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A Class Act

Gazing at poster-adorned walls, jumbled props and backlit dressing tables, Ruth Wilson (History, 2003) is transported back to a seminal moment in time. “It’s exactly the same – it hasn’t changed,” she muses as she tours the backstage quarters of the Nottingham New Theatre, the only student-run theatre in England. Commanding the stage and screen in critically-acclaimed performances – including her Golden Globe-winning role in The Affair – Ruth is one of Britain’s most exciting actors, thrilling audiences with her bold portrayals of complex characters. But it was here on University Park Campus that this star first shone.

“I always had an inkling that I wanted to act, but I never admitted it,” recalls Ruth. “I hadn’t found a community of people that shared my passion, but it was ignited and nurtured when I found the New Theatre. I explored acting, directed my first play and devised a show, The Hush, for the Edinburgh Festival with Carrie Cracknell – her aesthetic vision and ability to stage a play was impressive, even as a student. I met some of my closest friends here, including Carrie and Michael Longhurst, who directed me in Constellations on Broadway.

“To have three years to explore my interest in theatre in a place where there was real creative freedom, with no performance pressure or professional critique, was invaluable. It was at the end of my time at Nottingham that I said to Mum and Dad, ‘I want to give acting a go’.”

Returning to campus to receive an honorary degree, Ruth is joined by her parents, Mary and Nigel. 

“When I first told my parents that after three years of university, I wanted to go to drama school, I think they despaired,” laughs Ruth. “Not only was it more money but it was more drama! But they never shared any doubts with me. Their belief in me has enabled me to do what I love and to achieve what I have so far.”  

“Ruth was never a stage-struck little girl, but she listened to that desire inside,” said Mary. “She explored and discovered a world that was completely new to us. We couldn’t help her navigate her way, but we could support and encourage her to follow her passion.”

“We saw the great talent she has on stage,” adds Nigel. “She’s very watchable and holds people’s attention.”

Actress Ruth Wilson in the Nottingham New Theatre

Connecting with audiences 

Graduating from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 2005, Ruth came to public attention just a year later when she dazzled audiences and critics alike in the title role of BBC miniseries Jane Eyre. With an auspicious start, Ruth has gone on to develop an impressive and prestigious body of work. With Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress Olivier Awards for her performances in A Streetcar Named Desire and Anna Christie, a Tony Award nomination for her Broadway debut in Constellations and an Olivier Award nomination for her recent appearance in Hedda Gabler, Ruth’s ability to interpret complex characters has earned her the respect of the industry. On screen, she’s showcased her acting prowess in a diverse range of roles in productions including Saving Mr Banks, Anna Karenina, Luther and of course, her award-winning turn in The Affair

“Character is key when I’m considering projects because you’ve got to play the part,” explains Ruth. “It’s often things that are different from what I’ve done before, and pose a new challenge, that I’ll grab at. I’d like to do a comedic role – everyone thinks I’m really serious but I performed comedy at the New Theatre, I just haven’t done it my professional life yet. 

“Working on film is fun but the sets can be intense. You often focus on one scene for an entire day, which can feel quite pressured and claustrophobic with a camera in your face. Every couple of years, I feel I need to go back to theatre. In theatre, you and every other actor on that stage are responsible for telling the story each night. If you make a mistake, you just do something else tomorrow. You find something new each day and slowly build the character as you’re performing it.

I love both film and theatre but they require different skills – one is more physical and vocal and the other is much more thought-based and internalised. 

“The growth in streaming live theatre has introduced a new element to the mix. It can be slightly odd – you’re performing to cameras while there’s a live audience in the theatre – but it’s a new medium to embrace and it’s only going to get better as the technology improves. The atmosphere that is conveyed can be very different depending on the space. For an intimate performance like Coriolanus at the Donmar, the cameras would be very close, whereas in Hedda Gabler I didn’t have any cameras on stage. The lighting was very dramatic and tight camerawork would have missed it. There’s something about it being live which is exciting – on one of Derek Jacobi’s performances as King Lear the feed cut out just as he was giving one of his big speeches. It was shocking but for the audience it was a reminder that this is real.

“On Hedda we had a moment – which I’d never encountered before – of something happening in the audience that stopped the show. Right at the most pivotal moment – when I’m covered in fake blood and on all fours after being thrown to the ground – I heard a man scream: “Is there a doctor in the house?” A woman had fainted, so we had to leave the stage and come back on to start the moment again. It was an incredible experience as it made me realise the importance of the communion between audience and actors. It dropped completely but the support when we came back on was amazing. That’s what’s so special about theatre – it’s happening now, in the moment.”


Award-winning actress Ruth Wilson


Personifying complex characters

Praised for her commitment to understanding the challenging and intriguing characters she inhabits by co-stars including Jake Gyllenhaal and Dominic West, Ruth’s meticulous approach to research is a skill she honed through her history degree. “My favourite part of doing a role is researching the context, time and places where the characters exist. When I did Streetcar and Anna Christie, both plays set in specific moments in American history, I went out to those locations and spoke to local academics to source nuggets of inspiration. In New Orleans, I went to the areas where Stanley and Stella might have lived, and in Minnesota, I found an amazing pamphlet in a library about prostitutes in 1910 in Saint Paul, which Anna Christie was. My history research skills have been invaluable.”

Her next project is one in which her usual background research is not required. Ruth is producing and will star as her own grandmother, Alison, in an upcoming BBC project which explores the fascinating true story of Alison’s discovery that her husband Alec was a spy, living a double life that had far-reaching effects. 

“I haven’t really thought much about performing as her yet because we’re just getting to a place where it’s ready to start production. I did question whether I should play her because it’s so close – but I also think it’s the only way to protect her. I feel like I know how to show her in all her complexity.”

Confident and warm, yet self-effacing and private, the dichotomy between life in the spotlight and an inherent shyness is the key to Ruth’s dynamism as a performer. “Fear gets me up in the morning. I love my job, but it scares me. I don’t really like all the attention being on me, which is odd considering my career choice!  

At University I would blush in seminars, not confident in my own voice. I chose to get rid of my blushes on stage – I still do that now.

"There’s a mask element to acting, choosing how much to reveal or conceal. Sometimes I feel very exposed or self-conscious – but I thrive on challenge and new experiences.”

Eschewing the fame and celebrity that so often accompanies an acting career, Ruth’s approach to her profession, carefully selecting roles which develop and hone her craft, shows her determination to shape her life and career to her own rhythm. 

“I’m inspired by strong artistic women who are unconventional, like Georgia O’Keefe or Doris Lessing, women who found their own path and were uncompromising in their desire to follow their passion and what was important to them. 

“The actors I admire are those that act, direct and write, like Ralph Fiennes, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. You can see them develop as performers and artists throughout their careers. Ralph started as a very intense actor, but then he did The Grand Budapest Hotel and delivered a hilarious performance, and now he’s directing. For me that’s really exciting – performers who keep challenging and improving themselves.  

“I could never have imagined where I am today when I left Nottingham. But I had a dream. In my honorary degree speech, I shared the advice that I tell myself every day: follow your passion and go where your heart lies – you never know where it may lead. To thine own self be true.”  

Actress Ruth Wilson in the Nottingham New Theatre

Ruth's Pearls of Wisdom

Speaking to graduating students as she received an honorary degree this summer, Ruth shared the pieces of advice that keep her driven. 

Pearl 1: Life doesn't owe you anything. The best laid plans often don't work out – it's easy to be angry but you have to keep working and make the best of the opportunities you have.

Pearl 2: Remain curious – it's the only way to keep learning.

Pearl 3: Break the rules, make mistakes and take risks.

Pearl 4: Learn to trust your instincts. It's a lot harder than it sounds!

Pearl 5: Try not to compare yourself to others. Everyone has their own path to follow.   


Actress Ruth Wilson at graduation to receive her honorary degree