Actress Chloe Pirrie has a unique way of coping with playing her real-life heroes. “I never think of them as iconic,” says the Scot who can be seen playing Emily Brontë in BBC’s one-off drama To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters.
The drama deals with the period in which the sisters wrote collectively under a pseudonym so as to be able to write novels in a medium and era dominated by men. Books such as Wuthering Heights, by Emily, and Jane Eyre authored by eldest sister Charlotte, have become classics of our time, but like many, when Pirrie landed the role she thought of the books as more romantic tales, this quickly changed. “I read Wuthering Heights as a teenager. As soon as I got the job, I read it again. It felt different. I was struck by the brutality of it.”
And there is a harsh edge to her turn as Emily, who she plays with a stubborn tenacity. Pirrie was surprised to discover that Emily was someone who struggles with interactions, until she puts pen to page, and that she was a bit of a homebody. To Walk Invisible concentrates on the family dynamic of the sisters and their relationships not just to each other but also the men in their family. The family dynamic, Pirrie discovered, even affected the clothing choices of her character, which are quite extraordinary.
“Emily was stubborn with her dress sense and would choose stuff that clashed,” explains Pirrie. “She would wind Charlotte up by wearing things that didn’t go together.”
This all added up to Emily being the type of character that Pirrie is making a name for herself being: the outsider with an edge. The actress says of the roles that she’s been landing, “I feel like your quirky dish.”
The Edinburgh born actress made an impression from the start. When I first met her it was at the San Sebastian film festival in 2012 at the world premiere of her debut film Shell, for which she would go on to win the British Independent Film Award ‘Best Newcomer’ accolade, playing the title role in Scott Graham’s drama about a 17-year-old living in the remote Scottish Highlands with her troubled father.
“I was very ignorant about the film industry, where this sat in the film industry,” recalls Pirrie. “Now I look back on it and think how did I get that job. When it started to go to film festivals it felt like a bit of a whirlwind.”
I remember Pirrie being wide-eyed and bewildered, having flown to the festival on a day off from her job working in a pub. The difference between her then and the confident woman of today is remarkable. Then she wasn’t sure if she would act again, and had the worry of a novice, wondering if going to an international film festival would be a one-off. Now she’s an actress appearing in prime-time TV shows such as War & Peace and Brief Encounters, and this past year also starred in the Oscar winning short film, Stutterer.
After Shell hit she quickly began to be offered other roles. One of which was playing a politician in Black Mirror: The Waldo Moment: “I got offered Black Mirror and my boyfriend and I were so excited. I used to read Charlie Brooker’s column growing up. Although then we didn’t have the budget and scope that they have on the current series.”
But being in demand hasn’t erased all self-doubt: “I definitely have had a couple of years where I’ve been working constantly, but it never goes away that worry that you’ll never work again. It’s a funny job. It never gets easier. Rejection never gets easier.”
But perhaps her biggest career conundrum to date was when she was offered too many roles and had to choose between taking on a role as a screenwriter in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth alongside Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel or taking a role in the massive space opera Star Wars: A Force Awakens.
“When I got Youth, I also got a small role in Star Wars,” recalls Pirrie. “I didn’t know what to do. I decided to choose based on the character.”
Luckily working with Sorrentino was all that she hoped it would be. “He sees the world in a colourful way that is so unique to him. We would read the script and it would say that we were writing on a table and then on the day of filming he would take us to the top of mountains and put the tables there. Things like that happened all the time.”
Pirrie has just finished filming scenes for series 2 of The Crown, in which she plays Eileen Parker, who went through a rather acrimonious divorce from her then husband, Commander Michael Parker, who was Private Secretary to the Duke of Edinburgh from 1948-1957.
“I knew nothing about her,” says Pirrie. “I read her book Step Aside for Royalty about her experience of being part of that set and her relationship with her husband in that period, which was really useful.”
The book details the activities of her husband and Prince Philip, as well as offering up details of the controversial love affair between Princess Margaret and Pete Townsend. Parker’s prose has become a primary source for a generation of writers about the British royal family. The 29-year-old actress adds, “It’s interesting trying to make something as truthful as possible, but playing someone who is still alive is quite a weird thing.”
To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters is on BBC 1 on Thursday 29th December at 9pm.