Keeley Hawes is ready to embrace her milestone half century in four years time

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Perhaps it’s because she looks like someone you might bump into at your local café: black dress and Birkenstocks, with her dog Buster, a chestnut-coloured poodle in a jazzy bow tie, by her side. Or maybe it’s because she does a grade-A job of describing a life that feels not a million miles from your own – nights in front of Gogglebox with the family, scrolling through interiors sites on Instagram. Or the fact that – thanks to more than three decades of fronting primetime TV gold, from Tipping the Velvet, Spooks and Ashes to Ashes to Line of Duty, Bodyguard and It’s A Sin – her face is synonymous with British television. 

Whatever the reason, it is impossible to see Keeley Hawes and not feel like you know her. For Hawes, that is a blessing and a curse. ‘I’m not an introvert but I don’t like being the centre of attention,’ she says as we hide by the photo studio’s air-conditioning unit on one of the hottest days of the year. She is good company: friendly, interested, funny, but also measured, weighing up what she wants to give away of herself. It is not a coldness – there are hugs with goodbyes – and the conversation goes two ways; it is just obvious she would rather that my Dictaphone wasn’t on the table while we chat. ‘There was a terrible moment in lockdown where everybody ran out of things to watch. There was nothing new being made so The Durrells and Line of Duty were repeated. Then Finding Alice came out and suddenly there was a lot of me on telly, even though I hadn’t worked for 15 months.’ 

Actor Keeley Hawes (pictured) says that she is ready to embrace the age of 50 in four years. In 2019, Hawes launched Buddy Club Productions, aiming to find scripts that represent the under-represented, whether that be age, race, or gender

Hawes claims to not know whether a TV project will be a hit, but she sure has a habit of backing a winner. In an industry not famed for celebrating women over 40, her career at 46 seems to bask in a golden glow, partly because she is very good at what she does and partly because that’s become her mission. Making sure those hit roles do not fade away for her or her peers – even if she has to create them herself. 

In 2019, Hawes launched Buddy Club Productions, aiming to find scripts that represent the under-represented, whether that be age, race, gender or all of the above, and to create roles that give her a chance to play characters that represent real women in all their flawed glory. Series so far include Finding Alice, Honour and the upcoming Crossfire. And earlier this year, she became part of a group of actors (including Lesley Manville, 66, Richard E Grant, 65, and David Tennant, 51) who signed the Acting Your Age campaign’s open letter, calling for equal gender representation in the TV industry between men and women over 45. 

Keeley Hawes (pictured) is bringing another complex woman, of over the age of 40, to our screens. She plays Jo, an ex policewoman, mother of two, wife, ex-wife and mistress, suddenly faced with saving her family and friends when the hotel they are staying in is stormed by gunmen

Keeley Hawes (pictured) is bringing another complex woman, of over the age of 40, to our screens. She plays Jo, an ex policewoman, mother of two, wife, ex-wife and mistress, suddenly faced with saving her family and friends when the hotel they are staying in is stormed by gunmen

‘We have to make the odds better for women,’ she says. ‘There is still glaring inequality on our screens. Women’s stories don’t stop after 45. Their lives don’t become less interesting but the demand for older actresses and presenters statistically drops off. That’s an injustice to those performers and the audience who should be represented. I have been incredibly fortunate that I have continued to work fairly consistently, but an element of that has come from me creating my own work, which isn’t something everyone can do.’ 

This shift in the industry isn’t the only one she’s shouting for. Having discovered a love of acting as a child growing up in Lisson Grove, Central London, Hawes attended the city’s Sylvia Young Theatre School and since then has seen the business at its best and worst. ‘I’ve experienced all sorts of behaviour at work,’ she says. ‘I’ve witnessed and called out racism, misogyny, sexism, harassment, bullying. No one would have been able to do that 20 years ago for fear of losing their job, or being seen as “difficult”. Each set had its rules and, more often than not, if someone was behaving badly it was a matter of getting through the shoot. People are now encouraged to speak out if they’re unhappy at work, which I think will really help in terms of mental health in the industry.’ 

We’re not particularly social. I prefer going to bed than going out

When, a few years back, Hawes mentioned she had experienced depression, a wave of women got in touch. She finds it tricky to talk about, keen not to hide it but also wary of exposing her feelings for public consumption. ‘You can look at people in the public eye and think, “Everything is great for them. What would they have to feel sad about?”’ she says. ‘That thing of thinking some people are immune. But everyone is human. I find it hugely helpful when I read other people’s experiences. It’s not that somebody else’s pain and upset makes you feel better but it does make you feel less alone. The author Matt Haig’s Instagram is brilliant for that. I’m not the poster girl for it, but it is something that I experienced.’ 

The changes she’s witnessing in the industry, while very welcome, are probably still not enough to keep her in the spotlight long term. She has no firm exit strategy, no Zoopla alerts set for idyllic seaside properties, but with the production company showing her a life behind the camera as fulfilling as the one in front of it, she’s considering her options. ‘I don’t want to do it forever,’ she says of acting. ‘I love it, I’ve been really lucky, but over the past couple of years, like lots of people, you think, “God, life is short and you’re only here once” – if you believe that, which I do – and there might be other avenues to explore. I’ll be 50 in a minute – there might be other things out there for me.’ 

Keeley and husband Matthew Macfadyen at the British Academy Television Awards. The couple recently finished filming Stonehouse, their first TV drama together since they met on the set of Spooks in 2002

Keeley and husband Matthew Macfadyen at the British Academy Television Awards. The couple recently finished filming Stonehouse, their first TV drama together since they met on the set of Spooks in 2002

Before then, though, there is plenty to do. First up, BBC’s Crossfire, a high-octane drama based around the sliding-door decisions you make when your worst nightmares come true. Serving as both its star and executive producer with Buddy Club, it is Hawes putting her money where her mouth is, bringing another complex female character over 40 to our screens. She plays Jo, an ex policewoman, mother of two, wife, ex-wife and mistress, suddenly faced with saving her family and friends when the hotel they are staying in is stormed by gunmen. Edge of your seat? It’s more a behind-the-sofa, watch-through-your-fingers show. ‘I’m still shocked when I watch it,’ she tells me. ‘It’s about the place it takes you psychologically. I just sit there going, “I don’t know if this is entertaining but I can’t stop…”’ 

She craves those messy parts, women who give her a chance to step out of her happily married life to Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen, 47, whom she wed in 2004, and away from her role as mum of three (to Maggie, 17, and Ralph, 15, with Matthew, and Myles, 22, with her ex-husband Spencer McCallum) into the murkiness of other people’s lives. ‘It’s why I do what I do, to experience other worlds,’ she says. 

THE REAL KEELEY 

Tea or coffee? 

Today I’ve had three teas, four coffees. Tea to hydrate, coffee to get going. 

Indoor or outdoor? 

Both. I walk every day. That’s my only exercise.

Summer or winter? 

I like the bits between: spring and autumn. 

Jeans or tracksuit? 

Trackies. I’ve never found a pair of jeans that I liked. I don’t like getting dressed. 

Night owl or early bird? 

Early bird. I don’t like going out, either. 

Bach or Beatles? 

My music taste isn’t the greatest, as my family would tell you. When I’m on my own it’s Magic FM or Barry Manilow. 

Champagne or beer? 

Champagne.

Book or podcast? 

Book. I’m reading Brother of the More Famous Jack. It’s brilliant. 

WhatsApp or phone call? 

WhatsApp, but I do think phone calls should make a comeback. 

Local pool or wild swimming? 

Wild swimming. I’ve got really good at getting into cold water. 

Home, she stresses, is very normal. Macfadyen – or Mr Darcy as you may know him from 2005’s film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – might be filming Succession in New York, one of the biggest TV shows in the world, and she has become our first lady of telly, but life in Southwest London is more parenting than parties. 

‘People often say to me, “When do you see each other? You’re both always working.” It’s infuriating because we see so much of each other. We’re not particularly social. I prefer going to bed than going out. I wake up in the morning, look at my bed and think, “I won’t be long, my friend.”’ 

I ask if her bedroom is sacred, given her busy life – a no-phone zone? She laughs. ‘I spend far too much time in it for that. I like Instagram for interiors inspiration. That’s such a middle-age thing to say! There’s a great account called @in__situ__ where you see a bit of wallpaper or material then you view it in a real setting. There’s one my son introduced me to, @ifyouhigh – it’s things like wobbling jelly and stuff for if you’re stoned. Not that I’m stoned, but that’s my level of Instagram.’ Picture director: 

Macfadyen and Hawes recently finished filming Stonehouse, their first TV drama together since they met on the set of Spooks in 2002. ‘We filmed it around Birmingham which was brilliant,’ she says. ‘We took Buster and stayed at a remote Airbnb, cooking and watching TV in the evenings. Buster would come on set with us.’

The show tells the true story of disgraced British politician John Stonehouse, who faked his own death in 1974. Hawes plays his wife Barbara. It’s an interesting dynamic for them, particularly given that the show plays out John’s affair with mistress Sheila Buckley. ‘But the characters are completely unlike us or our marriage,’ Hawes tells me. ‘Matthew couldn’t look more different – coloured contact lenses, wigs, facial hair, false teeth. Just about everything that could be changed has been; we laughed when we saw each other. It was probably most tricky for Emer Heatley [who plays Sheila Buckley]. It was her first or second acting job, faced with us as a married couple, playing a married couple where she was having an affair with my husband. We had lots of those scenes together, which was really awkward, but very funny.’

Any point where things got complicated? ‘I’m much bossier than Matthew,’ she grins. ‘But on the first day on set, he said something like, “I think you missed a line”, and it was like, oh, that’s how it’s going to be! But I’d work with him any day. He’s good at what he does.’

Of her children, only Ralph has caught the acting bug. ‘The other two couldn’t think of anything worse,’ she laughs. ‘But our youngest son really enjoys it and he’s good, which is a relief. The pressure of us turning up to school plays…’ Would she be happy if he made it into the spotlight? ‘I’d encourage anything that makes them happy.’

Hawes refers to her children as her ‘greatest achievement’. Her daughter is in her first year of A-levels, her youngest son has GCSEs next year, while her eldest is going in to the final year of his degree. ‘I think about them all leaving the nest one day and it’s sad but it’s also exciting because they’re becoming fully formed human beings. We’ve just been through this awful period of them sitting in the house with their parents for two years, and now they’re able to go off.’ 

Her 50th birthday looms in a few years but, with all the work she’s putting into attacking ageism, it’s not a problem. ‘I’m excited about it,’ she says. ‘It feels different these days. Menopause was a shadowy sort of thing that no one talked about and now it’s a different world. Women used to have a horrible time. Now it’s a conversation. Really, it’s an honour to be getting older, isn’t it?’

  • Crossfire is coming this autumn to BB C One and BB C iPlayer 

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