Dev Patel may currently be the best-known Skins alum but I am confident that in time Hannah Murray will come in second. Just about every viewer agrees that she was phenomenal on the show as the loony, anorexic Cassie—a character with whom she still feels deeply connected—and despite presently doing time at Cambridge University, where she is studying English, she shows absolutely no inclination of allowing her acting to slide. Here I speak with her about her best-known role, her recent foray into theatre, her fondness for literature and other such topics.
I guess we should start with Skins. How did you become involved initially with the TV show?
They were holding open auditions in Bristol, where I lived and where the show is set, which I found out about through a local youth theatre that I was involved in. Initially I remember wanting to go along more because it would be good experience to audition for something - I didn't think I had a chance of getting a part. But I met Jane Ripley the casting director who said they'd like to see me again and then I had two more auditions with the directors and producers before I found out I got the part on my 17th birthday.
What about this series do you think helped it to be received so successfully?
I think there was sort of a gap that needed to be filled for something like Skins. On British TV before Skins came out, the only teen dramas that were on were American imports, so I think it was really appealing for a British audience in that it was closer to to what their lives were like - rather than something like The OC which is set in a very different world. I also think it has a really great mix of comedy and drama and that all the characters feel very real and the series allows you to get to know them really well.
Did you and the other actors have any input regarding characterization or storylines?
To some extent. We weren't ever involved in the actual writers' meetings which went on in London but the writers did come down to Bristol and were around a lot and were very keen to hear our opinions, particularly about how our characters might react to or feel about things.
Regarding your character Cassie, what was your relationship with her like—and how did (or do) you view her as a character?
I feel quite protective of her in many ways. I think that having had a closer relationship with her makes me have rather different ideas about her than a lot of people do. One big difference is that I never found her funny, I always found her sad, whereas I think some people view her as having very comic moments. I also got quiet annoyed when people described her to me as ditzy, as I always felt she was incredibly intelligent - she sees through a lot of other characters, such as Tony, for example - and that the kind of dizziness that she puts across is actually a defense mechanism. And, although this might annoy some people, I never believed in the relationship between her and Sid and didn't really think they should be together. I thought her feelings for him were the result of misplaced affection based on low self-esteem.
Rather remarkable about the character are her similarities to Hamlet’s Ophelia. To your knowledge, was she in any way an intentional update of that character—and if not, what do you have to say about the remarkable similarities?
Are they that remarkable? Aside from the fact they both go a bit mental... I'm pretty sure Ophelia wasn't a major influence - at least, nobody ever spoke to me about it if she was. There was actually a scene written for series 2 which didn't make it to the final draft where Cassie was in the bath with flowers, to resemble the painting of Ophelia drowning, so I suppose the connection had been made.
Then you went and did That Face on the West End. How did you get involved with that play and what drew you to it?
I very first heard about it when I worked with Matt Smith on In Bruges (which we both eventually got cut out of), and at that time he was rehearsing for the original run of the play at the Royal Court and said I should come and see it. It sold out and I didn't get to see it, but I did read a copy of the script and thought it was really fantastic. Me and Matt have the same agent and when he first told me it was transferring to the West End my reaction was "oh great, I'll get to see it this time," but then a month or so later I got asked to audition for it. The main thing that drew me to it was just how incredible the writing is, it's so dark and funny and clever, and Mia, the character I played, is a really amazing part. I was also terrified of the idea of doing a play and so for that reason really wanted to because I knew it would be a challenge.
What dynamics about stage acting do you find compelling (especially as compared to film acting)?
I think there's something so exciting about the immediacy of it, that you're right there in front the audience, which also makes it a more collective experience. I like that you get to play out the whole piece in one go and in order, unlike film or TV where things can feel a bit bitty and it can be frustrating doing things out of sequence. The thing that I was most surprised I enjoyed was the repetition of it. I was scared it would get boring but actually it gives you this wonderful opportunity to rediscover things and experiment, there's a great sense of possibility with each show you do.
What was it like shooting your upcoming film Womb with Eva Green?
I got to work with Matt Smith again! For the third time. In That Face we were brother and sister and in Womb we play boyfriend and girlfriend which was a bit of an odd transition but it was really nice to work with someone who I knew already and get on with really well and who's also a brilliant actor. Eva was fantastic as well, it was a privilege to get to work with her. This film's this really beautiful, strange story about human cloning and getting to be part of that was a very cool experience.
Could you please tell me about your upcoming film Chatroom?
It's based on a play by Enda Walsh, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, which was on at the National Theatre a few years ago. It's about a group of teenagers who meet online, one of whom is very charismatic and persuasive, and ends up trying to get another member of the group to commit suicide. I play a girl called Emily who's very dowdy and naive and is bored and frustrated with her life offline. Hideo Nakata is directing. We started filming a couple of weeks ago now and I'm very excited about it.
How did you get involved? What, if anything, do you have to say about the cast (which includes fellow up-and-comers Aaron Johnson and Imogen Poots)?
I first auditioned for it over a year ago, I think in May 2008. There was a very long wait to hear back because they had to send the tapes over to Japan for Hideo to watch them and then the film got postponed and then eventually in October I went back in to read with a group of actors going for some of the other parts and had a couple more auditions like that before I found out I got the part in February. So a very long audition process. The cast is a lovely group of people who are all very talented and it's really exciting to work with all of them. We're all almost exactly the same age as well (I think we're all 20 apart from Aaron who's 19), which means we have lots in common and there's a great atmosphere on set as we get on really well.
Do you feel like there’s a difference in the way the U.S. and the U.K. approach acting and the entertainment industry? What difference do you think there is?
I don't know if I'm really qualified to say as I've never done any work in the U.S. apart from a week filming in New York for Skins. The only difference I noticed then was that they refer to actors as "the talent", which I did find a bit weird.
How are you enjoying your studies at Cambridge? How is that working out alongside your career as an actress?
At the moment it's working out incredibly well. I've been so lucky as I was able to do Womb over my Easter break and now Chatroom fits into my summer holidays. Even though it can get a bit hectic I really like having both things going on at the same time and hopefully I'll be able to continue doing that.
Since a major in English is far more significantly suggestive of an actual interest in literature in England than it is in the States, what is your favorite thing about your studies thus far?
I just love the breadth of literature that we've been introduced to. Over the first two years of the course we cover from 1300 to the present day and I've read so many things that I never would've otherwise and lots of stuff that I'd never even heard of. I also like the rigorousness of being encouraged to examine things in very close detail, it's allows you to think in a completely different way.
What in particular do you love to read?
My favourite novel is Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger and I really love all of his stuff. Ulysses by James Joyce really blew my mind and I'm hoping to get a chance to re-read that soon. There is also a massive place in my heart for the Harry Potter series which I doubt will go away. In general I'd say I probably prefer reading novels to poetry, although I am a fan of e. e. cummings, Sylvia Plath, Emily Bronte and T. S. Eliot. Last term at Cambridge we spent the whole time on Shakespeare which was wonderful and I really enjoyed reading lots of his plays, although I find reading plays isn't usually half as good as seeing them.
I finally get to ask this question! In Lula you recently mentioned your interest in playing Camilla if there should ever be an adaptation of The Secret History, and I can’t stop thinking about how perfect that would be. Tell me what you love about the book, what your dream adaptation would be like—everything!
Ah! I feel like I've probably jinxed any possibility of this ever happening by mentioning it, but yeah, it is something I would absolutely love to do. It's one of those books, when I read it, where the story is just so compelling that you get completely caught up in it and stay up way too late to carry on reading. I also think because there's so much deceit going on in it, and quite a lot of weird formality and lots of layers of unspoken things and that's just so exciting as an actor. My dream adaptation ... I don't know, I think I'd just want it to be very true to the book.
Haven’t you been participating in Cambridge theatre productions? What is it like, considering the involvement you’ve had with a major TV show and a West End production, to be doing a college show (I’m sure there are both advantages and disadvantages over other sorts of productions)?
In my first term I was in a production of Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, but I haven't been involved in anything since. It was enjoyable but I found it took up so much time and since I'm so busy with my course and with auditions and stuff like that it kind of left me with no time to just relax and left me a bit stressed out.
What sort of music do you like?
I try to listen to a really wide range of stuff. My favourite bands/people are probably The Beatles, Nirvana, Regina Spektor, The Smiths, Tom Waits and The Velvet Underground. I also really like a lot of 70s punk, a lot of folk, The Gerbils, Lethal Bizzle, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sleater Kinney, Rufus Wainwright, Destiny's Child, Johnny Cash, 20s jazz, early Rolling Stones, Nina Simone and M.I.A.
What is your life philosophy? (Yes, yes, I know—here we are with the twee questions.)
I read once that Katharine Hepburn said the important things in life were to work hard and to love someone, which I think is quite nice. I also think it's very important to try not to hold preconceptions and judge things on their individual merits.
Do you consider yourself happy? What makes you happy or how do you define happiness?
Okay, a big question. I do think that at the moment I'm pretty happy most of the time. I find I'm at my happiest when I feel busy and productive, when I feel like I'm making the most of my time.
For more on Hannah Murray, one can visit her IMDb page.