Girl of the Moment: We interview Tuppence Middleton, the rising star of War and Peace
Culture Whisper talks to actress Tuppence Middleton, star of new BBC shows Dickensian and War and Peace
Now Tuppence returns to grace British TV screens this December with not one but two major television releases: a huge budget adaptation of Tolstoy's epic Napoleonic romance War and Peace, alongside Lily James, James Norton and Paul Dano, and the BBC's quirky take on Dickens' canon, soap-inspired composite romp Dickensian.
We chatted to the rising star about taking on roles by two of the literary canon's most lauded authors.
You're in two of the festive season's highest profile productions. Will you be sitting down to watch them with the family?
I don't think I can avoid it, to be honest – they won't let that happen. But I will probably be watching through my fingers. I've got quite a big extended family so I'm going to go back and yeah just hang out with them – eat lots. I think my parents and my grandparents are pretty excited about it. It's really perfect Christmas viewing.
The new trailer for War and Peace makes the adaptation look suitably epic. As always with such a long novel, the challenge is to reduce it. Were there difficulties in scope?
I read it before we started filming, and it's such rich source material, I wouldn't know where to begin. I think the trick was having Andrew Davis at the helm adapting it, that's what he does best. I really felt he'd managed to hit all the key moments and important messages in the book, he's stayed really faithful to the book. It feels like a modern adaptation. A lot of people think it's a hard-going book, but actually, it's just about young people living at the time and dealing with war and falling in love. I hope it will bring a lot of people's attention back to the book and realise that it's not a dusty old classic – it's a very relatable, human story with a huge wealth of characters.
It's one of those novels that people sometimes feel daunted by given its length and wealth of characters, as you say. It's not necessarily something that you'd 'dip' into.
Exactly, I think people sometimes avoid it when they look at the size of it. Some members of my family are slightly relieved that it's coming in a six part adaptation for them, 'letting them off the hook' in a way... But hopefully it will make people revisit the original!
Your character is a fascinating and memorable one – you play Helene Kuragin, a kind of Russian femme fatale. What did you bring to the role?
All of my scenes were based in St. Petersburg, and my character comes from a wealthy family: all of her scenes were at these grand balls and these beautiful Russian houses. Helene's father encourages her and her brother to become social climbers and as a result this family are essentially master manipulators. In the book they are often portrayed as quite villainous. I didn't really want to play her as someone who is just out to ruin people's lives or be unfaithful. I think of her as just a very forward-thinking woman of that era, living in St. Petersburg. There was this huge European, very French influence at the time, and she was part of that movement, she just felt very sexually liberated. That doesn't mean that she always behaves well, but at the time, there were a lot of men who were locked into marriages they didn't want to be in, for social reasons, and they cheated on their wives. So she thinks, I suppose, "Well, why shouldn't I?"
Do you bring a more contemporary feel to her, then; put a more feminist spin on the role?
Yes, there was definitely something very strong about her character. I think it takes a lot of guts to do what she was doing at the time, to put her reputation on the line in order to do what she wanted. That was quite unheard of.
I always really liked that about her. So I suppose I read it with a feminist slant. Andrew Davis is brilliant at writing female characters, he really picks those things out of Tolstoy's writing. He likes to enhance the female characters and make them into these three dimensional people with very complex natures. That's what I really liked about his writing.
The other Christmas series you are in is Dickensian, this 'irreverent', soap-opera take on Dickens. It's unlike anything we've seen before. How was that?
It was really fun. I suppose it's a reimagining of some of his stories. Sometimes we meet the characters as we would meet them in his novels, and sometimes Tony Jordan has created this world outside of the novels. I, for example, play a young Miss Havisham, who everyone thinks of from Great Expectations as an embittered, eccentric older lady, living in this house and out to wreak havoc on the male sex. But Great Expectations only touches very lightly on what happened to her before. Tony has expanded on that. It's very interesting to see what happens to her, how she ends up in that place.
Exactly, there's something very tragic about her – that's what people find fascinating: it's not that she's this witch-like figure, out to take revenge.
She was very much on the same route as a lot of other young women at the time – maybe a little more headstrong, maybe a little more modern since she's inherited this business and she's running it herself, which was quite unusual. She's someone who had a lot of aspirations and a lot of potential for a woman of that time. I really love the idea of playing her as a younger woman.
It must have been peculiar and unexpected, to be playing Miss Havisham so early on in your career.
I know! I'd always had a vision that I'd play her when i was older I'd always loved that character, and I thought maybe when I got older I'd get to have a go. When this came along, I thought, "either my casting age is a lot older than I think it is, or there's something different going on here!"
Is Dickensian targeting scholars and those very familiar with Dickens, or trying to open up his works to a less literary audience?
I think it can be both. Hopefully the Dickens purists will enjoy it, because it's stayed very loyal to what we know from the novels. The essence of each of the characters is still very faithful to Dickens. But it's also Tony's imagination, creating new scenarios. When Dickens first started writing, most of his work was serialised and released weekly: and it feels nice that these are half an hour episodes – it feels faithful to that. Once we started filming we were all amazed that no-one had come up with the idea before, actually, because it seems to make sense.
You've been quite selective in your roles: you've worked with the likes of Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch and The Wachowski siblings. You're making quite a name for yourself in U.S. How has your life changed since, for example, The Oscars last year, or these big Hollywood features like Jupiter Ascending?
Often there's this idea that people become overnight successes – it's funny being on the other side of that, because you just feel like you're a jobbing actor, and it's all very gradual. Certainly for some people that's the case, they do one film at the beginning of their career and they're skyrocketed into a catastrophic level of fame. But I felt lucky in that my ascent has been quite gradual. I don't think I would have been comfortable with handling a certain level of success at a young age. It was really important for me to build a career. Because in an ideal world it is something I'll be doing until I'm much older. I've always just wanted to do interesting projects, and make sure that the character was different from the last, and the scripts were always good.
There's really no way of predicting it, you just have to enjoy each job and take what you can from it and whatever happens, happens, I think!
You currently live in North London. What are your favourite haunts?
One place I love to go on a Friday is The Boogaloo in Highgate. It plays really great Soul, and fifties and sixties Rock 'n' Roll. It's a fun little bar, everyone there is just very friendly. It's great to get out of Central London for a dance. I've also recently visited a lovely little pub in Highgate called The Wrestlers which is just a really traditional, wood-clad, old-fashioned pub. It has a big log fire. I also love Highgate Woods: it's great to have some green nearby.