Ruth Wilson has holed up in a cabin in the French Alps, taking a break from an activity she loves when she’s not playing. “I skied this week,” she said last week in a video interview. “It’s been a passion for years. It’s very dangerous. I can throw myself headlong into something.
She said that last part with a smile. Wilson, an English actress best known for playing Idris Elba’s psychopathic nemesis in “Luther,” likes to go to extremes and work without a net. Last year, at London’s Young Vic theater, she tested her endurance in “The Second Woman,” a 24-hour production in which her character goes through the same breakup scene 100 times, with 100 different scene partners. (Some, like Elba and Toby Jones, were trained actors; most were not.) For her first professional assignment with Shakespeare, a 2019 Broadway production of “King Lear,” she played both Cordelia and the Fool (opposite Lear by Glenda Jackson).
Wilson’s latest role, in the limited series “The Woman in the Wall,” is no less intimidating. (It premieres Friday on Paramount+ with Showtime, after debuting in Britain in August.) She plays Lorna, a woman haunted by her years in one of Ireland’s “Magdalene Laundries,” of which at least a dozen were in operation across the country from the 19th century. century until the last closed in 1996. Run by Catholic nuns, the mostly for-profit laundries employed single, pregnant, or otherwise ostracized women for arduous, unpaid work, often after their mothers were forcibly separated from their children.
Lorna, who is sent to a fictional laundry at the age of 15, is desperate to find her daughter. Like many babies born to single Irish mothers like Lorna, she was sold into adoption against her mother’s wishes. Hundreds more people are buried in unmarked graves.
As the series begins, Lorna, a chronic sleepwalker and outcast, is surprised to find a dead body in her home. This happens around the same time that a popular priest is found murdered. The six-episode series draws on Lorna’s tortured perception and subjective experience; she is antisocial and unstable, but she is also the target of criticism from residents of her Irish seaside town who insist that nothing so bad happened to her when she was young.
The actress attacks the role with her typical intensity, portraying Lorna as a kind of wild animal in human form, alternately mocked and feared, pitied and despised. At the same time, a Dublin police detective (Daryl McCormack of “Bad Sisters”), adopted from a “Magdalene Laundry” as a young child, confronts his own past as he investigates the crimes that revolve around Lorna.
During his break from the slopes, Wilson, who also produced the series, discussed the shameful real-life story behind the story, his thirst for risk and the dramatic power of sleep deprivation. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Much of “The Woman in the Wall” seems to take place in Lorna’s head.
The first episodes are about the subjective and being inside one’s experience. It seems like some sort of nightmare state. We’re trying to understand what some of these women in the laundries must be feeling, for this constant trauma to come back. And when the world denies it, it must be very difficult to reconcile.
Was it difficult to play this nightmare state?
What was really difficult was keeping two things in mind at the same time. You feel this desire to find the child, but also the fact that you may have just killed someone. These two things were very difficult to play at the same time. So I didn’t do it. I played one thing, and then the next scene I played another thing. His present moment keeps changing. Is it the guilt and fear of having killed this woman, or the hope of discovering the truth about her daughter?
What were the other challenges of playing Lorna?
It was quite difficult to manage the genres. It has crime at the center. It’s also gothic horror, and there’s some dark comedy in it. And there are these scenes that feel like social realism; the scenes with the mothers were incredibly naturalistic and honest. So she’s a character that can cross over into all these different worlds and make them all authentic to her. It’s very dark and very moving. But there were moments that were also fun to do, like sleepwalking. And I find her funny as a character.
Between this and “The Second Woman,” loss of sleep seems to be a predominant theme in your work.
There is something really interesting about the subconscious. The idea of “The Woman in the Wall” is that it is difficult to grasp reality when you are functioning in a sort of non-sleeping state. It’s kind of crazy.
Do you feel attracted to risky roles?
I never want to repeat myself and I like challenges. I had no doubts about “The Second Woman”. I just thought I would learn something from this, even if it’s boring for the audience, which I don’t think it is. I wanted to push myself to the point of what happens after 18 hours of no sleep and you’re still performing. There is a part of me that is interested in personal pursuit, that observes myself in these scenarios and sees what I do and how I manage, and what effect that has on my performance. I think I’m as interested in my own relationship to the performance as I am to the character.
Did anything surprise you about the real events behind “The Woman in the Wall?” »
I was shocked at how recent this all was. I knew about the laundries, but all the previous depictions made it seem like it was from the 1950s. I didn’t feel like it was the 1990s, when I was a teenager, when I was age at which girls were placed in these homes. It really made us realize that this is an incredibly recent story and because of that, it’s hard to talk about because people still have to process it and reconcile it. The women who survived are still here and still desperately need their stories told and people to acknowledge that it happened.
What type of behavior makes women vulnerable to placement in these institutions?
Women were not placed in these places just to have sex. They were chosen because they were too loud, too brash, wore too short a skirt, or simply stood out in some way. It was a way of oppressing women of all ages. Some women were there in their forties. They had become pregnant out of wedlock. There are horrific stories of forced labor in these laundries. It was very brutal and we still don’t know enough about the truth about these places.
What is your next challenge? And will this allow you to sleep more?
I just finished playing Emily Maitlis, the journalist who did the famous interview with Prince Andrew, in the series “A Very Royal Scandal” with Michael Sheen. It was fascinating to take a deep dive into this interview, how it happened, and its aftermath. This is what I just finished filming, but I would love to find a love story right now. I’m looking for some kind of love or connection because I feel like a lot of work at the moment is kind of nasty and depicts people in a very negative way. I want to find some hope.