Born in Paris to Anglo-Irish parents she may have been, but the fact that Lydia Leonard only came to the UK at the age of five does not prevent her from regarding herself as a thoroughly English girl. She and her family settled in the bucolic Hampshire surroundings of Bentley, where she attended the local village school. “I was quite confident as a small child,” she recalls. “That changed completely when I moved to an all-girl Catholic school. I was far from difficult – I was pretty academic and I played county hockey – but the school regime just didn’t agree with me. I kept getting these unfair and absolutely horrible reports, which had the effect of knocking all the confidence out of me.”
Matters plainly had to change. She had friends who were being educated at Frensham Heights but Lydia had hitherto been unaware of the existence of Bedales, a school with a similar ethos. The chance to join Bedales in Block 4 was one which immediately appealed to her. “It promised to be the complete opposite of what I was used to, which had to be a good thing,” she says. “From day one, I loved it. Coming to the school relatively late made me even more aware of the beauty of its surroundings and how lucky I was to be there. I stopped being interested in playing sport and I probably let some of the academic stuff slide a bit as well but for a fifteen year-old, what mattered was that you were listened to and that your opinions genuinely seemed to matter. There was no ‘them and us’. Suddenly, I had a much more healthy relationship with authority and so I started to blossom again as a person.”
Some of Lydia’s interests at Bedales could safely be filed under the label of esoteric. “About four of us got involved in hydrotherapy and relaxation classes,” she remembers with a laugh. “There were so many choices.” The most significant avenue for Lydia, however, was drama. She had shown some promise as an actor ever since her debut as a particularly young King Herod in a school Nativity play. Now, the stage would become central to her present and her future. “I was quite innocent about the whole thing,” Lydia reflects. “I knew that I had some ability, I guess, but I wasn’t the school drama queen and I certainly wouldn’t have seen acting as a viable career at that point, particularly as none of my family had ever done anything like it. I loved drama for its own sake but it was also a little bit of an escape; my faintly rebellious streak was getting me into some low-grade trouble from time to time so the responsibility of being part of the school theatre company was the best way to manage that away.”
The mainspring of dramatic inspiration for Lydia was Mike Morrison. “Mike was a brilliant drama teacher,” Lydia enthuses. “He was passionate and serious about it, which had a major effect on me. Unlike other teachers at other schools, he really lived his subject and made me realise how much it mattered.” Alongside Mike Morrison, Lydia was also thriving under the tutelage of English teacher Graham Banks: “I adored English; Graham’s passion for the texts, from Shakespeare onwards, fuelled my own love of them and played a huge part in what I went on to do.”
By the time Lydia had achieved her crowning glory at Bedales by playing Dionysus in The Bacchae at the Olivier Theatre, the die was cast. It would be an actor’s life for her, although there was a false start. “The first time that I applied to drama school, I didn’t get in, so I took a gap year,” Lydia remembers. “When I was accepted the following year by Bristol Old Vic, I was already plagued with the doubts that are so much a part of the profession. You have to understand that a typical actor’s character is a mixture of insecurity about oneself and curiosity about being human, together with a healthy dollop of narcissism! Bristol was hard work – it only accepts a dozen students each year and it’s extremely intense. For the first year, I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed it. I had been fortunate enough to be so spoiled with encouragement at Bedales that I couldn’t really appreciate Bristol for what it was. Rather arrogantly, I felt for a while that Bedales had already taught me a lot of what I was now hearing again.”
The feeling passed and Lydia set about equipping herself with the necessary skills and essential accoutrements, including an agent, to make her mark on her chosen profession. From 2004, she began to appear regularly in TV series such as Foyle’s War, Ashes to Ashes, Jericho, The Line of Beauty and Casualty and has seldom been out of work since. Films such as The 39 Steps and Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley followed. In the theatre, meanwhile, her performances started to bring her to national attention, playing opposite Vanessa Redgrave in Hecuba and appearing in Time and the Conways and the original Donmar Theatre and West End productions of Frost/Nixon.
2010 saw Lydia play the first in a series of famous real characters when she took the part of Jackie Onassis in Martin Sherman’s Onassis at the Novello Theatre in London. “In a sense, playing these real people is much easier because you’ve got so much available research to hand,” Lydia observes. “Jackie O was a particularly reserved individual, who almost seemed to wear a mask for most of her life, but there are shelves groaning with books and information about her.”
Two years later, Lydia was picking up a gong as the most outstanding actress at the Monte Carlo TV awards for her role in Whitechapel. With her star in the ascendant, she was soon playing opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in The Fifth Estate and was then selected for the coveted role of Anne Boleyn in the RSC’s production of Hilary Mantel’s seminal novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, which ran at the Aldwych Theatre to wildly enthusiastic reviews during the summer of 2014 and will transfer to Broadway next year. “Rather stupidly, I hadn’t quite appreciated beforehand how popular Hilary’s books actually were,” Lydia admits. “She was a wonderfully hands-on part of the whole process, which was a fabulous experience for me.” The BBC production of Wolf Hall, scheduled to air early in 2015, with Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, has a challenging act to follow. “I never saw the film of Frost/Nixon but I’ll probably watch Wolf Hall, even though I shall be away in New York,” Lydia muses. “It will be very interesting and very different from the staged version, I would imagine.”
2014 has seen Lydia at her busiest, dovetailing her Wolf Hall stage commitments with filming Life in Squares for the BBC, a drama focused on the extraordinary lives of the Bloomsbury group in which Lydia will take the role of Virginia Woolf. “Right now, I’m thoroughly enjoying a period of rest, which I feel that I’ve earned,” Lydia says. “This year it’s been so rare to have any time off at all that I am really appreciating the break. It’s not that I’m complaining; years ago, I made a vow never to grumble about being busy. Acting is not an easy life and by far the worst aspect of it is the depressing waiting around between jobs that happens to all actors at one point or another. I realise that I’m blessed at the moment.”
Despite all its imperfections, Lydia is a convinced advocate of the benefits of her trade and she has some concerns about the esteem in which it is held in Britain. “My experience is quite mixed,” she says. “On the one hand, people are still coming to enjoy the magic of live theatre; on the other, I’m not sure that the true worth of theatre is always properly appreciated by politicians or other influential people. Not long ago, I went back to Bedales to give a talk and discovered that almost no-one had any aspirations to become an actor, which I found rather sad. It can be frustrating and it’s certainly expensive – I was incredibly lucky that Bristol Old Vic was affiliated to the University, meaning that I didn’t have to pay for my training – but it’s a worry that there doesn’t seem to be the same desire among the next generation to look at acting as a possible career.”
“There is still an enormous disparity between the amount of roles and opportunities available for women and for men and there is also a massive bias that is heavily skewed in the favour of the white middle classes,” Lydia continues. “It concerns me that it has become increasingly difficult for those from an impoverished background to get started in the industry. The increase in tuition fees and the cost of living in London have changed everything completely, even compared with 20 years ago.”
The thought brings Lydia back to her Bedales days. “I was so lucky to go there,” she repeats. “In an ideal world, all schools would give people the opportunities that I had. I became a happy and optimistic person at Bedales and it helped me so much to reach the place that I am today, even though my eighteen year-old self would probably have been utterly bemused by what I’ve been fortunate enough to achieve.”
In the prime of her acting career, Lydia can still take the time to think about future ambitions. “I’m not at the ancient stage yet but then again, I never was an ingénue either, so playing characters like Juliet wasn’t for me,” she muses. “There are two parts that I would really like to get my teeth into down the line – Hedda Gabler and Cleopatra. I still remember studying Antony and Cleopatra with Graham Banks; it would somehow be an appropriate tribute to him and to Bedales if I were to play Cleopatra one day.”
Lydia Leonard was interviewed by James Fairweather in November 2014.