Essex Boys - Alex Kingston: Doing rather well over there

Last Update: 14 July 2000

13 July 2000

Source: The Independent

Alex Kingston: Doing rather well over there
She made headlines when her film-star husband left her for an older woman. But five years on, Alex Kingston has found a new love and a new life as a star of one of the world's best-loved TV shows. Here, she tells Andrew Gumbel how she bounced back

You can see straightaway why Alex Kingston got to play an emergency room doctor on television.

Everything about her oozes poise, control and reassurance, the very best you could hope to glimpse as the ambulance workers rush your incapacited, tube-stuffed body into the intensive care unit.

She sits with perfect posture on the edge of her long-backed armchair, smiles an impeccably welcoming smile, and measures every word or phrase that comes out of her mouth as though it were a line from a poem being recorded for posterity. We are not, of course, in a hospital, but rather in the altogether calmer and more artificial surroundings of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. Granted, she is less rushed than Dr Elizabeth Corday, her on-screen persona in ER, and dolled up to look considerably more glamorous. But still she looks like she wouldn't be panicked by a gas explosion in the next room.

She offers up observations and opinions with well-honed professionalism. "I am surprised how much more racism there is in the States than in London," she begins at one point, enunciating every syllable with a weighty deliberation that immediately lends greater depth to the sentiment than perhaps it deserves. "Many Americans don't even realise Minnie Driver is English," she says at another moment, with such conviction that you almost want to bray with indignation, or at least amazement, in response.

As with an emergency room doctor, this assurance is by large the result of training. In Alex Kingston's case, that means Rada, the discipline of the Royal Shakespeare Company and – less high-mindedly but equally crucially, given her tenure at one of America's hit prime time drama series – three seasons' worth of practice at fielding questions from entertainment journalists in just this sort of hotel suite.

Her phrases sound just the right side of natural, if a little rehearsed (it is hard not to ascribe some of the stiffness to the fact that her mother is German, and German was her first spoken language). She is dressed up just far enough to look coolly elegant for the television cameras, but not so outrageously as to attract undue attention. (Today she is wearing a long-cut dark trouser suit, with an open-neck mauve blouse and matching high-heeled sandals.) And she is sufficiently informal to make her interlocuters feel at ease, without ever suggesting she is ever going to let go of that highly controlled exterior.

In other words, she has, in her own way, mastered that elusive art of being a celebrity. It still seems like an unlikely role for Kingston to fill. After all, at 37 she is neither young enough, or stick-thin shapely enough, to fit the Hollywood stereotype of what a hot new actress should be. She doesn't possess the show-stopping bravura of a Maggie Smith or a Meryl Streep to carry her to prominence. True, she is an accomplished classical actor, but since when did that impress any casting agents west of the Cotswolds?

What she does have is just enough of a knack to be in the right place at the right time. When the producers of ER were looking for a fresh face, they happened to catch her eye-stopping turn as the lead character in Moll Flanders, which, despite all the nudity, had just been sold to public television in the United States. At first, they wanted to try Kingston out for just a handful of episodes, but she successfully negotiated to become a regular over the whole of a 22-episode season to make sure it was worth her while to drop her other commitments and move to Los Angeles.

The rest came more or less by itself, thanks to the miracle-working powers of a hit television show. And she has thereby turned her fortunes around dramatically, certainly compared to five years ago, when her then husband Ralph Fiennes left her for Francesca Annis and her career hit something of a plateau. (She has since married a second husband, Florian Haertel, a German journalist based in LA, whom she met on a blind date arranged by a friend.)

She has been lucky in other ways, too. Mike Hodges' existential puzzle piece of a movie Croupier, in which she stars with Clive Owen, came out in the United States a few months ago after endless distribution delays (it appeared in Britain last year and sank almost without trace) and has been hailed as a minor masterpiece. She actually finished the film before she started her first season on ER, so the slow emergence of the film has worked in her favour. A few weeks ago she was called up by Toni Basil, the choreographer and erstwhile pop chart-topper, who marvelled at the fact that she looked so natural in the film (she plays a mysterious South African gambler and, yes, she does get to take her clothes off) in contrast to the plastic bimbos of current American movies. "Your body was so normal, your breasts so real," Basil told her. "I haven't seen a real body on the screen for a decade."

The flip response to Basil's enthusiasm is that Kingston seems to take her clothes off an awful lot when she's not on ER – as though she had developed a peculiar niche as the woman to beat when the script calls for a thirtysomething actress to peel off her shirt. After the knocker-swaying of Moll Flanders and the more discreet cuddling up to Clive Owen in Croupier, she gets naked again as a gangster's moll in Essex Boys, the latest in the seemingly endless line of Brit gangster flicks – this one "inspired" by the grisly Rettendon "Range Rover" murders – which is out in cinemas this week.

But Kingston is not embarrassed by the trend. If anything, she is proud of the political message she believes she is sending about the objectification of women. "I don't have the build of a Californian girl. I don't have that mythical figure. It's not that I'm on the heavy side, this is just me. I'm happy with who I am and as long as the nudity is justified by the drama of the situation, I will go ahead with it," she explains. "It's wrong for women to be constantly shy and embarrassed about their bodies. There are so many images of unattainable beauty that are so destructive. It's important to show how your body really is. As the cliché has it, beauty comes from within."

Despite her good fortune, there are things that Kingston misses in her life in America. She has had to give up the theatre almost completely, partly because of her work schedule and partly because her visa only permits her to work in film and television. As much as the theatre, though, she misses the theatrical style of intensive rehearsal and discussion about character and motivation.

ER is all about rehearsing moves and camera angles, with a little medical consultation thrown in from the on-set physician, but involves little or no character analysis. "That's what I miss, pulling a play apart, trying things out and trying to react to things in different ways to see what works and what doesn't. Without that process, you miss out on a whole level of depth," she says.

ER has some advantages, too – the professionalism of the production, the fact that it is an ensemble cast with no prima donnas, and most of all its enduring popularity that guarantees Kingston both work and prominence. At her age, however, she is not starry-eyed about how long it, or her own fame, might last. "I wouldn't stay in Hollywood in the hope of making it without some kind of concrete offer," she said. "The day ER ends, I can happily go back to England and carry on where I left off in the theatre. That would suit me just fine."

'Essex Boys' (18) opens at cinemas around the country on Friday


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