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Elisabeth Hopper on Her Life-Changing Role as Ralph Fiennes' Daughter in London's The Tempest

Elisabeth Hopper on Her Life-Changing Role as Ralph Fiennes' Daughter in London's The Tempest
Elisabeth Hopper in 'The Tempest'
Ralph [Fiennes] has always been one of my idols, and I’ve found that he’s incredibly easy to be around.

At 23, newcomer Elisabeth Hopper isn’t that much older than Miranda, the teenage castaway she is playing in Trevor Nunn's hit London production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, opposite Ralph Fiennes as Prospero. Only two years out of university, Hopper has already had a small part in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, where The Tempest is running through October 29. On a recent afternoon, the charming actress chatted with getting the career break of any young performer’s dreams.

You’re playing Ralph Fiennes’ daughter in a high-profile Shakespeare production. Was there a moment when you realized what a big deal this is?
I don’t think it particularly hit me until I was in a cafe with my mum the day after our opening night and there was a paper with pictures from the party. It was really difficult for me to get into my head that I had been in the same room as the people I saw in the picture! It’s only just hitting home.

Had you done much Shakespeare prior to this?
I did a combined English and drama degree at Manchester University, so I’ve studied Shakespeare a lot, and I guess I do find his writing quite easy to understand. But this is the first full-length play of his that I have ever done. That was great, in a way, because it meant I was fresh, and that is good for Miranda, as well. It’s nice to go into this play and this part with no preconceptions.

How daunting is it to play the majority of your scenes opposite Ralph Fiennes?
Ralph has always been one of my idols, and I’ve found that he’s incredibly easy to be around. I felt incredibly safe because Ralph so totally knows what he’s doing; he’s just really, really good. As soon as I found out I was auditioning, I didn’t let myself watch any film he was in; I didn’t want to make myself even more intimidated [laughs].

Presumably by now, though, you have seen his final screen outing as Lord Voldemort.
I absolutely love the Harry Potter movies, and I went to see the final film after we had started rehearsals. I remember going into work the next day and looking at Ralph and picturing him as Voldemort, all covered with blood; I felt a slight shudder [laughs].

Did it help that you had already worked with Trevor Nunn [director of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern] in the same theater?
I’ve felt very protected and safe. This feels a little bit like Trevor Nunn’s repertory season—his residency—and he’s keeping people on from play to play. What’s nice is that I haven’t changed dressing rooms! Of course, in [the Stoppard play], I walked on stage about four times, playing a lady courtier; my role was very minimal. So I had quite a shock going from not saying anything every night to this. You can imagine my nerves!

I certainly can! What was the audition process like for this play?
I had a first one and then a re-call, where I met Ralph and we had a bit of a chat. That could have been awful because it was the biggest audition I’ve ever done but, again, I was very lucky because I was working with Trevor and he was there, as well. In some respects, the truth is that I really didn’t know how to be and I had no preconceptions about what [the audition] was going to be. I’m sure, looking back on it, that I was overprepared; I feel as if I learned the entire play just in case!

And then there’s the waiting, which must be particularly anxiety-producing.
There were other girls re-called, as well, and it was kind of awful coming in and going out and seeing other people there. Afterwards, I met my mum and had a coffee and felt as if I couldn’t bear to be near my home because I was convinced I’d blown it. Two hours later, I got a voicemail from my agent. It was a shock, really.

The Tempest is such a male play; we hear next to nothing, for instance, about Miranda’s mother.
We came to the conclusion in rehearsals that Miranda’s mother either died during childbirth or when she was very, very newly born, so that there’s a transcendence to the relationship between Miranda and Prospero. Miranda can be slightly rebellious, and there are times where she snaps a bit, but there’s genuine love, too. What’s lovely is that she’s used to the unexpected and has an open mind; she’s been brought up never to underestimate anything and to take in the world—she’s a bit of a sponge.

And yet you give her real heft, which isn’t always the case with this role.
My main decision is that I didn’t want Miranda to be this weak, helpless girl who wanders around the stage sobbing all the time. I can’t bear characters like that!

Are you from a theatrical family?
Not in any way. My parents are both in the NHS [Britain’s National Health Service]. My father is a maxillofacial surgeon, my mother is a nurse and my brother has just gone into insurance. I’m the artsy one: I don’t know what happened [laughs]. I trained as a ballet dancer between the ages of three and 18.

Still, it must be useful having medics around when it comes to an actor’s inevitable aches and pains.
They have enough to deal with during the day; they don’t need me sitting there going, “I’ve got a sore leg.” Growing up in a medical household means that your parents don’t really suffer you whinging [complaining] about things!

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