guardian.co.uk, Friday 31 August 2012 23.01 BST
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Ruth Wilson: ‘When I go back to the National now, it still brings back the scariest of feelings. Shudders go through me as I walk in.'
Jumpsuit, £750, by Yigal Azrouël. Photograph: Bjarne Jonasson for the Guardian. Styling: Erin O'Keefe
Ruth Wilson talks brusquely, in quick, ungainly sentences that take one back to her excellent Jane Eyre and make her seem, oddly, both older and younger than her 30 years. She is about to appear in Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley in the title role, is currently filming The Lone Ranger in Colorado, and shows every indication of joining the first ranks of Britain's leading ladies. "I've always been quite shy," she says. "Very confident but very shy." She laughs awkwardly. If there is such a thing as belligerent shyness, this is it what it looks like.
We are in a coffee shop in Manhattan, where Wilson is spending a few days before returning to Colorado. Anna Karenina is the first book adaptation she has done since the Brontë series and the TV version of Small Island – she avoided period dramas for a while and wasn't sorry to be occupied when Downton Abbey was casting. In all of those cases, the first thing she did on being cast was to read the book, not always a popular move with a director, since the character on screen has often moved away from what appears on the page. "So, in Anna Karenina, what I'm doing with the character of Betsy is so different from what's in the book. Reading the novel helps, and it doesn't as well. For Jane Eyre, it was my bible. Small Island, I loved using it. It gives you loads of notes, all the feelings and the thought processes. So you can use it as a cheat."
Her parents, now retired, often join Wilson for a few days on set, which is a nice treat for her – they all went riding in Colorado. She grew up the youngest of four children in Surrey, her mum a probation officer, her dad an investment banker. "Or fund manager – I never really know."
Her decision to go to drama school was considered eccentric within the family. Her poor dad, she says, was looking forward to having the last of his children financially off his hands, when she broke the news, after graduating from Nottingham, that she wanted to do another two years of study at Lamda. "They said, let her go, let's see what happens. Mum says she never had much faith that anything was going to happen!"
Things happened fairly swiftly. She had started acting as a teenager in a youth group and "always had an inkling" about carrying it on as a career, although "it felt quite embarrassing to say I want to be an actor". She chose Nottingham University for its on-campus theatre and, while doing a history degree, took part in student productions. One year, she and some friends created a show and took it to the Edinburgh Festival. "And people came to see it! I mean, they walked out in the first few days and then we changed it."
They wrote it in 10 days in an outhouse in St Andrews; it was a silent comedy, with lots of slapstick and slow-motion. "We've still got it on video somewhere. I keep wanting to do it again, but it might be a disaster." In any case, during the festival she realised how much she wanted to be a professional actor, not least for the travel. She didn't have to wait long. Shortly after graduating, she was cast as the lead in a new TV adaptation of Jane Eyre, opposite Toby Stephens as Rochester, a tough role to make her own in the wake of so many predecessors – most recently, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Mia Wasikowska and Samantha Morton.
Wilson, as it turned out, was very good; stoic, self-contained, implacable bordering on glum, hard to read and – much commented on at the time, this, since there is thought to be no greater test of an actor's powers than to subdue her own vanity – plain, as the role demands.
She was not, she says, intimidated by taking on such an iconic part – "I don't think that registered with me." Neither was she starstruck. "I can just get on with the job. If someone famous was in here, I wouldn't go up to them. I'd keep my distance until we were properly introduced." She was nervous, though, during the first read through of the Stephen Poliakoff drama Capturing Mary, which she appeared in the following year. She found herself round a table with Poliakoff, David Walliams and Maggie Smith – "such a weird combination. David, at the time, was very famous, very commercial, and then you had Maggie – just, you know, Dame Maggie – that was nerve-wracking." She looks fleetingly bleak. Did it feel as if she was being tested? "Yes. It's the first time you've performed it to other people. Some people just mumble into the page. Others really go for it. Everyone is thinking about their own stuff, so really you've got nothing to worry about. But you always worry what everybody else thinks."
It was on the strength of these roles that Wilson was cast in her first stage production, in Maxim Gorky's Philistines at the National Theatre. "It was a big moment. You aspire to be at the National and then you're like, oh God, am I ready for it? Opening the play was the scariest thing. When I go back to the National now, it still brings back those feelings. Shudders go through me as I walk in."
Since then, she has won two Olivier awards – for her role as Stella, in the 2009 Donmar Warehouse production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and two years later in the title role of the Donmar's Anna Christie. She has appeared opposite Idris Elba in the TV show Luther. And she has made Anna Karenina, conveniently located at Shepperton, where her parents live. (Her great friend, Michelle Dockery, is also in the film and Wilson invited Dockery to stay over in her parents' spare room one night before filming; an exciting prospect for her parents, both fans of Downton Abbey, to have Lady Mary in the house.)
Wilson's own home, which she's rarely in, is a rented flat-share in Waterloo – "not too expensive, great location"; her flatmate is an old friend from drama college who is now teaching. She supposes she should look for somewhere to buy. "To invest. But I want to wait until I can find somewhere that feels like home." When she returns to Colorado, it will be to the Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham Carter production of The Lone Ranger, directed by Gore Verbinski (Pirates Of The Caribbean). Wilson is, she says, still learning her range, so it's fun to do an action movie. After that, who knows. But it seems likely the steady climb will continue.
• Anna Karenina is due for release on 7 September.