Two weeks ago, Louise Brealey was on a train coming up to Glasgow to begin rehearsals in the title role of Miss Julie at the city's Gorbals-based Citizens Theatre. Sitting opposite the quietly dynamic actress was a young woman who, without warning, asked her what it was like kissing Benedict Cumberbatch. The woman was referring to the now legendary scene in the first episode of the third series of Sherlock, Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss' twenty-first century reboot of Arthur Conan Doyle's equally seminal detective stories.
In the programme, Brealey plays mousily put-upon pathologist Molly Hooper, whose massive crush on Sherlock, played by Cumberbatch as a dashingly dysfunctional socio-path, has slowly captured the viewers imaginations. With Sherlock apparently returning from the dead in this season, one of a myriad of possible explanations for his resurrection saw Cumberbatch crash heroically through the windows of Molly's St Bart's Hospital lab and fall into her arms for an almighty snog destined to become one of the programme's defining moments.
Brealey's response to her interrogator was blasé, before she “looked shifty”, as she put it on her Twitter feed, which at the time had some 64,000 followers. Once the final episode had aired, that figure had almost doubled to 125,000 plus.
Brealey is sat in the Citz foyer, on a break from rehearsals of Zinnie Harris' 1920s-set version of August Strindberg's iconic play. Dressed in a green shirt worn over a long-sleeved grey vest and jeans, and with her long brown hair tied back when she's not fidgeting with it, Brealey ponders the response to both the kiss and a scene in the final episode when Molly thumped Sherlock after he was found in a drug den.
“My Twitter basically broke,” Brealey laughs, “and I kept on having to reboot it, because I think in the end there was something like seven thousand people tweeting me asking about the slap that I delivered to Benedict's lovely face at the beginning of the episode.”
After the similar reaction to the kiss, Brealey should maybe have expected it.
“Obviously everyone adores Benedict,” she says, “and it was such a James Bondy moment, but I was standing on a crash-mat, so was slightly unstable. In one take I actually fell off the crash-mat. I slowly slid off like Del-Boy going through the bar.
“But you don't often get to do fantasy shots like that. In the script it was just a James Bond style clinch, but I really wanted it to be a proper snog and not a peck. In one take Benedict did the hair ruffle to get the glass out, and in the next take he didn't do it, and I was like, 'Put the ruffle back in. It's really hot!'
“There were all the usual anxieties about what I've been eating, so I was getting chewing gum off the crew and everything, but it looks good, though, doesn't it?”
Brealey isn't showing off when she says this. Rather, her tone is one of utter fan-girl glee, albeit a fan-girl who got to do what most of the show's female populace would like to do. Several times at that.
“Within I think a minute of a half of that kiss I had something like six thousand new followers on Twitter,” she says, “and I had thousands of tweets that night. That's the great thing about Twitter. It sort of turns telly into theatre for an actor, because it's this feedback loop without any filter, and people can say something's brilliant or shit instantaneously.
“One of the reasons Molly works is that women who love or fancy Benedict can quite easily imagine themselves as her, so, of course, when he snogged her, they all just...” she pauses, “lost their shit. It was such a collective...” she squeaks to illustrate, “because no-one was expecting it.”
While Brealey seems both bemused and quietly amused about the attention that has winged her way since she started playing Molly, she takes a certain amount of responsibility for both her and Molly's fan-base to the extent of defending them when they're called geeks.
“I don't think of fans as geeks,” she says, “and also I don't think of being a geek as a negative, because I'm a geek, but this groundswell of what they call fandom I think is brilliant, because it means there's this international fanbase which works in the same way as Dr Who, who are still talking about the show after two years, and are keeping the ball in the air. Their enthusiasm, writing stuff and sending pictures, their passion and creativity I find genuinely inspiring.
“It's interesting on Twitter, because I've got quite a lot of young women following me, and it's great to be able to have a dialogue with them. I'm a feminist, so it's great to be able to prattle on about feminist things. Bizarrely I find myself suddenly a role model for some of these girls. At first it was hilarious, thinking how can I be a role model, which sounded like a terrifying prospect for them, rather than me. They ask all sorts of things, and occasionally ask something to do with sexual politics, and I can say, you know, you don't have to shave your hair off if you don't want to. You don't have to do anything you don't want to. Just be your own woman.
“All that stuff about thigh gaps, and all that stupid shit like that that's emblematic of the pressures young women are under even more than when I was young. I can say fuck the thigh gap, and people go, oh, maybe that is okay, then. Even just to have one contrary voice in that sea of voices telling them to be thinner, or they've got to have perfect flawless skin and have no body-hair or no-one will date them... I wasted so much time when I was younger worrying about fat legs. Fuck it. It's bollocks.
“It's funny that's happened, and I don't want to come over all po-faced, because ultimately Sherlock is just entertainment, but if I can, I want to try and set a good example.”
Brealey hunches into herself as she talks, keeping her arms wrapped in tight. Navigating her way through an idea, she scrunches her face up, her voice dropping to an almost inaudible level, only to whirl around and offset everything with a dirty giggle that's almost a yelp.
This mix of a shy but steely intelligence punctured by extrovert flashes may have something to do with Brealey's training. She studied both at the Lee Strasberg Institute, the spiritual home of method acting in New York, as well as with master French clown, Philippe Gaulier. This followed a history degree at Cambridge, where she studiously avoided the university drama set.
“I played football and drank,” she says. “I went for one audition and panicked in the queue, and literally crawled out of the church they were auditioning in. I crouched sown and walked out of the room like a strange frog. Also, it was quite cliquey, all that, and I didn't have the confidence to feel like I could be part of it.”
Brealey became an arts journalist, interviewing the likes of Liv Tyler and the Pet Shop Boys and for publications such as Total Film, The Face and Wonderland, where she was deputy editor.
“I think people quite a lot get into careers right next to the one they really want to do,” she says. “That happens a lot in the creative industries, and it happened to me without me really realising it. I'd always wanted to act, but I'd been too afraid to try it and really stick my neck out and risk failing or whatever. Then I decided I didn't want to end up being forty and wishing I'd done it.”
Brealey's first professional job was playing a gobby fourteen year old schoolgirl in Judy Upton's play, Sliding With Suzanne, directed by Max Stafford-Clark. A couple of years in Casualty followed, after which she toured America and Russia in Dennis Kelly's play, After The End, played Sonya in Peter Hall's production of Uncle Vanya, and appeared at the Traverse in Edinburgh in Simon Stephens' post 7/7 play, Pornography. She was the Mayor's sex-mad daughter in The Government Inspector, and in 2012 performed naked as Helen of Troy in The Trojan Women.
Brealey isn't sure where she got the initial impetus to act from. It wasn't from her family in Northamptonshire, although “I think I must have got some love and attention as a small person by doing some acting at some point, and it just lodged itself in my subconscious.
“When I was a little girl, about eight, I auditioned for the school play. They were doing Snow White, and I auditioned for the Wicked Witch, and then the teacher came up to me and asked if I'd like to play Snow White, and I asked who was playing Prince Charming.”
Such precociousness has clearly held Brealey in good stead for Sherlock.
“Molly's funny,” she says, sounding like a supportive sister, “but I think it's perfectly possible for someone to be so in love with someone that they make a massive twat of themselves, while being intelligent, loyal, full of dignity and capable of standing up for themselves. It's absolutely wonderful gazing longingly at Benedict for a couple of scenes, but you have to go somewhere with it, otherwise it's just, oh, there's Molly pulling her longing face again. Which I can happily do, but it's nice to do other stuff too.”
Recent accusations by a tabloid newspaper of Sherlock having 'left-wing bias' passed Brealey by. Once informed about them, however, she makes her views plain.
“Good,” she says. “I'm a socialist, so I'm quite happy if it does, especially when you've got rampant Tory propaganda like Benefits Street going on. But honestly,” she laughs, “I don't know where they could have spotted that. It wasn't something I spotted, but that would be marvellous. I would be proud to be involved in a left-wing drama.”
Miss Julie may not quite be that, but Strindberg's sexual cat and mouse game between an aristocratic young woman and the servant she grew up with is certainly getting there.
“It’s one of the great parts written for a woman,” she says. “Zinnie's focused on the sexual politics of the play, and we're looking at what happens when boundaries are transgressed, and the things that hold society together are broken for a moment. It's about these two people who have this thing between them, and negotiating what that is. Once Julie's allowed something to happen with this sexual attraction, what does that mean, and can you go back to where you were before? If you're friends with someone and have sex with them, can it ever be the same again?
“Zinnie's moved the play forty years into the future from when it was originally set, and I think just that tiny shift and hopping over into the 1900 mark makes it more contemporary, and makes the whole thing for me resonate more as a story. It's set on midsummer as well, which is difficult to imagine in the middle of January, so there's that whole sense of opening a shirt, and your hair's all damp at the nape of your neck, and there's this atmosphere at the beginning of the play, so I'll be wearing a lot of thermals under my costume to give my little body the impression of warmth.”
Beyond such hidden layers, Brealey is still finding her way into Julie.
“She's unconventional is the short answer,” Brealey says. “I really haven't worked out who she is yet because we're effectively on day one of rehearsals, and I don't like to put too much down beforehand because otherwise you end up closing down possibilities, but she's a very unconventional woman. Strindberg is a great contradictionist in the literary world, in that some of the things he says about women makes him misogynist, and yet he's written this extraordinary woman.
“I'm a feminist, and it's interesting reading Strindberg's preface to the play, where he talks about Julie as a half-woman, a man-hater and a degenerate as a type that can't survive in the real world, because they will always come up against failure when it comes to trying to be equal. But you have to remember just how shocking the play was for its time. These people in the play are talking about sex. They have sex.
“It's quite interesting when he talks about this love or whatever it is that flares between them. He talks about a hyacinth, and how it has to grow its roots in darkness, because I'd forgotten when I put this hyacinth I'd bought in the cupboard at home with a vase of water. It has to grow in the dark, and then it blooms really quickly, and I think that's a really lovely way of looking at what happens between them. It grows in secret, flashes up, and is gone or not gone.”
A friend recently told Brealey about the steamy South African take on Miss Julie that dazzled Edinburgh audiences a couple of years back.
“They told me it was completely filthy,” she laughs, “and I just said mine won't be anything like that. Obviously she'll be wildly sexy,” she deadpans, followed by a self-mocking “Hmm. That's not going to come over in print, is it? I'm going to sound like a twat.”
Brealey doesn't take anything for granted as an actor. Despite the Sherlock factor, she's aware of the fickleness of her profession from first-hand experience. Out of work after the first series of Sherlock, she ended up as a researcher for TV documentaries, and created The Charles Dickens Show, a mock chat-show in which Dickens' characters appeared on the sofa.
“It suited my magpie brain,” she says, “but acting is my first love, and it's a jealous lover at that. You can't just leave it. I've been incredibly lucky, but you have to be incredibly careful about thinking that acting makes you happy, because acting doesn't make you happy. Nothing makes you happy, actually. You've got to try and make yourself happy. Now I've learnt that ,it makes it easier. When the phone doesn't ring, if you let that make you feel unwanted, then you're on a hiding to nowhere.
“Also, there's no point of arrival in acting. You don't get somewhere and that's it. I remember being quite wide-eyed, and interviewing Minnie Driver, and I asked her what was it like in Hollywood, and she said, well, I'm losing parts to Gwyneth Paltrow, who used to lose them to Tara Fitzgerald. You don't get rewarded for being good. It's all about luck. There are so many good actors who don't work, and there are so few good parts for women, so you have to do it for yourself, or learn to do it for yourself, and that's what's changed for me, not letting whether the phone rings or not make me feel like I'm a good person, or make me feel like I'm happy.
“Sometimes when you're thinking about where a particular job can get you career-wise, you can end up missing the actual job you're doing. I was certainly like that when I started out, but I'm not anymore. I'm happy to work with nice people. Of course you want to work with people who make your mind light up, and who push and challenge and make your work better. That's a given. But I don't want to work with brilliant wankers. Life's too short.”
Last year Brealey wrote a play, Pope Joan, for the National Youth Theatre, about the legend of the ninth century female pontiff.
“I'm so glad I did it,” she says, “but it cost me a lot. It was very exposing, and there wasn't enough time to write it, but I learnt a very valuable lesson.”
Taking her clothes off as Helen was even more exposing.
“It was amazing to do that,” she says, “because I don't run round in the nuddy as a rule, and it was quite hard to do in a room as small as the Gate, which only holds seventy people. You're only six or seven feet from the nearest person, and you're going, look at me, I'm beautiful, and you've got your bum out.”
If Brealey seems to thrive on pushing herself in this way, playing Sonya was another learning curve.
“I would play her again in a heartbeat,” she says. “I think that part really made me a stage actress. I learnt so much from that job, but in a way, in terms of unrequited love, Molly is sort a mini TV Sonya.”
Ah, Molly again.
“Molly's opened up all sorts of doors for me, but I've been offered about ten secretaries who are in love with their boss, and I've turned stuff down. After Molly I need to play someone who's a complete gun-toting megalomaniac.
“It's funny, isn't it,” she says, “about ambition, because it's a dirty word, especially for women, but I just want to learn. The thing about acting, and it's hard to say without sounding like a twat, but with the best jobs, you learn to be a better person as well as a better actor.”
Miss Julie, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, February 6-15
A version of this article appeared in The Herald, January 25th 2014