Louise Brealey is no stranger to interviews. As a former journalist and editor, she has interviewed the likes of Angelina Jolie, Jude Law and Helena Bonham Carter. But since her rise to fame as the endearing and lovelorn Molly Hooper in BBC’s Sherlock, Brealey now finds herself on the other side of the microphone.
“I’m not a brilliant interviewee,” confesses Brealey. ““But sometimes you know what to say; you know [to] give people what you know they need because you’ve been on the other side.”
Despite her claims to the contrary, the former journalist turned actress is a pleasure to interview – witty, candid and fiery. Brealey exudes a friendly and personal charm that dispels any awkwardness that may otherwise arise from a telephone conversation connecting interviewer and interviewee from Sydney to London.
At the age of 35, Brealey boasts a resume that would be the envy of many. After studying history at Cambridge University, Brealey went on to complete her acting studies at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in Manhattan, New York. Although Brealey worked as a journalist and sub-editor of a number of publications, including Wonderland magazine and Man about Town, she admits that acting had always been her main interest.
“I had a marvelous career in journalism,” says Brealey. “[But] It was just like a sort of infection, wanting to be an actress. It just wouldn’t go away.”
“Interviewing actors, directors and writers – I loved it, and I still do. But at the time it felt sort of like looking through a shop window. And eventually I thought I’d better give it a go otherwise I might end up wishing I had and it would be too late.”
She started out in stage productions, acting in a number of them since 2001 including Sliding with Suzanne and After the End, with which she toured the US and Russia. She has also starred in a number of television series, including the BBC’s Casualty, and also appeared in Bleak House and Law and Order: UK.
However, it wasn’t until 2010 that Brealey shot to global fame in the BBC’s Sherlock, a modern TV retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In the series, Brealey plays Molly Hooper, the stammering pathologist harboring an unrequited love for Sherlock Holmes (played by Benedict Cumberbatch).
It is common knowledge that Brealey’s character was initially not intended to be a fixture in the series. According to the series’ writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who are also the brains behind many Doctor Who episodes), Molly Hooper was only meant to feature in the pilot episode as an example of Sherlock’s complete obliviousness to any interest or attraction shown by women.
However, according to Moffat, Brealey’s performance made the writers rethink their decision to only have Molly Hooper feature in the pilot episode.
“She’s really interesting, Molly, because she was an absolute one-scene character for the pilot but [Louise] Brealey was just so fantastic,” said Moffat in an interview with Digital Spy. “We went against our first decision which was ‘We will not add a regular that’s not from Doyle’. The first thing we did was add a regular character that’s not from Doyle!”
Molly Hooper began series one as a minor character purely of Moffat and Gatiss’ imagination. But, by series three, Brealey’s character had come to assume a role much larger than would ever be anticipated, with her timidity and relationship frustrations adding an emotional element to the series that speaks to audiences on many levels.
“It’s very gratifying,” says Brealey. “I’m very proud that they liked the character enough that they developed her and gave her more screen time.”
“I get a lot of feedback from women. I don’t know about ‘relate’, I always find that ‘relatability’ is overrated – you have to relate to all characters in some sense. But I think what [Molly] does do is that they feel a connection with her and she speaks to them in some way. They recognize her.”
The global success achieved by Sherlock and its actors could never have been anticipated. Its international fan base brought Benedict Cumberbatch to Australia earlier this year. Brealey will follow his footsteps in November, attending the Supanova pop culture expo to be held in Adelaide and Brisbane.
With fans eagerly awaiting season 4, Brealey has only one word to describe her reaction to the plans for the next series: “speechless!”
Brealey’s following is huge, and, with over 170, 000 followers on twitter and various social media fan pages, her fans certainly hang on to her every word (or tweet) – a responsibility which Brealey, as a self-proclaimed feminist, does not take lightly.
“I have really enjoyed being a part of something that speaks to so many people and I’m into talking with some women and girls about things that impact them,” says Brealey.
“That was something that I could never have predicted. The notion of being any sort of role model is laughable, so that whole side of things has been amazingly enriching. I’ve learnt a lot about myself and also about feminism through having those sort of dialogues all the time.”
A passionate advocate of women’s rights, Brealey is unrepentantly and unapologetically honest about what needs to be done to combat the numerous issues women experience, including pressures surrounding what Brealey calls ‘body terror’ and ‘body fascism.’
“We live in a culture which values the way we look above all else,” says Brealey. “I think it’s getting worse rather than getting better [and] I think the media has a huge role in reinforcing this.”
“Because I have a voice – by accident, because I happen to play a small part in a show that’s caught people’s imagination – because I have that voice, I take it very seriously,” says Brealey.
“There is a degree of power in having a huge following in the way that this show has and that feels like a responsibility to me. So, it’s my responsibility to sort of to try and, as far as I can, lead by example.”
Admired and respected as she is, Brealey admits to numerous doubts about her appearance, saying she is prone to comparing herself with others.
In 2012, Brealey wrote a piece on her struggle to deal with her nude scene for the stage production of The Trojan Women, for which she was playing Helen of Troy. In the piece, Brealey wrote: “I don’t want the young women who look up to me because I’m a feminist and I’m in a TV show they love to feel like they somehow fall short. So I should have stood on stage as Helen of Troy, flaws and all, and thumbed my nose at body terror and body fascism. But I couldn’t; I just wasn’t brave enough.”
Brealey says the piece is one of her proudest achievements.
“The responses I got to that piece – it is the thing I’m most proud of,” says Brealey. “I had these responses and I just sat and read them and bawled, crying my eyes out because people felt understood. They felt that I understood what it’s like to not love your body sometimes.”
“Acting is not a beauty contest, but it can sometimes feel like that. You can’t help but compare yourself, and that’s why it’s important to talk about it.”
Whilst Molly Hooper may have been the impetus for a sizeable fan base and following, it is Louise Brealey, and Brealey alone, who has amassed fans based on her honesty and her sympathy – her understanding of the shared struggle of women and her desire to make change.
Molly Hooper may not have the love of Sherlock Holmes, but Brealey has rightfully gained the love and respect of thousands of international fans.