The scion of two acting dynasties, ‘Silent Witness’ star Emilia Fox explains how she struggled to find her voice until she had daughter Rose
Emilia Fox is about to turn 40. Kindness and a gentle sense of mischief mingle in her rich brown eyes. You may have fallen for her as the Second Mrs de Winter in the 1997 television adaptation of Rebecca in which she starred, just 21, opposite Charles Dance. Perhaps you know her as the forensic pathologist Dr Nikki Alexander in the BBC crime drama Silent Witness. Or maybe you’ve read about her romantic life in gossip columns. However you’ve encountered Fox, you’ll recognise her as more than simply the scion of a long and distinguished acting dynasty.
Through her great-grandmother, the actress Hilda Hanbury, Fox is related to the Terry-Gielgud family of actors and she was submerged in the profession from her infancy. Her mother is Joanna David, while her father, Edward, and uncles, James and Robert, are from the Fox showbusiness dynasty. Emerging from such a background was not easy. “It becomes much more of a challenge to be seen in your own right. That’s why I always liked going to America, because there were no preconceptions of who you were. People weren’t expecting your mum or dad to walk through the door. You were just taken at face value.”
Born in Hammersmith, west London, Fox was educated in Dorset as a boarder at Bryanston. Her uncle Robert’s first nights were “always very glamorous” and she remembers Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston at his flat when she was little. “They turned up wearing sunglasses at night. I’d just seen Room With a View and Julian Sands was there, and I remember tripping and dropping all the canapés at his feet. But, although now I look back and think ‘Oh my goodness, that would be really fun’, at the time it was just a gathering of grown-ups and I was handing around sandwiches.”
Only at Bryanston did she become aware that people had opinions about her parents. It was assumed she lived a moneyed lifestyle. “But that was not my upbringing at all. People were quite surprised when Mum and Dad would turn up in a clapped-out Volvo. They were expecting limousines.”
Growing up, there was no little voice in her ear whispering: “I’m going to be an actress.” Instead, there was a loud voice saying: “Don’t do it.”
“I’d seen the highs and lows of the profession. I’d seen the great times when Mum and Dad were working and having a really good time, but I’d also seen the times when they were not working and waiting for the phone to ring. The rose-tinted spectacles about the profession were truly off and I didn’t want to do the same thing as everyone else.”
None the less, while at Oxford studying English, she auditioned for a part in Pride & Prejudice and got it. After her performance as Georgiana, the sister of Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy in the 1995 TV adaptation, she signed to an agent who helped her win the Mrs de Winter role in Rebecca, a part her mother had played 20 years earlier. “I guess my mum and I have got something quite similar about us, which was a sort of naivety and an innocence that that part demanded.” The role was, she says, no more than a welcome distraction from being locked in a room with books. “I wasn’t expecting to get it. I wasn’t expecting it to form the next 20 years of my life.”
Those 20 years have been filled with a diverse and extensive range of film and television roles. She returned to the stage this year in Rapture, Blister, Burn after an absence of 10 years, having been put off by her experience in the 2003 production of Les Liaisons Dangereuse. “It was quite heavily criticised. It’s weird going on the stage when you know people aren’t enjoying it. You become quite paranoid. And it ended very quickly, thank God.” Now she’s open to doing more theatre.
Fox considers herself a perfectionist. “I get help to get better at not being one. I see a therapist all the time. It goes back to school and university, really, my need to push myself. In a way it was a way of saying thanks to Mum and Dad. Because acting is such a precarious profession and I knew what it cost them financially to give me such a great education. So my way of saying thank you was to push myself very, very hard and be a perfectionist in work.”
Now, though, she feels more able to let go, not just at work but also in life. “In relationships, people are who they are. You can’t expect them to be someone else or to think about things the way you think about them.” She was, she says, probably a bit of a people-pleaser in her twenties and thirties. “Now I think I’m much better at saying, ‘Hey, this works and this doesn’t.’?”
Fox’s list of famous lovers is almost as long as the family roll call of actors. She dated Vic Reeves in 2000 and then the artist and fashion designer Toby Mott. She married the Mad Men actor Jared Harris (son of Richard) in 2005, but the marriage barely lasted five years. Her subsequent relationship with the actor Jeremy Gilley produced her daughter Rose in 2010, but they split in 2011. She reportedly then dated the chef Marco Pierre White.
Does she find relationships difficult? “Oddly I don’t find them difficult. I really enjoy relationships. I hope I would be better at them now, having done a bit of therapy and certainly having more understanding of myself and where a lot of my thought processes come from, and how we affect other people in the way that we behave.”
She would like to spend the rest of her life with one man. She is, she says, a die-hard romantic. She doesn’t expect perfection, though. “I want to work with someone in a relationship.”
Why, I wonder, was Fox a people-pleaser? “In some ways it’s not a bad thing. I remember my grandmother always saying: ‘Manners maketh man,’ and my parents were very much about putting other people’s needs first, making sure everyone was OK, and I absolutely promote that. But at the same time I definitely didn’t learn to have my own voice for a long time. Maybe that’s why acting comes quite easily, because you can be other people and find a voice through other people.”
Now there’s another, tinier voice to tend to: three-year-old Rose. What’s it like being a single mum? “Definitely the toughest thing I’ve encountered in my life. It’s also the most rewarding and greatest achievement, in that we’ve all now got great relationships with each other – Rose’s dad, myself and Rose.
“It’s almost funny seeing this new [Gwyneth Paltrow] phrase, ‘conscious uncoupling’ or whatever it is, because we’ve got to that point now where we’re really, really good friends and the benefits for Rose are just so amazing.
“I’ve tried to convert all of the negative into something positive, which is that we both, together and independently, have an amazing relationship with her. And in a funny way, when you are on your own you create a bond which is different than when you’re all together, and it’s incredibly close.”
Fox’s greatest fear is that work might dry up but, on the threshold of her forties, she is optimistic about the future. “You hear so many people saying there aren’t enough parts… but there are amazing ones being written now for people in their thirties and forties, and maybe that’s because we’re more interested in more complex mindsets.”
Does she think she can get better still? “Yes. But that means doing it all the time. Some actors pick and choose their jobs and they probably shape a career much more. I’ve never been like that. I’ve always said: ‘Thank you so much for offering me a job. I’d love to do it.’?”
Emilia Fox stars in ‘The Child’, an audio drama released by Audible this summer