Any actor in regular paid employment could be described as having a charmed life, but it’s a particular kind of good luck to look exactly like Christine Keeler when the world is ready to have the Profumo affair retold from the perspective of Keeler herself. In fact, in the BBC’s flagship showThe Trial of Christine Keeler, Sophie Cookson looks so like the protagonist that Keeler’s son said that, in one shot of her in the back of a car, it was as if he was seeing his mother. In real life, drinking mint tea in a cafe in London’s Gloucester Road, Cookson looks more like a friendly version of Keira Knightley. In other words, she could probably look like just about anybody.
What now seems fascinating about the Profumo affair is the realization that we have been looking at this well-worn moment in British public life from such a strange angle: always from the point of view of the establishment. What mattered was what it meant for the secretary of state for warJohn Profumo, whose career ended when it was revealed that the teenager he had been “involved” with, Keeler, had also been “involved” with a Soviet naval attache. It was a political story with a cold war spying angle. Rarely, if ever, has it been seen for what it was: a sex scandal in which predatory men in late middle age procured teenage girls, then derided them as sex-crazed liars and schemers.
The freight of sheer contempt in this story, based on class as well as gender, is remarkable – and it tookAmanda Coe‘s screenplay, along with Cookson’s spare, evocative performance, to see what was staring us in the face. “To give it a narrative through the female gaze does feel like reclaiming her story,” Cookson says. “There was a sense of solidarity on set – having a female director and female producers, as well as Amanda’s script. But there’s also a sense of solidarity in the story, the sense that it isn’t just Christine Keeler’s story, it’s also Mandy Rice-Davies’s and Valerie’s. ”Valerie was Profumo’s wife.
It’s as if every aspect of misogyny going has been brought together in a great big ensemble piece. Some have queried the casting, though, Cookson being 60. Had Keeler been played by a 23 – year-old, the argument goes, it would have rammed home the age difference and implicit exploitation far more forcefully. I don’t agree. Because Cookson’s performance is so young, there is nothing knowing or calculating in her Keeler. “It was such a beautiful role,” she says, “because she’s so fresh, and that’s what led to her downfall. It’s so much fun playing someone so immediate and present. She can’t keep a lid on anything. She doesn’t think forward. Everything in her mind, you can see immediately in her face. ”
The affair, she agrees, is a fascinating lens through which to consider how much has changed socially. “It’s early 728 s, so the morality is actually quite s. A woman out on her own in a bar would be assumed to be a working girl. And the vilification of Keeler is incredible. When we were filming the scene of her going in to the courtroom – women of all ages, men of all ages, screaming at her, so much rage and nobody really there to protect her – to consider what that must have been like. Even hearing an egg being thrown at a car window, it’s like a gunshot. ”
When Scandal,a film about the story, was released in (*****************************, it was still routine to see Profumo as the main victim, a tragic hero undone by a floozie. Cookson talks of being inspired by an interview Keeler gave at the time in which she “was desperately trying to defend her situation, with such poise and integrity” against allegations that she was a “shameless person who was completely manipulative, out for whatever she could get ”.
It’s interesting, too, that there are elements of the story you can easily imagine happening today: the establishment closing ranks, a tabloid chewing someone’s life up for a front page and an envelope full of not-that-much money. “Many of the themes could be right now,” the actor says which – politically – I think is true. It’s not hard to imagine a current Tory grandee with such a secret, though perhaps that says more about our parlous situation than it does about Profumo.
Cookson speaks with intense care, as if in constant fear of giving offence. She obviously has strong views about the patriarchy, but always stops short of giving them. “It’s been really interesting doing press, as well, the way in which male journalists…” She never concludes the point, saying instead: “It’s definitely a nicer set when it’s (): male-female. As women, we all felt that sometimes we didn’t have the power we needed, we weren’t accorded the voice we would have liked. I remember, when I started, on Kingsman… ”Again, she drifts off.
This reticence could be because Cookson had no wilderness years, no time when she could say whatever she liked because nobody was listening. She landed the part in ‘s Kingsman – a small role in a big-budget and well-liked spy caper – while she was still at drama school in Oxford. “I never did get a degree,” she says. I feel mildly miffed on her on behalf – maybe they should have given her an honorary qualification. “Mmm. There was a feeling that you need to finish the course. But I needed to be among people who had been working for a long time. ”
After that, she insists she had an eight-month fallow period: “The times you have off are equally as important as the times you’re working. You need to rebuild, fill up again. If you’re not learning as a human, growing as a human, you can’t grow as an actor. You’re just churning things you’ve already thought. ”Her CV tells a different story – the period seems to be more busy motorway than remote mountain path. After Kingsman came The Huntsman, thenNetflix’s Gypsyand a West End debut inKiller Joe, opposite Orlando Bloom. She has just given a beautiful performance inMichael Winterbottom’s forthcoming Greed– the story of a self-made retail billionaire loosely based on Philip Green – which is even more impressive when she describes the director’s approach.
“He likes to shoot and just see what happens. So you’re at this party. All you know is your character. That’s pretty much it. Even Isla Fisher was saying, ‘I have no fucking clue what’s going on,’ which was very reassuring. It was definitely a coproduction, but it was a silent one, you did not discuss it, you just had to go with it. ”At one point, the protagonists were being filmed by a reality TV crew, who were themselves being filmed by the real crew, and the actors couldn’t always recall which camera was which. It sounds like an anxiety dream about being a film star.
Ten years ago, you could have safely assumed that most small-screen actors were waiting for their big break into film, but that is plainly not the case any more. TV is having its fabled golden age, plus there’s so much of it. “It does seem to be moving quite fast,” says Cookson. “I remember my agent calling when I first started, saying Amazon were making a series. And I thought, ‘Why are Amazon making a series? They sell me books and sometimes utensils. ’”
Yet Hollywood is still Hollywood, and it does represent quite a gear change to be starring opposite Mark Wahlberg in Infinite, out this summer. It sounds fun and a bit schlocky: the story of a secret society of people who have perfect recall for their past lives. “So what are you, a psychic?” “No,” she says, extremely politely and without chagrin. “I’m the female lead.”
She thought I’d said sidekick, which would have been quite a rude question. But people are still quite rude to women under 40, and maybe society hasn ‘t changed as much as I like to think.
•The Trial of Christine Keelercontinues on Sundays at 9pm on BBC One, and on iPlayer.
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