Scary films terrify Morfydd Clark. So it’s ironic that the actor’s breakout lead role is in toe-curling thriller Saint Maud, about a palliative care nurse whose devout Christian faith spirals into an obsession with soul-saving, whatever the cost.
‘Saint Maud makes me feel more sad than scared. Maud is the most pitiful martyr,’ says Clark from Auckland, New Zealand, where she’s filming her next project. (More on that later.) ‘The only thing that scares me is how easily a person can fall into darkness when society ignores them.’
She’s not wrong: seeing Saint Maud makes you want to be kinder. Though Maud’s actions are twisted (think nails impaled in her feet, a knife in someone else), Clark feels that the real villain is the world around us.
‘Health workers are paid next to nothing and overworked to spirit-breaking levels. We all have the potential to be villains if the world doesn’t look after us.’
Clark would know: she nearly became a nurse and comes from a family of health workers, with her paediatrician mother working in her Welsh hometown of Penarth, near where Saint Maud was filmed.
‘The fact that Maud is Welsh only sunk in when I was watching the film at Toronto Film Festival with Americans,’ she says, noting the rarity of a Welsh on-screen lead. ‘When God speaks to Maud in Welsh, people probably assume it’s Elvish,’ she laughs.
Clark was born in Sweden but moved to Wales at age two. Apart from being able to say ‘the toilet paper is finished’, the only Scandinavian culture that’s stayed with her is children’s literature.
‘I’ve always found respite in stories,’ says Clark. ‘These tales were darker than British ones. I loved the worlds about naughty children created by writers such as Astrid Lindgren.’
Being seen as an unruly child is something she empathises with. Her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) meant that she was told off for lacking concentration in all school lessons except drama, music and art.
‘At 14, when I became aware of how flat I felt on medication, I knew I didn’t need to take it for those classes.’ Clark, who is also dyslexic, didn’t gel with academia and, after a post-GCSE breakdown, took a year out before tackling A levels.
She was ‘clearly so depressed’ so, in an attempt to get her off the sofa, her mum pushed her to apply to the National Youth Theatre of Wales, the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain and the Welsh National Youth Opera. Clark got into all three.
‘Acting saved me,’ she says. ‘In school, I was constantly censoring myself, albeit unsuccessfully. But in these companies the parts of my personality that had been stressful to navigate were seen as interesting and funny.’
After attending drama school in London, Clark spent the first two years of her career largely on screen, opposite Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams in The Falling and Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship, before transitioning back to theatre with Gary Owen’s Violence and Son.
‘Theatre has made me less of a lazy film actor,’ Clark says. ‘I tend to cut corners where I can in life and there’s no room for that on stage.’ Working with the legendary Glenda Jackson in The Old Vic’s 2016 King Lear also helped with this.
‘With Glenda, you could never feel tired or have a tough day. She’d always been in earlier, left later and had a longer commute.’
More recently, Clark has appeared in The Personal History of David Copperfield with Dev Patel and Eternal Beauty, filmed in Penarth, where she grew up.
‘At one point, I was “getting married” in the church I might one day use,’ she says. ‘I kept spotting my real dad watching filming as I was being given away by my fake dad.’
Next, Clark joins The Lord of the Rings – her childhood obsession – in Amazon’s billion-dollar series set for release in 2021. Playing Galadriel, the powerful elf formerly portrayed by Cate Blanchett, she has had to stop quoting the films with her sister: ‘I just don’t think I can without it being outrageously obnoxious.’
Saint Maud is available on DVD and streaming services now.
This article appeared in the November 2020 edition of ELLE UK.
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