Phoebe Fox interview: 'I get my life force from the theatre, but it doesn't pay the bills'

"I get told I have a ‘period’ face quite often,” says Phoebe Fox. “Maybe it’s the pale skin but I get a lot of pre-Forties posh roles.”

The typecasting bemuses the state-educated, Brentford-born 31-year-old. But right now Fox — best known for playing Vanessa Bell in the BBC’s Life in Squares, and the object of Mark Strong’s unseemly affection in Ivo van Hove’s production of A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic and on Broadway — is diversifying.

You can currently catch her in Sky’s enjoyably schlocky sci-fi series Curfew, which she describes as “a crazy mash-up of The Walking Dead, Fast and Furious and a kitchen-sink drama”. Fox plays the lead role of Kaye, an ambulance driver competing in a post-apocalyptic cross-London road race, among a starry cast including Sean Bean, Harriet Walter, Adrian Lester and Billy Zane.

She only learned to drive six months before and was suddenly chucking an emergency vehicle around an abandoned lot among 30 stunt drivers and a bunch of zombies, under the instruction of Top Gear’s The Stig. “It’s the closest to being an action hero I’ve ever come,” she says.

True, after Curfew, she donned a corset to play the reasonable sister to Felicity Jones’s “wild” aerial artist, paired with Eddie Redmayne’s pioneer balloonist in the fact-based Victorian romance The Aeronauts, a film written by Jack Thorne and directed by Tom Harper. But once that wrapped she started preparing for the title role in Anna, Ella Hickson’s play about a woman in peril in the German Democratic Republic, at the National Theatre in May.

“After the atrocities committed by the Nazis, what was done in the name of the GDR…” she tails off into speechlessness. “You can’t believe those people made the same mistake twice. I’m just picking up titbits of information at the moment. For example, the number of records the Stasi accumulated over 40 years was greater than all the state documents kept since medieval times in Germany.” Fox was a fan of Hickson’s play The Writer, so jumped at the chance to work with her. “[Ella] sets up this archetypal character of the pursued woman,” she says, “and then just sort of neatly flips it on its head.”

Hickson shares equal credit as creator of the show with Ben and Max Ringham, who pioneered the theatrical use of binaural technology, “which allows the audience to experience sound in 360 degrees. Here it’s part and parcel of the story. In Sixties East Berlin everyone was being listened to, everything was bugged.”

By her own admission, Fox is first and foremost a stage actor. “That’s where I get my life force from,” she says. “That’s what fills me up. I’d be happy just to do theatre work but it can’t pay the bills.” It was also what she grew up with. Her parents are Stuart Fox and Prue Clarke, jobbing actors and no relation to the starrier Fox clan comprising Edward, James, Freddie et al.

“It did seem glamorous growing up, I was totally entranced by the sets and the costumes,” says Fox. “There was so much love and creativity and we had no money, but it really didn’t seem to matter. I remember my parents were always around, and that was glorious, but as an adult and as an actor I look back now and see, no, they were at home for long stints because they were unemployed.”

Although apparently born to the business, Fox was rejected by drama schools two years running, getting into Rada on the third attempt. She says she can still tap into the exultation she felt then if she needs to express joy for a role. At Rada she met and married her husband, US actor Kyle Soller, who would later go on to star as Francis Poldark on ITV and lead last year’s must-see theatrical epic, The Inheritance.

But back in 2011, at the start of their marriage and their careers, they were both on the shortlist for Most Promising Newcomer in the Evening Standard Theatre Awards: she for her turn as a boozy, troubled teen in The Acid Test at the Royal Court; he for the lead role in The Government Inspector at the Young Vic. Soller won. “He is amazing so I don’t begrudge him,” Fox smiles, “but yes, that day, that night, I really wanted to win it. But we are not competitive, really.”

Indeed, they seem to operate as a tag team, with Soller undertaking the huge commitment of The Inheritance (which goes to Broadway later this year) after she took on a similarly draining, two-year stint in A View from the Bridge. That show’s oppressive atmosphere put Fox into an emotional tailspin. “In New York the play really started to affect me and I became incredibly depressed. I was away from home, and my sister had had twins really early — they arrived at six months. And New York is a brutal place. It can be overwhelming. I leaned on Kyle a lot.”

Similarly, during The Inheritance, with its near seven-hour running time and its wrenching depiction of the legacy of the Aids crisis, her husband “freely admitted that he used me as a crutch, but he needed to and I was happy to do that for him. I said to him the other day, ‘God, when I start to feel angry and resentful about doing that, we should no longer be together.’ It’s a testament to the love that we have for each other that I am willing to basically sacrifice myself for a year, because I also know he would do the same for me.”

I’ve interviewed Soller several times and each time he has spoken devotedly of his wife. “We’ve grown up together,” Fox nods. The secret, she says, is time apart, because in London they “live in each other’s pockets” in their one-bed flat in Crouch End. Might they have a family themselves? “We’re not ready to add another person into the mix,” she says, adding mischievously, “I don’t know where we’d put the baby. Plus my mum feels it’s ruined her career, so I am mindful of that.”

Being barely 5ft tall, Fox says she has got used to being patronised throughout her career — even patted on the head — and adds that after she turned 30 she went overnight from playing teenagers to playing mothers, even though she didn’t look any different.

It’s changed her attitude to acting. “I’d really like to make my own work,” she adds. “What I came to last year was a general frustration with the work I was missing out on, the work I was doing, and the kind of work I was watching. I have no training in directing and I’ve never been a writer, so I’d really be diving into the deep end. But I feel I have to give it a go.”

Anna is at the National’s Dorfman, SE1 ( May 11-June 15