How I stepped out next to Damian Lewis

Kate Phillips is proof that hard work pays off. She tells Sarah Freeman how despite failing her first auditions for drama school she landed her first professional role opposite Damian Lewis in the long-awaited adaptation of Wolf Hall.

Actress Kate Phillips. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Actress Kate Phillips. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Kate Phillips is the first to admit that she’s been lucky. Very lucky.

Earlier this year she was just one of the country’s thousands of students embarking on their final year of drama school dreaming of being plucked from obscurity while nervous about stepping out into the real world.

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However, before she was able to complete her final assessments, Phillips received a call from her agent. She had landed her first professional role in the BBC’s lavish adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall. Most undergraduates would have had to be satisfied with a bit part, one that eventually ended up on the cutting room floor. Not Phillips. She had been 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 of Thomas Cromwell to the death of Sir Thomas More.

Actress Kate Phillips. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

She finished filming last month and then after a two-week break hopped on a train to Leeds where she will make her professional stage debut as Abigail Williams in the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s new production of The Crucible which opens next week. It’s early days, but understandably, Phillips is already being singled out as one to watch.

“What can I say, except it’s been an incredible few months?” she says when we meet in the Playhouse cafe in between rehearsals. “They are both incredible roles, but more than that they have been great experiences.”

While Phillips’ life may appear charmed, she’s not had it all easy. Rejected from her first round of auditions to drama school she was forced to take a year out before reapplying. It was a knock to her confidence, but after spending seven months as Chloe Moretz’s stand-in on Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed film Hugo she was convinced that acting was where her heart lay.

“When you are working with really young actors there are strict limits on how many hours they can be on set each day, so on big budget productions they will employ stand-ins for a lot of the preparation work. It can take half an hour just to set up the lighting for a shot, so instead of having the star stood there while they fiddle around, they get someone like me. During Hugo there were times when I thought, ‘I just really want to be on the other side of the camera, I want to be the one doing the acting’.

“I kept it to myself and did my job. That’s what I was being paid for and there are worst ways to spend seven months. I took a lot from it, but I guess it gave me renewed determination to go to drama school.”

After taking part in a three-week summer school, Phillips’ heart became set on winning a place at the Guildhall School of Speech and Drama. Fortunately, they also liked what they saw.

“I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it was, but at that summer school I really felt like I’d found my place and my voice. It felt like everything had fallen into place.”

While Guildhall alumni include the likes of Daniel Craig, Ewan McGregor and Orlando Bloom, Phillips is very aware that most actors struggle to make a full-time living and even despite having been cast in two plum roles she is not immune to an occasional crisis of confidence.

“Of course it was terrifying stepping onto the set of Wolf Hall and there were moments when I thought, ‘I’m so bad, I’m sure they must regret casting me’, but you have to snap out of it. It’s a job and you are there to work and deliver the very best performance you can.

“When you are acting, you don’t see how others see you, all you can do is put your trust in the director. Because I’d missed the last two projects at drama school my teachers came to see me on set instead. They got to see some of the rushes so they know better than me how it turned out.

“All I know is it was a wonderful experience. I don’t think I could have asked for better.”

Phillips auditioned for The Crucible while she was in the middle of filming Wolf Hall and says she felt an immediate affinity with the Playhouse’s artistic director James Brining.

“You never want to leave an audition thinking I could have given something more. That’s not a good place to be, every actor wants to at least think they have given it their best shot. With The Crucible I did my first audition and then was called back to workshop with James. I had such a great time that by the end I wanted to be involved more than ever. When I got the call offering me the part of Elizabeth, I was incredibly excited.”

Arthur Miller’s play of how a hysteria-fuelled mob mentality destroys an entire town is a staple on the GCSE and A-level syllabus, but Phillips says her only experience of it was watching her brother in an amateur production when she was just 10-years-old.

Miller famously wrote the play as a thinly veiled criticism of McCarthyism, which during the 1950s had seen many in America outed as Communists – often wrongly – and blacklisted by the government. Subsequent versions have brought the action up-to-date referencing more modern examples of mob rule, but Brining’s version looks set to be a more straight retelling of the play.

“I hope what we produce is an honest production of the play,” says Phillips.

“We want the audience to watch those girls and maybe just even for a moment see that their hysteria is so genuine that they get a sense of how a town like Salem could have fallen under their spell.”

Philips’ week-long run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is something of a homecoming.

She was among the first intake of Leeds University’s theatre and performance degree and hasn’t been been back since she graduated four years ago.

“Funnily enough I couldn’t get into any of the plays the university’s Theatre Group or TG as it was known put on. I don’t know why, but it just never seemed to work out.

“I think because it was the first year of a brand new course all the extra-curicular activities weren’t up and running, but fortunately one of the other students set up his own theatre company called Ravenrock, so I was able to do plays through that.

“Being back here is very different experience than I had at university. I’ve been really impressed and I’ve really enjoyed discovering areas which I didn’t even know existed.

“I’m living in Roundhay with a family, so it’s given me a completely different perspective of the city than the one I had as a student when I lived and went out on one small area. Now I have a nice little routine. I cycle to the theatre every day and I’ve been able to explore places like Ilkley.”

While Phillips’ two older brothers were interested in the arts – one is now an aspiring playwright – she didn’t come from a particularly showbusiness family.

“Mum had trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama as a vocal coach, but by the time I was growing up she had moved on to a different part of her career. I’m not sure what it was that made me want to act, although I think part of it was down to the fact that we moved around so much as a family. I went to quite a few different schools, but every time we arrived at a new place I would always search out the drama group. It helped me to feel like I belonged.”

The Crucible is the opening play in the Playhouse’s new autumn/winter season and at the moment at least Philips doesn’t know where she will be at the end of the month-long run.

Wolf Hall and The Crucible could end up being the highlights of my career,” she says.

“I haven’t got another job lined up and while I’ve done a lot of auditions no one has said yet that they want me for their next project.

“The other day a few of us from The Crucible cast hopped on the train back to London. They have so many years more experience than me and on the way down we started discussing how you make a good career out of acting.

“They also said the same thing – as long as you’re doing work which feels like a challenge, which feels like you are constantly moving forward then that has to be the measure of success.”

• The Crucible, West Yorkshire Playhouse, September 29 to October 25. 0113 213 7700,