The publicist is talking but I am struggling to concentrate. Behind him, in the far distance of the studio, hangs a mirror reflecting the profile of one Vicky McClure, looking like a classic movie still. She’s like Marilyn or Jackie, or more appropriately to her imperious look today, a punk Kim Novak. I romanticise about the nascent starlet, framed in bustling industry folk and the boundaries of a 4 x 8 mirror.
Vicky is better known as This Is England’s Lol, the onscreen amalgamation of every tough yet vulnerable Midlands girl that Shane Meadows ever crossed paths with. Her Bafta-winning portrayal has earned her an almost unprecedented amount of respect, cemented by her role in This Is England ’86, in which an unflinchingly brutal rape scene sparked moral outrage in the heart of Brit TV land.
In her graceful frame – both as Lol and as Vicky – resides a brute autonomy, a fearlessness, and wisdom far beyond her 29 years. It’d be distancing if she weren’t so immediately giggly and likeable. Within seconds of meeting her, it’s clear that she has the humanity and humility that permeates Meadows’ chronicles of life in the Midlands – but with none of the “grimness”. Despite our best efforts to evince the tortured artist in her – to revisit the lonesome depths she travelled to as Lol – Vicky is dead-set on demystifying the emerging McClure brand. She insists that she’s “just a regular girl”, and in McClure’s case it rings absolutely true. Through the full force of that million-dollar smile and those champagne eyes, however, shines something special. It’s a quality that Meadows first spotted when McClure was just 16, duly casting her as Paddy Considine’s romantic foil in 1999’s A Room for Romeo Brass. In her trail lingers something intoxicating, something infiltrating. That something is true soul.
With a slew of new films in the pipeline as she prepares for life without the Family Meadows, McClure takes some time out to ponder her story up to now, and true to form she pulls no punches.
Shane has spent a career documenting his – at times – painful passage into adulthood. But what are your own memories of adolescence?
My memories are pleasant. I lay no claim to either a troubled past or a painful upbringing. Other actors, Johnny [Harris] for example, they’ve got stories to tell. Personally, I have no dark tales. Growing up was all about hanging out in parks late at night with boys. That was about as dodgy as it got. And then, I also had my dance lessons and acting. It was nice. My childhood friends are still my closest friends to this day.
What do you feel makes a good actress?
Less is more, I always find. For me, it’s more believable. Some performances I watch thinking, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that as well as them’, because there is so much to the role. But more often than not I feel an urge to cut lines. To say nothing – which we do a lot in real life – can be just as effective as talking your way through a scene. New people are coming through all the time. There’s always going to be someone upping their game. So you’ve got to keep working hard. I take every day as it comes, but even today I’m completely overwhelmed by the fuss and the professionals that I’m working with. It’s a massive thing for me. So I just try to enjoy everything.
You mentioned in the press recently that you’re interested in doing more films of a gritty nature? Why is it that you’re drawn to challenging subject matter?
I’ve always enjoyed watching something that is real, something that brings you to tears or real laughter. That kind of thing attaches itself to you emotionally.
Would you say you were very much ‘one of the boys’ on the set of the This Is England TV saga?
Yeah. I am in life, really. I’ve always hung around with lads. I’ve gone through stages of being a bit of a tomboy, although I outgrew that a long time ago. But still, my normal attire is jeans and a hoodie – just because it’s more comfortable. I would never claim to be as tough as Lol, but I’ve definitely got strength. I’m independent and I’m happy to say my piece.
The type of actors who, like you, bring a searing presence to the screen, are often complex and sometimes have extreme personalities. How would you describe yourself?
I don’t think I’m very complicated. I’m just normal – even if the jobs I’ve taken on up to now suggest otherwise. Sometimes I’ll wake up in a bad mood, and if I haven’t eaten, I can get a bit angry [laughs]. But most of the time, I’m pretty much on an even keel. Everyone gets the blues but you have to keep weighing the positives against the negatives.
Can you tell us about shooting the climactic scene with Johnny Harris in This Is England ’86 [a graphic depiction of incestual rape culminates in Lol murdering her father with a hammer]?
I don’t know if I could have gone through with it, had it not been for the relationship of mutual trust I shared with Johnny. We tested each other to the limit. It brought us closer together. As for the conditions on set… I can’t describe the experience to have been anything other than how it looked on television. In many ways though, it was harder off-camera. Johnny’s techniques would involve saying things to me, painful and personal things, stuff that I’ll never repeat, to get me into a certain frame of mind. There were times, during mine and Johnny’s one-on-one preparation sessions, that I’d leave our private room in floods of tears. By the time it came to filming the scene, things were becoming very real for me.
As real as it’s going to get for me in my career. If you watch, as my pants are being pulled down around me, I’m genuinely looking for that hammer, just as I would have been were the situation real. And then you have Johnny, an ex-boxer, throwing me around the room like a rag doll, and in turn I’m giving him my all. In fact, what I was most afraid of was hurting Johnny. Apparently, you can do a lot of damage with a rubber hammer. By the end, we were covered in bruises but I’m proud of those bruises. They are the reason why the scene works as well as it does, because we didn’t hold back. I’m sure it’s the standard way of doing these scenes in the industry, but it was the way we wanted to do it. But unless I had trusted Johnny – and obviously Shane – as much as I did, I couldn’t have gone through with it.
Johnny is one scary-looking guy.
Yeah, but he has the kindest eyes. Seriously.
What toll was the filming taking on your mental state?
Thankfully I was able to switch off at night. But that said, when it comes to Lol, I live and breathe her for the entire duration of the shoot, because it’s easier that way rather than waking up every morning knowing that I have to get back into that frame of mind. I’ve never suffered from a mental health illness, but I do remember saying to Mark the producer at one point, ‘Look, if I need to see somebody after this, you’re paying for it’.
To reflect the storyline of This Is England ’88, Shane split the old gang, placing yourself and Joe [Gilgun, who plays Lol’s estranged ex, Woody] in flats at opposite ends of Sheffield, with express instructions for you to be separated throughout the course of the shoot. Did you ever feel isolated during filming?
Yeah, on ’86 we were like The Waltons, the whole cast living under the one roof. So it was isolating on my own. There’s one day in particular that stands out for me. I woke up feeling weird, like I was still in Lol’s head. I didn’t have filming that day and I thought, ‘Well what do I do, I can’t just sit here and watch Loose Women?’ So I started writing suicide notes to my character’s Dad, to Milky, to Woody, everyone. It was a horrible, horrible day. That night, Shane called me up – he lived in the flat next door, probably in case of such eventualities. I told him about the notes and he asked if I would show him them. In the end they were used in the final episode. That’s what I love about working with Shane – the freedom, the way everything becomes part of the process. It’s unique. And you know, I don’t know if I’ll ever have that with another director. There’s no place like home, is there?