The British star of ITV’s Vanity Fair says she might not have landed the role had she not worked in the US.
“If I hadn’t gone over to America, I do wonder if I’d be able to be one of the leads in an ITV drama and not just play one of the maids,” says Olivia Cooke.
Cooke acted in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One before playing Vanity Fair’s ambitious protagonist Becky Sharp.
“I would not be doing this without Steven Spielberg,” she said. “They’d have wanted Emma Watson instead.”
Born and raised in Oldham, Cooke started out in British television before being cast in the US TV series Bates Motel.
She went on to appear in horror film Ouija, Sundance hit Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and dark teen drama Thoroughbreds before being cast in Spielberg’s virtual reality blockbuster.
Based on the 19th Century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair sees Becky use her feminine wiles to climb the social ladder in Georgian England.
Susan Hampshire, Eve Matheson and Natasha Little took the role in previous TV dramatisations, while Reese Witherspoon played her in a 2004 film.
“I thought Becky was wonderful because she was so imperfect,” Cooke says. “She’s weaponised all her talents and she uses them to survive.
“She’s an outsider, an orphan and completely blinkered in her quest to be comfortable. She’s not a heroine – she’s the opposite, and she doesn’t try to be anything else.
“As an actor you want to have as many diverse roles as possible and to challenge yourself.
“I had never played anyone like Becky before and I had the most amazing time playing her. She’s mischievous and naughty and cheeky.”
Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, Vanity Fair juxtaposes Becky’s attempts to claw her way out of poverty with a well-off friend’s descent into penury.
Amelia Sedley, played by Claudia Jessie, only wants to be married and happy but sees her fortunes decline as Becky’s prosper.
Writer Gwyneth Hughes describes Vanity Fair as “the most fantastically vivid book” and “the most charming big adventure of emotional extremes”.
“I didn’t have to do anything to bring it to the screen, apart from cut quite a lot of it out,” says Hughes, whose credits include BBC drama Remember Me.
Michael Palin, who starred in that 2014 production, also appears in Vanity Fair, as William Thackeray himself.
The Monty Python star, who chose Vanity Fair as his Desert Island Discs book in 1979, says he was “enormously pleased to be invited” to portray the author, who appears in each of the seven episodes to introduce the action.
“The great thing about the book is it’s so boisterous – there’s so much going on,” he continued. “There’s lots of threads going on all the time.
“I was interested to play Thackeray because he sees all the characters as his puppets. He has this proprietorial view of them, yet lets them do what they want.”
‘A great today feel’
“Thackeray is like an omniscient god, sitting up in heaven looking down,” says Hughes. “He puts his characters through terrible tests but his love for them comes through.
“I desperately wanted to find a way to involve him, and the only question was who we could get to play him. We wanted someone who could walk off the screen and into everybody’s lives.”
James Strong, director of every episode bar one, says he was keen to make the drama feel as modern and as accessible as possible.
“In some ways it’s a period drama for people who don’t like period drama,” he explains. “From the start, the way it was written, shot and acted had a great today feel.”
Strong points to the way Cooke’s character occasionally breaks the “fourth wall” to look directly at the viewer – a technique often used by Frank Underwood, a fellow Machiavel, in Netflix’s House of Cards.
He also highlights the contemporary songs – among them Madonna’s Material Girl – that accompany the end credits.
“Every week we end with a song that captures and expresses the themes and emotions of the episode,” he continues.
“If the pop songs had existed at the time they’d be in the book. Hopefully it will give people a way in who might think a literary classic is boring.”
Cooke, for her part, believes the strengths of this latest dramatisation are that “it’s not stuffy and it doesn’t hold the audience at arm’s length”.
Hughes, meanwhile, sees contemporary parallels in the way Thackeray’s creations are obsessed with surface affectation and superficial finery.
“People always ask me about the “R” word – relevance – and I have to say I don’t care about that,” she says. “It’s relevant because the characters are fantastic.
“But of course there are connections to today’s celebrity/Instagram culture: the way we’re constantly showing off about our lives rather than living them, and grasping for things that are not worth having.”
Vanity Fair begins on ITV on 2 September at 21:00 BST.