Haydn Gwynne
Haydn Gwynne talks to Michael Coveney about grappling with a cultral icon as she prepares to play Margaret Thatcher in Peter Morgan's new play The Audience

Margaret Thatcher is not a role I ever thought I would be playing. She crept up on me. Stephen Daldry, the director - whom I'd worked with on Billy Elliot, playing the dance mistress Mrs Wilkinson - said, 'Here's an odd one, have a read and see what you think..; so I came to it incremetally, after a reading with lots of other people, and not after an offer out of the blue, or an audition.

It's the first time I've been asked to play a real person; not only that but someone who, for everyone over a certain age, is - certainly in terms of her public image - so familiar: her look, her make-up, her clothes, her voice. I don't think you can shy away from this and, at this early stage in rehearsals, I don't see the point of not taking that on; but this is not Spitting Image, and I'm not interested in doing a caricature.

I don't know many people who would be neutral about Margaret Thatcher. Everything about her was antithetical to what I believe in. But I would never play her through a filter of my own view of her; that wouldn't be interesting and, anyway it's not what is required. If there is a filter here it would be, at least initially, that of the writer Peter Morgan, who also wrote the film of The Queen.

The weird thing is that, as soon as you are asked to play someone like this - and of course I've started to watch bits of footage and to read biography and memoirs - you stop judging. You're looking at it all from a completely different perspective, with a different part of your brain. You're coming at her from the inside out.

I do love working with Stephen Daldry, but this is so different from Billy Elliot, which we did in London and New York; and we have a personal friendship now outside of that, too. I'm intrigued to see how it all goes. As it's a new piece there will be a certain anount of juggling with the material I guess.

Trust is the big thing, and I think we have that between us. Stephen loves to play around with things but he doesn't give an actor notes just for the sake of it. So if he comes in with a thought or suggestion, it's usually worth listening to.

As for the routine of working in the theatre, I don't really have one. With two young boys [now aged 15 and 12], both at the local state secondary school in Harlesden, northwest London, it's a sort of kick-bollock-scramble to get through each day, although it's easier now that the tyranny of the school run is over; they can at least take themselves back and forth.

I've recently been touring in Tom Kempinski's Duet For One, mostly in the south of England. At exactly the same time in the previous year, I was on the world tour of Richard III, playing Queen Elizabeth opposite Kevin Spacey. It amused me to compare and contrast the two experiences, week by week, while tucking into my Tesco Metro egg and cress sandwich and packet of crisps in a lonely B&B post-show; my favourite juxtapositon being Istanbul...Bromley.

Keeping fit is no problem when you're running up and down stairs and the escalator on the tube, all day, but I will do running if I have to, and I enjoy tennis [she represented Sussex county as a junior], skipping and dancing. I can't bear gyms, but I'd love to take up rowing again. I did do it briefly years ago and then again at the RSC, when someone used to take us out on the river in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Food is very important in my life, and I'm famous in every company for having to eat four times a day to maintain my energy level. If I've eaten before the performance, I have to eat afterwards, usually at home, provided I catch the last tube. There should be no trouble with this show, but Richard III always finished late and resulted in a desperate dash to Waterloo.

As this isn't a musical, I may allow myself a glass of wine with dinner after The Audience. I'm a member of Two Brydges club and enjoy going there. But if you're trying to sing in a musical eight shows a week you just have to cut out the booze or it will show in your voice. You get away with murder in a play because you're not pushing your vocal chords to their limit in the same way.

When I'm in the dressing room I can't nap, sadly, as I wake up feeling terrible, but if I'm getting over-tired I might occasionally sneak back to bed for an hour or so in the morning, after I've had breakfast with the boys and seen them off to school.

In New York I had a wonderful wig mistress from New Jersey and, while she was fitting me up, we used to listen to the BBC Radio Four arts programme, Front Row, on my laptop; it was a treasured little moment connecting me back home.