Fiona Shaw answers the door to her home in North London and is immediately abuzz. There is a lot of news happening. A big change in the Brexit picture with a People’s Vote suddenly more likely and cabinet resignations rumoured. After a brisk introduction, we sit in the window as red buses pootle by. She points at the Dictaphone: “Switch it on, here we go! I’m so happy to be doing this interview, I love The Big Issue.”
Shaw has been at the top of her profession for decades. An Olivier Award for Electra in 1988 and a major role opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot heralded a sweet cocktail of groundbreaking stage work and film and TV hits. Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre – “revelatory, I learned a lot about myself”, setting her cap at Tom Selleck in Three Men and A Little Lady, causing a scandal as Richard II in 1997, which “made everybody so cross”, joining the Harry Potter franchise as the boy wizard’s Aunt Petunia, further plaudits for her powerhouse Mother Courage.
But Shaw has definitely been having a moment of late. “A lot of exciting roles are landing on my desk. Four things came out in one month,” she says.
It began with super-dry, stylish, secretive, sensational Carolyn Martens, head of the Russia Desk at MI6 in Killing Eve. Her delivery of the line “I once saw a rat drink from a can of Coke there. Both hands. Extraordinary.” to Sandra Oh’s bewildered Eve one of the highlights of 2018.
From Killing Eve and a killer role in Inside No.9 to another MI6 operative in Ruth Wilson’s brilliant biographical thriller Mrs Wilson, Colette opposite Keira Knightley. Great roles keep on coming. This week, she joins Phoebe Waller-Bridge in series two of the latter’s breakthrough comedy, Fleabag.
“I was directing an opera at Glyndebourne so initially had to turn it down,” says Shaw. Happily, by the time Shaw was free, Waller-Bridge had written a new role for her. And it is another stunning turn, as Fleabag’s psychologist, whose questions include: “Do you really want to fuck the priest or do you want to fuck god?”
An intense face-to-face with Waller-Bridge, the scene goes deep. It’s painfully funny. Shaw opens, wonderfully, with another off-kilter throwaway line: “Excuse me I’ve got dry forearms.” This is, she says, what Waller-Bridge’s writing does so well.
Phoebe has the sort of gift Oscar Wilde had of turning ordinary things into the extraordinary.
“Phoebe has the sort of gift Oscar Wilde had of turning ordinary things into the extraordinary. She inverts things very surprisingly and very naturally. She really is queen of the comedy of embarrassment, which is very English. It comes from her exploring terror. I think all comedy comes from terror.
“I keep saying she is a bit like William Congreve. He wrote The Way of The World in 1700 when he was 21. She has that sort of facility, she sees her world very clearly. And she polishes it so no word is wasted. While we were filming, she would rewrite it – improving things, turning the knife further in, listening to me as her character and herself. I thought, this is a person who can spin plates.”
Shaw hopes we are witnessing the start of a long and beautiful artistic friendship.
“I’m happy to fly all over the world on Phoebe’s coat sleeve,” she says. “I will be very upset if she does anything I am not in. I will be offended.
“When you are in her presence, she is a tremendous force. It is like standing near one of those red heaters, she absolutely glows with energy. She is flying at the moment. I hope she will last a long time, she is burning with the joy of her abilities.”
If Fleabag announced Waller-Bridge as a writer of depth and talent, Killing Eve added to the clamour and travelled the world. Alongside Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh as the mutually obsessed stylish psychopathic assassin and MI5 agent, Shaw shone in a show that sparkled with inventiveness and subverted every TV trope.
I play a person who knows an enormous amount more than the audience – so you are keeping a secret at the same time as delivering a line.
Series two opens in the US next month, though we may have to wait a few months to watch on the BBC. There was anxiety, says Shaw, about the bone-dry delivery that was required.
“I had to hold my nerve,” she says. “I lost a lot of sleep about it. I worried about it like mad. I play a person who knows an enormous amount more than the audience – so you are keeping a secret at the same time as delivering a line.
“There is that sense of possibility about everyone. It is like Simone De Beauvoir says, your life isn’t agreed until you come to the end of it. You don’t know what you are. That makes the series very good – next year she could be the Unabomber, you don’t know! Good characters are not entirely in control of themselves. Carolyn is both incredibly organised and terribly untidy. There is plenty to play. That is what was so utterly, refreshingly, breathtaking about it.”
Will we notice a change now that Waller-Bridge has stepped down as lead writer, staying on as executive producer while handing over to Emerald Fennell.
“You will. Emerald had written something about a masturbatory nun. I thought it was very funny,” says Shaw. “She cut it, and rather wonderfully said it was ‘too Phoebe’. Emerald wants her own stamp on it. It is definitely another voice.”
The conversation moves quickly. Just as Eve Polastri finds herself thrown off her stride then scrambling to keep up with Martens, so Shaw’s smarts can leave you half a beat behind. She is talking about how the best theatre connects audiences and actors… until she is talking about modern politics.
“As an actor, it is about whether you can make the heartbeat of the audience go up. There is no point in shouting and roaring if you can’t – it is a communication of heartbeat to heartbeat. Very sensual. And when the audience’s heartbeat is flying, you can discuss things that are relevant.
“But false information can also excite the heart. We are all punchdrunk now, being pounded with false truths. We are in a very vulnerable position.”
Shaw is acutely politically tuned-in. She credits at least some of this to her wife, Dr Sonali Deraniyagala, who is an economist.
“An economist in the household? It is and isn’t useful. I must learn what GDP is!” she says. “But I have heard how much politics is ideology. And how disinterested this government has been about what Brexit is doing to business. There is a difference between opinion vs opinion and opinion vs fact. And that has got lost.”
Nevertheless, Shaw is full of hope for the future.
“This generation, the people under 35 are freed of so much nonsense that we were full of,” she says. “I can’t wait until they are in charge. They are going to save the planet, clean it up and maybe share some of its wealth.”
It all comes down to education, Shaw suggests. To tackle poverty and inequality? Educate women. “The biggest indicator of a child’s success is the education of the mother. Wouldn’t you think that would give us a clue about what we should do?”
To the noise around Brexit, improve history teaching. “I would add our close neighbour Ireland’s history to the syllabus. Even the basics of the Good Friday Agreement would be so useful,” says Shaw, who was born and raised in Cork. “We should learn the history of the Empire because the last throes of Empire are causing such irrationality. And we need to learn the Second World War again because of the rise in Anti-Semitism. We need to go on learning. When you know stories about other people you are less frightened of them.”
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Lately, Shaw has been educating herself on fossils ahead of joining Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet in Ammonite, a story of sexuality and palaeontology.
“It is directed by Francis Lee. He did God’s Own Country last year, a film of such devastating, skin-peeling honesty. It was poetic,” says Shaw, who is keeping her summer free for filming Killing Eve 3 once it is greenlit. “They are all real characters. Based on their letters, he has invented a parallel universe you can neither confirm nor deny.”
First, though, Shaw has more news to catch up on. “The really good thing about where we are now is that you can see the mess,” she says. “I have to read all these books but I keep checking to see what the next instalment is. I’m riveted! I’m riveted!”