■ The actress, 46, on her romantic new film, The Bookshop, being a young telly addict and the importance of debating #MeToo
What intrigued you about playing Florence in The Bookshop?
There is a great line in the film: ‘You’re never lonely in a bookshop.’ There are many reasons to feel lonely in life but through literature, and reading about other people’s lives, and pain and suffering, and trials and tribulations, and joys and misfortunes, you feel less alone. You feel empathy for fellow travellers. There is something very beautiful in that. It is beautiful that Isabel [Coixet, the director] has made a love story between a woman and books.
Well, you do also have a sexy hand-kiss scene with Bill Nighy on a beach. What was it like to film?
It was very windy and very cold! There was no chance of practising. That was pretty much all of the movie. We didn’t really rehearse and we just did it. It was deceptively simple, worryingly simple at times. I would come away at the end of the day thinking, ‘I should’ve done more. I didn’t show off enough.’
What was the first book you fell in love with?
I read Pride And Prejudice when I was 13 or 14. I remember that feeling that I have had again with certain books. I had it with War And Peace too. Somehow, school and other people bring you up to think that reading is quite hard, that if you read a classic it’s going to be just like homework. And then you read these books and think, ‘This is better than reading People magazine!’
Your dad was John Mortimer, who wrote Rumpole Of The Bailey. Did your background in literature lead you to acting?
I didn’t know I wanted to be an actress but I always acted, even when I was little. I was ridiculously shy to the point where I couldn’t put my hand up in class without going bright red. I was too shy to even have people to my home or to go to parties. Everything just felt really awkward! I therefore lived in my imagination. It was watching telly, as much as anything, that made me want to act. I was a telly addict when I was a child. I would sit in this sitting room full of amazing books and watch television all day long!
Was acting a way to cope with your shyness?
Yeah, definitely. I still feel shy even acting. I remember when I was 13, I signed up for an English-speaking Union debate and I was speaking on anarchy! I can remember going to Southampton to give this speech and sitting in the audience. I thought my heart was going to explode out of my chest! I thought, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this! Why did I sign up for this?’ And then I remember walking up to the podium, putting my piece of paper down, starting to speak and it was an amazing feeling — like a little hand took mine. It felt like a relief. Frightening but exciting. You can be brave.
How do you choose projects?
You can only go on instinct and what you think is interesting. At least if it’s crap, if you know there was originally a connection there, you feel less mortified by it. I definitely have done something that I knew was going to be crap but did it for the sake of working. You just feel terrible — so embarrassed by the whole thing.
How has the recent #MeToo movement made you feel? Is real change occurring?
I think it is for real. I feel I’ve been awakened in a way that I hadn’t been before. That’s partly from these at times painful conversations going on in the press and in our sitting rooms or at dinner. I’m thinking about things in a way I never thought before and I feel like the men in my life are too. We’re talking to each other in a way we’ve never spoken before. And I’ve never had conversations like I’ve had with my husband, my kids and my friends like the ones I’ve had in the last few months, and that feels really exciting. I don’t think you can put this back in the box. The cat is out of the bag.
Your husband, Alessandro Nivola, is an actor too. How do you manage to make your careers work in tandem?
We do really get on very well. We’re very good friends and for some reason I just don’t feel at all competitive with him and I don’t think he does with me. We go through periods of feeling rather poor and greed is sometimes a motivating force for feeling entirely delighted for the other person when they get a job, because it means you’ll get supper and a few nice outfits!
You’re soon in Mary Poppins Returns. What can you tell us?
It’s like an old-fashioned movie but how you want it to be. Not cynically trying to appeal to a particular audience, just trying to do justice to the story and the first movie. Every generation — from my mother to my daughter — grew up with that movie. It’s a huge part of my life.
The Bookshop opens on Friday