Why Annabel Scoley is the one to watch in British acting

After 10 years honing her skill on the stage, Annabel Scholey is showing what's she's made of on the small screen. The Wakefield actress talks to Sarah Freeman.

Wakefield-born actress Annabel Scholey.
Wakefield-born actress Annabel Scholey.

Some actresses whose stars burn brightly in their 20s find that when they hit their 30s the parts offered become less interesting and they are unceremoniously sidelined. Not Annabel Scholey. Having quietly spent her first decade out of drama school learning her trade on the stage, she is now stepping out of the wings and into the limelight proper.

There was her role as the vampiric Lauren Drake in Being Human. Then came the fabulously evil Amena in Britannia and currently she can be seen as the unpredictable Nina Defoe in the BBC’s new legal drama The Split.

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“I play the middle of the Dafoe sisters, the wild child,” she says. “Their mother is the definition of a matriarch and a head of one of London’s very traditional family law firms. When she is looking to step down from the business everyone assumes it will pass to the elder sister, but it doesn’t, it goes to me. That decision obviously starts a chain of events, but as well as exploring the dynamics of that family, each week we are introduced to other couples, who are going through a divorce, so there is a lot of tension!”

The series is written by Abi Morgan who having also been the creative force behind The Hour, Brick Lane and Suffragette seems to have something of a Midas touch when it comes to portraying strong women on the small screen.

“She is just incredible,” says Scholey. “A lot of scripts you read have characters which are a little two-dimensional, but in everything Abi does they are absolutely fully-formed. They are real, believable human beings.

“The other really lovely aspect of this show is that you see three different generations of women and each of them has equal billing. Maybe that shouldn’t be unusual, but it is.”

Scholey grew up in Wakefield in a very unstarry family – her mum was a nurse, her father a firefighter, but from an early age it became clear that she was destined for the limelight.

“I have no idea where the thespian gene came from,” she says. “What I do know is that I had so much energy that mum and dad sent me to ballet classes just so I could burn it off. I loved dancing and for a while I thought that’s where my heart lay, but then when I was about 14 years old I went on a school trip to Stratford to see an RSC production The Merchant of Venice. It was a complete revelation. I was totally blown away and from that moment really I knew what I wanted to do.”

Scholey trained at the Oxford School of Drama and, while after graduating 12 years ago she landed small roles in the likes of Doctors and Holby City, it was on the stage that her training proper really began. Within a few years she had notched up a number of Shakespearean productions from Hamlet to Troilus and Cressida and ticked off classics like Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and the Harold Brighouse favourite Hobson’s Choice.

“I’m not sure it was a conscious decision, but it was definitely a great grounding. I came out of theatre school at 21 and it’s only once you begin working that you really start learning your craft. I had some fabulous, if truly daunting experiences.

“I was cast as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Dame Judi Dench as Titania. I mean, that’s enough to scare the living daylights out of anyone, but she was was lovely. I remember at one point realising that she had played Hermia at 26, which was the same age as I was and to see what she has done since is incredibly inspiring.

“I will never forget those early rehearsals when you saw her delivering the verse so effortlessly. I lapped it up, although if I’m honest I don’t think I ever totally relaxed.”

Another of Scholey’s early mentors was Zoe Wanamaker who she starred opposite in Peter Nichol’s acclaimed Passion Play.

“I shared a dressing room with Zoe and it is definitely the best way of getting to know someone,” she says. “When you see each other in your pants every day there really is no hiding place.

“Zoe and I became friends pretty instantly and as a young actress I was really flattered that not only did she ask my opinion, but that she seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. She was such a mentor and a great support. I’d walk over coals to work together again in Britannia and that was such a joy, because if nothing else I know that she will make me laugh.”

It was only after years of stage work that Scholey landed what many consider her big break in the cult supernatural drama Being Human.

“That show became big, but it was a big of a slow burn. It wasn’t a case that the first episode went out and it was an instant hit, so I haven’t yet really had to deal with the onslaught of fame.

“I was in a series called Personal Affairs, which I thought was great and which bombed, so I have given up trying to predict what will be a success and what won’t. All you can do is work hard and give your best. How a show performs once it’s out there in the public domain is totally beyond your control.

“Britannia was a great experience. What was funny was that we all seemed to stick to our little tribes. Us Celts were a pretty sensible lot and after we finished filming we might go for a quick glass of wine, but as we were going out for a morning shoot we’d often bump into the Romans who were just coming home.”

The only downside she says was suddenly finding her character the subject of Twitter trolls from the show’s peculiarly loyal fan base.

“When I was in Britannia Armena did attract quite a bit of online abuse. You learn to deal with it, but it was my first real experience of the downside of Twitter. There is a pressure to be on social media, but one thing I learnt from Nicola Walker in The Split is that it is possible to live outside that bubble. She is not on social media at all, her philosophy is that ignorance is bliss.”

That aside, Scholey is enjoying life and her career. “I know that some actresses complain at how the parts dry up as you get older, but I’m definitely not there yet. I mean, there is the whole of Tennessee Williams to go and Shakespeare also does a pretty good line in strong women.”

The Split is on BBC1, Tuesday, 9pm.