Wednesday 7 November 2012

Love her!!!!

Sherlock's Molly: the original Cumberbitch. As the shy Molly mooning over Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, she cuts a lonely figure, but Rosamund Urwin finds that in real life Louise Brealey is no shrinking wallflower.

Modern woman: Louise Brealey in Marylebone © Matt Writtle
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Modern woman: Louise Brealey in Marylebone © Matt Writtle
07 November 2012
Louise Brealey is the queen of the longing look. As Molly Hooper in BBC1’s Sherlock (not so much a series now as a phenomenon, thanks to its huge international success), the actress has perfected a similar expression to the one that appears on the faces of women across the world whenever Benedict Cumberbatch’s sexy otter face and swishy coat arrive on screen.
So if dominatrix Irene Adler was the show’s femme fatale, pathologist Molly is its everywoman. “On a basic level, women can relate to Molly if they fancy Benedict Cumberbatch. She’s them,” says Brealey. “He is unobtainable: both as Sherlock and Benedict. A double-whammy. But Molly makes a twat out of herself not because she’s stupid but because she loves him.”
In one particularly brutal scene, Sherlock accidentally humiliates Molly at their Christmas party by assuming she has dressed up and bought a present for a new boyfriend, only to discover her efforts were for him. Only the steel-hearted wouldn’t have been moved by Brealey’s crumpled face. “Most people I know have been in love with someone who doesn’t love them back. It feels f***ing horrible. It aches and it aches, and what can you do? It’s not a stretch to play something like that, because I’ve been there.”
But in the series two finale, Molly was elevated from lovelorn sidekick to heroine, after she helped Sherlock to fake his own death. “The first text I received at the end of the episode said, ‘Thank you for saving Sherlock!’ Molly’s so overlooked by everyone but in the end she’s the one he can turn to.”
Cumberbatch, she says, is “absolutely committed as an actor. There’s never a moment when he’s not Sherlock. And as a person, he is a delight.”
Although they may be outnumbered by so-called Cumberbitches, there are a growing number of Brealey-bitches too. The 33-year-old has received marriage proposals (many from young women) and leading roles in the porn-esque fan fiction that she can’t quite stomach. “I don’t read it any more. Sherlock and Watson are characters from the book. Molly is me.”
Brealey, who grew up in Northampton and now lives in south London, self-deprecatingly tells me about her chronic shyness, but she is articulate, sharp and funny. She studied history at Cambridge, although she didn’t actually take to the stage while she was there. “I was too scared. I went to one audition and got into a conversation with a girl who was a drama teacher’s daughter and I panicked and crawled out. But then I worried I was going to be one of those women in their forties pushing their daughters on stage, so I just did it.”
Brealey is something of a polymath: she is also a journalist (she was deputy editor of Wonderland magazine) and produced and co-wrote a BBC series on Charles Dickens: “I don’t know how anyone survives financially on just acting. And acting is quite passive sometimes — all the waiting can be massively corrosive.”
We meet at a café on Marylebone High Street, close to where she is rehearsing her new play, the poet Caroline Bird’s production of The Trojan Women, which opens tomorrow at The Gate.
She has three roles: Cassandra, who can see into the future but whose prophecies are not believed; Andromache, the wife of Hector, and Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. “Caroline wanted to play with the idea of the stereotypes of womenhood: virgin, mother, whore. I think she felt that by having one woman play all three, you were immediately confounding those stereotypes.”
The play is set in the present day, in a mother-and-baby unit of a prison, the last building left standing on the outskirts of Troy. Brealey raves about Bird’s writing, but also says the play has the shock factor: “We’ve become inured to brutality. We’re seen lots of shocking images of conflicts, Syria being the most recent example, and it’s quite hard to shock now. Caroline has made what has happened in this war shocking again.”
There are even lots of jokes. “In extremis, people laugh: people who work in hospitals or in morgues. Otherwise what? You’d go and hang yourself.”
Brealey’s last stage role was in the well-received comedy Birthday at the Royal Court, in which she played a doctor to Stephen Mangan’s pregnant father-to-be. “I was basically fisting him with a rubber glove on.”
Early audiences saw — or rather, thought they saw — Mangan’s penis (it was actually a prosthetic). But the director deemed what Brealey calls “Mangan’s man gun” a distraction: “He [thought] people were internally going: ‘F*** me! Have I just seen Stephen Mangan’s cock?’ I looked through the curtain at that point, and the men looked away but the women stared.”
Perhaps it makes a change from seeing so much female nudity. Brealey, a proud feminist, is an outspoken critic of Page 3. “It’s an embarrassment. It belongs in a culture that allowed Jimmy Savile and co to do what they liked. It was a big joke when The Sun’s editor Dominic Mohan said it was about ‘youth and freshness’. If it’s about youth and freshness, show a child building sandcastles! It’s really about making women into sex objects. I love breasts, I think they are beautiful, but [Page 3] is not about their beauty, it’s about titillation.”
She believes there are many fronts left in the feminist battle. “We are drowning in digitally altered images that mould our minds into seeing only one long-limbed, symmetrical ideal as beautiful. Strip clubs are a cool place to hang out. Police, juries and newspapers still blame women for getting raped. And we are run by an old boys’ network.”
Brealey thinks women have been sold a lie about choice too: “Women think they have a choice about shaving their legs and armpits but it isn’t really. Look at what happened to Julia Roberts. It’s not because we think [being hairless] looks better intrinsically, it’s because our culture dictates what is beautiful.” Her stand against this is an experiment with not shaving her armpits for The Trojan Women.
There’s a moment when she is playing Helen where the hair will show. Of course, had the play been set in Euripides’ day, the face that launched a thousand ships might have been accompanied by hairy underarms. “Except it’s set today. Now, Helen would have a vajazzle.”
The Trojan Women is on at the Gate Theatre, Nov 8-Dec 15 (

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