QUEEN OF BRITISH RESERVE ; From alcoholic Karen in Cold Feet to serious Ros Myers in Spooks, Hermione Norris is an expert at playing self-contained women. SOPHIE HERDMAN discovers the actress's latest role, in Agatha Christie's Marple, is equally intense
THERE are some things in life that you just don't expect. Like when Hermione Norris, who in person is as cool, calm and collected as the characters she portrays on screen, reveals that she's actually a bit of an emotional time bomb.
I'm very open, she says, in her familiar posh accent. My poor husband... But better out than in, hey? After a whirlwind romance, Norris married screenwriter Simon Wheeler in 2002, and they have two children - son Wilf, eight, and five-year-old daughter Hero.
Becoming a mother, the 46-year-old confides, had a bigger impact on her career than she was expecting.
I naively didn't think my approach to work would change, but you have to make choices. You're either enjoying your work and away from your children, or you're with your children and away from your work, she says.
Of course, acting isn't any old career - it's a demanding job that requires you to be free to work whenever a role crops up, which is something Norris is all too aware of.
I speak for myself, not any other woman, when I say this, but I am not truly available [to my work] when my children need me, she says.
Not that Norris resents this. As she points out, you don't get a second chance with kids.
At the end of my life I'm not going to look back and think, 'I need more box sets', but I do need my children to have had a good foundation.
Unlike many actors, Norris clearly doesn't retreat, tortoise- like, into her shell when asked difficult questions. She's honest and, as she said herself, open.
It's funny, then, that she so often plays characters that epitomise British reserve.
Think yummy mummy and alcoholic Karen Marsden in ITV's Cold Feet, the role that catapulted her to fame.
Then there's Ros Myers, the career-driven intelligence boss in BBC One's Spooks, and Clare in Falling Apart, the young professional who, behind closed doors, is a victim of domestic abuse.
Norris sticks to this formula for her latest role as Evelyn Hillingdon in the TV adaptation of Agatha Christie's Marple tale, A Caribbean Mystery.
Evelyn is a beautiful, elegant but cold woman. She's the embodiment of upper-class British reserve and, despite appearances, is struggling with many dark secrets.
Yes, yet again I play that character, says Norris. To be honest, I saw the script and just loved Evelyn. She's so wicked when she says, 'Old men are so ugly, they should all be put to death at 40'. I loved her irreverence.
Amusing she might be, but Evelyn is also, we are led to believe, tormented by a family scandal that occurred during her childhood.
That's why she wants to protect her children at any cost. It's tragic really. I feel for women of that generation; so stuck, it makes you feel sick, says Norris, suddenly switching to serious mode.
The Christie stories always attract the best of British TV talent - Robert Webb, Oliver Ford Davies and Antony Sher are among those who appear in A Caribbean Mystery.
The books are legendary, says Norris. They're part of our British fabric. Indeed, Christie's tales are so good that they've managed to lure Norris in not once, but twice. Back in 1993 the actress appeared in an episode of Poirot, not that she wants to be reminded.
Please don't see it, it's embarrassing, she says, laughing. That's one of the hazards of being an actor, it's like getting out your old photo album - except it's plastered everywhere.
Despite its name, A Caribbean Mystery was mainly shot in Cape Town. It's such a mad place, says Norris. We were sitting on the beach and whales were swimming past.
It also features some fantastic fashion, particularly that sported by MyAnna Buring, who plays American belle Lucky Dyson. Norris aptly describes the actress as a beautiful little doll.
As it happens, Buring cites her co-star as one of her idols, noting her elegance, poise and honesty during performances.
Norris becomes bashful at the mention. Oh, isn't that nice! How lovely, God bless her! But while Norris is indeed a talented actress, there might be more to her than dramatic aptitude.
She mentions that she's considering putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) with her friend and fellow Spooks actress Nicola Walker. I would love to write something for TV, she reveals.
Perhaps she'll pen a psychological thriller or a slapstick comedy. Or maybe, just maybe, it will be a subtle tale of anguish and pain hidden behind a middle-class facade. Well, it's best to stick with what you know, isn't it? ? Agatha Christie's Marple: A Caribbean Mystery is on ITV on Sunday at 8pm.
Hermione Norris as Evelyn Hillingdon.
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