Known for her TV roles in W1A and Elementary, Ophelia Lovibond’s theatre career has blossomed in recent years. She tells Nick Clark what attracts her to the stage and why the fight for gender equality must continue
It was only when she was standing at the winners’ podium at last year’s Olivier Awards that Ophelia Lovibond realised she had made a big mistake. As planned, she had collected the statuette for best supporting actress on behalf of Denise Gough, but when she unfolded the paper with her friend’s words of thanks on it, she discovered she had brought the wrong speech.
Almost a year on, the memory still elicits a little shriek of horror. “I couldn’t believe it was happening. It was like one of those dreams when you turn up naked to work,” she says. “Looking up and seeing literally thousands of people eagerly anticipating what you’re going to say. I thought: ‘What can I do?’ That was the pause. Then I thought: ‘I’ve just got to go back and get it.” Which is what she did, as the bemused audience looked on. Gough found the whole thing hilarious, Lovibond’s agent called her a wally.
Many watching on the night thought it was a planned skit, but Lovibond laughs at that: “Do they really think I’m that desperate for a headline? I saw Alistair Spalding at Sadler’s Wells the other day – he still thinks I meant to do it. He said: ‘We’ve got to get you to do something like that here.’ ”
As she said on her return to the podium, doing it live is “not like telly – you can’t do second takes”. But the lack of a second take has not put her off stage work, and for someone whose career has been built mostly on TV and film, she has steadily built a string of credits in the theatre over the past four years.
‘In The Bay at Nice, it feels like no word is wasted – you need to give each one its appropriate weight’
Lovibond is currently starring in The Bay at Nice, which opened last week at the Menier Chocolate Factory, opposite Penelope Wilton. It is the first revival of David Hare’s play, which premiered at the National Theatre in a double bill with Wrecked Eggs in 1986.
“I wasn’t familiar with it. I read it and it’s so dense even though it’s brief,” she says of the play that runs to 75 minutes. “It feels like no word is wasted – you need to give each one its appropriate weight. I’ve felt more tired doing this because it’s so focused. I’ve been getting home so knackered. I asked Penelope and she said: ‘I thought it was just me.’”
Hare’s play is set in Leningrad in 1956: Wilton’s character Valentina Nrovka has been asked by the Hermitage to authenticate a Matisse painting, accompanied by her daughter Sophia, played by Lovibond. It is, according to the Guardian critic Michael Billington, a “play of ideas”.
Lovibond says: “There’s a lot of identity politics in the play, which feel quite prescient. I think audiences might be surprised that it was written in 1986. My character believes in freedom at all costs, that you have to stand in front of the tank for your freedom of thought. Valentina, her mother, asks why it’s so important – to lose everything for the sake of freedom of thought.”
She was brought on board by the production’s director Richard Eyre, after the pair worked together on The Stepmother at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre in 2017. Lovibond calls the production of Githa Sowerby’s 1924 work one of her favourite acting experiences. “Richard would really layer it. Imagine a Rothko – he just layers on more and more and by the end it’s there.”
As well as working with Eyre, she was drawn to The Stepmother for another reason. “It was the feminism in it that attracted me to it. That play is so depressingly relevant still and some of the issues are still not resolved, like equal pay.”
She continues: “I get into silly spats with people on Instagram who say equal pay isn’t an issue, and I just don’t know how to engage. This isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact. It’s like climate change deniers, I just don’t know what to say to you. If we can’t agree that the facts are the facts it feels like being in a George Orwell novel.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a waitress at Pizza Express for about three months. I was awful.
What was your first non-theatre job?
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
You can say ‘no’.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
My mum is a big role model in my life.
What is your best advice for auditions?
Believe you’re going to get it.
What would you have become if you hadn’t been an actor?
I was interested in being a journalist.
Do you have any superstitions or rituals?
No. I’m not very superstitious.
The day we meet in the rehearsal rooms next to the Menier, she is wearing an Era 50:50 badge on her jumper, which campaigns for equal representation for women on stage and screen. “I’ve been so pleased to see it being given more of a platform. And with the whole #TimesUp campaign, it is something I feel really strongly about.” She believes there has been progress since the #TimesUp and #MeToo campaigns started in 2017. “I’ve never had a negative experience in a rehearsal room, it’s always been on film sets. I’ve tended to say something, but felt it was at great cost. I would feel more supported now.”
Does it mean better parts are offered? “Yes and no. You have to say ‘no’ if it isn’t there in the writing because you feel so dissatisfied.” She laughs: “My friend Jameela Jamil calls it being a double agent for the patriarchy.” She points to The Favourite, Killing Eve and Fleabag as examples of good parts for women, but says: “There’s still a dearth of good things available. So many things that come through have outdated tropes. But it’s moving in the right direction.”
Lovibond grew up on a housing estate in west London next to the Riverside Studios. From a young age, she went to a nearby drama group, Young Blood, and, she says: “I immediately thought: ‘This is what I want to do.’ I had thought I wanted to be a ballet dancer.”
Young Blood – which Carey Mulligan briefly attended while Lovibond was there – put on amateur plays at the Riverside Studios and the Lyric Hammersmith. For two summers running, aged 12 and 13, she appeared in professional productions at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, first in The Jungle Book and then Watership Down.
She first appeared on television at the age of 12 in Channel 4’s The Wilsons, but will be familiar to many for her character of Izzy Gould in BBC comedy W1A or as Kitty Winter in updated Sherlock Holmes procedural show Elementary. She has also been in John Lennon film biopic Nowhere Boy and Marvel blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy.
‘I get into spats with people on Instagram who say equal pay isn’t an issue. This isn’t an opinion – it’s a fact’
But, it would not be until 2015 – some 17 years after appearing in Regent’s Park – that she returned to the stage in The Effect at the Sheffield Crucible. “I was so excited, people kept asking if I was nervous and I’d say: ‘No, I’m not at all.’ ” But why the hiatus? “Because I hadn’t trained and because I’d just done TV and film I felt I couldn’t get an audition for a play,” she says. After she “moaned about it in a paper”, Lovibond was approached by director Daniel Evans about The Effect. “We met for coffee to talk about the role, then he offered it.”
The following year, Lovibond appeared in the West End, starring opposite Dominic Cooper in The Libertine at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. “Walking to work past the theatres I’ve grown up looking at, and walking through the stage door – I dreamed of doing this: to earn your rent money by doing what you want to do.” She played real-life actor Elizabeth Barry in Stephen Jeffreys’ play. “I so believed in the character, it was so satisfying. I haven’t been given those characters on film. I hadn’t ever said that kind of dialogue. That was also what was so addictive about it.”
Lovibond revels in her work on stage and how it differs from creating characters for the screen. “I’ve enjoyed that whole process of spending weeks building a character in the rehearsal room,” she says. “There isn’t the spontaneity of a film set but that layering is satisfying. It goes so deep, you build a person’s entire inner life. On screen, you can develop it beforehand on your own, and then when you get to set you have to be flexible.”
The Libertine marked the only time she’s played her namesake on stage – playing Barry playing Ophelia – and it doesn’t seem like she is in a rush to take on the tragic Shakespearean character again. “She’s actually quite underwritten,” Lovibond says. “She comes on, she goes off, she goes mad and comes back and she’s mad. You think: ‘What’s happened in between?’ I feel like she needs to be quite young though. The best Hamlet I saw was with Ben Whishaw, who was young.” So has the opportunity gone? “If someone offered it, I’d say: ‘Yep.’ But it should probably go to a 20-year-old.”
She is keen to perform Shakespeare on stage, though. “I did English at university, so I love the power of language – the specificity of choice in selecting a certain word to express what you mean. Shakespeare is the epitome of that. This would marry two loves for me to play with language and perform it.”
Another dream role is in a musical, specifically Sally Bowles in Cabaret. “I did it at school and I’d love to do it professionally. I visualise that – it’s like David Beckham and his goals.”
Born: 1986, London
Landmark productions: Theatre: The Effect, Sheffield Crucible (2015); The Libertine, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London (2016); The Stepmother, Minerva Theatre, Chichester (2017); Nightfall, Bridge Theatre, London (2018). TV: The Wilsons, Channel 4 (2000); Elementary, CBS (2014-17); W1A, BBC (2014-17); Hooten and the Lady, Sky 1 (2016). Film: Nowhere Boy (2009); Mr Popper’s Penguins (2011); Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Agent: Independent Talent
The Bay at Nice runs at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory until May 4