sat 20/07/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Actress MyAnna Buring | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Actress MyAnna Buring

theartsdesk Q&A: Actress MyAnna Buring

The Swedish-born doctor's daughter on her rapid rise from 'Kill List' and 'Twilight' to 'Downton', 'Ripper Street' and Jimmy McGovern's 'Banished'

Hot property: MyAnna Buring stars as Elizabeth Quinn in Jimmy McGovern's new BBC Two series 'Banished'

There came a moment, around three years ago, when MyAnna Buring suddenly seemed to be in everything. "I'm so sorry!" she shrieks (ironically) when I point this out to her. She had given warning of her arrival by appearing in Ben Wheatley's Kill List and, rather more prominently, as Tanya (who as you'll know was a vegetarian vampire from the Denali coven) in the concluding pair of Twilight films.

Then Buring popped up in BBC One's Blackout, was Edna the Maid in Downton Abbey (where she brazenly set her cap at Tom Branson), flitted across our screens in ITV's The Poison Tree, and materialised as Long Susan, the feisty Whitechapel madame, in the grim but gripping Edwardian crime series Ripper Street.

Dropped by the BBC but then triumphantly resuscitated by Amazon Prime, Ripper Street is still very much a going concern, with the Beeb having conceded defeat and invited it back in-house. Meanwhile, the tireless Ms Buring marches onwards. She has a movie, Hot Property, in post-production, and (until 7 March) is appearing in Morgan Lloyd Malcolm's thriller The Wasp at the Hampstead Theatre. Her big news this week is her debut in the key role of Elizabeth Quinn in Jimmy McGovern's new BBC Two series Banished, the story of a group of convicts who have been transported to New South Wales in the late 18th century. They're struggling to survive in a harsh and alien climate, which is only made worse by the primitive brutality of their military guards.

Apparently thriving on all this hectic activity, the petite but dynamic Buring (pictured right in Twilight) is an enthusiastic talker, happy to roam beyond matters merely thespian to such issues as sexual politics and the lessons she has learned from life in the Middle East, where she spent her formative years. Her piercing blue eyes and finely-chiselled cheekbones hint at her Nordic background (she was born in Sweden but now lives in London), though as she puts it, "I am an immigrant and an emigrant, all my life I have been."

ADAM SWEETING: Tell me about your childhood.

MYANNA BURING: I'm a doctor's daughter. Pops [Klas Buring] used to take me to operations. When I was a kid I used to do rounds with him every weekend. If he could he would take me into the theatre, so I have seen a few hip replacements and a few broken arms set right. I think it's one of the most worthy professions, it's extraordinary what they are able to do. But no, medicine never pulled me. I think helping people is just something you should do anyway in life. If you can help people you should help them.

You were born in Sweden, but didn't stay there long?

I was born there and my parents are Swedish but I never grew up there. We moved to the Middle East when I was 2, I grew up in the Middle East and then I came to the UK when I was 16 [she went to boarding school in Oxford and studied drama at Bristol University]. The Middle East is where I grew up and when somebody says "where is home?" I think of Oman and now obviously London. The UK has been my home for most of my life and London definitely so in the last 14 years.

I think I'm the only person who's been fired twice from 'Downton', but I'm happy to have that title

Getting cast in the Twilight films must have given your visibility an enormous boost internationally?

It's that typical thing when people talk about somebody who is new on the scene – the fact is that there has usually been seven to 10 years of graft behind it. I graduated from drama school and did plays with a theatre company [the MahWaff Theatre Company] I worked with. I got The Descent [movie] early on, in 2005, which was an amazing experience but it was very much a case of I took whatever job came along because I definitely wasn't in a position to have choice (below right, Buring with Saskia Mulder in The Descent). Then about 5 years ago Ben Wheatley, who I'd done a comedy sketch show with, he contacted me out of the blue and said "me and the missus have written a part for you in our next film [Kill List], would you come and do it?" It was the first time that somebody had really reached out with a role that felt very meaty. It wasn't just the two-dimensional girl next door on the arm of the main leading man and I jumped at it, it felt like it was really the first time I got to really flex my acting muscles. And while I was filming that I sent off an audition tape to the States for Twilight, thinking they'd never watch it in a million years, and literally two weeks later as I was going up to Sheffield to film I got a call saying I'd got a part in the last two Twilight movies. Kill List and Twilight came out at the same time and that suddenly made people a bit more aware of me, and then obviously Ripper Street. It's been the best five years of my life really.

Then you tried to upset the applecart in Downton Abbey.

I keep getting these tweets saying "I can't believe you did that to Branson!" I didn't do that to Branson, my character did it, so if you want to blame anyone you can blame Julian Fellowes. But it's amazing what they've achieved in Downton. It's a compelling story which is told and produced beautifully. They've also created a real family feel on the set and it's a lovely atmosphere to work in. Last year I did the last bits of Downton and they very kindly asked me to come back, but because I was doing Ripper Street I didn't do the whole series. So I think I'm the only person who's been fired twice from Downton, but I'm happy to have that title.

You're appearing in The Wasp at the Hampstead Theatre. Did that come off the back of your role in Strangers On a Train at the Gielgud?  

Yes, before Strangers I hadn't done theatre for seven years. It gave me the confidence to do The Wasp, a two-hander with Sinéad Matthews. Even though it's in a studio space which is quite small and intimate i don't think I would have felt comfortable enough to take it on had I not done Strangers. But this year again has been an example of how lucky I feel. I kicked off the year with Hot Property, an independent comedy about a woman who's dealing with the loss of her parents, and then I jumped on a plane and went straight to Australia to film Banished. Then I came back and started filming interiors for Banished in Manchester, but whenever I wasn't doing that I'd go over to Dublin because we'd started on Ripper Street again. Then I had a bit of September off and then did a little stint on a Norwegian comedy series, just because I'd met the director and thought the way he worked was really intriguing and fun, so I went and acted in Swedish for the first time in my life. Swedish with an English accent! But there are so many Scandinavians who are working with English accents I thought we should have some representatives from here coming over and speaking Swedish with an English accent.


Was the Long Susan role in Ripper Street quite influential for you? Did that get you the Banished job?

I don't know. I'm sure the producers and directors of Banished would argue that they were just trying to find who they felt was right for the part, but inevitably the more work and more varied work you do it's easier to get into a room, because people know you a bit better. There's that old saying "work breeds work" and I'm sure that's true.

It was great news when Amazon came galloping to the rescue of Ripper Street.

It was really heartwarming, because it made us aware there was a substantial audience out there who wanted to see more, and I think there was a real sense after series two that we hadn't told the story we wanted to tell. It was great that we could all come back and the writers were really excited. Amazon's support has been extraordinay, and what Amazon and Netflix are doing for TV, and film too, is incredible. They're able to fund projects that otherwise never would be, and they're able to get them out to an audience in a way that has never been done previously.

Susan (pictured right) has been through a very long arc. She's had to harden her heart in her personal life, but has also become a powerful and philanthropic force?

Very much so. There was always a philanthropic stream within her from beginning. She didn't just start a brothel for financial reasons, she saw that there was a need in the Whitechapel that she and Captain Jackson (played by Adam Rothenberg, pictured below left with Buring, Matthew Macfadyen and Jerome Flynn) arrived in that wasn't being met. There were girls in the street that were being abused and used and she thought if she could at least provide a home for them where they would be safe and looked after ... and if it was something she could also earn money from then that was something she could do. But obviously her own experiences very much changed her thinking on the whole subject of selling one's body for money. So in series three she sort of came back wanting to open this clinic, and not only that but essentially take over Whitechapel and make it better for its inhabitants. Very worthy intentions, but like most people with worthy intentions the means they sometimes have to employ to achieve them are questionable. I get to play a character that's in the centre of this real moral dilemma, this quandary. It's not all black and white.

As an actor I think what you have is an ability to empathise, so the more you learn about another human being or another character the more you are able to get in touch with them. I haven't found myself in Long Susan's shoes, I've not been physically abused by a big lord of the underworld who's wanted my body in exchange for money, but all of us at some point have had moral dilemmas or have had to question things in our lives so maybe that's the point of empathy. And the idea of being in love with somebody who ultimately can't be here and can't support you, not because they don't love you, just because they're simply not able to do that. I think we can all empathise with that at some point. We're human beings, we've all had our hearts broken. It's a tragic relationship she has with Jackson, but personally I'm not like that at all. I go God, if it's that painful get out! What are you doing? My goodness! But your heart beats in mysterious ways.

Ripper Street throws up a whole range of issues about social conditions, gender politics, corruption...

Absolutely. The characters are living in a world where things are evolving, new ways of thinking, new technologies arriving on the scene all the time, and all of them find the status quo is harmful to them. It doesn't help them and therefore they come to crosspoints where they don't understand why they should support it. They feel it needs to be smashed. Susan constantly talks about it being a world of men, but one in which she will prove to be more powerful than anyone she comes across, and I think that's incredibly brave. You have to be strong but I think you probably have to reach a point of desperation in order to move forward. Sometimes things have to get really bad in order for you to fight for change, it's important that we do. This sort of dialogue has come up again and again as it should do, until we live in a world where we really do see each other as equal. Where young girls are not shot for going to school and where young men are not told that crying is not manly or that they need to man up, and somehow that should involve being fierce and harsh and shutting off their emotions. That makes no sense whatsoever. It's not that long since we've had the emancipation of women, and the effect that has had on all of us needs time to play out (Kill List, pictured below).

With your knowledge of the Middle East, you've seen how women haven't advanced under Islam?

There's a bit of a problem here in the sense that there's a sort of sweeping generalisation that's made about the Middle East. It's a bit like making a sweeping generalisation about America, where middle America and the coasts tend to be very different. Equally Europe, if you look at Georgia or Croatia they're very different to the UK, the UK is different to France and Italy... the Middle East is a large land mass made up of a lot of countries that are very different. There are parts of Islam that I would argue and in my experience are not sort of backward in terms of women. In terms of the Koran, no more backward than the Bible, I would argue. I have grown up with lots of examples where Muslim women have been my role models in terms of how to be a woman. The lessons I've learned from them are to be independent, have belief in myself, the idea that I can do anything I want to as long as I work hard enough and as long as I'm respectful to those around me. That having a home is not just about a woman, it's about a man as well, but it's about a man and a woman coming together and creating that home. It's about looking after family and how important that is, looking after our elders – the idea of putting family into a home unless they're incredibly ill is absolutely unthinkable. That's the Islamic world I was raised in. In Oman for example a woman who does the same job as a man is paid the same. Now we don't even have that here, but I'm constantly reading things in the paper which say "this is how women are treated in the Middle East". Yes there are places where it's true but because there are places where it's not true, the blanket statement saying "this is how Islamic women are treated" is wrong because it's not true for everyone. I think until we start changing the language we use around it we're going to keep encountering problems.

You'd better tell me about Banished (pictured left). Are you a Jimmy McGovern fan?

One of the biggest fans. I'd seen Cracker but hadn't realised it was tied to Jimmy. I remember watching The Street and going "my goodness, this writer is exceptional." The way he juxtaposes characters and their plights is heartbreaking, and he's a very poignant writer I find. He takes the everyday and gets to the root of it. Then reading Banished I was blown away. You have some characters that are based on real historic figures, in particular Governor Phillip [David Wenham]. Then Jimmy took the idea of what life would be like for these convicts and soldiers living in this completely alien land, and what it must have been like in those camps, and he spun a fictional story out of that. These are characters living in the most extreme way. They had been locked up in these rat-infested ships on the Thames for months and months before they got the go-ahead to leave, travelling for eight or nine months. Surprisingly, Governor Phillip managed to keep most of those first convicts alive, an incredible testament to him as a captain and a leader. They're starving, there's not enough food in the stores for them, so the convicts are all doing incredibly hard labour. Being able to survive on a basic level is incredibly important for all of them. Then there's the importance of forming relationships with people around you in order to survive, to protect your food from being stolen, in order to protect your body from being raped. My character Elizabeth is this woman from London who has been sent to the other side of the world for a crime that nowadays she would never find herself on the gallows for, that's for sure. On the way out she falls in love and meets the love of her life, and to have that juxtaposition, of finding yourself in this incredibly harsh, difficult environment and yet being completely and utterly in love, that's what tugged at my heart and made me incredibly excited to play Elizabeth. I always talk about her as being a heartbeat. She's sort of a heartbeat for three other characters in the story, and in some ways they are for her too, but in particular Tommy Barrett [Julian Rhind-Tutt] is the love of her life. Love and our relationships with people are incredibly important. The resilience they can create in us is not just the desire to stay alive, but love and how we care about other people makes that resilience so much stronger.

It paints a depressing portrait of the Army and its behaviour. The women in the colony belonged to the soldiers?

Yes, well that was one of the incentives as well, that you could have access to the women. For a young single man that would have been exciting I'm sure, and probably still is, but these are soldiers who are trained to go into battle, there is a certain mentality that has to be generated in order for somebody to be able to do that. It's encouraged, and so you question is it their fault or is it the system they come out of? I think the answer is it's a bit of both, personal responsibility has to come into it. But Cal McAninch plays a soldier [Sgt Timmins] who's got quite an exceptional set of morals despite being trained and being a Marine and being part of that world. He displays a very strong belief in right and wrong as opposed to others like Buckley for example who seem to be quite skewed, but Jimmy writes characters, so it's not a case of them being just wrong or right. Banished takes characters who start off in one place and by the end they're in a completely different place. Everyone has gone through a journey. Nobody gets let off the hook and it's not easy and it's not black and white.

The soldiers were banished as well, in effect?

Of course they were, absolutely, and a lot of them left families back home and a lot of them didn't want to be there. They were there because they were told to or they were going to get a promotion or they were going to get money on their return. This was their job and they were surrounded by people who they had been told were convicts and convicts were criminals. In the eyes of the law they were criminals and they deserved to die. Again it's about not being able to look at somebody and see them... when you look at them you see something other, you don't see yourself as equal to them in any way shape or form. You are superior, so what happens then when you start to have feelings for somebody who you feel is inferior to you? What does that do to your psyche and what does that force you to question about yourself?

Did you get a sense of what the Australians think about that episode in history?

I get a sense that for a long time there was a sort of embarrassment that there was this history of convicts, but I think with enough time things change. I always knew more about the Aboriginal history and much less about the convicts and what it was like for them, and I think it's interesting to be able to tell that story as well. The Aboriginals were there and were part of the convicts' lives, but Jimmy said if we're going to tell that story then we have to tell it very well, and this particular story of Banished is just really the story within the camp. If we'd brought in other strands it wouldn't have done the story justice, and I think rightly Jimmy decided to exclude that. But the Australians we worked with were incredibly welcoming and open to the story, and I think if there was a tendency in the past to not want to visit that part of their history, now that's definitely not the case.

  • Banished begins on BBC Two on Thursday 5 March at 9pm
The lessons I've learned from Muslim women are to be independent, have belief in myself, the idea that I can do anything I want to as long as I work hard enough and as long as I'm respectful to those around me

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