At 16, Georgina Campbell hated auditions and never had more than one line in the school play. So how did she beat Sarah Lancashire to TV’s biggest prize? The rising star on lucky breaks and why there’s no shame in playing the girlfriend
Last year, at the age of 22, and barely into her career, Georgina Campbell won Britain’s biggest TV prize for best actress. Not many people expected her to – she was up against Sarah Lancashire, Keeley Hawes and Sheridan Smith. And she was virtually unknown – her BBC3 drama Murdered By My Boyfriend, a domestic-violence drama based on a true story, was critically acclaimed but had nothing like the hype of Happy Valley and Line of Duty. But if you were one of the 3.5 million people who watched Campbell play Ashley – the young woman beaten to death by her abusive partner – with such restraint and realism, her win was no surprise.
What happens in the weeks and months afterwards? What sort of huge offers was she turning down? Campbell laughs, cupping her mug of Earl Grey in a cafe across the road from her home in south London. “Not much. I’m not batting away offers, no.” The effect, she says, has been to make her feel “a bit more secure”, but she also remembers reading an interview with serial Bafta-winner Olivia Colman – with whom she has worked, on the Channel 4 comedy Flowers and again in the forthcoming third series of Broadchurch – “and she said that after she won hers, she really didn’t get much work for a while. People know me a bit more, I get into the audition room more, which means I get more of a chance.”
Most of Campbell’s roles since her Bafta win have been smaller, supporting ones, usually playing the girlfriend. “Really good leading roles are few and far between, and there is so much competition because there are so many fantastic actresses in this country. I don’t think there’s that much to be said about going, ‘I’m a big deal so I’m going to be the main character in everything.’”
Campbell, right, in One of Us. Photograph: Mark Mainz/BBC
Campbell plays the girlfriend in One of Us, a new BBC four-part thriller set in the Scottish Highlands, but it’s more of an ensemble piece. A young couple are murdered in their Edinburgh flat. At first, it seems like a break-in gone wrong, but it starts to look as if the murderer has some connection to their families. The events that unfold are pretty implausible, but dark and gripping nonetheless.
Campbell was spotted in the street when she was 16 by Sarah Walker, the writer and director who asked her to audition for a part in her show Freak. She got it. Growing up in Dartford with her mother, a teacher, and stepfather, a bookbinder, she hadn’t particularly wanted to be an actor. “I wanted to be an air hostess, because I thought it was the most glamorous thing – and I’d never been on a plane,” she says with a laugh. At school, she liked art and textiles, and thought she might go into fashion. The extent of her acting experience was getting one line in the school plays, “and I would end up saying it really weirdly”.
Campbell with Royce Pierreson in Murder By My Boyfriend. Photograph: BBC
If a show has a male director, having a bit of female input is usually quite helpful
She says that when she got the role, she didn’t understand what it really meant at the time. “It’s so hard to get into this industry. There are so many people who are so talented, and they never get those opportunities. Being in the right place and someone giving you a push – I got that. And I was quite shy when I was younger, so the idea of going to auditions was not what I wanted to do at all. I hated it.” Her parents encouraged her, saying that if she didn’t like it, she could always stop. But the parts kept coming – including the usual TV apprenticeship roles in Casualty and Holby City – and she found herself enjoying it. After Murdered By My Boyfriend, she appeared in comedies such as the E4 show Tripped and Sky 1’s After Hours.
Roles for women, she thinks, are “getting a lot better, and I think people are always open to talking about things. There are roles I’ve gone for where it’s been written in a certain way. You read it and you’re like, ‘Well, maybe get rid of that, don’t do this, maybe do this instead.’ I think there’s always a way to bring something, even if it is just the girlfriend role. As long as you’re playing it with an idea of who that person is on their own, away from the male character.” Most directors are open to a discussion, she says. “And if it is a male director and writer, having a bit of female input is usually quite helpful.”
The main issue, Campbell says, is there are not enough female writers and directors. “There needs to definitely be more.” She smiles, raising her voice against the loud background chatter. “There are plenty of very good ones out there.”
One of Us starts on 23 August at 9pm on BBC1.