Ruth Wilson portrays her grandmother in a story of a grandfather she didn’t know.
The BBC-Masterpiece drama Mrs. Wilson unravels the true story of Alexander Wilson (played by Iain Glen), a British novelist, spy and serial bigamist who married four women and had seven children among them.
Premiering on PBS's Masterpiece on March 31, the three-part series is told through the eyes of his third wife, Alison Wilson, as she awakens to her husband's deceptions following his death. Alison is portrayed by actress Ruth Wilson, an actual granddaughter who also serves as an executive producer. She spoke with emmy's Ann Farmer .
Q: When did you learn about your grandfather's duplicities?
A: My grandmother wrote a memoir in two parts. The first part she gave us about 22 years ago. In it she describes meeting Alec, falling in love, getting married to him, having kids with him and then, when he died, realizing that she wasn't the only one: there was one other wife.
After she died about 10 years ago, two other people came out of the woodwork saying, "I think we've got the same dad." So it turns out that she was one of four, not two, wives.
Q: What was your reaction?
A: I was intrigued. I was somewhat removed from him because I never met him. So I just found him incredibly mysterious and intriguing and, felt, Wow, my family. At least we're not boring like we thought we were . It became quite absurd. It became quite funny, too, because it was completely extreme.
Q: Was it your idea to turn it into a series?
A: I've been talking about it ever since I found out. And people kept saying, "You must make this into a drama. You must do something with it." As I was in the industry, it became my responsibility to make this drama and do it fairly quickly, because the oldest son is 97 years old.
Q: How did your family react?
A: We showed it to 55 members of the family. There was an awful lot of emotion.
Q: What do you know about your grandfather's spy work, and whether he married for love or as part of his cover?
A: He's still a man of mystery. We knew he was in the Secret Service. But they still won't release records on him, even though it's been 70 years. And we don't have any written evidence from him as to his justification, so in the drama, we speculate. We do have his novels. He wrote 27 spy novels that were all published.
Q: It takes guts to play someone in your own family. But it's also an advantage to have known her.
A: It was really hard. I felt too close to it, I think. You have a very vivid impression of who your grandmother is. She was quiet and shy and distant. She wasn't a warm, cuddly granny. Her whole life she was housing secrets.
Q: Did your father suspect anything?
A: They knew Alec was lying about certain stuff. But they just wouldn't ask — it just wasn't done. So they all had to make excuses or work around the problem.
Q: What's your takeaway concerning your grandfather? It sounds like everyone loved him despite his flaws.
A: He obviously was a tortured man. It sounded like he couldn't help himself in the end. So whether he got trapped in all his lies, or whether he got addicted to being a fantasist, or enjoyed telling stories that took him out of his life and his suffering, I don't know. I do think it's interesting that everyone has such warm feelings towards him.
And I think he was probably many different people. As you know, I'm an actor, but he was the greatest actor of us all.
This Q&A was edited and condensed.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2019