Ophelia Lovibond on her third stage show, film and television work and why she chose the University of Sussex

PUBLISHED: 12:23 21 August 2017

Ophelia Lovibond © Nick Harvey/REX/Shutterstock

Ophelia Lovibond © Nick Harvey/REX/Shutterstock

Copyright (c) 2016 Rex Features. No use without permission.

She has been acting professionally for almost 20 years but Ophelia Lovibond’s role in The Stepmother is only her third stage credit. She tells Jenny Mark-Bell why the theatre offers a measure of control that film and television don’t

For a woman with such an unabashedly theatrical name, Ophelia Lovibond has surprisingly few stage credits to her name.

The London-born 31-year-old scored her first paid acting role at 14 in Channel 4 sitcom The Wilsons. Film roles include appearances alongside Jim Carrey in Mr Popper’s Penguins, Ashton Kutcher in No Strings Attached, and Lake Bell in Man Up. Viewers of the BBC’s W1A know her as the long-suffering Izzy Gould and across the pond she was a popular character on Elementary, the reimagining of the Sherlock Holmes stories starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu.

But her professional stage debut was only two years ago – in Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, directed by Chichester Festival Theatre’s new co-director Daniel Evans in his previous role as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres.

Ophelia is playing the title role in Githa Sowerby’s under-performed play The Stepmother this month at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre directed by Richard Eyre (former director of the National Theatre). When Fanny Gaydon leaves her fortune to her protégé Lois Relph, Fanny’s profligate brother Eustace hatches a plan. Ten years later, as Mrs Eustace Gaydon, Lois has no knowledge of her financial affairs or of the duplicity of her husband – and then things begin to unravel. Ophelia says: “The thing I really like about this play is the audience is far more clued-up and you’re left wondering: when is it going to click? Or has it clicked already and she’s just refusing to acknowledge it?” Ophelia has not yet decided whether Lois is totally naïve or wilfully blind – “that will come in rehearsal. Maybe it will change each night.”

As a damning indictment of patriarchal society (Sowerby was writing in 1924), The Stepmother is an interesting choice for an actress who has spoken about the inequality in roles available to men and women. Ophelia says this is more true of film and television than theatre: “This will be my third professional play and all the roles I will have played have been very dynamic and forthright, with agency and cogency. One of the reasons I was so attracted to doing theatre is because I felt like I really had quite complex characters to get my teeth into.”

She comes across as quite a scholarly actor, which is why it’s not altogether surprising that she decided on doing an English degree at the University of Sussex instead of drama school. After her drama scholarship at selective grammar The Latymer School, “there was a lot more I was hungry to know”. She chose Sussex because of the course, which was “a lot more wide-reaching than a lot of the others on offer,” but also because of its reputation as a liberal, politically aware institution.

Ophelia has fond memories of studying on the beach and going to her favourite pub, The Basketmaker’s Arms. “From floor to ceiling the walls are covered in old tobacco tins. If you open them up all these little notes come tumbling out. You can write responses and then when you go back, check to see if someone has carried on the conversation.”

Unusually humble for such an in-demand and consistently well-reviewed actor, Ophelia is grateful to Daniel Evans for “taking a punt” on her for The Effect (it worked – Whatsonstage called her performance “outstanding”). She enjoyed working with him: “He’s very open and democratic. He wants you to find the character in a way that is totally truthful, so that when it comes to performing and telling the story to the audience it feels like you’re just talking to them, an audience of one. They will recognise that person and have empathy. He did this exercise with us where you would read the lines – even if you were off-book, you would read them – in pairs and he would record them. Then you would stand up and he would play it while you silently moved forward, stayed still or moved backwards on your lines and their lines. Then you would sit down and repeat the process maybe three or four times and just note how those decisions of when to move shifted throughout the scene. You realise, ‘Oh, I’m frightened of her at that point, because I suddenly stepped backwards.’ You don’t think about it, you just do it on instinct. That was one of the most helpful exercises that I’ve then applied to everything else I’ve done – you can’t really do it on film sets but I’ll try and ape it at home.

“He’s wonderful, he’s a really special man and the kindest person – and I think that comes out in his shows.”

For Ophelia, theatre acting offers a measure of control that film and television do not. She worries sometimes that elements of performance get lost in the editing room. “Onstage you have control of that, you can pitch the story and it’s not interfered with. And you are given more responsibility with it. It feels quite muscular.”

She flexed very different muscles in 2014’s Marvel superhero caper Guardians of the Galaxy. It was hugely different from anything she’d done before and she considers herself a Marvel convert.

“The mood on set was just brilliant. [Director] James Gunn has this indefatigable energy and he is the perfect person to direct a film like Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s got this childlike enthusiasm, but very professional and efficient. I only shot that movie for nine days but they were shooting for quite a few months and by all accounts he was cool as a cucumber the whole time. He never lost sight of the fact that you’re making a comic book movie, that this is supposed to be fun. And it was.”

Ophelia’s US television debut came in 2014/15, in a 12-episode story arc in the Emmy-nominated series Elementary, in which she played troubled Kitty Winter, a protégé of Sherlock Holmes (played by Jonny Lee Miller) and, at least initially, a rival to Joan Watson (Lucy Liu). She says: “I think there were nine days before getting the part in Elementary and starting filming. And I also moved house. I love all that, I like not knowing where I’m going to be. It’s quite an addictive life, I think.

“I moved to New York for five months, which was brilliant because I saw the seasons change and really got to know the city. I’d worked there years ago for Mr Popper’s Penguins but this time felt different.

“There was a bit of trepidation about joining an established group. But the whole point of Kitty was that she was a lone wolf and didn’t really like integrating. I had to make sure I maintained that, even though I got on with Lucy and Jonny really well. Kitty was a strong character and when I read the script it was really clear to me who she was. In terms of developing the character it was already in place. I feel like a lot of the time that’s what auditioning is really: it’s not are you good, it’s that ineffable quality of are you the right person to tell this story?”

The third series of BBC satire W1A will be on our televisions later this year and Ophelia will reprise her role as efficient Izzy Gould. She says we can expect “more of the same – non-conversations that go on for days.

“The main thing with Izzy is the theory that she isn’t really ruthless enough to do this job. Her moral compass is too acute and she’s constantly being encouraged by Jonathan Bailey’s character Jack – ‘You’re not being selfish, you’re thinking about your career and there’s a difference.’ I think that’s her dilemma, trying to marry the two parts of her life.

“We find Izzy addressing how to remain moral but still have a career, which I think is quite relatable.” 


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