As action heroines go, Amy Manson certainly looks the part. With her leonine mane and athletic physique, the Aberdeenshire-born twenty-seven year old has spent the last few years in a stream of culty small-screen dramas, while her first film role was in indie horror flick, Pumpkinhead: Blood Feud. Since then there have been regular roles in flipped-on-its-head monster series, Being Human and science-fiction drama, Outcasts, as well as guest slots in Torchwood and Misfits. There are even rumours that Manson might soon be playing a very familiar classic comic-book super-heroine.
Not that Manson hasn't had a chance to shine in period frockage, as she proved in Pre-Raphaelite romp, Desperate Romantics. All of which should hold her in good stead this week when she opens as Nora in a new version of Ibsen's nineteenth century classic, A Doll's House, at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre. Manson plays Nora, the woman at the heart of the play which will be kept in period in Zinnie Harris' taker on things, though one should expect a radical interpretation from Harris and director Graham McLaren for his National Theatre of Scotland production.
As Manson breathlessly points out in her rich and sonorous north-east accent over a lunchtime break in a deserted Royal Lyceum bar, “Fundamentally we're thinking about it as a humanist piece and not a feminist piece.”
This in itself is a shift from what is often regarded as one of the earliest feminist works, as Nora, once devoted to her husband, finds the wherewithal to leave him to become an independent woman. How Harris' version pans out remains to be seen, but from what Manson says, her Nora is no dawning little girl as she is sometimes played.
“She's a strong woman,” Manson says. “She's a fighter. She's a beautiful creature. She's very clever. Maybe not worldly. Maybe she's been spoon-fed a bit too much, but from the off-set you know she's capable of little white lies, and you know that there's something bigger brewing until she confesses to her old school friend what she's actually gone through over the last eight years, having to hide her husband from his work environment after he had a nervous break-down, so she had to remove him from that society, and to do that she had to take out a loan from one of his work colleagues. She tells him its her father's inheritance, and takes him off to live in Italy for six months.
“To think about nursing a man with depression for that length of time is something I've really delved into. She's done everything for him and she's risked everything, so she's got a lot on her shoulders. She's been hiding this lie for her eight years. How many masks does Nora have when she has to do all this? I've been thinking about this a lot. She does everything for him, and they love each other. When they want to have sex, they tear each others clothes off and have sex. They're like rock stars. They're like Posh and Becks.”
A Doll's House will be the first time Manson has appeared onstage since 2008, when she played the Stepdaughter in the NTS production of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of An Author, another classic play adapted by a Scottish writer, in this case David Harrower. For that performance Manson won Best Actress award in that year's Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland. Coming back to the same stage, Manson admits, feels, “electric. After I auditioned and I was offered the part, and was crying, and I said to Graham, the thing I love about this is that I'm scared of it. I really am. It's such a big piece, and I just had to throw myself into it. For the first time in my life last year I kept going up for auditions and getting nothing. I felt I was going stale, and I was thinking I was going to go and retrain, and that's what doing this show with Graham's been like. It's been a whole revamp, with all the blood, sweat and tears that entails.”
Manson started acting as a child at a Saturday drama school, before decamping to drama school proper in London aged seventeen. It was the experience of both that made her take it seriously.
“There were moments at the Saturday school that stopped me in my tracks,” she says. “They were just so honest.”
The first time everything really clicked for her was during a drama school improvisation which tapped into something she doesn't name, but which you get the impression was deeply personal.
“It's something that I still search for,” she says, “when you're totally in the moment, and you're not conscious of anyone watching or even of saying the lines. It feels like an out of body experience. That's why I'd never give up acting, because I love that chase, even though it might only be for one moment in a play.”
While such hippy notions might sound ridiculous or pretentious coming from some, with Manson it rings disarmingly true, so committed does she sound to the life she's chosen. This drives manifests itself in an emotional and physical open-ness which is infectious. Onstage and screen, such a presence can't help but captivate.
There's a restlessness too that manifests itself in her life off stage. If she hadn't become an actress, Manson would have liked to become an archaeologist, she says.
“I love history, and I love being outside, and I love discovery, and finding out about peoples lives.”
Such a free-spirited sense of adventure might have something to do with how she's cast.
“Maybe it's something to do with my large personality,” she laughs. “I like danger, and love doing stunts. When I did Pumpkinhead, I loved all that, running away from monsters, even though you never saw them, and being in a jungle and going whoa, I'm so scared. I don't know, I suppose I'm just mining my other life, because in real life you don't experience those emotions, so it's nice just to delve into that, and to explore how I react to these situations, and where my head goes when I put myself in these situations. I just find that fascinating.”
Which brings us to the small matter of Amazon, the mooted TV series about a young Wonder Woman, the lasoo-wielding DC Comics goddess turned super-heroine who was played by Lynda Carter in its campy 1970s incarnation. The idea behind Amazon is on a par with Smallville, which looked at the growing pains of a teenage Clark Kent en route to becoming Superman.
While there's no guarantee she'll be cast in Amazon, this far Manson has been seen on tape twice by casting directors, and has been reported in TV fan magazines as being one of the front-runners for the lead role. Latest word on the street, however, is that shooting of the proposed pilot has been postponed until 2014.
“Everything's stopped,” she says, “but oh, God, that would be a job in a lifetime.”
With management in America, Manson is clearly a serious contender, but until any kind of decision is taken, she's spending as much time in Scotland as she can.
“I don't know if I live in London anymore,” she says. “I've been going back to my mum's in Aberdeen a lot. She's been climbing Munros, and I climbed one with her, and it was hard, but there's that feeling, my God, I climbed a mountain. I loved the challenge.”
With such wide-eyed notions of the great outdoors, it comes as no surprise that Manson is a Jack Kerouac fan.
“I love the freedom of that form of writing,” Manson says of the Beat icon's rambling free-associative prose style. “I don't like being constrained or tied down. I see myself in a cottage in the country by the fireside. I just want to play. I think that's what my focus is going to be for this year, just to have fun, and to trust myself more. I don't have to go away to New York or wherever. I just need to keep on top of my game and keep flexing those muscles, and to do it for myself.”
A Doll's House, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, April 16th-May 4th
The Herald, April 13th 2013