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Star of Ripper Street, Downton Abbey and The Twilight Saga, MyAnna Buring believes the new drama about the Salisbury poisonings is one of the most important roles of her varied career and one which has lessons for us all. In the three-part BBC drama she plays Dawn Sturgess, the only fatal – and wholly innocent – victim of the Russian Novichok nerve agent attack in Salisbury, Wiltshire. MyAnna is in lockdown with her partner and three-year-old son when she talks to S Magazine on Zoom from a large brown leather sofa in her snug. The actress is chatty and thoughtful as she reveals she was already immersed in Russian dirty tricks when she was offered the role.
“I was doing A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic, which was about the Alexander Litvinenko murder.”
“I spent months involved in that remembering everything that had happened and suddenly this came along,” she explains. “It turned out that Salisbury wasn’t the first time this kind of murder and poisoning happened on British soil.”
“At first I thought, ‘Oh no, I’ve been so involved in this story I shouldn’t do another.’ Then I read it and it was so well researched and so well written that I felt very strongly, and still do, that the story needed to be told.”
Although Russia has never admitted responsibility, the British Government believes it poisoned former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, with the nerve agent Novichok.
The two were found in comas, slumped on a park bench in Salisbury in 2018. They survived – but Dawn Sturgess did not.
Dawn and her companion Charlie Rowley had picked up a discarded perfume bottle in a park. The bottle contained the deadly substance and Dawn died in hospital just over a week later. Charlie survived.
“This July it will be two years since Dawn died,” says MyAnna.
“My memory from articles about Dawn was that she was a homeless drug addict who had died and that was it. Unfortunately, that sort of reductive tagline reduces someone to being less than important; collateral damage, in a way.”
“I also think it’s really important to address the fact that the Salisbury poisoning affected so many people in ways many of us have forgotten. It could have poisoned so many hundreds, thousands more, and it’s an extraordinary testament to our frontline workers – and luck, actually – that it didn’t happen.”
Dawn wasn’t a drug addict, adds MyAnna.
“She was a woman who had struggled with mental health and with issues in her life, as so many of us do, and she turned to alcohol. That became a bit of a vice for her but alcohol was not a definition of who she was.”
“She was so much more. She was a mother of three who had hit rock bottom but was really trying to pull herself out of it.”
“She was also a woman who had a gorgeous family, loving parents, sisters and brothers-in-law. They were a very tight, close-knit family from a small village outside Salisbury who, largely due to political events, just didn’t feel like something would affect them. Sadly it did.”
“It’s been one of the more important things I’ve done along with A Very Expensive Poison. It’s interesting they both came up at such a similar time.”
MyAnna spent researching time with Dawn’s parents.
“I remember saying quite early on to Dawn’s parents, ‘I’m not being Dawn but here are lots of facts about Dawn’s life that are being put together and hopefully what it creates is a three-dimensional character people can watch.’”
“Dawn is one of the most wild and stark examples of a woman just minding her business, dealing with her everyday struggles and ends up dying in a political event.”
Swedish-born MyAnna, now 40, had always wanted to act.
“I think I always had it on my list of things like astronaut and dog walker. Actor was always there. I was a bit of a performing monkey. I’d put on shows for everyone. The difficult bit was how you became an actor. That was a much longer journey for me because nobody really did that where I grew up. It didn’t really exist.”
Her family – her mother was a trained economist and father a doctor – didn’t immediately welcome her ambitions. “No way. They were like, ‘Please get a degree and do something sensible.’”
But they were “quite supportive” eventually.
“They always thought, ‘Get a degree in something so you have something to fall back on’ and then I got one in drama and they were like, ‘Oh…’ But it’s worked out well so I’m very grateful.”
She spent much of childhood in Oman, where she moved when she was seven. Her mother lived out there until a year ago and MyAnna goes back every couple of years to see family.
“There’s very much a culture there of discussing, debating and talking about politics and news, so to be part of telling stories like this now is really wonderful,” she says.
“And not just debating around a dinner table, but stirring up debate maybe.”
MyAnna proved an immediate success in her chosen career and her filmography has very few gaps.
“There’s been an overriding desire for some things but there’s definitely been no master plan at all. More like, ‘Let’s go to an audition and hope.’”
“I feel really lucky to have been able to work in the way that I have and very lucky to be part of stories that I personally feel are so important, like this one.”
Her powerful screen image has also helped her land significant roles such as that of Tanya in The Twilight Saga (from a random audition tape), and the scheming Edna in Downton Abbey. But her biggest triumph was as Long Susan in Ripper Street, which ran on both the BBC and Amazon Prime.
“Yes, it was sort of extraordinary how that worked,” she admits.
“I suppose it was a really positive sign of how multiple broadcasters get involved with a project, and as long as there’s audience demand.”
“That’s a great example of how working together can keep shows going. It was just interesting to be in one of the first for that to be the case. It was an incredible five years of my life.”
But it mightn’t have been possible if she hadn’t appeared in massive teen hit The Twilight Saga.
Typically, however, MyAnna brushes it aside. “I was aware it was a big thing and I was a massive fan of the books but it was one of those surreal times because up until then I hadn’t done anything really substantial. It changed my life in a lot of ways because I have subsequently kept on working. But it’s not really changed my life in terms of personally or privately.”
“I think that’s the thing with jobs. You make some friends and then you quickly become a family and some of that family stays with you afterwards, and it’s really lovely and they become part of your life. I feel very lucky.”
“If I ask my 15-year-old self how do you feel about work, I know she’d be ecstatic and that’s always been my benchmark. It’s been fortunate to have such an array of films and still be able to work – and work on things like Salisbury.”
MyAnna wants Salisbury to be seen as a celebration, “Yes and one I think, especially right now, that can help us be more empathetic to the work our frontline workers are doing. Decisions they’re having to make when something like this happens, whether it’s a chemical attack or a pandemic, the frontline are being exposed and their families are being exposed.
“For the first time people all around the world can really relate to what people in Salisbury must have been feeling. All these military people trooping through the city, walls coming up, separation, curfews… And now we can really relate to that.”
So the coronavirus will help us understand Salisbury?
“I think it will be easier to wrap our heads around it somehow because it’s such a bizarre, wild and crazy thing to have happened,” she says. “I think in the world today we are now able to wrap our heads around it more. And, of course, that’s a sad thing but if it leads to more empathy then that’s a good thing.”
Lockdown has had its positives.
“We’re very aware of being very lucky in this situation so just doing my bit and staying safe and staying at home and getting in touch with my neighbours who aren’t so lucky and need help, has been good.”
“Remember that cartoon that came out saying we’re all in the same situation but not in the same boat? I think that feels very clear and obvious. I’ve been able to be with my toddler.”
“He’s happy to have both parents around all the time and we’re loving it.”
The Salisbury Poisonings starts on BBC1 on June 14th at 9pm.
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