Emilia Fox is one of those actresses who everybody likes. You might like her because of her star turn as Dr Nikki Alexander in Silent Witness, or opposite Vic Reeves in Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased). Or she might appeal to you because she once tried to evict Hello! from her wedding. But she gets my vote because she turns up wearing 5in black patent peep-toe stripper shoes and with a scarlet pedicure. This is not just any bland blonde off the telly.
Fox has just turned 40 but has been in demand as an actress since she was a teenager. At first, there were the predictable gainsayers who said she was only cast because of who her parents were (actors Joanna David and Edward Fox) but you don’t carry on getting parts at 40 if you don’t know how to act. Ironic, then, that Fox isn’t sure that she can.
“Because I’ve been on Silent Witness people think I know what I’m doing,” she says, with her feet curled under her on a sofa at the BBC. “But I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing at all, ever. I never had the insurance policy of having been to drama school, so when I started working I watched all the other actors and learnt from them. People expect you to have total assurance and I’m, like, no, please, tell me what to do!” She never intended to become an actress. Instead, the way she tells it, she fell into acting because she was a rubbish waitress. Encouraged by her parents to work in her school holidays — she boarded at Bryanston, in Dorset, near where her parents still live — she had jobs everywhere from a health food shop to Hatchards bookshop and Café Rouge.
“I kept being demoted, from waitressing, to hostessing, then to being a glass-dryer, then to the loos and finally they asked me to leave. To this day I don’t know what I did wrong. How wrong can you go with waitressing? Apparently I talked to the customers too much. Then I went to The Engineer [a gastropub in Primrose Hill] and I was not great. I remember Tamsin Olivier, who owned it at the time, saying: ‘Do you think you should do something else in the holidays?’ That was when I got asked to audition for Pride and PreJudice.”
So in 1995, a washed-up waitress, Fox was cast opposite Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the iconic wet-shirt TV version of Jane Austen’s classic. She cringes now at how bad she imagines she was but at the time she contemplated dropping out of Oxford, where she was reading English, to act full time.
“Mum and dad said do not drop out of your degree, you will never get that time again. I was a bit tempted, yeah. I thought ‘Ooh, how exciting, acting.’ But then I got [a part in the TV miniseries] Rebecca when I was doing my finals, which meant I didn’t have to choose what career path to take, or worry about which area of journalism I wanted to go to. Instead, I was like ‘Woohoo, I’ve got a job!’ ” Fox grew up with her brother, Freddie, and an extended family of actors: cousin Laurence Fox, uncles Robert and James Fox. She was on Who Do You Think You Are? in 2011 and discovered that her family were artistic, theatrical types as far back as her great-great-grandfather, but is having none of the “actor gene” theory. “When people say, ‘Do you think it’s in your blood?’ I’m like: ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ ” What did her parents make of her becoming an actress? “I think it can be every parent’s worst nightmare to have their child say they want to go into acting, particularly for my parents who had seen the ups and downs of it. They certainly weren’t celebrating but they didn’t deter me from doing it, and that’s what I would say to any young actor: if you’re really passionate about it, do it, but be aware of the fact that it’s a gamble with your life.”
It’s a gamble that, for Fox, has paid off.
She has had a regular job for a decade on Silent Witness, and slots in other projects — plays, films, other TV work — in between. She is about to be on our screens in The Secrets, one of five new works commissioned by first-time playwrights by the BBC. Fox was drawn to the role because she had worked with the director Dominic Savage before. She plays a relationship counsellor opposite Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt and Ben Chaplin. It’s an intense half-hour, with terrific performances by all three. “It’s about family,” says Fox, “and what’s important to a family, and certainly to a woman with a child. I felt strongly that I could relate to that.”
The Secrets could also be proof that not all the best roles don’t go to younger women. “I hope we’re just coming into our own at 40. I really hope people write lots of roles for people of my age.”
While her career has been steady, her romantic life has been anything but. In 2005 she married fellow actor Jared Harris, but it ended after five years. It was at her wedding to him that, to her mortification, Hello! turned up, although she and her parents had turned down their offer of coverage. They let them take pictures anyway, because they feared that to throw them out would have caused more of a scene, and the magazine duly printed pictures with a disclaimer, saying the newlyweds had received no fee and did not endorse the feature or its photographs.
In 2010 she married Jeremy Gilley, a film-maker and peace activist. The marriage lasted a year and left her a single mothe r to Rose, now three. Since 2012 she has been in an on-off relationship with the chef Marco Pierre White. They were pictured in March with their arms wrapped round each other. Are they back together? She squirms.
“It’s my absolute sort of … area … that I … um … have a complete uncomfortability [sic] talking about. I never think anyone can be that interested.”
Is dating more difficult with a child? “Rose comes first and foremost in every area of life. Everything is considered around her.”
She lives alone with her daughter in Acton, west London, where she cultivates a cottage garden filled with roses, lavender and herbs and has conversations on Twitter about when to plant out her morning glories. It sounds idyllic, but life hasn’t panned out quite how she thought.
“Whose life does?” she counters. “Listen, I’m a die-hard romantic, I watch Disney films with Rose and I see what happens at a young age: you’re brainwashed into thinking this is what life should be, and I’m right there with it. I’m Disney all the way.”
So when she grows up she’s going to be a Disney princess? “Exactly. When I grow up. I’m still growing up.”
Rose sees her father regularly and Fox seems content.
“The ideal way is for a family to be together. I’ve tried to put a positive spin on the situation, which didn’t start off in an ideal way at all. Being together as parents is the ideal, but I’m lucky because Jeremy and I have found a good way of parenting together, one that that works for us and works for Rose. When Rose goes to her dad she has the best time and I try to tidy up my life. Nothing in my life has been either planned or achieved in a way I would expect, but I’m sort of happy to go along with it.”
Fox has always seemed to be a homebody, not the type pictured stumbling out of Mahiki at two o’clock in the morning. She says that lifestyle never appealed, mainly because she’s always had to get up and go to work in the morning.
“I have a work ethic and I wouldn’t want to jeopardise that. That lifestyle doesn’t jeopardise everyone’s work, but I’m sure it would have done mine. I wouldn’t have got away with it.” Acting is an unlikely profession for people who like to go to work every morning. She admits to feeling insecure and says that she would have loved a desk job. “I’m a grafter. I love routine.” And, refreshingly, while most actresses say they yearn to play Ophelia, or Lady Macbeth, Fox is having none of it.
“That is not my dream,” she says firmly.
“I remember doing Richard II and Coriolanus with Ralph [Fiennes]. He seemed to love it, and he was brilliant at it, but I just don’t think I’m very good at it. I would cast other people in Shakespeare before me. I’m better at other things.”
For the legions of fans of her work, it’s lucky that waitressing isn’t one of them. The Secrets starts on September 7 on BBC 1, 10.40pm
Emilia Fox’s perfect weekend
TV or theatre? One night of each
Taxi or Tube? Tube for punctuality, taxis for luxury
Late night or early riser? Early riser
Opera or soap opera? Both. If we’re doing a night shoot on Silent Witness we watch EastEnders. The acting is really, really good
Cooking or being cooked for? My cooking is limited. It sounds terribly spoilt, but cooked for
Sand or snow? Snow at home, sand abroad
Schubert or the Smiths? Both
Harrods or John Lewis? I have a three-year-old, so John Lewis
Telephone or Twitter? Telephone
Green tea or caramel frappuccino? Neither
I couldn’t get through the weekend without … roses of some form or another