For the last half hour or so, Charlotte Riley has given a very good impression of someone who will happily talk about anything. How she failed to get into drama school first time, finding her inner clown (more on this later), fishy canapés at film premieres, what Tom Cruise is really like on set (“Really leads from the top and makes you feel very welcome”, apparently) and the fact that she hasn’t yet got round to finishing the book on which her next big role is based.
There is one thing, though, that turns the actress’s warm Middlesbrough chatter off like a tap. She has been in a relationship with Tom Hardy – perhaps best known as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises – since he played Heathcliff to her Cathy on ITV in 2009. Two days before our interview, it is reported that they have married “in secret”, or at least without issuing a press release to the world’s media. The ceremony was possibly in the south of France, possibly as long as two months ago. Today, there is no wedding band next to her engagement ring. Is Hardy her husband? “Ahh. Well. Ahh. I don’t really want to talk about that side of things,” she says, taking a frantic swig from an empty mug of peppermint tea. OK, but it must be weird to have your marital status the subject of so much speculation? “We’re really quite lucky because when we’re out and about, just getting on with life, people are super-polite. He doesn’t get recognised a huge amount and I certainly don’t, so it doesn’t affect us hugely.”
It doesn’t even faze them when they work together – which they have done quite a lot. Having met on Wuthering Heights, they were reunited soon after on the set of The Take. Now they are co-stars once more in the new series of Peaky Blinders. Neither one knew that the other had been cast in the show when they took the roles – “I got the job and I rang Tom up to tell him and he said, ‘That’s really weird. Steve [Knight, the director] has just asked me…” – and they do not share any scenes. In fact, the only reason they saw one another at all on set was down to their beloved dog, Woody, now the third member of the household to land a part in the show. “We call him a ‘Bitser’ – he’s bits of this and that – a labrador, but he’s got this big, bushy tail.” One day, when it was Riley’s turn to dog-sit on set, Woody got up and padded down the street behind Hardy as he filmed a scene. “The director said, ‘Would he do that for every scene?’ So he got himself a part, just by being super-obedient.”
Riley joins the BBC gangster drama one series in. She plays May Carlton, an aristocratic First World War widow who trains race horses. This brings her into contact with the gang boss, Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), who is looking to expand his portfolio, and they strike up an unlikely rapport. “In her he finds a kind of equal – she’s financially independent, she doesn’t need a partner. It’s quite interesting to watch the power struggle,” says Riley, who is dressed today in white brogues and tweed cap, in a subconscious nod to the show’s style.