Making history

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Charity Wakefield

She might have been born in 1980s Kent, but Charity Wakefield has lived in numerous time periods. Most recently, she’s appeared as Mary Boleyn in Peter Kosminsky’s highly anticipated Wolf Hall  – that’s 1520s Britain – and alongside Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in American Depression-era hit Serena. Costumes are of great interest to her too, explaining why, alongside a busy acting schedule, she’s opened her own vintage shop and created clothing-inspired films. The first episode of Wolf Hall, which chronicles the ascent of Thomas Cromwell, will air in January. We talked to Charity about her role, plus travel, challenges and fashion.

What’s an average day like for you at the moment?
Quite busy actually. I’m doing publicity for Wolf Hall, which is coming out soon. I’ve also just started a vintage shop with my friend Frances Millar, called Charlie Foxtrot Vintage in Nunhead.

What inspired you to open the shop?
We’ve have always been interested in costumes and vintage clothing, and we’ve been friends for a really long time. About six years ago we met up with some friends and did a sort of clothes swapping party, and we realised we both have a lot of vintage clothes. From there it grew and grew, we did little pop-up shops and installations in unusual places. We had our eyes open for a shop space, and South-East London is really great at the moment, it’s really blooming in quite a beautiful way.

Have you always been into fashion?
Yes, well I’ve always been into interesting clothes. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been particularly fashionable, but I’ve always seen what’s happening and put my own twist on it. Ever since I was a kid, I used to tour Hastings charity shops, before it was cool to do that, and I used to like getting weird and unusual pieces and putting them together, and I haven’t really changed. I think it’s becoming more accepted because there’s been such a throwaway culture, with all these shops churning out huge numbers of ubiquitous clothing. So I think now people are looking into fixing things, and the background of the clothes they have, they’re interested in vintage. I love it – we’ve also done some short films and videos inspired by clothing.

What drew you to Wolf Hall?
It’s an amazing role, and it was an amazing team. Peter Kosminsky is someone that I’ve watched the work of over the years and someone that I admire so much, so the opportunity was amazing. I love his style and the feel of the pieces he does, the way that it feels so completely read and truthful. It seemed to me that he was going to be approaching this period in history as if we were really there, and not the glamourize it. You feel really immersed it in. All of the characters around the main characters are really interesting too, you get this complete world.

What’s your character like?
Mary Boleyn is Anne Boleyn’s sister. She was the first of the sisters to go to France to be become part of the French court when she was 15, and she very quickly became the mistress to the king of France. So from that we can glean that she was quite a… well… I guess she was a bit of a goer. She became a mistress to quite a few different people. She was high-spirited and a real fun person to be around.

Was there anything that shocked you about the time period, or anything you didn’t know before?
I went to Hampton Court to walk around and get a feel for the place that they lived, and you realise how interconnected everything is. All the staff were waiting on the king, including the queen, so everybody knows what’s happening all of the time. So one of my questions was, if you’re a mistress, are you ashamed? Is it a secret? And the answer is, everybody knows about it, you’re probably ashamed, and you can’t really keep it a secret because there are servants everywhere, even in the bedroom.

What made you want to become an actor?
I wanted to do millions of things. I was in every club at school and university, and I think eventually I realised that if I was able to make a good go of acting, I could experience all of those things I wanted to do by pretending to do them.

What do you think you’d be if you weren’t an actor?
Maybe a travel writer, I really love travelling and I really like writing journals.

Where has been your favourite place to visit?
Probably going up to the hill tribes in Northern Thailand. It was amazing to live with people, for a short time, who were in the middle of nowhere, with no access to technology at all.

What’s been the biggest challenge of your career so far?
I could answer that in so many ways. I think doing Serena, which came out last year. Susanne Bier was directing – she’s an amazing Danish film director who I’ve held in high esteem for years and years. I had a really small scene at the beginning where I had to be horse-riding, then jump off the horse, have Bradley Cooper throw me a lighter, light a cigarette, and then go and have an improvised conversation about the lead character, who was played by Jennifer Lawrence, in a 1920s New England accent. I just knew that I only had half a day to film it, and that it was really important, and that I shouldn’t fall off the horse.

And finally, what’s been your career highlight to date?
Probably Wolf Hall or Any Human Heart. I don’t think anyone should expect the experience of filming to be good, because after all, it’s a job, and it’s the thing that you get at the end – the film or the TV programme, that is the reward. But both of those jobs were amazingly enjoyable. Any Human Heart because I went to school in Oxford and when I was there I cycled through the university grounds and wished I could go. It’s just so amazing, and so full of academia.

When it came to doing Any Human Heart, I got to play someone who was one of the first girls to go to the university and she’s really gutsy and intelligent. That was amazing, in terms of getting into your imagination. Wolf Hall similarly; we were filming in beautiful locations, original Tudor buildings, and there were great big scenes with perfect attention to detail. It also had a great company feel.

by Becky Zanker

Photographs by Justin van Vliet

Wolf Hall will air on Wednesday at 9pm, BBC 2.

Hair and makeup by Marcia Lee from Caren