Olivia Poulet has a good line in peddling the unpalatable. The actor and writer is best known for her role as pragmatic, fast-thinking Tory policy adviser Emma Messenger in television satire The Thick of It and is currently starring as a hard-nosed Hollywood producer in Mark Ravenhill’s monologue Product at the Arcola Theatre. Both characters are always desperately putting a positive spin on the catastrophic – or, as Poulet bluntly puts it, “trying to polish a turd”.
“That’s what was appealing in the writing for me,” she says of her first impressions of Ravenhill’s script. In the play, Poulet’s character is pitching an audaciously offensive romantic thriller about a relationship between a 9/11 widow and an Al Qaeda terrorist, skewering the ways in which Hollywood glosses over tragedy and complexity. “It’s just very, very witty, and when I first read it I thought ‘I know how I’d want to play this part’.”
In her teens and early 20s, Poulet developed her skills as a performer in the National Youth Theatre and at the University of Manchester, where she was involved in the student drama scene. “You get much more scope at uni; people take risks because they have less to lose,” she says. “Also having no money and rehearsing in a cupboard upstairs enables you to just muck in and get on with it wherever you are.”
Straight out of university, Poulet landed a role in a production of The School for Scandal at Derby Playhouse, but she describes the job as “fairly diabolical” looking back. “I learnt a lot,” she reflects on the experience, describing herself as “wide-eyed and innocent” going into it.
You can go doolally if you put everything on to acting
“You have to learn how to put your foot down, without being a pain in the arse. I think sometimes people can…” She pauses. “Manipulate is maybe too strong a word, but when you’re young and starting out there are some people who slightly take advantage of that.”
Thanks to more recent meaty roles in plays such as How I Learned to Drive at Southwark Playhouse and Out of Joint’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, which she describes as “a really magical experience”, Poulet now stresses the importance of holding out for the right parts. “Yes, the money’s not great, and sometimes you’re a bit hand to mouth for a bit, but the challenge of doing a part that is really exciting and fulfilling is just so worth it,” she says of her work in theatre. “Of course you’ve got to make money, but I think as I’ve got older I’m definitely very much about the part and I feel less desperation to just be working for the sake of it.”
She adds that her parallel career as a writer keeps her going during lean periods. “It’s incredibly important to have something else you love, otherwise you can go a bit doolally if you put everything on to acting.”
Poulet had always written alongside acting, but it was only when she paired up with friend and fellow performer Sarah Solemani to write The Bird Flu Diaries, a comedy that the duo took to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, that she thought about pursuing it further. Similarly to acting, though, Poulet has found that writing for stage and screen can be a tough profession to break into. “It’s hard,” she admits. “Everyone gives writing a bit of a crack – why not? It’s very highly populated; there’s a lot of people sending in scripts and drafts. But I think there’s probably quite a lot of people who aren’t very good at it as well. Now I think I’ve finally got to a place whereby it’s been recognised that I can write.”
Although her focus has moved to the stage in recent years, Poulet still acknowledges the huge impact of The Thick of It. The programme’s makers threw her and the rest of the cast in the deep end by demanding regular on-camera improvisation, a challenge that was both terrifying and exhilarating. “I love structure,” says Poulet, “but my brain thrives under pressure and always has.” This process chimes with the frequent behind-the-scenes crises depicted by the series, which Poulet suggests “opened up people’s eyes to the lunacy” of much of modern politics.
As well as both turning around media disasters, there’s a strain of frantic, suppressed despair that long-suffering Emma Messenger shares with the superficially confident speaker in Product. “I think it smacks of desperation, the whole pitch,” says Poulet, explaining that she has seized on the character’s “fragility and vulnerability” in her performance.
“There are a lot of swans,” she suggests, offering a neat metaphor for both British politics and the “undercurrent of desperation” in Product. “A lot of people who are trying to look smooth on the surface and scrabbling around like nutters underneath.”