Hattie Morahan interview: 'It's like I’ve been doing a life-death collision course both on and off stage'

"Never ask an actor about their career trajectory,” warns Hattie Morahan. There is, she reckons, more luck than logic to her profession. “We don’t really have beginnings, middles and endings. We’re all clinging on and clutching at straws.”

If that’s true, Morahan makes straw-clutching look positively considered. One of the most gifted stage actors of her generation, she brings something fresh to every part she plays: a mixture of nimble intelligence and emotional intensity that can reinvent a classic role or reinvigorate a little-known one. She suggested Iphigenia’s death was self-sacrificial at the National, she splintered apart in J B Priestley’s Time and the Conways, and, in 2012, she won the best actress gong at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards for her performance in A Doll’s House, in which she portrayed Nora as a woman teetering on the edge before taking control. She played the role, on and off, for more than two years. There might not be a plan, but you would swear she picks her parts as preciously as dealers do diamonds.

Since Nora, however, stage roles have been few and far between. Having turned 40 last year, Morahan has done only one play, Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide, since her daughter was born two and a half years ago. Television has taken over — she starred in the BBC’s Second World War drama My Mother and Other Strangers — but Morahan has always seemed to get her kicks on stage.

“There are moments when you go, ‘Oh my God, I’ve peaked. I’ll never have that run again,’” she admits. And yet, doing less is a conscious choice. Motherhood has made her selective. “It’s a mixture of logistics and exhaustion,” she jokes. “But it does make you ask, ‘What are the things that are going to pull me in a completely new direction or push me to really improve myself? That’s interesting, but it’s not interesting enough.’” The way Morahan tells it, motherhood’s mighty empowering. Work has to measure up.

The fact that she’s back on stage in London in a lesser-known Tennessee Williams play is, therefore, doubly cause for excitement. Orpheus Descending is a very loose spin on the myth tucked into its title. In a Deep South store, Lady is all but brought back from the dead — a tormented marriage — by an enigmatic musician with a signature-studded guitar. Morahan is following in famous footsteps: Vanessa Redgrave played Lady in 1988, Helen Mirren in 2000. London has not seen the play since.

“It’s not done nearly as frequently as Streetcar and the rest,” Morahan acknowledges, adding that the play “had quite a bumpy ride” first time out back in 1957. “But I think it’s remarkable, actually. It feels more earthy and dirty than a lot of his other plays.”

Having seen Summer and Smoke in the West End last year (“loved it”), she knows Williams’s writing can catch audiences off-guard. “In this country, we always think of it as exotic. It can feel so foreign, but I hope we can deliver it in a way that isn’t distancing, so people don’t go, ‘That’s just how people are in Mississippi.’”

She’s adamant that Williams’s small-town story has contemporary resonance — not least in the way its locals bristle at outsiders. “It asks what it means to belong or feel like you don’t — whether that’s because of the way you behave, because you’re black or immigrant or because you’re just different.”

(Johan Persson)
(Johan Persson)

Lady keeps a lot bottled up. “There are plenty of fireworks towards the end but I’m trying to figure out somebody with enough toughness to protect herself from emotional pain. That guardedness is interesting,” she says. It helps that Williams writes extraordinary women. “There’s so much detail, so much complexity and contradiction, you can’t ever make a blanket choice about a character.”

Perhaps it’s a product of being picky but Morahan’s recent roles have revolved around death. She played Cillian Murphy’s late wife in Grief Is the Thing With Feathers; her face fuzzy in home videos, her voice caught in amber on a cassette. In Anatomy of a Suicide, her character struggled with suicidal urges. “She was just drawn towards death like a magnet, as if she couldn’t survive life, let alone find its joy.”

Morahan says she keeps dying on stage. “It’s not sought out but I suppose it’s linked to responding to projects that feel especially important, like they’re about life and death issues.” She pauses. “It’s true that, in my personal life, I’ve had a really...” — the thought trails off. “My father died. I’ve had a child. It’s like I’ve been doing a life-death collision course both on and off stage.”

Her father was the director Christopher Morahan. Her mother, Anna Carteret, is an actor too. “I always found it exciting, visiting them at work. Theatre was like the family business.” She knew, early on, she wanted to act and, after reading English at Cambridge, her career really got going with a series of roles at the National Theatre. It has, however, been almost a decade since she last played there. “I know,” she says, extending the word in mock appal. “I still get a shiver of excitement going back, the smell of the concrete and those weird air vents above the car park. As a five-year-old, you’re like, ‘Wow.’”

Still, she remains philosophical about the way opportunity knocks. Theatre’s like alchemy: there’s no knowing when you’ll strike gold. Take Nora: “Such a privilege to play,” Morahan beams. “It seemed to touch people and resonate in such a special way. It’s funny: acting is essentially entertainment but there was something about it that felt like we were part of something that had real value.”

She recalls conversations with audience members post-show: women “rocked” by revelations about their own marriages, young women who “felt really galvanised” by Nora’s route to independence, “a guy who looked really shaken and said the last scene was almost word for word a replay of his divorce and only through watching it he realised what a s*** he’d been. It’s those moments when you realise that art can really make people think about their lives.”

Orpheus Descending is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, SE1 (menierchocolatefactory.com), until July 6