'I wish I was more of a girly girl and could enjoy this more," says Ruth Wilson. We're walking down Waterloo backstreets to a pub for her photo shoot. She's the one in the sharp suit with good posture and a dancer's gait. After that ordeal, she has an appointment to choose the jewellery she will wear for tomorrow night's Olivier awards at the Royal Opera House, where she has been nominated as best actress for her critically acclaimed performance in the title role of Eugene O'Neill's play Anna Christie. Her sartorial mentor for the awards, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, has already helped Wilson choose a dress.
"The difficult thing for me is going to a event and having to be dressed up and being judged for what you wear," Wilson told me minutes earlier over coffee at the Young Vic theatre. "People care so much about that these days. There's such a huge link with fashion, with front covers of magazines and selling products, but that's not what you go into the job for, and yet you're persuaded that's what you have to do to create the opportunities for yourself."
Wilson's suit, incidentally, was designed by her tailor friend Adrien Sauvage and she's wearing it over a cafe au lait top. She has arched eyebrows so coolly eloquent that they might make one forget what Lauren Bacall did with hers in The Big Sleep, along with an upper lip so dramatically expressive that the man from the Telegraph built a rave review of Anna Christie around it, describing it as "pendulous", which possibly wasn't the word he wanted.
The commodifying, appearance-fixated hoopla around you and your work must get irksome. "It's a very odd place to be," Wilson agrees. "You do certainly start to become a commodity, but that's not why I went into it and that's not what I enjoy. It's a headache, actually." To make matters worse, the Daily Mail recently romantically linked Wilson to Jude Law, who co-starred as her rugged sailor lover in Anna Christie. She says: "It's not true, but I don't want to say anything about it."
These are, to be sure, high-class problems for a 30-year-old woman who only graduated from drama school seven years ago and is already being talked up by critics as theatre's dame in waiting, a promotion candidate to join Judi and Maggie in acting's premier league. The Guardian last summer made Wilson the subject of its In Praise of column. She thereby joined spa towns, Kathleen Ferrier's voice and seeing spring blossom in the column's eulogies to things that make life worth living.
"It's a good time for me," she says, "but it's only recently I've become comfortable in my job. At the start, it's hard having the nerve to call yourself an actor, let alone doing it. I gave myself two years after drama school, and if I didn't make it, then I'd give it up." But now, she adds, there's no way back from acting. "This is what I'm good at and where I belong."
This time on Monday, Wilson could be polishing her second Olivier (she won her first in 2010 for her performance as Stella in the Donmar production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire). She is just back from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she's been playing the Lone Ranger's sister-in-law in a $200m (£125m) Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Disney version of The Lone Ranger, alongside Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Helena Bonham Carter and Tom Wilkinson.
Remind me, I ask, did the Lone Ranger have a sister-in-law? "Yes – she's in a love triangle and that's explored in the film. I can't say any more." Perhaps the third corner in this triangle is Depp's Tonto, with whom Wilson must fight for the affections of Hammer's masked crime fighter? Is the world ready for a sexually conflicted wild west Disney lawman? Let's hope. What Wilson can tell me is that she does a lot of stunts in the movie. "Involving horses and trains mostly," she says, sending up a Bacallian eyebrow.
This role is an unexpected career move. In 2007, she made her professional theatrical debut on the Lyttelton stage of the National Theatre in Maxim Gorky's Philistines. There was a moment when, as Tanya, a depressive teacher bullied by her father, Wilson sat on stage crying. At that moment, Wilson seemed able, wrote one critic, "to draw the entire auditorium into her grief". "I didn't nail that performance until the last week of the run," she recalls, "because I was in absolute terror of making my debut on that huge stage." Her second performance in the Rob Ashton-directed 2009 Donmar production of Streetcar was hailed by Michael Billington as "impeccable".
But it's two later performances that have given her a reputation as an edgy actor who explores damaged souls in spiritual crisis. In the Almeida's 2010 adaptation of Ingrid Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly she excelled as Karin. Critics frequently described Karin as a schizophrenic, but Wilson, who has something of a specialism in playing women who hear voices, balks at the description. "I worked with a radical psychologist on [Channel 4's] The Doctor Who Hears Voices. He hated the term, and hated reducing people to labels. I agree with him. In the past, such people would have been seen as oracles or shamans.
"When I read Bergman's script, I realised that it wasn't really about a girl hearing voices. It was about spirituality, about faith, and finding solace in something that is beautiful and comforting and warm."
Wilson's late grandmother Alison heard voices, too, after she was widowed in 1963, and found papers revealing her husband had another wife and family. Later she discovered two further marriages. Alexander Wilson had been an MI6 spy and author of thrillers whose story was told in The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent by Tim Crook. Ruth's grandmother's story is perhaps even more intriguing.
"My granny read romantic novels and the ideal of sacrificial love appealed to her. When she met my grandad, she fell in love with him and they had a very hard life because she was cut off by her family. She sacrificed everything for him, so when she found out about the betrayal that was huge." Wilson was raised a Catholic. "There's always been a religious strain in me. I can't get rid of it. I don't want to get rid of it. I'm not involved in a church, but I understand that impulse to believe in something that's never going to betray you."
Wilson's beliefs shaped her performance in Anna Christie. In O'Neill's 1921 play, the eponymous character is reunited after 15 years with her father, Chris, an old Scandinavian salt and now captain of a Provincetown coal barge. Before the reunion, Anna had been living with cousins in Minnesota. Her father imagines she's had an idyllic life, but she has been abused and worked as a prostitute. What will happen when the father discovers his girl's shaming past? How will Irish stoker Mat, who has fallen in love with Anna, react?
When Wilson first read O'Neill's play she was dismayed by its melodrama, but director Ashton convinced her with his re-imagining of it as an emotionally grand story about a girl finding salvation. "In simplistic terms, the land is hell and the sea is heaven – so getting away from the suffocation of land is essential for her," explains Wilson. "It's only when she's at sea that she's open to receive. Only then can she open up to men. She was baptised in a way. And Mat Burke is like a Jesus character who saves her."
Before she started rehearsals for Anna Christie, Wilson took the play's other principals, Jude Law (Mat) and David Hayman (Chris), for a sailing weekend on her uncle's boat to get a feel for the fourth character in the play, the sea. "I always like to do things that are relevant to my job," she says. She flew to New Orleans to record local people talking before she played Stella in Streetcar and she visited Minnesota to get a sense of Anna Christie's misery years.
In this case, she sailed with the two actors and her aunt and uncle into a force-six gale between Beaulieu and Gosport. "It was a bit of a bonding experience, but it was also brilliant to get the feeling of being on the sea and negotiating a boat," says Wilson. "You can tell why all these men kept going back to the sea. It's mysterious, dangerous, more powerful than you. You're away from everything that's difficult. You're at one with nature, completely battling the elements."
Critics praise Wilson's quicksilver timing, her ability to convey mood changes. They also regularly cite her exploitation of her long upper lip to give, as one put it, "the mobility of expression she exploits so dangerously". What does she think when she reads these reviews? The rising eyebrow speaks volumes. "The thing is, I've got an expressive face, like everybody in my family." She's probably useless at poker. "I suppose it's good for an actor to have extreme facial mobility. That will be on my tombstone: 'Extreme facial mobility'."
Wilson grew up in Shepperton, Surrey, and notionally studied history at Nottingham University. She acted in student productions, and took one show to the Edinburgh festival. "It was silly, silly, silly, but I'd love to be back in that world because it's frightening and thrilling." In 2006, she was projected into the big time when she won the title role in the BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre. In the cop drama Luther, starring Idris Elba, she was captivating as insane physicist Alice Morgan, suspected of murdering her parents.
She learned a lot from Elba, the former Wire star now slated to play Nelson Mandela. "What I love about Idris is he's come to the fore relatively late, in his mid-30s, and he's really using the opportunity to explore the things he's interested in. He loves music, he wants to produce and direct. I love that drive and energy, and that desire to do more than act. It's inspiring." Are you like that? "I think so. I'm driven." Where's that come from? "I have three older brothers – you have to fight to match up to them. I don't see myself only being an actor for the next 30 years. I want to be involved at as many levels of creativity as possible."
There is, she thinks, another parallel between her and Elba. "For a black actor there aren't many roles, so he goes about creating those roles through what he produces and directs." That, she says, is what she wants to do for women. "There are too few women writers and consequently too few roles for women. I want to change that." She had a plan to do just that in a Film Council-bankrolled project she was working on with Emma Thompson that collapsed when the council was scrapped last year.
How about playing Hamlet, I suggest. Ashford said she has the intellectual and emotional depth to be a terrific in the role. "You know what? I'd love to play Hamlet. Shakespeare didn't write that many great roles for women. It's like you come in for one scene then spend four hours waiting backstage for the next line." So it would be good to wrest the role from the boys? "You bet. I don't shy away from a challenge that would scare the shit out of me. You need the fear always to be there. Otherwise you're in the wrong job."
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