Catherine Steadman is a young, talented and highly accomplished British actress. You probably know her best as Mabel Lane Fox, Lady Mary’s rival love interest in the last series of Downton Abbey. With credits such as The Tudors and Fresh Meat under her belt, as well as Downton, she’s now starring in the RSC’s new play Oppenheimer. The play, directed by Angus Jackson, depicts the life of Julius Robert Oppenheimer, the genius behind the Manhattan Project and the inception of the first atomic bomb.
I caught up with Steadman, who plays the role of Jean Tatlock, ahead of the play’s opening this week.
We know you from so many shows – Downton Abbey, Fresh Meat, Breathless, The Tudors – but what’s been your career highlight so far?
Downton has been a real highlight for me so far. Getting to work on such a wonderful series and watch brilliant actresses like Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton work was such a fantastic experience. The show itself is so well put together in terms of costume, sets, crew and cast. It was a joy to work on. Another highlight at the moment is working with the RSC. It’s the first time I’ve worked with them and it’s been wonderful. The play we’re working on is a new play based on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. It’s a really exciting, innovative, fast paced production.
As someone who’s worked across TV, film and theatre, which do you enjoy the most and which is the most challenging?
That’s a hard one! I do enjoy them all and they’re all so different. Honestly, it’s just great to have the chance to go between the three.
You’ll be playing Jean Tatlock in Oppenheimer. What attracted you to the role?
Jean Tatlock, as with all the characters in ‘Oppenheimer’, is based on a real person. She was an amazing woman: a female psychiatric doctor in the 1930’s and 1940’s (which says a lot about her as woman at the time), an idealistic socialist and the great love of Oppenheimer’s life. She was a real political inspiration to him, but she suffered from what might now be diagnosed as manic depression.
Does all of that make her a difficult character to embody?
There is always an innate responsibility involved in playing a real person because you want to do justice to who they were and their situation. So that was a challenge – but during the rehearsal period we read a lot of material around the characters, and luckily I managed to find a biography by authors that had had access to some of Jean’s private letters and photographs. Which really helped to get a sense of her from her own perspective.
The play is about such a controversial period in history. Was it challenging to understand the thoughts and motives of the people in the play?
It’s a play about events that have caused repercussions that we are still dealing with today. So, in that sense, the questions it raises are immediate and relevant to us now. The wonderful thing about Tom Morton-Smith’s characters is that their motives are fundamentally understandable and human.
What is it about Oppenheimer’s story that will interest theatre audiences today?
Oppenheimer’s life was pretty epic. Which I’m sure is one of the reasons the RSC decided to stage Tom Morton-Smith’s play. Oppie was a truly brilliant (albeit flawed) man who brought the human race into the nuclear age with all the benefits and problems that has since created. And he carried the weight of that realization for the rest of his life.
Do you have any exciting projects lined up after Oppenheimer?
Nothing I can talk about right now!
Many Kettle readers know and love you from Downton Abbey. Would you go back to the show if you had the chance?
Definitely, I had a fantastic time on the show and if Julian (Fellows) needs me, I’ll be there!
Under different circumstances, do you think Mary and Mabel could be friends?
I think so. They had a lot in common in terms of temperament. It seems Tony clearly had a type! And now that Mabel and Tony’s situation has resolved I think Mary and Mabel would get on rather well.
What are you planning to do in your time off from the theatre? You must relish having time to unwind!
Once the show is up and running in the West end, I’m planning on making the most of being back home in London. I’ll probably be visiting the galleries and making the most of the (fingers-crossed) lovely spring weather.
Catherine will be playing Jean Tatlock in Oppenheimer at the Vaudeville Theatre from 27th March to the 23rd May. Between that, Downton Abbey studying for an Open University course in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, you can guarantee we’ll be seeing much more of Catherine Steadman in the future!