As one of the most recognisable faces in the English Film Industry, actress, author, and entrepreneur Talulah Riley (Pride and Prejudice, St. Trinian’s, and HBO’s Westworld) is set to hit the silver screen again – this time as 80s fashion icon, Vivienne Westwood in acclaimed director Danny Boyle’s eagerly anticipated mini-series Pistol, based on the memoirs of Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones.
Usually known for her ingenue roles, Talulah’s take on the famous designer will be a refreshing sight to see as we see her character have a hand in changing the landscape of pop culture, fashion, and music during one of the most fast-paced periods of history.
With 2022 becoming the year of pursuits for the actress, Talulah will also be releasing her
second book on June 23rd called The Quickening, a dystopian novel set in the near future about a Britain exclusively ruled by women, a tale on gender, power and betrayal.
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Could you tell us what your first acting experience was like and what role it was?
Yeah, so my first acting job was on the show Poirot based on Agatha Christie’s famous sleuth – for the episode, Five Little Pigs, which I did when I was at school at the age of 17. It was really lovely because I was working with spectacular actors, actresses and a really great director. All of it was beautifully shot. We were staying in lovely country houses by the sea whilst filming and everyone on set was very kind and supportive, it could not have been a more idyllic introduction into acting. That world, I just thought, “Wow, this is the most incredible, exciting job possible and I still feel that.”
Over the years, how did your acting process develop over time? Is there a go-to method you apply when you get into character?
Well, I think it's quite interesting initially. There’s the element of typecasting certainly that goes on. With Mary Bennett, it’s playing the sort of strange bookish introvert that's not too far from my own character and then playing the ingenue - an awkward girl who gets a big makeover at St.Trinian's.
But then I suppose, with Vivienne Westwood, my most recent role is really far removed from me as a person and as a result, there's a lot more work to do there. It's also the first time I've ever played a real-life living person, whilst also acknowledging that there's a weight and responsibility that comes with that; more so than obviously portraying a beloved fictional character that everyone is invested in. When it’s somebody’s real life, I think that one needs to be very cautious of that. As the actor, you are obviously removed from that the moment you're given the script and what you've got to work with.
My process for Vivienne was – her kindly meeting up with me, which was really sweet of her. She was very gracious and generous with her time. Her family as well - her two sons specifically were helpful when I asked them about any specific mannerisms and physical moves I should be aware of.
Other than that, I just went with what's there on the page, because when you're portraying real-life people, it's obviously never going to be them, so you try to create a character with a nod to the flavour of them, I suppose.
She became an icon at a time where it was a tearway between tradition and modernity. What made you want to portray her?
Well, it’s everything that you have just said. She is an absolute icon. It's one of those things when you get through it and you think ”really am I allowed to have a go at this? This is so exciting.” Also with the whole punk ethos at the time our costumes were incredible. It's weird because to me, this just doesn't seem that long ago - it was sort of strange as it felt like we were making a period piece suddenly with all the vintage stuff. It's a bit of a shock to the system, but who wouldn't want to have a go at being Vivienne Westwood?
It was just so much fun, the power and strength she has was really fun to play with. Like I said, previously, I've often done sort of quiet ingenue roles where things happened to the character, as opposed to the character making stuff happen.
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Do you think you have a little bit of similarity to her in certain aspects or situations?
I think we could be legitimately described as “English Eccentrics”, in terms of how I’ve never really chosen the regular path. I like to say I throw myself into the benevolence of the universe, that's sort of my life catchphrase. When it comes to Vivienne, II think she is somebody who followed a massively creative pathway. She's an artist, a taste-maker, and a do-er. That is her reason for being who she is.
I'm certainly inspired by that level of creativity and it's something I would like to infuse into my own life going forward. I actually started sewing again when I got the role and started making some clothes and just trying to get into the feel of her.
You want to learn how to be tactile, to feel the fabrics, and the way she holds and assesses things is completely different to how I would do so. So it was fun to play with fabric and materials and reassess colour.
It's funny when I was doing that research, I've actually brought a lot of that into my own life as well, which has been really good fun.
So would you say that you have always been this creative from the very beginning or was there a time that you weren’t?
I think I've always been into creation, but I suppose in its broadest sense. You can be creative with a maths problem. There are lots of different ways to be creative and to find essentially the received knowledge you get.
One definition of creativity would be linking knowledge in unique pathways. If we were both given the same facts, the way we assimilate them would be different, which is the essence of creativity.
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This brings me to my next question and I think a lot of people would be surprised about this. You’ve written your second book, which is a dystopian novel called The Quickening. Could you tell me what this is about?
It comes out in June, which is a month after the Pistols release. I was just saying to my friend that I'm feeling a bit strange because in the book there's a massive global war that kicks off in 2022 after the virus.
Basically, what's happened is there has been a major global catastrophe. It’s set in the near future where everything, including the international banking systems, has collapsed and there's been a nuclear war and things like that.
In the aftermath, a woman, who is the leader of this political party that takes power in the UK, essentially just turns it into a full-on matriarchy. It's told primarily from the point of view of a guy who met her at university and fell in love with her.
You see the progress of their personal relationship while following the regime she’s implementing in the country and his reactions to that.
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It’s a bit like 1984 meets The Handmaid's Tale then?
It sounds like it actually. It was fun addressing things from the male perspective. There's a scene where he's walking down the street and he can hear high-heeled shoes on the ground behind him. He gets really nervous that he's being closely followed by a woman. So it was just kind of fun to play around and flip the switch. It is really weird and gets very dark.
There's a screenwriting book I really love and a piece of advice in that is you have to always deliver on the promise of the premise. When I started thinking about matriarchy, I was thinking about the most extreme place I could go with this.
When did you start to invest time writing The Quickening? And what was the inspiration behind it?
It was supposed to come out in 2017-18, so I'm really late on delivery. It was a combination of my own life and being busy. But the germ of the idea occurred to me during the last bit of the US presidential election when Hillary was running.
We had our Prime Minister, at the time, Theresa May, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. If Hillary won, we would have had a large number of the world's superpowers being ruled by women. Imagine if that had been a conspiracy of timing and we're about to take over the world.
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So that was the beginning of it. And then, of course, things didn't actually pan out that way. We ended up in what seems to be a dystopian reality, with one event occurring after the other. It seemed even more timely. The Me Too movement kicked off, and then, during that period, a lot of feminine power came out in the movie industry, such as Vox, and feminist fiction started appearing.
It was really interesting as an exercise to look at different feminist tropes and look at all the issues surrounding them. From a fictional perspective, it’s great because you don’t have to come up with all the answers, you can play with different angles.
When it comes to some of the scenarios that are in the book, what are the little Easter eggs that your readers would find in it?
It’s relatable and interesting because it's flipped. I sort of wanted to play around with this as you don’t know where your sympathies lie, because obviously, you ended up feeling – at least, hopefully, sympathetic for the man who is under this regime.
But a lot of the things that he is experiencing are historically and currently what women experience in the world; that was sort of my point as well. In my mind, that is othering women. There’s the saying that women are these special angels who would never do anything wrong, which, of course, is not the truth. Women can be subject to the law and power, just the same as men can. We're human in the end.
I suppose, fundamentally, I was looking at the idea that any extremist ideology is bad. But then there's no one-size-fits-all solution. And that a lot of these problems are massively intertwined.
You can't give a bandaid solution to this; even if it's very tempting to try and do so.
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How would you describe this year for yourself?
For myself, in relation to my projects, I suppose punk would be a major defining word; and dystopia to cover my writing as well. It’s an entanglement of creative works and real-world scenarios.
The last question I want to ask you is how did you keep yourself motivated during the global pandemic, being shuttered inside at home, not being able to do anything, and how did you keep yourself motivated?
Well, not very well. That's why the book’s like five years late. I found it really hard to get motivated. I lost one of my dearest friends, not to COVID, but she died the day after giving birth to her first child; that's who I've dedicated The Quickening to.
It's been a crazy demotivating time. So I'm trying to go into 2022 and pick up from that, although the world is still going mad. That's the magic about arts and creativity. It's a release, an escape from reality that I play with; not worrying about my outputs or worrying about motivation, it’s not a race and nobody is judging.
What I have learnt is that if the doing's going very slowly, then that's absolutely fine. That's sort of the season of life you're in. Being generous with oneself is always helpful.
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Pistol is available now on Disney+
Photographer Simon Lipman
Fashion Editor Harriet Nicolson
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Words by Cyan Dacasin