Keeley Hawes: “I felt very out of place. A bit of an ugly duckling thing”

Gawky teen turned TV drama queen Keeley Hawes reflects on the job that changed her life, teenage independence, and being nominated for a BAFTA

I started going to Sylvia Young’s theatre school at the age of nine, so I knew I enjoyed acting. But I wasn’t part of the acting world – the school happened to move into premises across from my house at a time when I was really enjoying being in the primary school play. If they hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have gone to that school. I wouldn’t have known such a thing existed. There were no actors in my family – my dad’s a black cab driver. There were six of us in the house in the estate in Marylebone being brought up by one person and we didn’t have a lot of money. I got a grant to go to the school. It was quite an unusual situation I suppose.

Keeley Hawes in Spooks alongside future husband Matthew Macfadyen and David Oyelowo.

I left school at age 16 without much of an idea what to do next. There are about 250 pupils every year at Sylvia Young. I could name about five or six who’ve gone on to have great careers since I left. Not everyone walks into fantastic jobs. And I always felt there were other people better than me in the room. I was quite an awkward teenager, partly because I got very tall very quickly, taller than a lot of the boys. So I felt very out of place for a while. I went back to the school about a year after leaving and a boy who’d been in my year did a double take before he recognised me. He said, ‘God, you didn’t look like that at school!’ Not that I looked fabulous, I’d just lost that gawky, gangly teenager look.

Looking back, it took a while for things to fall into place

I felt a bit adrift when I left school. I applied for college and soon realised it wasn’t for me. But I wasn’t sure what was. When I look at my 16-year-old son now I think, how is anyone supposed to know what they want to do for the rest of their life at the age of 16? You feel grown up but I know now what a baby you still are at that age. I had a few part-time jobs. I wanted a car so I worked in McDonald’s in the evening, a supermarket at the weekends. I wanted my own money and I felt a great sense of achievement when I got my weekly pay cheques. And I learned to drive at 17; I remember clearly that feeling of independence when I got into a car and thought, now I can go anywhere.

Keeley Hawes (left), as Louisa Durrell in ITV’s The Durrells, alongside Milo Parker, Daisy Waterstone, Josh O’Connor and Callum Woodhouse

If I bumped into my 16-year-old self now I’d think, what the hell is going on with the purple dungarees from Camden Market? It was only when I modelled for six months that I began to get a clue how to dress. I got a bit better but not a lot. I wasn’t drinking or smoking. I was quite boring I think. My parents wouldn’t have had much to worry about. I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was 17. No one was very interested. I think it was a bit of an ugly duckling thing. I mean, looking back I wasn’t ugly but it took a while for things to fall into place. And then I was scouted in the street by a model agency. It took me by complete surprise, I had no idea such things existed. But actually, I had a lovely six months making friends and travelling, though I wasn’t the greatest model.

You can never foresee what’s going to happen with shows like Line of Duty or The Missing, there’s no recipe for that success

My first adult acting job came completely out of the blue. I had an idea in my head that I might go to drama school when I was 18. But before that could happen… I was working in the fashion department at Cosmo magazine and I distinctly remember I was going through a shoe cupboard when I got a phone call to say someone had seen my picture in [the trade magazine] Spotlight. They invited me to audition for what turned out to be Dennis Potter’s last work, Karaoke. And I got it. There was a lot of publicity surrounding it and from there I got an agent and my career began. Sudd-enly, I was an adult with a proper job.

Keeley Hawes s DI Lindsay Denton (front) in Line of Duty with Martin Compston and Vicky McClure

I’d love to go back and tell my 16-year-old self she’ll be nominated for a Bafta one day. That would save her a lot of worry. She’d be amazed that I’ve managed to continue to work as an actor all this time. She’s not got too long to wait until she does Spooks – I was in my early 20s then. Being in that kind of hit show would really excite her. You can never foresee what’s going to happen with shows like Line of Duty or The Missing, there’s no recipe for that kind of success. It’s really, really fantastic to be involved in something with that level of writing. I just read the scripts and knew I wanted to be involved. Yes, I’ve been very lucky.

DID YOU KNOW…

Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.

I never considered anything but having children. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t. My children were all planned. I had my son when I was 24 – he’s now 16. That doesn’t seem that young to me. I’d had all my three children by the time I was 30. I loved motherhood immediately, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I like to think I have quite a cool, relaxed relationship with my children. But though we’re not generations apart, I’m still their mum and probably not as cool as I’d like to think. We all sit together every Friday night to watch Modern Family. And my big boy and I watched Breaking Bad together. It does make things hard regarding work because you do disappear for a year and a half with every child. And that’s a long time in this business. But there was never any question that’s what I wanted to do.

If I could go and relive any time in my life, it would be back to having one of my children. Any one of them would do. I’d just love to make the most of such a special time, with my husband [actor and Spooks star Matthew Macfadyen] by my side, as was my first husband [Spencer McCallum] when I had our son. It’s over so quickly, and you have lots of worries about whether you’re doing it right to come in the future. But for that little moment, it’s just perfect.

Keeley Hawes stars in a new series of The Durrells, Sundays at 9pm on ITV