Agyness Deyn was one of the most in-demand models of the noughties, before giving it all up to act. Her gritty new BBC role proves it was worth the gamble
There’s a particularly dark scene in the opening episode of new BBC drama Hard Sun where Agyness Deyn beats the proverbial – for want of a better description – out of her co-star Jim Sturgess. As detectives Elaine Renko and Robert Hicks, the two circle each other on a deserted bank of the River Thames. A disused shopping trolley lies on the pebbles nearby. Deyn has never looked quite so at home.
The permanent move from top fashion model to actress that Agyness Deyn made six years ago has paid off. But though she’s won critical acclaim for soulful performances in indie films like Terence Davies’ Sunset Song and Electricity, Hard Sun is her first television outing. And it’s arguably her biggest role to date – a twisty new pre-apocalyptic series by Luther creator Neil Cross that opens in modern-day London five years before the end of the world.
I meet Deyn ahead of the show’s launch in an appropriately derelict-looking north-east London studio, where we sit on a pair of dusty leather armchairs to chat. She’s in a utilitarian all-black outfit of long dark coat, black T-shirt, straight-leg trousers and leather army boots, her once famously peroxide blonde crop now a more natural dark brown.
Deyn’s moment in the fashion sun seems like light years ago now, and talking to her you get the sense this is where she’d like it to remain, politely nudging the conversation away from her modelling past whenever we get close. The origins of her career, changing her name from Laura Hollins to Agyness Deyn on the advice of a numerology expert and getting scouted in Camden Town with Henry Holland, are pretty well documented, as is the whirlwind of shows and campaigns that followed.
Life seems a little calmer now. Deyn, 34, has been based in America since 2005, though her Lancashire accent is still intact. She was married for a few years to American actor Giovanni Ribisi, but the couple separated in 2015. Eighteen months ago she got married again, this time to her old friend, British hedge-fund manager Joel McAndrew, at a ceremony in Brooklyn. ‘We met through friends and I feel very lucky,’ she says with a smile. A new husband and a plum new television role; life is looking pretty sweet for Deyn, even if the same can’t be said for her on-screen alter ego…
Hard Sun is set five years before the end of the world. Did it make you question what you would do if you were in that position? ‘Definitely, you have to get into the headspace. If someone said you only have a few years to live, you might want to conduct yourself in the best way possible, but the show is based around the different ways people might react. Would they turn to spirituality or religion, or would they live out their darkest fantasies because now there’s no real law enforcement? I would probably just want to live as peacefully as I could before it all ends.’
Do you think the premise of the show taps into wider feelings of instability in the real world right now? ‘Yes, in its energy of uncertainty, not knowing what’s true and feelings of fear. Jim [Sturgess] and I were saying that conveying a sense of emergency was one of the hardest things to do, because you have to embody that energy, which is exhausting. Everything that’s going on in the world right now is exhausting – it’s just whether you block it out or not.’
Were you a fan of Luther? ‘I hadn’t watched Luther before, but I have now. My sister and husband were proper diehard fans, so when I said, “There’s this new show I’m looking at, it’s by Neil Cross and Brian Kirk who did Luther,” they were like “What?!” I remember reading the script for the first time and thinking, I have to play this woman. She’s just so cool and self-sufficient, she can take care of herself physically, emotionally and psychologically.’
You are joining a TV tradition of no-nonsense female detectives… ‘Yeah. I mean, you’re going to be happy if you’re put in a category with the title “strong women”. I think all women are feminist because we’re all female, but coming across a man [like Neil Cross] who has written a woman who’s not sexually objectified, who isn’t a love interest and there’s no sexual tension between the show’s two co-stars is refreshing.’
If you had to pick a favourite TV detective… ‘Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley is incredible. Everything she does is glorious, truthful and genuine, and from the inside out.’
How do you find watching yourself on screen? ‘For me, it’s a learning tool, I can try to be as objective as possible. I don’t watch something over and over, but it’s useful to just see how it came out.’
A lot of women say they hit their stride, life and career-wise, in their thirties. Has that been the case for you? ‘I feel more grounded in who I am and less apologetic now I’m in my thirties. I might not have all the answers, and I might not know where I’m going, but you’ve just got to experience life now as it is. In your twenties, you feel like you’re striving towards discovering something, but then you realise there is no real end goal. My mum’s like, “I still feel the same as I did, I just look in the mirror and I’m like, wow, I got old!”’
Since you left the fashion industry, there has been a whole new generation of models who have built their careers using Instagram. What do you make of that? ‘Yeah, well, not just in the fashion industry, let’s take it on to a more real level. What would it be like growing up with Instagram? Terrible, can you imagine? Obviously, we know on some level that whatever people are posting are the best selfies, in the best light and it’s all, “Look, aren’t I having fun?” As an adult you can see that, but imagine having to explain to your kids what this really is. It’s just so much more complicated than running out the back door on a weekend and your mum saying, “Be home for your tea.”’
When you left modelling for acting, did you ever turn down roles to avoid being typecast? ‘I just auditioned and went for roles that I related to or found inspiring. I was really lucky and fortunate the films that did land in my lap were cool, independent ones with a big point of view, [films] that stood for something, with generous film-makers who risked having a lead that wasn’t Keira Knightley!’
Last year, we saw women in virtually every industry speak up about discrimination and sexual harassment. What do you think will happen next? ‘Fundamentally, we have now created a safe place for truth. I think it’s very important for people to be able to communicate their experience without being afraid. It’s hard, though, you can’t imagine being in a situation like that.’
Who in the industry has been your biggest mentor or inspiration? ‘Terence Davies [director of Sunset Song] has a very healthy, beautiful, positive projection of what a woman is. When I worked with him I felt like I went from being a girl to a woman. Not all men are like those we hear about in the news. There are a lot of amazing men who champion us and help us grow.’
You’ve been living in the US for over ten years – do you feel like a native now? ‘I don’t really feel that American. I could never lose where I come from, it’s the thing that grounds me. [But] being English, I do think there’s this weight of history and ancestry that we all carry with us. In America, you don’t seem to have that as much, so there’s a lightness to it.’
Hard Sun is on Saturdays on BBC One – catch up now on iPlayer