Ruth Wilson Wants to Expand Her Mind

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Ruth Wilson has a habit of taking on psychologically demanding roles. “I’m always looking for the yin and yang of a character,” she tells the Cut. Since her 2006 breakout in the BBC miniseries Jane Eyre, the English actress has carved a niche for herself playing television characters in turmoil: a woman having an affair while grieving the loss of a child on The Affair, a villain on His Dark Materials, and even her real-life widowed grandmother in Mrs. Wilson.

In The Woman in the Wall, which premiered on Showtime in January, Wilson stars as Lorna Brady, a traumatized survivor of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries who is searching for the lost child she gave birth to while institutionalized. These mostly Roman Catholic facilities institutionalized women for getting pregnant out of wedlock and for minor misdemeanors — a skirt too short or behavior considered a threat to male authority, facts Wilson was horrified to learn in her pre-filming research. The last Laundry closed in 1996, and mass graves are still being discovered today. “Once you start pulling the thread of all this information, there are many connective tissues,” she says. “What humans are capable of doing is horrific. This is horror.”

Without social media, Wilson admits feeling like she’s missing out on what’s trending (“I don’t know what’s going on in that world, I’m completely disconnected from it,” she says), so she really relies on catching up on the news the old-fashioned way to stay connected. But her taste in books, music, and film — many recommendations from friends and critics in these industries — point to a keen interest in drawing inspiration and creativity from works that aren’t trending on TikTok, like Big Bang cosmology: “I love expanding my mind about the universe.”

Does embodying these intense characters take a toll? How do you disconnect?

Sometimes the process of filmmaking is really exhausting because of early mornings and working all day. Lorna was quite emotionally draining in many scenes, but the sleepwalking stuff was really fun. It’s important to invest a bit of humor within her, not only for the audience but for my sanity too. I definitely have a period of slump afterwards where I’m quite low and unenergized and lost. You’re lost without the character you’ve been playing and you lose all creative inspiration for a while. I always know I’ve got my mojo back when I start going to art galleries or dance pieces and getting inspiration again.

Lorna is trying not to fall asleep in The Woman in the Wall. What’s the longest you’ve gone without sleeping?

I recently did a play, The Second Woman, where I was onstage for 24 hours. So I would have woken up probably around 10 a.m. and then gone through to 7 p.m. the next day without sleep. That’s probably the longest I’ve done, and performing throughout it. That was quite crazy. And you definitely go to places. You definitely feel not of this world by the end of that.

Now getting into our Taste Test — where do you get your best culture recommendations from? 
Mainly people and the newspapers. I get them from The Guardian, but it’s usually friends of mine who will give me great references to what’s going on.

Which celebrities would you invite to a dinner party (dead or alive)?

I would love someone like Lee Miller, the photographer. I’d probably invite that whole Surrealist crowd, so Elsa Schiaparelli, Jean Cocteau. I’d love to know what they’d come up with and what that dinner party would be like, and what we’d eat. I’m fascinated by someone like Marilyn Monroe; I’d love to have her in the room.

Just throw her in with the Surrealists. What’s the last meal you cooked for dinner?

You can tell I don’t cook much because I really have to think about it. I do like a big breakfast. There’ll be all kinds of avocado toast with scrambled eggs, tomatoes with a bit of coriander. That’s my specialty, a big ol’ breakfast.

What is your pre-filming ritual? 

I leave it to the last minute to get out of bed. I sleep as long as I can. So if my call is at 6 a.m., I’ll be out of bed at ten to 6. I’ll shower the night before. Then it’s always a coffee. I pick one up on the way so that I’ve worked myself up in the car. And then it’s an hour and a half in the chairs. I’ll drink, have my breakfast, which is usually a solid bowl of porridge with banana, and then another coffee. A lot of people need to be awake for an hour before they get picked up; not me. There’s no way. Sleep is my happy place.

What’s your comfort rewatch?

I don’t really rewatch stuff because there’s so much I haven’t seen. But if there was one, I love The Wire. I’ve seen that a few times. I used to watch Jaws a lot when I was younger … not really comfortable to watch; I liked being scared as a kid. The other one is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But I’d pick something new over something that I’ve already seen before.

What’s the best piece of gossip you’ve ever heard?

I can’t tell you here. Too naughty to tell.

Favorite game to play?

I used to love playing mafia when I was a student, which is basically The Traitors. We’d spend hours and hours playing that, and it became very emotional. It was sort of psychologically terrifying to be a mafia. We’d have emotional breakdowns and fights. It was always high emotional stakes.

It sounds like prepwork for your future acting career. What music do you listen to when you’re alone?

It’s going to sound really quite wanky, but it’s not. Nils Frahm, kind of Scandi tonal music. It spaces me out, it gets me into a place of complete calm. It just chills me out.

Name a book you couldn’t put down?

I’ve been reading When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut. There’s a part of me that loves reading about the expanse of the universe and the world. This follows a number of mathematicians who have discovered or landed on formulas that seem to answer and solve lots of puzzles. I get excited by archaeology, too. If there’s suddenly a discovery of a massive prehistoric mammal, I’m the first one looking at it on the BBC online.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

When everyone is turning right, turn left. Don’t follow the crowd.

What’s the one film that you recommend for someone who needs a little convincing in the psychological-thriller department?

Anatomy of a Fall, about the psychology of a relationship, done in such a brilliant way. You’re analyzing these two characters, but with a thriller at the heart of it. Or Don’t Look Now, the classic.

What do you listen to in the car?

Sometimes I go old-fashioned and bang on the radio, the modern pop stuff. But also music like Johnny Cash, the Band, some Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, the Beatles, I’m quite old-school. I love Blur’s new album. Blur for me is indicative of my teenage years, a band in the U.K. that reminds me of my younger self. I knew all their songs and went to loads of their gigs. Their recent album I listened to on repeat on a car journey through France.

What show is your partner not allowed to watch without you?

Succession. We live across the globe from each other, so we have to wait until we’re in the same space to watch it. It was such brilliant writing. I’m intrigued about what they’ll all do next.

Favorite piece of art you own?

An old Anna Christie poster when the film was made with Greta Garbo back in the ’30s. It’s the Russian poster, so it’s very Art Deco with great colors. It was the film in which Greta Garbo spoke for the first time, so it’s got “Garbo speaks” written on it.

Worst thing to do at a dinner party?

If you’re going to someone else’s party, I think taking your own food is pretty rubbish. If you’re hosting a party … if you’re stressed as a host, it’s really uncomfortable, isn’t it? So don’t be too ambitious with the food and then be stressed about it. It’s probably best to get takeaway. Or not having enough alcohol.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ruth Wilson Wants to Expand Her Mind