TWITTER can be a ‘hateful place’, Amanda Abbington points out — but, as any of the actress’ 250,000 followers will also know, she happens to be one of its most lovable users: an impassioned, righteously funny and sweary force for good, whether defending Greta Thunberg or animal rights.
‘I like to think I’m a role model for younger women to say what they feel,’ she says. ‘I’m outspoken for the right reason. I know what’s going on and I read enough to know that what I stand for are the right things.’
Amanda is engaging in person: warm, witty and open, with a self-assurance that is hard won. The last few years have not been altogether easy for her. Thanks to the ITV costume drama Mr Selfridge and BBC phenomenon Sherlock, she became a household name as she turned 40 — but she was also on the receiving end of vicious online abuse relating to her character, Mary Watson. Then in 2016, she split from her long-time partner and Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman.
Today, she says, she feels ‘older and wiser and slightly tougher’, certainly when it comes to dealing with online trolls. ‘I don’t care anymore. I just think, ‘‘You’re one person who doesn’t like me. It doesn’t matter. I probably wouldn’t like you anyway.”’
Her career goes from strength to strength. She followed Sherlock with a starring role in Netflix crime drama Safe and, on stage, she is starring in one of the year’s most-feted shows, The Son, which has transferred to the West End following four and five-star reviews for its original run at west London’s Kiln Theatre. The searing domestic drama from French playwright Florian Zeller tells the story of a depressed teenage boy and his divorced parents, one of whom is Amanda’s Anne.
‘Anne is a brilliant part because she’s just this very flawed person,’ says Amanda. ‘She doesn’t really know what she’s doing but she is trying to do her best for her child, like most parents.’
When it comes to the play’s central subject, mental illness, Amanda thinks we still have a long way to go as a society before we treat it with the same seriousness as we do physical health. She says: ‘I have anxiety and everybody I know has varying degrees of anxiety. I don’t think we look after it as much in this country. I don’t know if we do anywhere in the world, actually.’ It’s something she talks about with her children. She says: ‘I don’t helicopter parent but I’m very aware of their moods… they’ve been through a lot and they’re only little.’
Amanda carefully monitors their use of social media, as she thinks it can be a toxic influence. ‘I grew up looking up to people like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper and with them, there wasn’t a drive for perfection, it was about their talent… whereas to be a ‘‘social influencer’’ now, I don’t even know what that is. You just look a certain way and get your photo on Instagram and then you get free stuff? And that’s what my daughter is supposed to aspire to?’
Amanda’s success has been built on graft and patience. After graduating from drama school she didn’t work for 18 months and was on the verge of giving up. ‘I got the forms to do a midwifery course. But the day I got them, I got an audition. That was the turning point.’
These days, she has little need to worry: she has filmed the pilot for a new BBC sitcom opposite Romesh Ranganathan and has plans to write. She’s clearly enjoying her success — and the recognition that goes with it. ‘I’ll always have a selfie with someone and chat to people. It’s a big fib when actors go, ‘‘No, I hate being looked at.’’ Of course you like being centre of attention. You’re an actor.”
■ The Son is at the Duke Of York’s Theatre, London, until November 2, kilntheatre.com