My acting debut: Cry into the camera then sing Bananarama

Actress Annabel Scholey, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Pictures by Simon Hulme
Actress Annabel Scholey, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Pictures by Simon Hulme
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She’s talented, bright and level-headed - and has been mentored by the likes of Kevin Spacey, Sam Mendes and Judi Dench. Now Annabel Scholey steps into her first starring role in a film. She talks to Sheena Hastings.

ANNABEL Scholey’s professional biography so far reads like a fairytale CV.

Actress Annabel Scholey, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Pictures by Simon Hulme

Actress Annabel Scholey, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Pictures by Simon Hulme

Her showcase monologues and final diploma performance starring in Mrs Rochester at Oxford Drama School caught the eye of a top agent and she walked straight into a national tour of Stoppard’s The Real Thing with Tom Conti.

Veteran thesp Tim Piggot-Smith, who was directing the show, took Scholey under his wing and soon afterwards the 22-year-old was auditioning for the Royal Shakespeare Company. She was Cressida in Troilus and Cressida, and the Shakespeare-loving girl from Wakefield went on to a slew of top-notch roles in classical plays: Antigone, Ophelia in Hamlet, Hermia (alongside Judi Dench) in Peter Hall’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Anya in The Cherry Orchard at Sheffield Crucible, directed by Jonathan Miller are the stuff of dreams for any young actor.

In a nine-year career – she’s now 30 – she has proven her versatility across many genres and straddling stage and TV screen.

She says: “The best thing you can do is avoid being put in a box, and my agent and I regularly sit down and look at what I’ve done a lot of and the things I could do with doing more or haven’t done at all. It’s a sensible approach if you want longevity in the business – and I want to do this forever.”

Her TV experience includes Poirot, the BBC1 adaptation of Jane Eyre (she was Diana Rivers), the Bafta-nominated Being Human and the lead role of Midge Learner in BBC3’s Personal Affairs.

The daughter of a nurse and a retired fireman, whose sister is a teacher, long before Annabel got the Shakespeare bug during a trip to Stratford with Wakefield High School, her parents channelled her hyperactivity into dance lessons, and she later took up drama and singing.

“I remember going with mum and dad to Bradford Alhambra to see The Nutcracker when I was about five,” says Annabel, settling down over a coffee outside the café at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Her mum Helen had difficulty keeping her off the stage at The Alhambra, she says. “I had to be physically restrained, as I was trying to get up there to prance about and show off. I was a bit of a handful, you might say…”

She loves London and lives in Maida Vale these days, but feels increasingly drawn back to Yorkshire and the family home at Horbury.

“I think home grounds you. If my life was only about acting I would go mad, as it’s a fickle and cruel business at times. You have to have some overlap with other areas of your life, too. I’ve got back in touch with old school friends, and really miss Yorkshire when I’m away.”

Last year she played Lady Anne opposite Kevin Spacey in the Sam Mendes Bridge Project production of Richard III, which was feted both at Bristol Old Vic and in New York. Thanks to Spacey she found a New York agent, and was recently cast in the wacky HBO series Family Tree, directed by Christopher Guest and starring Chris O’Dowd. Her family and the heady world of the British acting aristocracy did overlap rather grandly when Sam Mendes invited the cast of Richard III to a garden party at his country pile last summer.

“I took my mum and she was agog. She couldn’t quite believe what was happening. She happily spent the afternoon sitting chatting to Gemma Jones (Queen Margaret in the play) and tucking in to high tea.”

Annabel confesses that finding herself on stage with the formidable Kevin Spacey was overwhelming.

“He is such a force to be reckoned with and I felt I was drowning. I was so nervous, particularly during a scene that was quite sexual. Sam Mendes saw what was happening and came over to me. He said ‘You have to be a Trojan woman, be brave. He’s going to try to steal this scene, but it’s your scene’. He advised me to drop my voice and fight back. That unlocked the whole thing. I have been so lucky with such great help along the way.”

With barely a pause for breath she was soon back in the West End playing Kate, the minxish mistress in lingerie and stockings (her first grade A bitch part) in Passion Play, opposite Zoe Wanamaker, Owen Teale and Samantha Bond.

“There weren’t enough dressing rooms at the Duke of York Theatre, so Zoe Wanamaker shared with me – which made for some interesting conversations, seeing as I was playing the femme fatale who lured her husband away. I could ask her why she thought a certain line wasn’t working quite right, and she always had the answer. She also asked me about some of her lines – me, giving notes to Zoe Wanamaker!”

Annabel says success in acting is as much about links between people as it is about talent and hard work. An introduction to a casting director or agent from an A-lister is gold dust. Between talent, hard work and the help of those who’ve recognised her potential, Annabel Scholey hasn’t put a foot wrong since leaving drama school. Even securing an audition for high profile plays and TV roles is a major achievement for a young actor, and early on she was being seen for roles that the likes of Carey Mulligan were also in the frame for.

She says even the biggest disappointments – not getting a juicy job after three auditions, for instance – is part of learning to be a better actor. But it has taken her nine years to take on board fully some of the biggest lessons about her business, including the of handling rejection.

Phenomenally successful though she has been so far, the ratio of auditions to jobs won is, she reckons, around 6:1.

“I now know to keep as much distance as I can from a role until it’s mine. You go into an audition and give it your all, wholeheartedly. Then you have to walk out and forget it – and that’s not so easy. I have been through three audition for one role and learned eight scenes, then I didn’t hear a thing. The ability to compartmentalise these things is really helpful.”

Among the other older actors who have mentored Scholey is Dame Judi Dench. “She said ‘however successful you are, you always think you are never going to work again.’ You realise you have to learn to live with that insecurity, or you just can’t do this job.”

Annabel says her dad Richard has knocked good sense into her about saving money to shore her up against possible lean time. “To begin with I did spend a bit, but he convinced me to change. I’m lucky, in that I’m single, I rent a flat, and don’t have to earn enough to feed a family of four. You can get a well-paid TV role, then have a break and land a juicy stage role that pays relatively little.

“My parents feel they didn’t know enough about the business when I 
wanted to go into acting, or they could have talked to me more about the financial insecurity.”

In a few weeks she will open in the “Simpsons-meet-the-apocalypse” play Mr Burns at London’s fashionable Almeida Theatre, and in June she will tread the red carpet in Leicester Square for the opening of her first film lead, as Maddie in Vertigo Films’ Walking On Sunshine. A feel-good musical movie about a summer in Italy and two sisters who’ve fallen for the same guy at separate times, the bouncy soundtrack of 80s songs was sung by the cast, and Annabel says “it was my best ever job. I just loved it, and can’t wait to do another film.”

She was cast after a lengthy process to find a replacement for Kylie Minogue – the original choice to play Maddie.

“They auditioned loads of people, as I kept bumping into other actors who’d been seen for it,” she says. “I had to do a couple of monologues and cry into the camera, then sing Bananarama’s Venus.”

Her technique to induce those tears at will involves music: in Richard III she found the right mood by listening to Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms in the wings before going on; Max Richter’s classical piece On The Nature Of Daylight also tweaks the tear ducts. She uses “trigger” words in the dialogue to evoke emotion, too. Her master plan is to cultivate her manifest versatility.

“I’m more interested in longevity as an actor than always being the lead. I want to do this forever. I’d quite happily be the leading lady, but you have to be more than that if you want to survive in the business.”

What would her ideal roles be for the next two years? “Well, another film – I really enjoyed the whole process with a lovely team of people. I’d also include a nice juicy role in the West End – maybe Maggie in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Further ahead I want to do Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire and Lady Macbeth.” Only a fool would bet against her doing both at some point.

Also in the life plan is a family – although there isn’t a steady relationship at the moment. “I went through a phase of saying ‘no more actors as boyfriends’ – but it’s hard to meet anyone else, and I get on really well with them. I almost married one a while ago. They understand the business, but I have learned that if you are both in it you have to find a healthy balance, keeping home life and professional life separate. Two actors together can be tricky – but they are so damned attractive.”

• Walking On Sunshine will be on general release in June. Annabel Scholey stars in Mr Burns at the Almeida Theatre in London from June 5 to July 19.