Why Ophelia Lovibond never felt the need to go to drama school

We all know the way we watch – or as the marketing bods would have it, “consume” – television, has changed.

Ophelia Lovibond in ITVs The Poison Tree and at the Empire Film Awards, main picture, is making her stage debut in Sheffield.
Ophelia Lovibond in ITVs The Poison Tree and at the Empire Film Awards, main picture, is making her stage debut in Sheffield.

The advent and total domination of the boxset culture means that “binge-watching” is now a part of our lives. We no longer tune in next time to see if our daring duo will survive – we just check the clock, work out how many hours of sleep we’ll get if we watch just one more episode – and then we watch just one more episode.

This cultural shift has had an interesting impact on the way we view the stars of our favourite TV shows. When you spend hours in a room with your favourite characters you end up feeling a genuine connection to them. How else do you explain the vast numbers of different types of people wearing T-shirts bearing the likeness of Walter White you see on the streets of our cities?

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It also means for me that when I meet Ophelia Lovibond I am blushing furiously. Sitting opposite is someone who plays an integral role in one of my go-to boxsets.

Henry Pettigrew and Ophelia Lovibond in a scene from The Effect by Lucy Prebble, soon to open in Sheffield. Picture: Johan Persson.

Lovibond, whose name sounds like it belongs to a Bond girl, plays Kitty, the protégé to Johnny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes in the American reboot of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Retitled Elementary for the Americans, there was much consternation when it was announced that the series, created by Robert Doherty, would feature a Sherlock Holmes living in present day New York and a female Dr Watson in the shape of Lucy Liu. The series was also set to make much of Sherlock living as a recovering addict. So much about the concept was sacrilegious – plus it premiered not long after Benedict Cumberbatch had rebooted Sherlock for a new generation of British television viewers so Elementary was considered by many to be unnecessary. It soon transpired that the naysayers really need not have worried. Elementary is brilliant, a deserved international hit and a big part of the series and its success is Ophelia Lovibond’s complex character in the show, Kitty.

“It could have been a pretty unpleasant experience – big stars, big TV show, huge network, loads of producers – and it just wasn’t. It was an incredible experience the whole way through,” says Lovibond. “The team is actually known as the Elementary family because everyone is so friendly – which really isn’t typical of those sorts of procedural dramas.

“The role of Kitty was such a surprise – it came out of nowhere. Those sorts of roles for women in TV really don’t come along very often, but the creator of the show, Rob, was really keen that Kitty be a full, three-dimensional character. Everyone on the show was really behind giving her a proper character arc.”

In case you’re not a convert, Lovibond plays Kitty, a damaged young woman who returns to New York with Johnny Lee Miller’s Sherlock following a trip to London. As the series progresses, the audience discovers that Kitty was kidnapped and tortured by a psychopath in London who, it transpires, has followed her to New York.

It is an intense role and Lovibond plays it exceptionally well.

“It really did come out of nowhere. My American agent called me and said that the creator of the show was keen to meet with me and asked if I was familiar with it. I had to admit I’d never watched it. I saw the billboards for it when I was in LA, but I’d never actually watched an episode.

“When I heard they wanted to meet me I watched a couple of episodes and really liked it straight away - I really loved Johnny’s interpretation of the character. His work is so detailed in it, he really cares about playing honestly someone who is dealing with addiction and it’s important to him he gets it right. If there is one word in a big monologue that doesn’t sit comfortably for him he will ask for it to be changed. So to get to work with someone like that and to step into a show where everyone was so lovely – it was a dream job.”

Lovibond’s whole career appears to be something of a dream in itself. She’s been acting since she was 12, her first film was working with Roman Polanski, she gets offered parts starring opposite Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu out of the blue and now… she’s in Sheffield.

Although I am teasing when I run off this list, Lovibond genuinely doesn’t miss a beat when she agrees that it is incredibly exciting to be in Sheffield.

“I know, it’s so weird. I had five months working in New York on this amazing TV show and now I’m here in Sheffield,” says Lovibond, positively fizzing.

Really? I mean, I love Sheffield, but New York it ain’t.

Turns out there is very good reason for Lovibond to be genuinely thrilled to be in Steel City. This star of a global TV hit is about to make her stage debut in a play called The Effect.

“I’ve wanted to do theatre for ages, but TV begets TV and film begets film, so it’s difficult to stake out a chunk of time to do a play when you’re getting all this other work. I’ve been talking to Johnny a lot about taking on this role because he did Frankenstein at the National with Benedict Cumberbatch. When I asked him about doing some theatre he just told me I had to do it. He said the adrenalin is amazing and that his best memories are working with Danny Boyle on that production,” says Lovibond.

Which is all very nice, but did she really just say this is her stage debut?

“I never trained. I went to a theatre workshop on a Saturday when I was a kid – I think I started doing that when I was 10, but then I got my first TV job when I was 12 and that was just how it started. I kept working in television, doing jobs during my school holidays and then I did my first film with Polanski in the summer between my AS and my A Levels. I didn’t do anything while I was at university, because I wanted to concentrate on my studies, but when I left I kept working and I never felt the need to go to drama school. I never felt that pull because I had already been doing it. All too often people feel like they ought to train, rather than feeling an actual vocational pull towards doing it. You don’t have to do it that way.

“So yes, this is my stage debut.”

She’s brave. But you also have to wonder if it’s also a little foolhardy? After all, she has plenty to lose. Most actors making a stage debut will, whether or not they are willing to admit it, have an eye on achieving much of what Lovibond already has. She has the profile, has had a regular part in a brilliant television series, two when you count her role in W1A (she plays Izzy the object of affection for the hapless Will) – why bother going on the stage of Sheffield’s Studio?

It turns out that the quality of what was on offer for her first stage role is the real pull factor. Her debut happens on June 30 in the regional premiere of the latest play by Lucy Prebble, The Effect, directed by Sheffield Theatres’ artistic director Daniel Evans.

The play received its national premiere in 2012 at the National Theatre and tells the tale of Tristan and Connie, strangers brought together during a drugs trial who begin to fall in love – the question is, is it the drugs or are they really falling for each other? The Sheffield production is the play’s regional premiere.

“I am so excited, I just can’t wait, she says. “I’m not terrified at all. There just isn’t any pressure. I’ve never felt that way about doing this. It’s not pressured, it’s not scary – it’s sort of on that spectrum but at the very positive end of it. Rather than being scary or pressured, it’s exciting and exhilarating. The idea of stepping in front of an audience with this isn’t ‘oh my god, this is scary’, it’s ‘I can’t wait to tell you this brilliant story’.”

It is, by all accounts, a very brilliant story. Prebble is the Sheffield University graduate who became British theatre’s hottest property when she created the script for Enron. Turning the story of the global financial crash into a stage play really should have been a theatrical car crash but was instead an enormous hit.

Prebble’s follow-up play, The Effect, deals with something arguably even bigger than global finance: the very nature of love.

Lovibond says: “The writing is incredible. The subtleties in the script are something else, it’s so layered and each time we read a scene we realise there is even more in it.

“I haven’t played a character quite like this. She’s so complex – even with Kitty in Elementary there were moments when the character had to be subsumed for the sake of the story. That’s fine, it’s the nature of the show, it needs to move the procedural element of the story on all the time, but with this the complexity of the character is just there all the time.

“I was talking to one of the other actors yesterday and we were saying that I should probably realise that I am really being spoiled with this. To get to do this script and be directed by Daniel in my first stage production really is something else. I can’t imagine it getting much better than this.”

• The Effect, Sheffield Studio, to July 18. 0114 249 6000, www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk