Emilia Fox comes from acting royalty and is best known for starring in the BBC’s compelling crime drama Silent Witness, but she finds motherhood her most thrilling role yet, says Charlotte Pearson Methven
If there was an official list of celebrity women we normal girls would most like to be best friends with, Emilia Fox would surely top it. Not since I met Damian Lewis have I had so many green-eyed girlfriends as I’ve set off to do an interview. And, happily, public perception and reality do not diverge.
The actor, 38, glides unrecognised through the lobby restaurant of the Sanderson hotel in Soho at breakfast time and slips into the booth opposite me, all smiles as she greets me and says, conspiratorially, and without a hint of complaint, that she’s been up since five with her two-year-old daughter Rose.
Dressed in a skirt-kitten-heels-sparkly-top ensemble, capped off with a scarf knitted with a mischievous-looking fox – ‘from Topshop! It’s my fox scarf!’– with her hair pulled up messily and only a hint of make-up, Emilia looks like a better, glammer, cooler version of the West London yummy-mummy. She’s not tall; she’s not aloof; and she’s not someone who wants to create a stir. When the waiter – who’s clearly cottoned on to the fact that she’s ‘someone’ – announces that our orange juices are ‘on the house’, she looks mystified and mouths ‘why?’ at me.
Emilia is the daughter of actors Edward Fox and Joanna David, and, thus, British acting royalty. Her cousin, actor Laurence Fox, is married to Billie Piper, and she was married to actor Jared Harris, son of Richard. But despite this formidable pedigree, Emilia never set out to act herself. The turning point came while she was studying English at Oxford. She gave in to the family pressure to have a dabble, taking a small role in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – famous for that wet-shirt moment when Colin Firth became a heartthrob. ‘For me at the time it was just a summer job and meant I wasn’t waitressing,’ she laughs. ‘I look at it as my little amuse bouche into acting. I never wanted to act – anything but. It didn’t seem like a very original career choice and I’d seen first-hand how precarious it is. I wanted to forge my own path. But it slowly drew me in from that point on.’
Since then, Emilia has steadily become a household name, with a raft of mostly television roles, most notably her current eight-year stint as Dr Nikki Alexander in cult forensic drama Silent Witness. But, today, what she wants to discuss most of all is not acting, but motherhood. She glows like someone who’s fallen in love for the first time talking about Rose, whose father is her ex-partner, peace activist Jeremy Gilley, from whom she split last year and about whom we do not speak.
‘Motherhood has bettered me in every single way,’ she says earnestly. ‘There is no greater love. I’ve accessed emotions I’ve never had before, which has helped the depth of my acting too. Life is a juggling act and you get better at it when you’re a mother. I need to work to provide for Rose and I love what I do. Because children live entirely in the present, the challenge as a parent is to be entirely present with them. I think working gives me that ability, because my time at home is so precious. I also hope it makes me a good role model. I want more than anything for Rose
to find something she loves doing. I definitely want more babies: there is no limit. I’d have as many as I could!’
Emilia has created an admirably ‘normal’ life for herself and Rose at home in Acton, a stone’s throw from the studios where she films Silent Witness six months of the year. ‘I live a totally incognito life. No one approaches me. It’s a very local community, where people really look out for each other. It feels like ‘real’ London – there are lots of little parks and we even have a railway crossing.’ A big incentive for moving out to Acton – from the cut-and-thrust of Notting Hill – was the prospect of being able to have a larger garden, as Emilia is a zealous gardener and nature enthusiast, a passion borne out of her childhood weekends and boarding school years spent in Dorset. She is even a patron of the Butterfly World Trust.
‘In many ways, my heart is in Dorset. It is so wild and untouched. As a child, I spent time by the sea or chasing butterflies in the garden and making flower presses. These are luxuries you don’t get in town, but moving to the country is not realistic with my work. I wanted to find a way to create a garden for Rose, although right now she is more into picking things than planting them! She loves all the wild strawberries and sweet peas. And for me, gardening is very cathartic.’
As a child, Emilia – who has an older half-sister, Lucy, and younger full brother, Freddie, also an actor – was based in London during the week, attending Francis Holland School for girls until 13, when she begged to be sent away. ‘Now that I am a mother, I can really understand why my mum was so distraught letting me go,’ she says. ‘My parents were very protective. They wanted to preserve my innocence and hold onto me, and so I was being picked up from school carrying my cello, while the other girls in my year were at the bus stop smoking with their skirts hitched up. I felt out of my depth, but I know when Rose starts toddling off on the tube, I will be the overprotective mum in the next carriage!’
And so Emilia transferred to Bryanston, a co-ed boarding school in Dorset. ‘I loved it! I’d do anything to go back! I’d offer up my services to go and sweep leaves there. That school gave me so much – an amazing grounding in acting, with the best facilities, and so much more. Many of my best friends are still those from Bryanston.
‘People didn’t treat me differently because my parents were actors, but they did make certain assumptions, like that we had this very glam life. I was just so confused because my parents live such a down-to-earth, private life. People assumed they must drive flash cars, when, in reality, they were driving a clapped-out old Volvo.’
Emilia has followed suit, driving a ‘clapped-out old Volkswagen’ to ferry herself and Rose around. ‘I used to be very into going out and partying,’ she sighs, ‘but now I am very home-centric. I love to stay in and watch series like The Killing and The Bridge, if I can keep my eyes open, or to rediscover places like the Natural History Museum with Rose. Even going to the theatre is a big treat. I recently saw The River with Dominic West, which was brilliant. I’ve been slightly shy of doing theatre, but it made me think I might like to try again…
‘I have become so sentimental since having Rose that I also like the idea of doing a love story – something opposite to the blood and guts of Silent Witness.’ What she does not want to do, though, for the record, is to play Mrs Robinson, as has been misreported. ‘I don’t know how that rumour circulated,’ Emilia laughs, ‘but I hope I’m not old enough for that yet, and nor do I want to take my clothes off!’ Emilia has a cameo role in a Mike Figgis film, coming out later this year, and has been busy recording lots of audiobooks, including Agatha Christie for the American market.
‘I’ll just see where my career takes me,’ she says. ‘It’s really about the right thing coming up at the right time. You have to accept in this profession that some things will come off and others won’t. I’ve never felt competitive or had a bitchy experience of acting; actors are such generous people and there’s this wonderful kindred spirit feeling amongst us. It’s a great job. I’m lucky to have it… But I’m far luckier to be a mother.’