Home / Arts & Life / She Was About to Quit Acting. Then She Got the Role of a Lifetime.

She Was About to Quit Acting. Then She Got the Role of a Lifetime.

This was less a gush and more a righteous roar of approval, however, with critics cheering that a secret star of British theater — so chameleonic that she’d gone underrecognized for over a decade — had finally smashed into success. The play, which originated at the National Theater, in a coproduction with Headlong, duly transferred to the West End.


Denise Gough, left, and Barbara Marten in “People, Places & Things,” Duncan MacMillan’s play about an actress struggling with addiction.

Johan Persson

But success came only just in time: If Ms. Gough hadn’t gotten the part, she was going to quit acting altogether. She’d had a year without any work, and was broke.

Over a recent lunch in a West London brasserie where she makes a joke of ostentatiously ordering lobster pasta, she’s able to laugh at how far she’s come. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “It’s completely nuts.”

Ms. Gough (it rhymes with cough), who’s lived in London since she was a teenager, is great company, her chat as quick and flashing as those very blue eyes. She clearly doesn’t suffer fools, and enjoys pricking actorly pretensions. (“I like to shout ‘Macbeth’ a lot.”) Yet beneath the expletive-riddled sarcasm dwells a spiritual belief that the universe is unfolding as it should; she rejected Catholicism, but retains some “faith in a higher power — something very personal to me.”

So when it came to Emma, she had a sense that it was meant to be. “People will laugh, but I feel like the characters find me,” she said. “The ones I’m supposed to play, I’m going to play.”

She still busted a gut to get it, however, even snorting a line of icing sugar when auditioning. “It was one of those mythic auditions,” recalled Mr. Macmillan, whose adaptation of “1984” just closed on Broadway. “This play needs a talent, someone very charismatic. Denise came in and grabbed it by the throat and wrestled it to the floor.”

Why does she think “People, Places & Things” connected so profoundly with audiences? “Do you know someone in your life that has addiction issues?” she threw the question back at me. “So does every single person in this room, yet it’s so shrouded in shame. Duncan tapped into our need to connect with each other about that stuff.”

Jeremy Herrin, the play’s director, acknowledged that “American culture is much more conversant in addiction narratives, with more purchase on self-help and the therapeutic conversation than us repressed Brits,” but contended that the subject is universal. And Ms. Gough’s performance is key. “Denise is so attuned to the subject matter,” Mr. Herrin continued. “She gets it. She’s very brave, very courageous.”


Ms. Gough promises a different take on the character of Harper, whom she is playing in “Angels in America.”

Helen Maybanks

In rehearsals, where tears flow and vocal cords surely shred, it’s striking how Ms. Gough also frequently refers to time the company spent with addicts in a recovery center in South London.

“To me, it’s incredibly brave for an addict to get clean,” she said. “The most avant-garde thing you can do in the world today is live sober, because if there was ever a time you’d want to switch off all the feelings it’s now, right?”

Audience members would pour their hearts out to her after shows; she still wears a pendant necklace that a recovering addict sent her in gratitude. “It’s more than a play for me,” she explained. And she’s not about to jeopardize it by succumbing to excess herself.

“No, I’ve done it all — I don’t need to,’’ she said. “I am actually such a safe bet now, because my work is really important to me and I don’t want to be [expletive] that up.”

Ms. Gough is becoming a more regular screen presence, recently appearing in “Guerrilla,” John Ridley’s Showtime mini-series about the British black power movement. Next year she plays Keira Knightley’s lover in “Colette,” a film about the French novelist; Ms. Gough is Mathilde de Morny, who dressed in suits and was “one of the first women to identify as a man.”

Her heart belongs to the theater, however. Her first taste was playing Miss Hannigan in a school production of “Annie.” “I made the audience laugh,” she recalled, “and I remember thinking: ‘Yep, that feels nice, I’ll have more of that.’ ”

She grew up in Ennis, Ireland; her father was a head of fisheries, her mother a marriage counselor. She was the seventh of 11 children — which explains her love of applause.


Denise Gough at a rehearsal space in London, where she is preparing for the New York production of “People, Places & Things,” the play that earned her British acclaim.

Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

“It is obviously psychological,” she said, “now, what I do for a living, is get attention. But I wasn’t brought up with the thought that acting was a possibility.” Stubbornly determined to prove her parents wrong, she moved to London at just 15, and after a precarious few years living in squats, won a scholarship to the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts.

Her experience has made her an outspoken supporter of immigration as well as government support for those out of work or on low incomes — a fraught subject in Britain.

“I am an immigrant, but the difference between me and the immigrants dying in the sea is that I’m white and English-speaking, and that to me is deeply troubling,” she said. “England saved my life, really. I took advantage of everything this country has to offer, and now I’m giving back.”

She is troubled by contemporary politics in her adopted home country, particularly Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. That, followed by the election of President Donald Trump, left her reeling. Yet “People, Places & Things” has also provided her with a framework for understanding the current turbulent state of the world.

”An addict has to hit rock bottom before they change their lives,’’ she said. ”Maybe the world is hitting rock bottom, and there’s going to be a glorious spiritual awakening where we all start looking after each other.”

Is she optimistic, ultimately? “I have to be otherwise I would top myself,” she answered. “I can’t lose hope. I refuse.”

On the heels of the four-week New York run of “People, Places & Things,” Ms. Gough will reprise the role she played this summer — another addict, the Valium-hooked Harper in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”

But audiences can expect an unusually punchy Harper, not a hazy victim.

“Someone said to me, she’s really angry,” Ms. Gough explained. “Well, wouldn’t you be? Harper has to save herself. That’s why the speech at the end is pure joy. It’s got to be: ‘It’s going to be really hard, but I’m going to be free.’ Free from addiction, free from a husband that doesn’t love me, free to leave.”

Ms. Gough shakes her head. “God, the bravery of women.”

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