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‘I’m still at the very beginning’

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As Amanda Hale returns to the screen in another edgy role, she talks to Mary Comerford about RADA, anti-Semitism, and the pressure of reinventing herself

If being an actor is about bravery and daring to step outside your comfort zone, then Amanda Hale is definitely carving a name for herself.

One of her first TV roles was playing a woman with a mental age of five who became pregnant by a young man with Down’s syndrome in Channel 4’s Richard is my Boyfriend. This week she stars in a new BBC adaptation of Michael Faber’s best-selling novel The Crimson Petal and the White.

Set in Victorian England, it’s the kind of tale Dickens could only dream of writing in his strait-laced times – packed with sex, lust, repression and intrigue.

In fact it has all the ingredients of a good bodice ripper, but it’s more than that.

The bold four-parter tells the story of Sugar, played by Romola Garai, an alluring and intelligent young prostitute who yearns for a better life and pins her hopes on wealthy businessman called William Rackham, played by Chris O’Dowd.

Already a fan of the 2002 novel when casting directors came calling, Amanda immediately identified with the lead character and had to “rewire” her brain when she found herself in the role of neurotic Agnes Rackham, William’s fragile wife.

“I over thought her to begin with but when I went back to the book she’s a child in woman’s clothing really – she went from being daddy’s little girl to her husband William’s little girl,” she says. “The cracks start to show early on.”

Agnes lives her life in just one room and has to endure regular visits from the doctor (Richard E Grant) who leaves her traumatised by his investigations.

It’s the latest in a number of TV roles which have put Amanda’s name firmly on the map. She also starred in BBC1’s Persuasion opposite Sally Hawkins, appeared with Robbie Coltrane in Murderland on ITV1 and in Spooks, but confesses she can’t bear to watch her work.

“I wish I could but it completely throws me and I lose my nerve. I’ve come to realise I work so much better when I’m going by instinct,” she says.

It was gut reaction that steered her away from an academic career towards the performing arts in the first place after a life-changing experience as a teenager.

One of four children born to Irish immigrant parents in northwest London, Amanda, 28, didn’t visit a theatre until she was 17 and only then because she was studying theatre studies to make up her A Level subjects.

“Someone told me it was really easy and we had a brilliant teacher who took us to great things at the National Theatre,” she explains. “We saw Guys and Dolls, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and A Doll’s House, all in one week. When the lights came up at the interval I felt a bit scandalised, as if no one had ever told me about this world.”

From that moment on, she was hooked and although destined for Oxford University to read English, a seed of doubt had started to grow.

“I knew if I wanted to go to drama school I couldn’t go to uni as well,” she says, and so, after working in “a million different jobs” to save up money she won a place at RADA which had loomed large in her life and still does.

Meeting in a coffee shop just a stone’s throw from the school’s central London location, she can’t speak highly enough of the education she received.

“Heroes of mine like Mark Rylance went there, so I’d wanted to go for so long and I’d built it up in my head as this castle in the sky,” she says. “I thought I’d be transformed into a technical machine but if anything they are trying to stop you from over thinking things and you’re encouraged to stay in touch with your instinct. It was exactly what I needed, the space to make mistakes for three years which I’d have done in a really embarrassing way in front of lots of people if I’d gone straight into the profession. The teachers there are astonishing, such incredible people. Rather than coming out fully formed after three years it’s a starting point and I still feel I’m at the very beginning. It’s exciting because you see glimpses of things you could end up doing.”

She recalls seeing a fellow student from a well known acting dynasty getting ‘notes’ from his family after a third year show at RADA and feeling grateful that her parents never piled on the pressure.

“My dad came over from Ireland when he was 13 and lived on the streets, working on building sites and has just retired from his job delivering furniture for John Lewis,” she says. “My mum has had the same job for 30 years as a sales assistant at Marks and Spencer. They’ve always been really great, they just want me to be happy.’

In the six years since graduating, Amanda has built up an impressive list of stage credits and has proved herself in a wide range of genres.

In 2007 she was nominated for two Evening Standard Awards for her critically acclaimed performance as Laura Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ classic The Glass Menagerie opposite Ed Stoppard and Jessica Lange, directed by Rupert Goold.

A year later she joined Benedict Cumberbatch and Hattie Morahan at the Royal Court in The City directed by Katie Mitchell, played Cordelia in King Lear opposite the late Pete Postlethwaite at the Young Vic in 2009 and the same year made her National Theatre debut in harrowing Polish play Our Class about vicious anti-Semitism.

“Walking over the bridge to the National every night I’d get the shivers,” she says, “because it’s such a special place, and it felt like we were conjuring ghosts on stage because some of the characters were based on real people.”

She’s currently rehearsing a new Simon Stephens play called Wastwater which opens at the end of this month and sees her reunited with director Mitchell at the Royal Court.

“Simon gave me a really early draft of this play the last time we worked together and I think I emotionally blackmailed him to let me be in it,” she laughs.

When asked to name actors she admires or have mentored her over the years she declines saying: “It feels unfair to pin it all on one person. No matter how brilliant an actor is, there’s always a point where they let you down but that’s all part of their journey. They might be trying something they need to explore.”

One performer who’s never let her down is Janet McTeer, star of A Doll’s House at the National – one of the shows Hale saw as a student with her A Level classmates.

“I can still remember moments of that performance really clearly. It felt as if I as looking through a keyhole at someone so alive it made no difference whether I was there or not,” she says.

Since then, the pair have become good friends and Hale is currently house sitting for her.

“I didn’t actually meet Janet until years after that performance when I was working in a bookshop,” she reveals. “She came in and said ‘I’m looking for a play to do, have you got any ideas?’ It says so much about the kind of person she is – so open, amazing.”

The Crimson Petal and the White begins tonight (April 6) at 9pm on BBC2.

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