Charlotte Riley is ‘absolutely parched’. It’s 8.30 on a frosty morning and she’s not sure she can talk, let alone think, until she has had ‘a few slurps of tea’. While other actresses on the verge of becoming Hollywood A-list – she is the female lead in major new American drama World Without End and Tom Cruise’s co-star in the much-anticipated movie All You Need is Kill – might reveal more glamorous tastes (champagne, Christian Louboutin shoes or toy chihuahuas), Charlotte remains endearingly in touch with her Northern roots and cites ‘tea guzzling’ as her number-one passion. When I mention my own addiction to Yorkshire Gold her eyes light up, she raises her hand towards mine and shouts, ‘Yorkshire Gold! High five for that.’
In her lovely, lilting County Durham accent she then proceeds to tell me about her absolute favourite tea – Ringtons – and how her ‘dad makes it so strong that the blooming spoon can almost stand up on its own’. Tea has even got romantic connotations for 31-year-old Charlotte – her first encounter with her fiancé Tom Hardy occurred over a cup of it in 2008 when they were cast as Cathy and Heathcliff in the ITV production of Wuthering Heights. Tom was an established and acclaimed (if a little wild) actor, while Charlotte was an unknown straight from drama school. But when they met she decided that ‘since they were going to fall madly in love with each other’ on screen she would pluck up the courage to ask him to go for a cup of tea. (Sharing a brew, she explains, is the only way to really get to know anyone.)
‘It wasn’t love at first cup,’ she says. ‘In fact, I was a bit unnerved when he suddenly switched into the persona of Charles Bronson [Britain’s most dangerous prisoner, who Tom had previously played in the film Bronson]. After a few cups of tea I realised it was something he did mainly to make people laugh,’ she recalls. (He now also relapses into Bane, the evil character he played in last summer’s Batman blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises.)
The couple became engaged in 2010, and it’s easy to see why Tom, 35, has said he is a ‘lucky man’ to have Charlotte in his life. Funny, clever and endearingly old-fashioned, she is also clearly unfazed by film industry predictions that a clutch of brilliant roles in forthcoming productions will propel her to Hollywood stardom.
Charlotte is mesmerising in the eight-part series World Without End, which was adapted from Ken Follett’s bestselling novel. It is set in medieval England, and she plays Caris, the feisty daughter of an alderman who, thwarted in her ambitions to become a doctor, fights for her own independence and that of the oppressed people of her community. Her co-stars include Cynthia Nixon, who plays villainous Petranilla, Miranda Richardson, Ben Chaplin and, as her love interest, up-and-coming English actor Tom Weston-Jones.
‘You first meet Caris when she realises she has only two choices in life – to conform to her parents’ expectations by becoming a wife and mother, or to break away from tradition and follow her mentor Mattie, the herbalist and midwife of the town. I can’t give away too much of the plot but the scenes I had with Indira Varma, who plays Mattie, were hilarious. There was one scene where she is teaching me anatomy and we had to split open a dead body and take out all the various organs. It was meant to be a serious shot without sound, but Indira kept coming up with outrageously funny and rude comments about all these body parts. While she somehow managed to keep a straight face I kept ruining shot after shot by laughing!’ There is no denying Charlotte’s talent. She can switch in an instant from her natural brogue to cockney or cut-glass posh and has mastered a faultless American accent in the forthcoming film Grand Street, in which she stars as Camilla, a former film executive who spends a life-changing 24 hours with a writer whose work she had rejected a year previously.
Charlotte and Tom: ‘I have always been a keen letter writer and so Tom and I write to each other most days when we are apart – or at least every other day’ lthough some of Charlotte’s first memories are of performing puppet shows ‘behind Mum and Dad’s sofa’ she took a long time to make up her mind to become an actress. The third child of Michael, an engineer, and Margaret, a nurse and bereavement counsellor, Charlotte is a decade younger than her siblings Joanne and Simon. Raised in a village near Stockton-on-Tees, she went to the prestigious Teesside High School before moving on to Durham University to study English language and linguistics.
A member of the Durham Revue, she not only performed in their productions but also began to co-write sketches with her friend Tiffany Wood. After graduation they went on to write and perform the play Shaking Cecilia, which landed them a playwriting award at the 2004 Sunday Times National Student Drama Festival. Charlotte, undecided about her future, then spent a period teaching drama to young adults and children with disabilities, an experience that – combined with a workshop in clowning that she attended – finally made up her mind, aged 24, to pursue acting and take up a place at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
Charlotte is dismissive of her beauty and seems totally lacking in vanity, and when I mention that she looks a little like a young Julia Roberts she blushes and exclaims, ‘Shut up!’ Tom and Charlotte live together near Richmond Park in Southwest London – not far from where he grew up – and despite the demands of their careers they have a rule that they must see each other every two weeks. This year their working schedules have allowed them to spend around six ‘blissful’ months together at home. Two years after their engagement, their failure to ‘name the day’ has prompted press rumours that they are no longer engaged (Tom claiming Charlotte was a ‘hard woman to pin down’ and Charlotte rumoured to have said that she was in no hurry to marry).
Over our second cup of tea I feel brave enough to ask if they are still planning to marry. ‘Definitely,’ she says, holding out her hand to reveal a diamond engagement ring that she removes to give me a closer look. It’s a delicate and exquisite ring from the 1940s – chosen by Tom because of her passion for that decade.
Charlotte’s wardrobe is almost entirely vintage (though not exclusively 40s) and today she is wearing a jacket of her mother’s from the early 60s that she found in the family loft. ‘I am rubbish at high-street shopping. Tom dragged me shopping the other day because otherwise I would never go, but I couldn’t get inspired by anything. But put me in a vintage shop and I am like a child with sweeties. I find it a million times easier to find a vintage dress than trawl the shops for a pair of jeans, so I am either dressed in really nice vintage or I am in a pair of tracksuit bottoms looking like a scruffbag,’ she says.
But Charlotte’s love of all things vintage is much more than a fashion statement. She adores swing dancing and, inspired by the Andrews Sisters, she and a few of her girlfriends have formed a 40s-style singing group called The Flirtinis. The group – when Charlotte’s working schedule permits – sometimes appear as backing singers for The Jive Aces, who were semifinalists on this year’s Britain’s Got Talent.
On the surface, Charlotte and Tom might seem something of an unlikely couple, but in fact they have learnt to embrace each other’s passions. Tom has grown to like the sounds of the 40s and Charlotte has come to appreciate his love of gangsta rap. Tom has also taken on Charlotte’s preferred and somewhat antique form of communication, rejecting email, Skype or texting for the lost art of letter writing. ‘I’ve always been a keen letter writer and so Tom and I write to each other most days when we are apart – or at least every other day,’ she says with a smile.
Meanwhile, Tom has helped Charlotte overcome her lifelong fear of dogs (she was badly bitten when she was two) by bringing a rescue puppy into the house. ‘He adores dogs and when he was filming Lawless in Atlanta he found this abandoned puppy on a freeway. He adopted him, got all the necessary vaccinations done and brought him home. He’s called Woody and I am totally in love with him – he has now grown into this huge beautiful dog that Tom’s little boy Louis rides like a horse,’ she says. harlotte is a devoted stepmother to Tom’s son from his relationship with ex-girlfriend Rachael Speed. ‘Louis is four and the most incredible, intelligent, creative little human being I have ever met – he is amazing. I feel very honoured to be his stepmum,’ she says. Would she like children of her own with Tom? ‘Hell, yes, I want babies, lots of them. Definitely, absolutely definitely.’
Charlotte is thrilled by her flourishing acting career (she cannot talk about All You Need is Kill, currently being shot on location in England, although she does say that Tom Cruise is an ‘incredibly nice man’), but she still loves writing and has several ‘projects in the pipeline’ (one with Tiffany Wood, who remains a close friend). Ridiculously energetic, she also fits painting into her frantic schedule, and she and Tom have recently become patrons of Bowel Cancer UK (something she is ‘absolutely committed’ to but, for personal reasons, doesn’t want to talk about as ‘it’s a sensitive subject for me at the moment’).
Today, the most exciting prospect for Charlotte – when filming finishes this afternoon – is getting on a train to County Durham to see her parents. ‘One of the things I miss most about home is my mum’s cooking and tonight she’s making me her lasagne. But the first thing I’ll do when I get home – and believe me I can’t wait – is have a strong cup of Ringtons tea.’