The film and TV star on her new stage role in Uncle Vanya, the trouble with wrinkles and being part of the UK's national heritage because of that Brookside kiss
Your new play, Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, is known as a rather melancholic piece of work. Is that your reading of it?
You can either play it for the comedy or you can play it for the dramatic content and it becomes so dour and so dark that you have to laugh. It's one of those situations where something's so tragic, you cannot help but laugh because you don't know what else to do. You're telling a story of people for whom there's no light at the end of the tunnel. That's where the comedy lies within this.
The play is running until February. Is it daunting to be in that place for so long?
Sometimes you think: "Oh I'm really happy today, I'm with my daughter, and obviously I've got to go to the theatre and put myself in a very dark place." But with this, I feel honoured that I'm speaking Chekhov's words. That could sound wanky but I think he's one of the most beautiful writers. Where others would have a whole page of writing, he can condense it to just two sentences. Every single word matters.
How did you research the part of Yelena?
When I accepted it, I knew the play, but I'd never really studied Chekhov the person. So I went to Moscow for a few days and went to the Chekhov museum and asked lots of questions. They said: "If you want to understand Chekhov, learn about a man called [Ivan] Bunin." He was his friend, a contemporary, and he wrote this beautiful book called About Chekhov. You learn so much about the man that you can't help but fall in love with him. It's his whole attitude to life: you must work and work and work. Don't waste a second of it.
I think that's massively informed by the fact that he was dying of tuberculosis, so it mattered even more to him.
Didn't you once say that you liked the theatre because the audience can't see your wrinkles?
Oh God, no! It's not so the audience can't see my wrinkles, where did you get that from?
So there's no truth in that then?
I was asked once if I worried about getting old and I said: "Everyone does, but not on the stage, you've got big bright lights and you can play down your age." So, in Uncle Vanya, I'm 36 and I'm playing 27. That's because of distance and lights, that just stands to reason. As opposed to going: "I'm doing theatre, no one can see me close up!" That would just be about vanity and that would be stupid.
You admitted recently that you had a procedure called the "vampire facelift". That sounds completely terrifying…
If you read into it, of course it's not a facelift. You just put the plasma of your blood into your face, which is what they do to people who have sports injuries. It's not putting poison into your body, it's a natural thing where you put your own blood back. I tried it and I was quite glowy and my skin looked fresh. I will try things and if that slows the tests of time I'll do it.
But you're not starting to feel elderly yet?
At 36! Ooh, I'm sooo old. Of course I'm not. It's just that I was young when I started. I've been in the public eye since I was 16. Believe me, we all have days when we think: "Oh God…" You've not had enough sleep or too much stress – nothing a bit of red lipstick can't cure.
What advice would you give your 16-year-old self now?
It all comes down to the writing: you're as good as the writing you're given. I felt that very much with Jimmy McGovern with The Street. And plays. If Capote's written something, it's going to be brilliant and it's just up to you to do the work.
No grand regrets then?
I feel I'm the right age to be doing what I'm doing. I could have burned myself out. Opportunities I was offered that maybe I didn't make the most of in my early 20s, I clearly wasn't ready for. I could say: "I wish I'd made that choice about that film and not come back to England…" But other things take priority in life: you can't plan it and if we could it would be bloody dull.
There's always speculation about whether you'll stay in England or go back to Los Angeles. Does this current role settle it?
People want a black-and-white answer, but it's not possible. I bought a house in LA when I was doing Pushing Daisies and I have an ex [David Thewlis] who is still my friend and is the father of my child. I have a boyfriend [Rhys Ifans], I have schools to consider and I have different jobs. It's all dependent on circumstance, as are most people's lives, but ours are a bit more extreme, particularly if your partner and your ex-partner are actors and you have a seven-year-old daughter.
I was actually offered a big job in LA at the same time as Uncle Vanya that would have earned me a lot of money and brought fame again. I say "fame again", but it would have heightened my profile because more people would have seen it on television. But I thought this part would teach me more. Now, my thinking tends to be, what have I not done? I'd like to have longevity as an actress and be able to do theatre for many, many years and get better at that.
How did you feel that your Brookside lesbian kiss was in a montage at the opening ceremony of the Olympics?
If I'm part of that British heritage then I'm nothing but thrilled. On the day, we were watching Stereophonics in Hyde Park and they did a big open screening of it. It was blink and you'll miss it; you don't think: "Look at me, doing a big kiss with a girl!" It's just something you did when you were 16. But I absolutely loved the opening ceremony. I'm half Irish, but I was born in England and I felt quite patriotic and it moved me. Good old England!
You're a national treasure, up there with the NHS now.
Ah well, long may it continue. I hope to be even more of a national treasure come 80. Maybe I'll up my ambition and say by the age of 50. That gives me 14 years.