Nicola Walker, star of Unforgotten and The Split, returns to the theater | Nicola Walker

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A Many actors would “go into a tailspin” if they lost their director for two weeks during rehearsals for a big stage role, director Dominic Cooke has said. But not Nicola Walker. When he returned to the National Theater for rehearsals of corn is green after a fortnight with Covid, exclaiming how terrible it was that they wasted so much time, its lead actor set it straight. “She said, ‘Well, I’m not in Ukraine’. And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s you. You have a sense of perspective on this.

In showbusiness, where being grounded isn’t a common trait, Walker’s poise makes her stand out. “It’s very simple for her. She sees where she fits in the big picture,” Cooke said. “And that’s an admirable quality in anyone, but especially in the crazy world of entertainment.”

After decades of growing recognition, it promises to be a big week for the 51-year-old, best known for her roles in BBC dramas Spooks and Last Tango in Halifaxas MI5 analyst and farmer respectively, and as Detective Chief Inspector at ITV Unforgettable. She plays divorce lawyer Hannah, whose marriage (to Nathan, played by Stephen Mangan) continues to unravel in the final season of The split on BBC One.

Meanwhile, offscreen, she’s making a long-awaited return to the stage as a visionary pedagogue in corn is greenthe 1938 semi-autobiographical play by Emlyn Williams, which is at the National until June 11 after a two-year delay caused by the pandemic.

And later this year she stars in another relationship-focused BBC drama, Marriagewith Sean Bean.

Play Gillian in Sally Wainwright’s family drama Last Tango in Halifax. Photography: Matt Squire/BBC/Lookout Point

Cooke, who described working with Walker on the piece as “a revelation”, said he had never seen her do anything like this. “It’s a different role for her. But I think she’s made for it,” he said, adding that she seemed “incredibly comfortable” in the starring role, played on screen by Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn.

“The thing is, she’s done so much,” said Cooke, who directed Olivier’s award-winning productions. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Follies and the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s short story On Chesil Beach. “Before doing television, she did years and years of theater. And when you have that level of experience in an actor, it’s like working with a virtuoso, he has a lot of strings to his bow. They have a lot of resources, and she has them.

His stage credits include an OIivier award-winning turn in The curious incident of the dog in the nightwho won Best Supporting Actress in 2013, and Beatrice in Ivo van Hove’s acclaimed production Young Vic in 2014 A view from the bridge, which transferred to the West End and Broadway.

Cooke sees her having the kind of trajectory of Judi Dench, who at 87 is still going strong. “The sky’s the limit for her [Walker] and there will be incredible opportunities for her in the years to come. She definitely has that kind of national treasure Judi Dench potential.

Still, it took Walker a long time to achieve household name status. Like Oscar winner and Cambridge graduate Olivia Colman, she had turned 40 before her career took off.

In her twenties, Walker was warned by older actresses that finding work would be difficult once she turned 40. But now she is busier than ever. “The last 10 years have been the best of my career,” she said recently. “I didn’t see it coming.” 2020 has been the quietest year since the birth of her son, Harry (whom she named after Spooks character Harry Pearce) in 2006.

With Sanjeev Bhaskar in ITV's hit crime series Unforgotten.
With Sanjeev Bhaskar in ITV’s hit crime series Unforgotten. Photography: ITV

Her life at home, with husband Barnaby Kay, also an actor and son in north London, is said to be “grounded, regular and sane”, and an important part of who she is. Harry, she recently claimed, hadn’t watched any of her work in full because he found it strange to see his mother on TV. Luckily, her husband, who she says was “very supportive”, is keeping an eye on everything.

The most common adjectives used by those who have worked with her seem to be fun, bright, smart, amazing, and kind.

Dee Koppang O’Leary, who directed her in The split, said her performances were so layered and nuanced that she didn’t want the scenes to end. “She’s got the most emotive, emotional face I’ve ever seen – and when the camera is on her, you never mean cut.”

Chris Lang, author of Unforgettablefirst met Walker in 2007 when she appeared on his show Torn. He had known her from Spooks, but he wasn’t prepared for her to be.She had just had her son, and it was almost her first job back from maternity leave. I remember auditioning her and thinking she was amazing, an amazing actress,” he said.

They continued to work together on A mother’s son in 2012 and later Unforgettable, first shown in 2015. Although he wrote the role for her, she was still not considered a lead actress then, he said. “She was just about to take that leap. But I knew from the first time I worked with her that she could carry a show completely.

Starring Phoebe Fox and Mark Strong in Ivo Van Hove's acclaimed production of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge.
Starring Phoebe Fox and Mark Strong in Ivo Van Hove’s acclaimed production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Part of her appeal, he said, was that she was an empath — both on and off screen. “You identify with her and you see yourself in her. I think it’s a pretty rare gift and not many actors have it, but she has it in spades.

Such is his ability to make others believe in his characters that Unforgettable director Andy Wilson, said when his character, DCI Cassie Stuart, deceased, he must have watched the scene 100 times during editing, and cried each time. “It’s a tribute to her. Because the person she created in Cassie was so real to me,” he said from set while filming the new series.

Wilson said Walker changed the perception of women on television through the role. “She’s a woman who’s ready to show you the vulnerability and the weakness in her character. She’s ready to be vulnerable and she’s also ready to be the leader,” he said. rounded character in a way that I don’t think we’ve really seen before.”

He said Walker made her laugh when the bodies arrived on set, when she would always be “vaguely disgusted.” But, he said, the most memorable thing about him on set was “his explosive laugh.”

Walker, who was born in Stepney, London, to a scrap metal dealer father and interior decorator mother, started acting at the age of 12 in youth theater but never dreamed of making a career out of it. As a child, she enjoyed black and white musicals with stars such as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly. After attending a private school in North East London, she became the first in her family to go to university. At Cambridge, she was taken by her friend Sue Perkins to the university’s Footlights drama club.

She’s always been true to herself, a friend and creator of Spooks, David Wolstencroft, who remembered first meeting her at a Footlights comedy event. “The overwhelming impression I had of Nicola was that, unlike many of us at the time, she didn’t seem to be trying to be anyone other than herself – which, given her talent and professional background, seems paradoxical, but she was simply who she is.

He first saw her on stage in 1990 during a Footlights review and noted that “her heart and precision were already there.”

Wolstencroft said he remembered “the sound of her and Sue Perkins constantly laughing”. After college, Walker got a place at Rada but decided against it because of the cost and because she was, she said, “in a hurry to get started.”

With Steve Pemberton in the comedy anthology series Inside No 9.
With Steve Pemberton in the comedy anthology series Inside No 9. Photography: Sophie Mutevelian/BBC

Despite this, many of his colleagues praise his technique. Last Tango in Halifax Writer Sally Wainwright said, “There’s something about the detail she puts into every beat, every moment, and then makes it seem effortless. There’s always a kind of gravity to any scene she inhabits.

After college, Walker continued to perform in friends’ plays above the pubs. And it was in a play in a pub, alongside Rachel Weisz, that she caught the attention of an agent.

She struggled to get TV roles in those early days, but appeared as one half of the “scary folk duo” in Four weddings and a funeral. Wolstencroft remembers seeing it and thinking “Well, that makes perfect sense…She’s leaving!” He then worked with Walker on Spooksin which he describes her as “a center of gravity for the show”, and in hunting dogsa film about the Rwandan genocide that he wrote.

What future for Walker? Is the United States calling you? “It’s a rising tide that lifts all the boats. I would love to see her in a big American show. If I ever get the chance to get behind the wheel of one of them, I beg her to come and play,” Wolstencroft said.

But the actor’s approach to this is, characteristically, much more down to earth. When recently asked if she was tempted by Hollywood, she said she mostly associates it with watching Marvel movies with her son. She also stated that she would like to work with Perkins again. She recently said she was “hands on to play”, adding, “My dream role is always the job you get next.”

Producer Jane Featherstone, who worked with Walker on Spooks, River and The split, said his biggest motivation was his writing quality and his colleagues. They first met on the ITV drama touch evil in 1995 just out of college. “She was just amazing in the audition, and ITV took the punt on her and we were very lucky,” she said.

Walker’s ability to be both ordinary and exceptional made her stand out, she said. “She’s quite unusual, she’s quite special but also extremely relatable, and that’s a rare thing. We’re lucky when we have ones like her, honestly.

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