Interview: Getting high on life; She's just back from Cannes, boasts a host of work projects and has a happy romance to boot. Elizabeth Berrington tells Phil Tusler about her great times.
The star of the hit TV drama recently jetted back from Cannes where she rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous at the glitzy film festival. She can name Hollywood heartthrob Ralph Fiennes among her leading men, and will next be seen on TV playing Marie Antoinette in a new comedy series from Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Let Them Eat Cake.
Far from life being a miserable drudge, it's been a whirlwind of success. The last few years have been fantastic for Elizabeth, with starring roles in the controversial The Lakes, in which she played the neurotic Ruth who chopped off her philandering husband's manhood, and now My Wonderful Life.
But she's not about to let fame go to her head. Not so long ago she was waiting on tables and wearing ridiculous costumes just to earn some money.
"I took any job going when I started out. I waited on tables and spent a whole summer dressed as a large, fat man outside London's Trocadero Centre enticing customers in," she recalls. "I had little boys calling me names and putting cigarette butts down my costume. But it makes you appreciate the good things when they come along.
"I've sold ice-cream and worked in bars and restaurants to make ends meet. I never thought of giving it all up, but you reach a point where something starts to die inside."
Her fortunes took an upturn when she was cast in two of acclaimed director Mike Leigh's movies, Naked and Secrets And Lies. And Elizabeth, 32, hasn't looked back since.
She's now playing an aristocrat opposite Ralph Fiennes in Onegin, appears in Peter Greenaway's Eight And A Half Women, and stars in a French And Saunders comedy about the French Revolution.
"Ralph was lovely but we had to do a skating scene and I hadn't skated since I was a kid," she smiles. "It didn't help that we had big costumes, corsets and bonnets on. I was trying to remember my lines and stay on my feet.
"Working with Mike Leigh has been one of the highlights so far. When someone like that believes in you it gives you a certain confidence in your ability and the way you are. You never like to say things are going really well in case it all changes, but I'm not doing too badly at the moment, thank you."
Life is pretty wonderful off-screen too for Elizabeth, who, after two years together, is still very much in love with her musician boyfriend Joe Hurst. They don't live together, as she is often away filming, while Joe is writing and performing with his 11-man band Trainer. Elizabeth, who shares a house in Brixton, south London, insists they are happy the way they are, and says that marriage and children will have to wait.
"We met a couple of years ago in a bar and he's very talented. He sings and writes and arranges his own music and plays guitar," she explains. "At the moment we're just going out with each other. I'm working all over the place and he's got exciting plans.
"We love each other very much, which is a great place to start, but marriage and stuff are definitely for the future. I'd like to think we were both a bit more settled first. I've no great wish to have babies yet. I've got a bizarre job so I'd want all the foundations in place before something like that happened."
She also has strong views on fidelity, and could never put up with an affair in the way that her character Marina does. "You can never say for definite because you aren't in their position but I couldn't see myself doing what Marina has done," she says.
"He's rather pathetic isn't he? I couldn't be attracted to someone like him at all. But Alan's all that Marina has known. She met him when she was young and she's trying to make the most of it."
Her success is a testament to her parents' support, even when times were tough. Elizabeth's father, who died earlier this year, spent 30 years working for an oil refinery on the Wirral. Merseyside, and her mum has worked as a secretary and hairdresser.
"I come from a very ordinary, working-class background, but mum and dad encouraged me to follow whatever I wanted to do. They always told me there was life outside the area I was brought up in," she says. "I was quite an excitable child. I had a lot of energy and performing was one way of channelling all that. They've helped out financially when they could and I think they were just glad to see me getting on.
"They always believed in me and that was very important."
Despite her fame, Elizabeth still gets star-struck, especially with performers she admires. And an unexpected meeting in a Brixton supermarket left her a quivering wreck. "I saw this actor Mark Rylance, who I've admired for a long time, in Tesco's," she says. "I wanted to go up to him and tell him how much I like his work but in the end I turned around and walked the other way.
"Young schoolgirls come up to me in Marks & Spencer or write me sweet letters. They seem to have taken to Marina and they definitely identify with the show."
Not all her correspondence has been welcome, though, especially following her powerful performance in The Lakes.
"I did get a couple of funny letters. It's quite threatening and alarming when it happens," she recalls. "I'm sure I'm not the only actress that it happens to. But it's alarming because you feel responsible for the image you portray on screen. I just ignored it. I didn't want to take it on board in any way and luckily it didn't go on for long."
Though she prefers not to plan too far ahead, Elizabeth's future looks rosy.
"I'd like the freedom to choose the sort of roles I do and if that means becoming well-known then so be it," she adds.
"I've not exactly got anything concrete yet, though. I'm just settling into a relationship with someone. I don't own my own house and I share a car with my sister.
"I don't think I've made it yet..."