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Olivia Cooke defied working class odds to win her role in ITV’s ‘Vanity Fair’

‘Vanity Fair’ star Olivia Cooke earned her acting stripes at a local drama group in Oldham. She tells Adrian Lobb that if you’re working class, getting the chance to train as an actor is something you still have to fight for

The new president of UK actors’ union Equity, Maureen Beattie, said recently that “it is more and more difficult for people from working-class backgrounds to get into the business”. The prohibitive cost of attending drama schools and lack of provision of drama classes in state schools – with 1,700 fewer drama teachers in UK schools in 2017 than in 2010 – are just two of the barriers to working-class talent entering the business. And for those who do break through, the choice of stories being told acts as even more of a barrier to success.

Olivia Cooke is one working-class actor who defied the odds to make a big breakthrough. In March, the 24-year-old from Oldham, Lancashire, starred in Steven Spielberg’s ambitious, head-spinning virtual reality nostalgia trip Ready Player One. Now Cooke leads the cast of ITV’s dazzling, big-budget adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s satirical masterpiece Vanity Fair.

It is a cast worth savouring. Each weekly episode kicks off with an update from Michael Palin as circus ringmaster/William Thackeray himself (all seven filmed in one, intense whirligig of a night), before Suranne Jones, Martin Clunes – plus rising stars Claudia Jessie, Johnny Flynn and Tom Bateman – join Cooke in the drama.

She has had to weaponise her talents

Cooke brings a playful wit, emotional intelligence and modernity to her portrayal of Becky Sharp, the focal point of Makepeace’s ‘Novel Without a Hero’. In the series, she tips a wink to the audience while outwitting and seducing wealthy suitors, revelling in being the cleverest person, if, most often, the least privileged, in the room.

“She has had to weaponise her talents and use everything she has got in order to survive,” says Cooke, when we meet in the former BBC Television Centre in west London. “And at that time, as a woman, that was your charm and your sexuality. She is working within the constraints of the time – she can’t get a job as a lawyer, she can’t go to university. But she has the power of perception and observation, so she is using everything she can while outsmarting everyone in the room.”

Cooke has also used her smarts to reach the top of her profession. “I have not had such a dire childhood as Becky but I have nothing to fall back on. I have no qualifications. This is it for me now,” she says.  In Cooke’s major roles to date – affecting indie comedy Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and long-running contemporary Psycho prequel Bates Motel – she has played Americans, rather than using the strong Oldham accent that has survived her recent move to New York. She believes this has been vital.

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“If I hadn’t gone to America where accent doesn’t matter, I don’t think I would have been given the same opportunities to helm a production this large over here,” says Cooke. “Some people think when you have a regional accent, you are only destined for soaps. When I first started, people on messageboards would say, ‘This girl is only good for Corrie’ or ‘With a voice like that she should be in Emmerdale’. Well, no. People down south get to change their accents all the time. Look at Kit Harington in Game of Thrones talking like me. So why shouldn’t we get to do the same in reverse?”

Another British actor whose route to UK success involved a detour to the US, Idris Elba, told a room of MPs and television executives gathered in the Commons to talk (not for the first time) about expanding access to the cultural industries: “Talent is everywhere, opportunity isn’t.” If opportunity didn’t exactly come knocking directly, unlike many working-class youngsters, Cooke had a local space in which her talent and passion for performing could thrive and grow. The Oldham Theatre Workshop, which Cooke attended from the age of eight to 17, is a rare instance of an affordable, dedicated local drama group for young people.

“It is a real safe haven. Lovely, inclusive, if you feel you are a bit of a weirdo or feel like an outcast you go there and suddenly you are not,” says Cooke. “It was where I found my people, all my best mates, more so than in school. We were all like-minded and I forged and cemented my personality there. It was such a joyous time, full of giggles and laughs and my imagination was full to the brim of possibilities and stories. It was this wonderful, loving community.”

So don’t tell Cooke she is lucky to be rubbing shoulders with the likes of public school boys Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston

Oldham Theatre Workshop also has a great track record of producing actors of integrity and skill, with Cooke following in the footsteps of Vanity Fair co-star Suranne Jones, Happy Valley’s Sarah Lancashire and This Is England’s Joe Gilgun. “When I was there it wasn’t a pathway to casting directors or agents,” says Cooke. “It is more community-based, finding people who have a talent and nurturing them as people as well. Some schools don’t have a funded drama department. Also, it is not cool to try at school, whereas when we auditioned for the summer or Christmas shows it was a massive deal. I remember the panic of ringing up to see if you got into the show. I always got in!”

Alongside a few of her Oldham Theatre Workshop pals, Cooke applied for Rada (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) – despite worries over the costs. She did not make the grade and instead, Cooke learnt on the job – winning an early role as Christopher Eccleston’s daughter in BBC drama Blackout and cast in modern Hammer Horror film The Quiet Ones.

“My mum was a single mum with two kids who didn’t earn enough to support me going to Rada,” says Cooke.  “So I was really worried. Even if I had got into this incredible school, I didn’t think I would be able to afford to go. I would have got a little help from the government but didn’t think I would be able to afford to live in London either. It is already so nerve-wracking leaving school at 18, uncertain about what you want to do. To then face the challenge of having this passion, where you want to see if it leads to anything, but not having the possibility to study it because you are from a low-income family and don’t have the same access to funds or tuition as someone with more money… you get an ongoing cycle of poverty, unless you are incredibly lucky and incredibly ambitious and can start from scratch. You need gumption and effort, but not everyone has those opportunities.” 

So don’t tell Cooke she is lucky to be rubbing shoulders with the likes of public school boys Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston, headlining a primetime TV series alongside big-budget and indie films.

“It is not anything bad against the other lot, I do genuinely think they are talented,” says Cooke. “But in this industry there is a lot of nepotism. I hear people saying, ‘Oh, Olivia, you are so lucky.’ I am not lucky. They are lucky because of their genes and their DNA that they have inherited. I have worked really, really fucking hard.”

Cooke does not plan to stop with acting. Instead, she hopes to shape the stories being told, forming a production company as part of a new generation, changing the culture and output of the film industry. If Vanity Fair seethes with a quiet, cynical fury about the reproduction of inequality and privilege, Cooke again sees modern parallels while hopeful that change is coming.

“It is not hammered over the head as much in this adaptation as it is in the book, but I do think there are parallels with status and wealth and class and how there is definitely a ruling class – even if a lot has happened since the 1800s,” she says.

“But I do feel really positive about this lovely generation that I am in. Maybe everygeneration feels like this, though. I wonder if by the time I am 50 we will be ruining it for the kids? Hopefully not, maybe this momentum of progress and change is the way forward now and we have become more accepting and more open and more inclusive.”

Vanity Fair airs on Sunday nights on ITV

@adey70

Main image: Mammoth Screen for ITV

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