12 December 2004: Mail On Sunday

Mummy's Girl

Rachael Stirling is a dish of a girl. A tall, dark-eyed, high cheek boned beauty with a warm personality and voice as caressing as hot chocolate.

None of which is a surprise, given that her mother is Dame Diana Rigg and her father a handsome former Guards officer.

She has, too, that vein of confidence that comes courtesy of expensive schools and access to the country-house set. Like a friendly Labrador she bounces in. 'Hi everyone! Am I late?' she says to the people gathered for our Night Day photo shoot. She then works her way around the room with a word for everyone makeup girl, hair stylist, various assistants and has everyone eating out of her hand.

'I hope I haven't been keeping you. Been in Hampstead all morning rehearsing. Coffee? God, that would be wonderful.'

She is casually dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt. Without makeup, and with her dark hair scrunched up into a messy ball, she radiates the message that there are more important things in life than one's appearance.

It is certain that the tagline 'Diana Rigg's daughter' will soon be superfluous. Rachael is quietly making a name for herself. She already has stacks of work to her credit, her best-known role being that of Nan Astley in the BBC's Sapphic drama Tipping the Velvet.

Rachael, intense luvvie that she is, saw it as a brave, witty and original piece of work. Sadly, though, it gained most attention for its lesbian kissing scenes and for Rachael's memorable appearance, naked, covered only in gold paint.

Looking back, she can laugh at the furore and the fan mail. 'It was horrendous,' she says. 'Paparazzi were leaping out at me from behind bushes, I was being written about as though I were some party creature whose idea of a career was to appear in Heat magazine, which is the opposite of everything I believe in.

'And I didn't work for eight months because I kept being sent scripts, the details of which I'll spare you.' Currently, she is living every actress's favourite fantasy, with two projects running almost simultaneously. At the end of this month she opens in Nilo Cruz's play Anna in the Tropics, at Hampstead Theatre, and next month sees her in the return of Yorkshire TV's hugely popular comedy drama, The Quest.

For the stage play, Rachael had to learn to salsa. 'I can't tell you the fun I had strutting around like a Latino.' Adopting a disdainful hands-on-hips pose and a convincing Spanish accent, she explains, 'I am Conchita, a member of the Cuban community living in Florida in 1929 and working in a cigar factory. It's such an exciting play.' Rachael's role in The Quest III Gold Diggers of 1961 is very different. She plays a beautiful, aristocratic heartbreaker, Annabelle. 'Unfortunately,' she says, 'Annabelle isn't one of those Sixties Biba-miniskirted girls. She's too poor.' Sitting, feet tucked under her, hands rummaging through her hair, cigarettes on standby, she weighs up the question everyone asks: what is it like trying to follow in her mother's footsteps?

'I used to get rather ratty with people asking me about Mama all the time, especially when I was starting out,' she says.

'But it's all right now, I don't mind.

'Getting upset was completely adolescent, and I came across as an arrogant strop of a person. Anyway, I look like her, and I'm intensely proud of her and all she's achieved. So I just keep my head down and get on with it. What else can I do?' When it came to daughter following mother on to the stage, it wasn't so much that she chose acting as acting chose her.

'I didn't have a choice it just came at me and I knew I would never want to do anything else,' says Rachael. 'Not because I was one of those little girls who skipped around mimicking people for my parents' amusement. Nothing like that. The knowing, if you like, was inescapable.

'It was a weird conflict because I'm a clever girl, so if there was something else I could do, then I would. There is a quote from the great dancer Pavlova, who replied when she was asked to describe the meaning of a dance she had performed, "If I could explain it, I wouldn't have to dance it." That's how I feel.' Rachael was born 27 years ago to two of the most glamorous, gossiped about creatures in fashionable circles. Diana Rigg had achieved global fame as the leather-clad action woman Emma Peel in the cult TV series The Avengers, while simultaneously wowing theatre audiences with a series of great classical roles.

After a brief marriage to the Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen, she met and fell in love with Rachael's father, Archie Stirling, Scottish landowner and nephew of the SAS founder, David Stirling.

His first marriage, to Charmain Scott, had produced two sons, Willie, 39, a writer, and Ludovic, 37, a designer.

Rachael refers to both men proudly as 'my brothers'. When she was born, Archie divorced Charmian and, five years later, married Diana.

'I had the most wonderful childhood,' says Rachael, hugging her knees joyfully.

'We lived between London and Scotland and I was the centre of my parents' world.

Actually, I believe that that knowledge is all you need to become a happy, stable human being. I was a deeply longed-for child. Pa was in his thirties and Mama was 39 when she had me.' In the late Eighties, her father had a yearlong affair with actress Joely Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave's daughter.

Her parents divorced in 1993.

Four years ago, Archie married an American ecologist, Sharon Silver an ex-girlfriend of the late Princess of Wales's friend James Gilbey whom Rachael describes as 'heaven'.

Now, at 63, almost 30 years older than his third wife, Archie became a father again in October when Sharon gave birth to a son, David.

'So I have a new baby brother,' says Rachael. 'I can't tell you how thrilled I am. I held him in my arms when he was about ten minutes old, and suddenly I saw the whole point of babies and having them. He twitches an eyebrow and I'm awestruck. I put him on my chest and if he's sick all down my front I don't care.' She's very lucky to feel this way, I tell her. New stepsiblings have been known to create havoc within families. 'Oh, how absurd!' she scoffs. 'A little baby causing havoc? It's not possible.' Well, it would be if you were jealous.

'Oh, never,' she says. 'I've had my share of being the centre of my parents' universe. It goes right back to that feeling I had when I was a child of being someone who was deeply loved and wanted. So I wouldn't change anything about my life.' Not even her parents' divorce?

'Even that,' she says. 'I look on them as fallible human beings now. Apart from being parents, they have become my friends, and more real somehow. Pa and I got very drunk at a bar one night, talking about the mistakes we've made, with tears of laughter running down our faces.

I probably see them as vulnerable people with failings and foibles, and I wouldn't have if they'd remained married.

'You see, I cling to being a daughter and I'm not at all keen on separating them from my life. They are great company, fascinating individuals whose company I adore.' As for her own love life, she describes it as 'very sad. There's nothing going on.

"I'm like a taxi with the light on, waiting...

Oh, God, no!' she screams. 'Don't say that. I'll sound such a tart. Oh, all right, if you think it's funny.

'Anyway, right now I'm too involved with this play all I can think of is Cuba. I fall in love easily, too easily, with stupid ease, and have been hurt. Actually, come to think of it, was it pride or hurt? Not a little was pride, I'm sure.

'I could fall in love, though, with the lead actor in The Motorcycle Diaries, Gael Garcia Bernal. So gorgeous, and what an actor! I mean, I couldn't ever fall in love with a bad actor.

'I'm the type who has crushes all the time. Not just on boyfriends, on people in general. I've been told repeatedly that I'm too na've about people.' She lives alone in London and admits to spending much of her time on her own.

'But that's all right because when I meet up with pals I can give them my full attention,' she says.

But she scorns the celebrity life.

Clutching her stomach in disgust, she says, 'Ugh, the mere word "celebrity" makes me want to vomit. I used to go out with a DJ [John Lycett Green], so I played deck dolly for a while. Now I can't be doing with club life. All those people throwing their money around. There must be other ways of enjoying yourself.

Certain aspects of London life can be quite sordid.' So what does she enjoy doing apart from work? 'Inviting friends round to eat and play backgammon is what I love.' Her true passion, however, is reserved for the Scottish Highlands, and the countryside around Stirling, where her father lives. 'Nothing compares with the freedom of those open spaces and that untamable landscape,' says Rachael.

'You go out for a walk and you are brought back to the point of life, almost like a thirst being quenched after a drought. There is no comparison with the English countryside, which is far too manicured for my taste, with all those polite little walls covered in roses.' The Stirling house, you might imagine, would be one of those huge, turreted grey piles with a hundred rooms. 'Oh, God, no,' she cries. 'Where did you get that idea? Oddly, lots of people do.

They assume it's some sort of castle with turrets and dungeons because I've got a posh voice. It isn't. It's just a house.

'I do know people who live in such places, and I've witnessed at first hand how the upper classes exist, but that's it.' Her accent comes, she claims, from her school, Wycombe Abbey in Buckinghamshire, where she was sent while her parents sorted out their divorce.

She says that she remembers being terribly homesick, but still relieved to be there rather than at home the school, after all, had a theatre, where she spent as much time as possible. During summer holidays she attended the National Youth Theatre, where an agent saw her perform and signed her up.

Shortly afterwards, while studying history of art at Edinburgh University, she was offered a role in the comedy film Still Crazy. 'I was 18 and so green,' she recalls. 'Although Mama used to take me backstage for the occasional visit, I'd never actually been on a film set. I wasn't even too sure what an agent did.' For a girl who hadn't a clue, she has done well. A procession of films, television work and theatre followed straight after university.

Aside from her love life or lack of it she has every reason to feel secure and happy with her life. 'Yes, you are right. I do feel blessed. But there are the inevitable worries and fears.' Such as? 'When will it all blow up?

When will the luck or whatever it is run out? Then there is the fear that there is someone behind me asking, "Who does she think she is?" So I'm waiting you might say. Waiting for the jinx and trying not to feel too lucky.' 'The Quest III Gold Diggers of 1961' will be screened on ITV1 over Christmas.


Five people you would like to have to dinner: 'Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Mae West, Sarah Siddons, Joan Crawford.'

Your last shopping trip and what you bought: 'Fake-fur jacket from Topshop.'

Best beauty secret: 'Sleep.'

Which song has meant most in your life and why?: 'Bob Dylan's Lay Lady Lay used to be mine and Mama's theme song.'

First poster on the wall: 'Adam Ant.'

Most guilty about eating: 'Not enough.'

If fame all ended today what would you do instead?: 'Return to university, to continue my Russian studies.'

When was the last time you got drunk?: 'Thursday night in a salsa bar.'

What's the most expensive mistake you've made?: 'Buying a dodgy car.'

If you were a superhero what would your special power be?: 'Reading other people's minds.'

What is the most important thing you've lost?: 'My sense of humour.'

When did you last use public transport?: 'This morning.'

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