When Morfydd Clark was 16 years old, she crashed out of school. “After my GCSEs I just couldn’t go back,” she says. “I tried for a term but didn’t do any work and my mum said: ‘Why don’t you just drop out? There’s no point in being there if you’re going to be like this.’ So I spent a month in my pyjamas in my bedroom with the heating on, eating chocolates, and then she said: ‘Right, you’ve got to do something. You like acting, don’t you?’”
The reality was that Clark had barely done any acting since she was 13, when she had tottered around in high heels as a “hilariously sexualised” Mrs Dai Bread Two in a production at her south Wales secondary school of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. But she obediently trotted along to auditions for the National Youth Theatres of both Wales and Great Britain, adding the Welsh National Youth Opera because she also liked singing. “I got into all of them, which was really not what I expected at all,” she says, “and that was when my life started to become really happy.”
A decade and a half on, she is one of the UK’s most sought-after rising stars, taking a red-carpet call at last autumn’s London film festival for four roles in three films. Two of those roles were in Armando Iannucci’s quirky and life-affirming adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield, which was released in the new year, shortly before the industry was shuttered by the Covid pandemic.
Much to Iannucci’s delight, hardly anyone spotted that Clark not only played Copperfield’s trilling fiancee but also his mother. “That few people realised she was playing both parts is testimony to how immersive she is in each role,” he says. “Both roles blend so many moods – comedy, fear, naivety, wisdom, sadness – that it’s quite a balancing act to get right. Which Morfydd did perfectly. She has great stillness, yet underneath it there’s an energy really buzzing all the time. It’s quite mesmerising.”
Her other films are far darker and are only now hitting the cinemas – a coincidence that makes them both more timely and more troubling. Both deal unflinchingly with mental illness. But despite these Covid-related delays, she has kept a steady screen presence, with roles in high-profile TV adaptations. In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials she was Sister Clara, who introduces Lyra to Bolvangar research station, and in Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s Dracula, she played Jonathan Harker’s long-suffering fiancee, Mina. She also appeared in the National Theatre Live season of lockdown films, in a celebrated Donmar Warehouse production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, starring Dominic West, from 2015, when she was just two years out of drama school.
Clark herself seems blithely unaware of the way her career has been taking flight, not least because she has been hard at work thousands of miles away. She is speaking from New Zealand, where she has spent the last 11 months on a Tolkien TV series for Amazon, the details of which are so secret that she hasn’t been able to discuss it with her family, much to the disgust of her sister. “I keep thinking I’m working for some very important government agency,” she says with arch seriousness, “but I am in fact doing Lord of the Rings.” So adamant is she about her vow of silence that she won’t even confirm reports that she’s playing a younger version of the elvish leader Galadriel, a role made famous in the Peter Jackson films by Cate Blanchett.
Those who admired her double act with a lapdog in The Personal History of David Copperfield – the latest of a run of ringlet roles that goes back to Whit Stillman’s Austen adaptation Love and Friendship in 2016 – are in for a shock. In Craig Roberts’s black comedy Eternal Beauty, which this month received five Bafta Cymru nominations, she plays the relatively minor part of the younger self of a paranoid schizophrenic (Sally Hawkins) who struggles to make sense of the world. But as the title character in Saint Maud, a gripping psychological horror flick from newcomer Rose Glass, she has the role she was born to play, causing the industry magazine Variety to gush that “she tears into her first leading vehicle like, well, a woman possessed – only in the quietest, most disquieting way”.
Maud is a psychotic nurse who acts out her distress in a religious mania which has increasingly sinister consequences both for herself and for those in her care, in a film which has been described by the director Danny Boyle as “striking, affecting and mordantly funny at times, its confidence evokes the ecstasy of films like Carrie, The Exorcist and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.”
Challengingly, in the era of “clap for carers”, the film confronts us with all the thoughts we don’t want to have about those entrusted with looking after us: we want them to be calm and empathetic, angels of mercy with no demons of their own, and Maud is none of those things. “I have little time for creative types, as they seem to be rather self-involved,” she says, tartly, on learning that she has been assigned to a 49-year-old dancer and choreographer (Jennifer Ehle) who is suffering from stage four lymphoma.
Clark says: “I can totally understand why Maud doesn’t like creative types. I come from a very scientific family so any tendency I have towards that is slapped down immediately. I fear that when I go back after this year-and-a-half away, they’ll go: ‘Oh no, it’s happened, she’s gone full luvvie.’”
Off camera, as Iannucci points out, Clark is “funny and down to earth”, talking in a lilt that gives a comic musicality to many of her lighter performances. Bilingual in English and Welsh, she was born in Sweden, where her mother and father – “this Northern Irish Glaswegian guy who does something he can’t explain to do with software and security” – decided to spend some time out just before she was born. They stayed until she was two years old.
Though she has confessed that “for some reason, the only Swedish I know is ‘there is no toilet paper’”, her parents transported one important element of the culture back home to the south Wales seaside resort of Penarth, outside Cardiff, where they still live. “Luckily,” she says, “I was brought up on lots of Scandinavian literature, like Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. Children are just loved in Scandinavia in a way that I don’t think they are in Britain, so lots of the books written there celebrate aspects of childhood I could identify with, like being loud and greedy and impatient.”
Her maternal grandparents were from a north Wales farming family whose mother tongue was Welsh, so, for all that English was the language her parents spoke at home, she and her sister were enrolled at a Welsh language school. At the age of seven, she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a condition that made it hard for her to concentrate or even to sit still. “I very much didn’t enjoy school, and was depressed and miserable as a teenager,” she says.
The youth theatres she joined after dropping out transformed all that. “I was the youngest person there and thought everybody was incredibly cool,” she says. Armed with her new confidence she decided to give education another go at a different school – Kings Monkton, in Cardiff. “It was a very kind school with lots of people with ADHD or autism. They didn’t care what grades I got. I would sit in the art room and not do any art. I realise now that my art teacher was an unpaid therapist.”
She emerged with two A-levels, in English and maths. But one of her mentors, Tim Rhys-Evans, of the Welsh National Youth Opera, encouraged her to pursue acting as a career. “He was the first grownup who didn’t have to love me, because he wasn’t part of my family, who said: ‘You’re very good at this. You should go to drama school. Don’t bother about a safety net, because if you have one you’ll only fall in it.’ So I just went for it.”
She won a place on a three-year acting course at the Drama Centre London, leaving in her final term in 2013 to take the title role with Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru – the Welsh-language national theatre of Wales – in Blodeuwedd, in which she played a beautiful, wild woman created from flowers in a story from the Welsh national epic, The Mabinogion. “I was very homesick the whole time in London so coming home to a field in the north Walian mountains was wonderful: loads of lambs in their non-cute but very loud phase,” she says.
Within a year, she had notched up three film and two TV credits, including the role of a young art teacher in Carol Morley’s well-received indie movie The Falling, about a fainting epidemic in a Catholic girls school. A run of roles in high-profile theatre productions had her falling helplessly in love with Freddie Fox in Romeo and Juliet at the Sheffield Crucible (2015), and being hurled to the floor by Glenda Jackson as Cordelia in King Lear at the Old Vic (2016), as well as being ravished by Dominic West in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. “She has that rare ability to make it seem as if she has just made up the line she is speaking. Her performances are never studied,” says one long-term observer of her stage career.
Her three most recent films all, in their different ways, deal with behaviour that might previously have been dismissed as mad. “It’s an awakening that we’re having. I guess my personality maybe treads that line more than I realised when I was younger, but in a way most people’s do,” says Clark. “I’m a neurodivergent person, so I was a nightmare,” she says. “My sister has done quite a bit of teaching and she says: ‘I really feel sorry for your teachers, because I would have enjoyed babysitting you, but not teaching you.’”
In David Copperfield, the wayward enthusiasms of the hilarious Mr Dick keep getting interrupted by his visions of King Charles I’s decapitated head; in Eternal Beauty, Jane’s reaction to stopping her meds is to see giant spiders crawling everywhere; in Saint Maud, a pot of tomato soup boiling on the stove looks like a vision of hell.
“So many of us could be Maud if we didn’t have safety nets like a family around us. One of her great tragedies is that she’s always striving to get things right, which I can relate to in terms of getting things wrong quite a lot. I’ve always been very scared of alienating myself from people, and I think it can happen very easily. ”
She landed the role of Maud after three auditions, in the last of which she just had to crouch in a corner convulsing and vomiting. “By the end I was so knackered that all fear and embarrassment was gone,” she says. “I knew that I really wanted this part, because I’ve been obsessed with the health service for years and I felt I could do it well.”
For research she had to look no further than her own large family, which is full of doctors and nurses. Her mother is a paediatrician and one of her cousins works in palliative care. “I used to have a really bad phobia about people throwing up. I would say, ‘How do you deal with the sick? It’s so gross’, and it turned into this fascination that you can save people’s lives and you are there when they give birth and die. It’s just an incredible job to have.”
My mum [a paediatrician] became more and more burnt out because everything was being cut
But her mother’s experience also provided useful insights into the dark side of the job. “As I grew up, my mum just became more and more burnt out, because she was looking after vulnerable people and everything was being cut constantly, so I was becoming aware of how vital her job was while she was becoming unable to feel anything towards it. When I first read Saint Maud I knew it was something I wanted people to experience, because it expresses so much of what I have seen.”
Whether she’s being funny, fierce, passionate or giddily naive, she has a quality that has triumphantly vindicated her nomination as a Screen International star of tomorrow in 2016, which she ascribes not to her own talent but to the Welsh language: “There’s this particular word hiraeth, which I feel loads of my characters have. It’s this longing for somewhere you can’t return to because it doesn’t exist any more or never was. That has definitely affected the type of actress I am – just that I have that one word.”
All of a sudden, from a different time zone on the other side of the world, she’s reciting the words of a Max Boyce song: “Tell me then you men of learning, why is hiraeth more than yearning. When the darkness minds to hide me, hiraeth comes and sleeps beside me.” Such sentiments mean something when you speak a minority language, she points out. “When I go back to watch the rugby with my friends I feel very lucky to be from this tiny country and to speak the language. You can also be very romantic in Welsh, and very effusive, which helps with Shakespeare too.”
Acting, she says, has given her a place in the world where she can be herself. “In terms of me understanding what it’s like not to fit in, all my ADHD tendencies in the acting world are seen as charming and interesting, whereas Maud’s eccentricities are seen as gross and unacceptable, so I feel I am very lucky to be in an accepting workspace, and I often wonder what it would be like if I wasn’t.”
A little bit of hiraeth creeps into her voice, before she shakes it off. “There’s this saying I like very much,” she says. “What doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger – but it makes you funnier. Laughing and crying are very close for me. I feel they blend together.”
Saint Maud is in cinemas on 9 October