Glass talks to Annabelle Wallis about her career-defining appearance in Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders

 

When Annabelle Wallis walks into the bar in the first episode of Peaky Blinders, she illuminates the dank post-WW I Birmingham set like a white flag flying above the parapet – it is a career-defining moment. She is striding into the room with a confidence of someone who has been preparing for this moment all her life. Just as she casts a spell over the bartender with her gentle Irish lilt and takes Thomas’s breath away, played by the steely-eyed Cillian Murphy, with her sweet but beguiling voice, her image is stamped indelibly on our collective consciousness.

Things have changed in the business. The almost impenetrable line that used to divide television actors from film has blurred as those at the top of their game follow the writers. “You have to go where the writing is because it has to be there on the page to start with. TV is now seen as an incredible platform for actors. With six hours to play with you can show an arc of your work, and develop a character is this multidimensional.”

Annabelle Wallis is a modern woman, driven by a strong desire to protect and nurture her own artistic freedom. In her interview with Glass, she talks about landing the role of Grace Burgess, and reaching that point where she earned the freedom to choose parts that allow her to evolve as an actor and reflect her true ability.

Annabelle Wallis. Photograph; Justin van VlietAnnabelle Wallis. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

You grew up in Portugal, do you think being an expat gave you more depth or more scope when approaching characters?
You know my philosophy is that the world is a big place so if you get the chance to live abroad lessons in life it gives you are like no other. I moved to Cascias when I was one and a half. I do feel very fortunate that I grew up in a Latin culture and learnt another language. When I approach a character or a script I can approach it from different points of view, with maybe a more international perspective.

Do you find that it helped you to adapt better to different accents and train your musical ear?
For sure! We had 42 different nationalities in year at school and when one of the new kids would arrive we would adapt our voice to the intonations of their first language to try to help them understand, and speak in their accent. Now I use that all the time – I do all my pieces in an accent because my own accent is so mid-Atlantic that I have to adapt it with each part. In fact, before I go to a casting I ask them where the character is from and go with that, so I don’t throw them. Even if you go in as yourself you can throw them off … you want to go in as the person they are looking for.

Annabelle Wallis. Photograph; Justin van VlietAnnabelle Wallis. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

Do you think that is how you got your first break – you had that element of surprise?
I’ve thought about this over the course of my career and I suppose I have very classic British looks but then I open my mouth and the way I speak has a very Latin intonation and I have a very forward way of communicating and I think that they are two extremes that need to come together.

That must be great on set when you have to integrate and adapt quickly to a whole host of characters.
It is so important to be able to communicate with people. For example a lot of the crew are foreign and finding a way to communicate with them makes all the difference. In an environment where there can be a lot of egos flying around, it always helps.

Annabelle Wallis. Photograph; Justin van VlietAnnabelle Wallis. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

You come from the business – your father was an actor and your uncle Richard Harris – did that influence your decision to act?
Never! My mother had a very open-minded philosophy about having children, that they should be free to develop in their own way. I lived a very different life to the one I live now in London. Cinema was a luxury – you went once a week – the whole idea of celebrity was completely absent. But it was such an instinctual thing, like a path that was already paved that I could not avoid.

I think I found it hard to admit that I was doing something that was so intangible – so I fought against it. Coming from where I was coming from it did not seem like a reality but more like the flighty dream of a young girl. I am a bit of a realist, if I choose to do something I like to get it done.

So when did you begin to feel like it was going to happen and that you had broken through into the reality of your career? Was it your role as Jane Seymour in The Tudors?
You can never get too sure of yourself. I had never watched the Tudors, so I was sheltered by my ignorance about the show. When you are asked to do something like that, you don’t really realise the impact it is going to have. It was only when I went to America after I had finished and found there was such a huge audience there that it began to sink in.

The most dangerous thing for an actor, I believe, is to think of their worth – you know, to stand outside of yourself and observe and think, “Oh I’m in wonderful company now.” You know you have to work every day you are given because you may not have any work tomorrow.

Annabelle Wallis. Photograph; Justin van VlietAnnabelle Wallis. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

Touching on the theme of America – do you see yourself moving there?
Now there is such cross-pollination between the US and the UK you cannot deny that you will be working between the two. I feel very European and I do miss it when I am over there – but I do love the sunshine. I am very fickle in that way.

Describe what it was like when you were given the role of Grace Burgess in Peaky Blinders.
Throughout your career, and especially at the beginning you don’t always have the freedom of choice or the access to scripts that you would really want. You have to get things under your belt to get people to notice you and be allowed to be in those rooms. When I got Peaky Blinders it was that moment of “This is just an incredible script, if I am able to be a part of this it really could be a game-changer.”

Not just in a career sense, but in a personal sense. You get to show yourself in a light that reflects your ability but you have, until then, not been allowed to show – because they have not been on the page or your character just does not have that longevity or scope. When someone like Steven Knight is writing your script it is just incredible, not to mention the caliber of people already attached.

Annabelle Wallis in Peaky BlindersAnnabelle Wallis in Peaky Blinders

So what was it like being with that calibre of actors and having such a central role?
To be honest when I heard that Cillian Murphy was attached all I could think was “I would die to work with him”. He raises the bar so incredibly high that you either sink or you swim. If you fail in that moment then you are out. I love that – I love living like that: trying to prove myself in those environments – it is thrilling.

Did you feel like this is the moment you have been working towards all your life?
I felt so at ease: when you know you are protected by the quality of people around you and it is such a tight ship, you relax into yourself as an actor and you can really push your own boundaries because you know you are in a safe environment.

When you do projects are less good, like you when you are starting out, you are nervous not only for yourself but for what everyone around you is doing. The ship isn’t that tight so you really just can’t let go. When it is a bigger project it almost feels easier – you are there because you have proved yourself.

Annabelle Wallis in Peaky BlindersAnnabelle Wallis in Peaky Blinders

What do you think it will take to maintain that?
I don’t want any favours, or my agents to talk to people, I want to go into that room and I want them to think I am it. That is what happened with the director Otto [Bathurst] on Peaky Blinders and that gave me the confidence I needed.

What’s next are there more strong women on the horizon?What is interesting is that they are all so different! Next role is Muriel Wright in The Man Who Would be Bond, co-starring Dominic Cooper as Ian Fleming that will show on Sky Atlantic. It’s your job as an actor to seek out the career that you want – the parts are out there but you have to make the choices to get those parts.

by Nico Kos Earle