Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders and Wolf Hall: Kate Phillips on period drama roles and her new project Benediction

Kate Phillips studied in Leeds and has had roles in Wolf Hall, Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders. Danielle de Wolfe speaks to her about new project Benediction.

Actress Kate Phillips is no stranger to the world of period dramas. Her breakout role was as Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, in hit BBC series Wolf Hall and appearances as Linda Shelby in Peaky Blinders and Princess Mary in Downton Abbey have only cemented her position as a ‘go-to’ where historical roles are concerned.

Her considered manner and eloquent responses align perfectly with the latter of those on-screen characters, chatting over Zoom with the utmost poise.

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Conversation centres around her latest feature-length project, Benediction – another period drama, albeit a somewhat contemporary take, shot through the eyes of Bafta-nominated screenwriter Terence Davies.

Kate Phillips, pictured as Hester Gatty with Jack Lowden as Siegfried Sassoon in Benediction. Picture: PA Photo/Laurence Cendrowicz

“I think what’s so exciting, particularly about bringing moments of history to the now, is that you’re bringing what feels like a sepia, grainy [image] from the history books and you’re making it vivid,” says Phillips.

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“It’s reminding you that the people who walked those paths are no different to you or I – and that, for me, is the joy of playing characters that once existed.”

Delving into the life of revered First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon, Benediction is a cinematic offering from Davies (A Quiet Passion, The Deep Blue Sea) that places the private life of the writer under the microscope.

Aside from intersplicing Siegfried’s frontline experiences with snapshots of his literary development and notably his stance as a conscientious objector, Benediction focuses on the poet’s confliction when it comes to social conformity and homosexuality.

The film is led by Dunkirk star Jack Lowden as a young Siegfried and sees 33-year-old Phillips star as Hester, Siegfried’s wife, during her youth.

Lowden is succeeded by Bafta and Academy Award-winning actor, director and screenwriter Peter Capaldi as he embodies the poet during his formative years and Bridget Jones actress Gemma Jones continues the role of Hester into old age.

With War Horse star Jeremy Irvine playing renowned British entertainer Ivor Novello, it’s a cast list bursting with revered names.

Describing the notable lack of written material when it came to researching the role, Phillips explains that “a few little remarks” from Hester’s acquaintances were all she had to go off.

That being said, intimate images of the couple were in abundance.

Flicking through candid photographs of the pair ahead of filming – images Phillips describes as “beautiful freeze frames of their life together” – the actress explains that part of the thrill of embodying a once-living figure comes from the fact “you can’t hide behind the character”.

“This person had a whole life,” says Phillips. “She was a poet, she was in that world, an artist in her own right and just so utterly drawn to [Siegfried] and his soul and ability.”

Embarking on marriage in spite of the poet’s admissions of homosexuality, Phillips describes Hester and Siegfried’s connection as one built upon mutual respect and admiration – particularly when it came to the realm of creativity.

“She just needed to be in his orbit,” says the actress, describing the pair’s journey as a “fascinating thing to try and understand”.

Phillips adds: “She commits herself to Siegfried knowing his sexuality, which is a really amazing commitment to make.”

Phillips landed her first professional role in the BBC’s lavish adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall.

She was cast as Jane Seymour opposite Damian Lewis’ Henry VIII in the epic saga which chronicles 35 years in the royal court from the rise of Thomas Cromwell to the death of Sir Thomas More.

Soon after she finished filming, she made her professional stage debut in Leeds as Abigail Williams in the West Yorkshire Playhouse production of The Crucible in 2014.

The week-long run was something of a homecoming for Phillips, who was among the first intake of Leeds University’s theatre and performance degree.

After spending three years studying at Leeds, Phillips secured a place at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

For this latest role, Phillips says the “rich and vibrant” relationship between Siegfried and Hester became a point of “fascination” for her, despite the impending sadness that loomed on the horizon.

A time-hopping affair, Benediction unfurls the life of a man who witnessed the horrors of conflict whilst fighting on the Western Front. Admired by his fellow servicemen and the British aristocracy alike, Siegfried went on to be awarded the Military Cross for his wartime efforts.

However, the sights the poet witnessed ultimately led him to become a staunch critic of the war. Penning a scathing letter to his commanding officer announcing that he would not perform any further military duties, his words went on to divide opinion in both the House of Commons and across the media landscape.

It’s a letter that famously read: “I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”

They were objections that could have ultimately seen Siegfried court-martialled for his protests, but the decision was instead made to send the former soldier to Craiglockhart, a war hospital near Edinburgh.

Going on to be diagnosed with “shell shock”, the poet spent much of his time reflecting not only on the conflict, but the distinct sense of non-conformity he felt.

“Something that I think Terence [Davies] himself brings to this particular film is he talks a lot about being an outsider,” says Phillips. I think that’s what brings the kind of rich sadness to so many of the films that he makes. That’s true as well of Hester and the subsistence of loneliness that we all feel in our lives.”

Describing Davies as “one of our greatest directors”, Phillips says her knowledge of the creative’s past work – notably A Quiet Passion – gave her a real sense of “what it was he wanted to create”.

Noting that Benediction was a “really satisfying project” to be a part of, the actress ends by referencing the palpable sense of isolation expressed by both Davies and Siegfried alike.

“That’s something I felt like I personally can connect to – and I think that’s certainly what audiences will take away with them too.”

Benediction is released in UK cinemas today, May 20.