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‘The Affair’ star Ruth Wilson is a risk-taker who’s ready to lighten up

Ruth Wilson

Ruth Wilson

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

With her wide, pouting lips and sharply arched eyebrows, Ruth Wilson has a face that seems designed for drama. She’s put this genetic predisposition to memorable use playing intense, often troubled characters — Jane Eyre in a BBC adaptation of the Charlotte Bronte novel; Stella Kowalski in a Donmar Warehouse production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”; Alice Morgan, a charismatic psychopath in the BBC detective series “Luther.”

“I just went down the hole of deeply serious, brooding women,” Wilson, 33, said over breakfast in Soho. “I don’t know what that’s about.”

The streak continues in “The Affair,” which is in its second season on Showtime. Wilson stars as Alison, a waitress caught up in a messy extramarital relationship with Noah, a self-involved novelist (Dominic West). At the same time, she’s struggling to cope with the lingering guilt over her son’s accidental death several years earlier. In a postmodern twist, the story is told from two different perspectives, with the details diverging in sometimes dramatic fashion.

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To better understand Alison’s grieving, Wilson prepared exhaustively, speaking with family friends who’d lost children and reading up on literature about the mourning process.

“I just thought, you can’t put a dead baby story in without really serving it,” she says with disarming candor. The research has informed her performance as Alison, a quiet character consumed by a fog of grief.

“If you lose a child, that grief, that distress, it kind of makes you more linked to nature and the world and just atmosphere,” she says. “You’re more attached to something that’s in the ether, in a way, because that’s where your child has gone.”

Wilson’s performance earned widespread praise — The Times’ Mary McNamara called her “mesmerizing” — and she won a Golden Globe in January.

While the series offers a bit of bourgeois escapism via picturesque locations in Montauk and brownstone Brooklyn, there is little else about it that can be described as lighthearted.

For her part, Wilson sounds mildly traumatized when speaking about the first season, which she says left her “destroyed as an individual.”

“There was a sense of what in England we call the spirit of the blitz,” said her costar West, a fellow Brit, by phone from the set of “The Affair,” which this season has expanded to the Hudson Valley. “Not that we were under attack, but I think from the start we were rather daunted by the task and the demands being made emotionally. Also, all the sex scenes ... they make you very familiar very quickly.”

Ah, yes, those. As one would expect of a premium cable drama about infidelity, “The Affair” has its fair share of explicit sexual encounters — though perhaps not as many as its producers wished. Wilson and West have both spoken about drawing the line at scenes that felt gratuitous or titillating.

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“Any scene should be justified and not just in there to please the bosses,” Wilson told The Times earlier this year.

Given the demands of “The Affair,” it’s little wonder that during the show’s hiatus Wilson turned to the stage. In January, she made her Broadway debut opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in “Constellations,” an innovative romance inspired by theoretical physics.

“I love theater. It’s where I’m most free as an actor,” says Wilson, a two-time Olivier Award winner who earned her first Tony nomination for “Constellations.” (She lost to Helen Mirren, but there are worse things.)

I love theater. It’s where I’m most free as an actor.

Ruth Wilson

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The experience also awakened Wilson’s yearning to try lighter material — perhaps something by Wes Anderson or the Coen brothers. “It’s good to be able to climb out of the box you’ve been put in.”

Wilson is accustomed to defying expectations. She grew up the youngest of four children — and the only girl — in a sporty family. After completing her history degree at the University of Nottingham, she enrolled at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Unlike actors who speak about their chosen profession in near-mystical terms, Wilson takes a grounded approach.

“It wasn’t like it was the only thing I thought I could ever do,” she says. “I was just like, If I don’t give it a go, I’ll regret it a bit.” Besides, she figured it would be a great way to travel.

Though her parents were supportive, she says she felt like a “complete anomaly” in her family because of her interest in performing. “I didn’t feel comfortable saying that I wanted to be an actor. It would sound ridiculous.”

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Wilson gave herself two years after drama school to make it in showbiz; however naive that deadline was, it turns out she actually needed far less time. Within weeks of graduation, she was cast as Jane Eyre. Within five years, she had tackled characters by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams on the London stage, secured a cult following in the U.S. with “Luther” and earned praise as a “courageous, edgy and compelling talent” in a Guardian editorial.

Wilson’s collaborators praise her ability to do a lot while appearing to do very little. West recalls being “blown away” by Wilson in “A Streetcar Named Desire” long before they were costars on “The Affair.” “She has an incredible stillness to her,” he says. “There’s an awful lot going on behind the eyes.”

Similarly, Sarah Treem, co-creator of “The Affair,” said she was impressed by Wilson’s breakthrough performance in “Jane Eyre.” “She conveyed a tremendous amount through looks and silent moments.”

Arguably Wilson’s most conventional role came in 2013, when she played the love interest in Gore Verbinski’s doomed “The Lone Ranger.” The film was a box-office disaster, but Wilson views it as an entirely positive experience, in part because of its ludicrous scale.

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Maura Tierney on how couples say they don’t watch “The Affair” together.

“The money spent on that film was outrageous, and it’s probably never going to happen again,” says Wilson, as appealingly no-nonsense as ever.

If big-screen stardom remains elusive, Wilson’s just fine with that. “TV is where most risk is taken these days, with loads of lead females and great shows led by females. It’s really exciting.”

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Wilson also has creative ambitions beyond acting. She directed O’Neill’s one-act play, “The Dreamy Kid,” in London in 2013 and would like to try her hand at directing a film. “The Affair” has been a great tutorial in that regard, she says. “I’m really learning how you can tell a story through the camera.”

She’s also developing a miniseries about her grandfather Alexander Wilson, an MI6 agent and prolific spy novelist who was also a bigamist with four families that knew virtually nothing of one another’s existence until his death in 1963.

“He was acting his whole life,” says Wilson, who learned of her grandfather’s enormous secret about 10 years ago when she read a memoir written by her grandmother (who was wife No. 3).

Wilson was fascinated, rather than outraged or embarrassed, by the skeletons in her family closet. She also felt validated when it turned out that her newfound extended family included a poet, a writer, an actor and a musician — all artists, like her. “Suddenly, this whole strand of my life made sense to me,” she says.

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Wilson speaks with obvious fascination about her enigmatic, “slightly psychopathic” grandfather; he is, after all, another intense character like the ones for which she’s become known.

The same goes for her late grandmother, whom Wilson hopes to play if the miniseries comes to fruition.

For now, her guiding principle remains the same: “Just keep throwing yourself in the deep end and hoping for the best.”

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‘The Affair’

Where: Showtime

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with an advisory for coarse language)

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