women,” notes Stevenson, “are capable of excelling at so many things they’ve been told aren’t for them.”
In the case of Wolf, it’s rather glorious that while Oliver sinks into his captivity, Matilda finds a roar of fury and an extraordinary inner courage. Stevenson tapped into her character’s discomfort.
“Bones aching. Needing the toilet. Frail and terrified about what is happening to her daughter: clearly a damaged child who has witnessed a savage, gory murder five years earlier. But I also thought Matilda would be feeling a lot of anger. How dare these men come into her home and hurt her? I think anger is a very strengthening tool. I sometimes say to my kids, if they’re being given a hard time by a partner or whatever: ‘Don’t get sad, get angry!’ I mean, you must be careful how you use it, but anger can give you real power.”
She notes how public anger over the murder of George Floyd led to the Black Lives Matter movement. “Thank heavens that his death at the hands of that brutal cop was filmed,” she says. “If it hadn’t been caught on camera, god knows what version of his death we’d have heard. But when the world saw that systemic brutality, a movement was formed by angry people who said: ‘Enough already. Enough.’”
By contrast, Stevenson notes that the violence against women is seldom witnessed. “When Sarah Everard was abducted, raped and murdered nobody was there to video the crime. There never is. The domestic violence towards women from their male partners, that usually occurs inside the home, is never recorded. And it needs to be. Because if it were seen we would have a more visceral response to that level of violence too. I feel very strongly about that.”
So while Stevenson agrees that we should be careful about how we show violence against women on camera, she suggests: “You could argue that drama has that purpose. It says: come inside and see what happens to women within these walls. It can shine a light on the injustices we don’t see.”
Interviewed about her role in The Doctor last month, Stevenson suggested that drama is now one of the few safe spaces in which we can work through contentious ideas. Today she tells me that “we live in such a level of fear and self-censorship now. We talk about safeguarding all the time and yet people have never been so frightened. You have to ask what’s going on, don’t you? There’s some strange paradox going on…”
Stevenson, though, remains one of our most fearless performers. She admits she’s seldom scared. “I do love things like strapping myself to a biplane and whizzing up into the air. I love skiing very fast, I love driving very fast, I love walking around cities at night. I get on the New York subway at 3am. I do think that older women are partly invisible anyway, nobody’s interested in us. I quite often pretend to be a mad person, which isn’t that hard for me to do… I do talk to myself a lot anyway. And I always look a bit scruffy!”
Yet the anxiety over home invasion lingers. I wonder how Stevenson would react if her childhood nightmares came true. She admits she has no idea. “That’s why I like playing characters in extreme situations,” she says. “Because we really don’t know how we’d behave in certain situations, do we? You don’t know how you’re going to be in childbirth, or if somebody you love madly suddenly dies. All these reactions to big events in life. We can become unknowable to ourselves.”
She smiles warmly. “Sometimes we can lose all our self control and become gibbering wrecks. At others, we can find courage, strength and ingenuity… The world is full of normal people in terrible situations, finding courage we can’t imagine to walk across war zones or cross oceans with their children in tiny boats. That’s why I’m always wary of judging others. Because we can’t know what we’d do, or who we might be, in their shoes.”
Wolf starts on Monday on BBC One