The interview: Natascha McElhone
By Carole Cadwalladr
Source: The Guardian (UK)
She had it all: a successful career, a blissful relationship, two happy children and a third on the way. Then, a year ago, her husband died suddenly. Actress Natascha McElhone tells Carole Cadwalladr about writing his obituary, dealing with grief – and why she feels so remarkably positive about having known and loved her husband
Last May, Natascha McElhone was filming in Los Angeles with her two children and pregnant with her third, when her 43-year-old husband, Martin Kelly, collapsed and died from a heart attack at their home in west London.
He was a craniofacial surgeon who, as well as his busy practice in London, had set up a charity Facing the World which takes children with severe facial deformities from places such as Afghanistan and Iraq to London for surgery. It was four days after their 10th wedding anniversary and he was about to fly to LA to join Natascha and the children to celebrate. Then she got the call, from his best friend, Neil Randhawa.
Just days later, McElhone wrote a remarkable obituary in the Mail on Sunday. “I can’t believe that that magical, beautiful creature is not here any more. He was too good to be true. There was never a day when we didn’t say, ‘It’s ridiculous how lucky we are, look how blessed our life is.’ I still feel like the luckiest woman alive, even though he’s not here. To have been given such a love, to have had 10 years of utter bliss waking up next to someone who made my heart flutter, I could never in my wildest dreams have wished for more than that.”
It was a heartbreaking piece of writing, not just for what she said about Kelly (“I just can’t believe I won’t feel his skin any more”), their marriage (“We never raised our voices to one another”) and the loss she felt for their boys or, as he called them, “his pups”, but also because, in the midst of her grief and shock, she could be so articulate.
“I feel so ill-equipped right now in my sleepless, shocked state to write anything coherent, but I want to get in there and shout aloud his name, make sure no one misunderstands him,” she wrote, but she did much more than that. If you look at the Justgiving website where a fund has been established in his name, the piece moved complete strangers to donate money to the cause.
“I haven’t really read it back. And I don’t know if I ever can. I wrote it in such a blind haze. The paper had contacted us saying that they were going to run an obituary written by one of his partner’s wives, which was perfectly lovely, but she didn’t know him very intimately so it was sort of once removed.
“And I said to Martin’s best friend, ‘Why don’t you write it?’ We were surrounded by piles of documentation because we were going through death certificates and all the the administrative hell of death. I just remember looking at him over these piles of files and documents. He looked up at me and said, ‘Tash?’ And I said, ‘Yes?’ And he said, ‘I can’t do it, you’ve got to do it.’ And I said, ‘I can’t do it, I haven’t slept. I’m pregnant. I’m hormonal. I’m grief-stricken. Are you insane? I’ve got my kids to look after.’ But he said, ‘I feel you have to. I’ve got this really strong feeling that you have to do it.’
“And then he called the editor who said we’re going to press in 40 minutes. So I just sat there and wrote it. I can’t remember what I wrote. I’ve got it so I will read it one day. I think I’d be embarrassed to read it now. I said to my dad who’s a journalist, ‘Will you read through it and check it’s not embarrassing.’ He just sat down and I heard this ping, that noise from your email if you’re on a Mac. I said, ‘You can’t have read it that quickly.’ He said, ‘I didn’t, I just pressed send.’ And I said, ‘You’re such an arsehole! You’re meant to be helping.’ He just said, ‘If you, in your state, felt compelled to write something, then it must be right.’ So that’s how all that came about.”
The journalist father is her stepfather, Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Daily Mirror, and now media commentator of the Guardian, who married her mother, Noreen Taylor, also a journalist, when McElhone was still very young. He said: “I have never known a marriage as close and warm as theirs” and wrote in the Guardian: “Martin was the most rounded human being I have ever known.” He played sport competitively, painted, played in a band. “Theirs was an all-consuming love affair; each other’s best friend, they dovetailed so well that they never had a single row.”
The baby she was pregnant with has now been born, Rex, a brother to eight-year-old Theo, and five-year-old Otis, brought into the world in the same hospital where Kelly used to work. When we meet at lunchtime near her home in Fulham, west London, she has the air of somebody who’s been up since well before dawn. Rex is teething.
Three boys, she admits, is a handful. “It really is. I won’t say it’s not. It is a struggle but one I hope to rise to or they tell me I do which is very sweet.
“The baby is so delicious. It’s ridiculous. My oldest son, he’s like a little old man sometimes, he was holding him in his arms the other day and said, ‘I can’t look at him, Mummy, he’s too cute.’ So he’s very loved by everyone.”
Eleven months on and the TV show that McElhone was filming when she heard the news of Kelly’s death is about to be broadcast. It’s the second series of Californication in which she stars with David Duchovny as the pined-for ex-girlfriend to his disaffected writer, Hank. After being separated for the duration of the first series, her character and Hank are reunited in this one. A third series has just been commissioned and it’s been something of a surprise hit for Showtime, a cable channel in the US, and Channel Five who broadcast it here.
“For me, it’s a few months of the year, in summer, in LA. It’s the kids’ school holidays. It’s a no-brainer. It’s wonderful. It’s not like signing your life away.”
She was an unlikely contender for the part. She’d never done series television before and her audition consisted of a conference call between the producers in LA and her in Hungary, where she was filming. “They just said, ‘You’ve got a 20-minute phone conversation. Make us laugh.’”
Evidently she did, because the next morning she was offered the part and accepted it with reservations. “I wanted to know whether the character was going to be ‘the wife’ or ‘the girlfriend’, which bores me to tears and is endemic. I think it’s incumbent on actresses to bring something else to the part which isn’t in the script. They were very up and open to stuff.”
It is an unusual role, though, given her background. After studying at Lamda, she was spotted aged 24 by a casting agent in a production of Shakespeare at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre who put her forward for the lead role in the 1996 film Surviving Picasso Picasso, opposite Anthony Hopkins.
It was her big break and was followed by, among others, Solaris, Steven Soderbergh’s Tarkovsky remake in which she appeared as a hallucination of George Clooney’s dead wife, The Truman Show in which she played opposite Jim Carrey, The Devil’s Own with Brad Pitt and Ronin with Robert De Niro.
I tell McElhone that I saw the pilot for Californication during “pilot week” in LA, when networks decide which shows to buy and thought it was funny and witty and loved the David Duchovny character. But what I don’t like, I say, is that, since then, “there’s almost a porn aesthetic that’s been brought into it”.
“Almost? I think there is. You don’t have to be polite.”
How do you feel about that?
“The thing is that I’m not really privy to it. My character isn’t involved in that. What’s funny is, in LA anyway, it’s women who often come up to me and say how much they love the show. It often occurs to me that no one, but no one comes up to me and says God, I find the sexuality in it offensive. Or I find the depiction of women in it offensive. Quite the opposite in fact.”
When she flew home for Kelly’s funeral, the producers of Californication gave her the choice of whether to return to LA to continue filming the rest of the series or not. She went.
The relationship between her and David Duchovny and their daughter is far and away the best part of Californication, although it’s a variation on a familiar role she’s played: the unattainable, idealised woman. Karen is a continuation of Rheya in Solaris and Sylvia in The Truman Show.
What strikes me when I meet her is that it isn’t actually her beauty that makes her so. She’s more bohemian than on screen, scruffier, even. But what’s unusual about her is that her looks, while striking, are only part of it.
Even in the complexity of her grief, McElhone is amazingly articulate and despite having spent most of the past year dealing with death and the aftermath of death, what she expresses most is the joy of life. She stands by the extraordinary sentence she wrote in Kelly’s obituary, of how, despite what happened to him, she still feels lucky.
“I don’t know where that comes from. Probably from him, from his attitude to life. I feel eternally… I’m not religious so using the word ‘blessed’ is a bit of a liberty… but I do feel that it couldn’t have been better, who I bred with, who I was with for that 10 years, actually 12 years. It doesn’t really matter what happens from here on in. Anything’s a bonus. Just to get the boys through their stuff.”
It’s not a question of moving on, she says. “You hear that a lot. But for me, there’s not such a thing as moving on. I’ll take it with me. I’ll still have a journey and have different sort of experiences on the way. But he’ll always be with me on that. Not in the same way obviously. But I’m never going to move away from him or move on from him. I just feel that because he’s not alive any more, I can’t talk anything current, because there isn’t a current with him, there isn’t a present. He’s dead. I’m going to do a memorial service for him in six weeks so I’ll be revisiting a lot of things then.”
Are you dreading the anniversary?
“No. I’m really going to love it because it’s a chance and an evening just to talk about him, to be with all the people who he really loved and loved him… and no, I’m going to relish every minute of it. Because understandably other people’s lives do carry on and move away from that person because they don’t have him in their lives every day, and they’re not bringing up his children. So it might be the last time that everybody can be in the same room together, who was connected, which will be beautiful, I hope.”
When Steven Soderbergh worked with McElhone on Solaris, he said: “She reminded me of the great European actresses of the 60s and 70s, like Jeanne Moreau and Dominique Sanda. They were smart, sexy, complicated women. Not girls – women.” I repeat his other quote about her: “She has all the tools to be one of those actresses that is in a lot of big movies, but I don’t think she has the desire to see her personal life altered in any significant way.”
It’s perhaps the only moment in the interview where there’s a hint of something troubling beneath the surface. “It’s been done for me really, hasn’t it? I think I was ambitious. I still am. A lot of the stuff that was coming my way was stuff I just didn’t want to do, so it might have seemed like lack of ambition to shy away from that, but if it sticks in your throat… I just wanted to do what I wanted to do and which I thought said something.”
But now she’s the sole breadwinner…?
“I have to work. I have to try and work non-stop, actually, to make things work.”
Financially or emotionally?
“Financially. I always keep myself busy. I’m writing. Or I’m creating something. Or I’m doing stuff with the kids. I’m up incredibly early in the morning; I go to bed incredibly late at night. It’s not a fear that if I don’t work I won’t know what I’ll do with myself. But to keep the lifestyle we have. Which is not absurd but which is definitely privileged. They’re at private schools and I want to keep them there because I don’t want Martin going to be synonymous with our life changing… and it may be for the good or for the bad but I want the stability of their lives to remain intact as long as possible.
“Somebody said something wonderful to me the other day, Martin’s best mate, he said, ‘But Tash, you talk about status quo, there is no such thing as status quo, things change all the time, and if this hasn’t taught you that…’ But they’re both at schools they really love; they have really great friendships.
“Also I want to give my baby the same opportunities that they have. It’s very perverse this because I was going to send Theo to the local primary school, right behind us, but it was 2000 and they changed the catchment area because there were so many babies born, and he didn’t get in.”
Kelly died intestate and the bureaucracy of his death has been “horrific. Horrific. Don’t even go there. All I can say is that one really useful thing you could put in your article… can you please just say, to anyone who has a child, write a will. Even if you’re 26. Just write one”.
She’s been nothing if not busy. As well as dealing with the legal intricacies of death and giving birth to Rex, she’s also been writing a comedy, “set around here”. But then, she says, she hardly sleeps and, anyway, she was raised by journalists and loves writing. She tells a good story, lapsing into voices and accents, so maybe that’s her next chapter, although first she’s playing the abusive mother in the film of the misery memoir, The Kid, who seems to be the very antithesis of her more usual roles.
“What I want is for middle-class mothers like me to sit there and go: ‘There but for the grace of God I might be capable of that. But I have education, I have support, I have love in my life, I know how to love, I know how to forgive and I want my children; it wasn’t something that was done to me.’ All these things that I have chosen make my mothering easy for me. I happen to find motherhood a very natural state, but I know a lot of other people don’t.”
She always wanted to be an actress, she says, and she became one, with little struggle, straight after leaving drama school. Shortly after, she met and married the love of her life (although they actually first met when she was still in the sixth form and he was at medical school). In an earlier interview, she said that she believed that everything happens for a reason. That she believes in a “sort of destiny”.
But then, when everything’s going your way, that’s not such a stretch. “And now?” I ask.
“It’s a tough one, isn’t it? Extraordinary things have come about since Martin’s death. And I don’t know if that’s to compensate… it’s also an attitude, it’s how you look at things. It’s a choice how you perceive the events of your life. I think the difference between finding happiness, or moments of happiness, is how you choose to interpret things. That’s a rather shocking responsibility. That we’re responsible for our own happiness. It’s not those around us.
“But… my kids are still flourishing, it’s remarkable to me. And growing and learning more and more. I did think that if perhaps the roots of the tree were gone, the branches would no longer flower, but they are. That’s remarkable.”
It is. But so, in her own way, is Natascha McElhone. Replaying the tape later, it feels like I’m listening to some sort of life-therapy course. It’s impossible not to marvel at her positivity. And while I’m sure it’s not the full story of her year of grief, it’s a profoundly moving one all the same.
• The new series of Heaven and Earthication starts on 7 May on Fiver
Early life Born 14 December 1971 in London. Her parents separated when she was two and she was brought up by her Irish mother, journalist Noreen Taylor (maiden name McElhone), and Guardian columnist Roy Greenslade in Brighton. Studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
1996 Plays Françoise Gilot in Merchant-Ivory film Surviving Picasso Picasso
1998 Appears in The Truman Show, and co-stars with Robert De Niro in Ronin
2002 Makes five films, including City of Ghosts and space thriller Solaris, in which she dances naked with George Clooney.
2006 Joins Heaven and Earthication as the ex-girlfriend of Hank Moody (David Duchovny).
Heaven and Earth
2009 Stars with Pierce Brosnan in Heaven and Earth
1998 Marries plastic surgeon Martin Kelly, with whom she has two children.
2008 May: Martin dies of a heart attack.
November: birth of their third child, Rex.
She says “You don’t know who anyone really is in LA.”
They say “There’s an incredible grace to her work… a calmness in her style, a stillness almost that makes her seem, not necessarily older than she is, but from another time.” Peter Weir, director