Isis Hainsworth on new BBC horror Red Rose, the pitfalls of social media and working with Lena Dunham

·9-min read
Isis Hainsworth on new BBC horror Red Rose, the pitfalls of social media and working with Lena Dunham

Most people named after a Bob Dylan song – Angelina, say, or Johanna – can sail through life never needing to give a false identity in a coffee shop for fear of being branded a troublemaker. Not so much for the actress Isis Hainsworth.

Recently announced as one of Screen Daily’s Stars of Tomorrow, and with major roles in shows on the BBC, Netflix and Amazon Prime, Isis is a name to remember. Indeed, it’s hard to forget.

These days, the militant Islamic group that shares her first name is less of a front-page issue, but it certainly affected the start of her acting career in 2017, ahead of her big break in the West End. “I was told I needed to change my name when I was first about to move to London,” the 23-year-old says. But she dug her heels in. “I was like, ‘No, this is my name.’”

She’s long past the days of her school pals “taking the piss” or people being offended because they thought she was introducing herself as Isis as some sick joke. And anyway, “I like Isis, I think it’s a great name.” Though, getting a coffee can still be a problem. “When I’d go to Starbucks, I change my name so they didn’t call out, ‘Isis.’ I’d call myself Alice or Jess.”

 (Photography Natasha Pszenicki, Hair Ben Talbott, Make up Emily Wood, Assisted by Monty Vann)
(Photography Natasha Pszenicki, Hair Ben Talbott, Make up Emily Wood, Assisted by Monty Vann)

This has been a breakout year for Hainsworth. She can next be seen in Red Rose, an eight-part horror series set in Bolton, which starts tonight on BBC Three. She plays Rochelle, whose life falls apart after she downloads a mysterious social media app called Red Rose and it starts taking control.

Red Rose is a story of teenage friendship, broken families and explores social issues including poverty and child carers. “I hope it can shine a light on these issues so many people are going through,” the actress says, “especially as it’s about to get worse.”

The show is also a cautionary tale about the damage social media can cause. “For young people, your phone is always there, it’s like an extension of your arm,” Hainsworth says. “Everything is on your phone, and that includes social media which can have a really horrible side to it.”

“Red Rose is a warning about the bad things that can go on there, and are going on,” she continues. “With phones, if there’s bullying it can follow you everywhere. You’re not safe if you go home. Even in your bedroom it can get you.” She cups her hands round her mouth and addresses her smartphone, “Turn your phone off!”

From left, Natalie Blair, Ellis Howard, Isis Hainsworth, Amelia Clarkson, Harry Redding in Red Rose (BBC/Eleven Film)
From left, Natalie Blair, Ellis Howard, Isis Hainsworth, Amelia Clarkson, Harry Redding in Red Rose (BBC/Eleven Film)

Hainsworth hasn’t suffered too many bad experiences online, “but recently, since I’ve had more attention, I get the odd thing.” She pauses, before continuing, “I’ve had a few niggly, nasty messages, but they don’t know me. There was one or two that I thought, ‘That hurts me a bit.’ Ones saying I’m ugly and things like that. But I suppose that’s from people who feel quite sad and feel the need to bring people down online.”

When we speak, a trailer for another of Isis’s projects has just landed, and it couldn’t be more different to Red Rose and the world of social media hate. Catherine, Called Birdy, based on the 1994 novel of the same name by Karen Cushman, is set in 13th century England and is about a spirited young woman trying to thwart her father’s attempts to marry her off.

Hainsworth plays Birdy’s friend Aelis. “It’s a very special project. It’s wonderful to see this young girl be defiant, especially in the Middle Ages. We don’t see stories like that.” The film, which will be released in cinemas before finding a home on Amazon Prime, is directed by Lena Dunham, creator of Girls, once described as “the show that turned TV upside down”.

Hainsworth hasn’t seen this seminal work, she admits – “I know, it’s ridiculous, I’m in her film” – but she talks warmly of working with the US writer and director. “She was just so giving and wonderfully lovely. She was very collaborative, which was nice, you don’t get that with everyone.”

For her third big project of this year, she was back in high school, though this time an American one for Metal Lords, from the producers of Game of Thrones, now streaming on Netflix. It’s a comedy about school kids trying to start a heavy metal band and compete in a battle of the bands competition. She learned to play cello for the role – “I can now mime cello really well and play quite a squeaky tune” – and plans to continue, though admits Yo-Yo Ma won’t be worried about the competition quite yet.

Hainsworth’s character in the film clearly has some anger issues - cue some glorious swearing - and she revelled in the role. “I think we all have quite a lot of rage inside us,” she says. “There’s quite a lot to be angry about, and it’s nice to get to release some of that rage on film.” None of her “freak-out moments” were scripted, so she improvised them, though a couple of times the filmmakers had to ask her to tone down some of the language.

For an actress who is softly spoken, who smiles and laughs throughout our discussion, it is a surprise that she talks of how much anger has driven her career. She points to a quote from Christopher Plummer ­– the actor who died last year once told a magazine, “I think anger does fuel a successful acting career. To play the great roles, you have to learn how to blaze” ­– and says, “I thought, ‘That’s me all over.’ I don’t come across as very ragey, but I have a lot of fire. Most actors do, or should…

“Throughout my life there’s been some stuff to be really angry about. My personal life at home and at school, I have a lot of anger at a lot of different things, and this is an amazing way to let that out in a controlled way. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t able to do acting.”

 (Photography Natasha Pszenicki, Hair Ben Talbott, Make up Emily Wood, Assisted by Monty Vann)
(Photography Natasha Pszenicki, Hair Ben Talbott, Make up Emily Wood, Assisted by Monty Vann)

She grew up in Edinburgh, in a creative family – her father is a singer, and her mother’s side of the family “are all artists”. They gave her huge support in her dream initially of becoming a dancer and then moving to acting later on.

There was little support from her secondary school, however, despite being dyslexic. “I found school really difficult. I hid behind stupidity and indifference. I’d make a joke about it and would go home and cry. Because I did try and I wanted to be good and get good results. It didn’t matter how hard I worked.” But she found that she shone in drama – and fondly remembers a school production of Oliver! in which she played a range of parts.

The school careers officers rubbished her chances of a career in acting but she didn’t have to wait long for a major break. Shortly after graduating, her youth theatre sent her to an audition and she landed a lead role in a West End show.

“I could not believe my luck,” Hainsworth says. “It was terrifying, don’t get me wrong. Moving to London with no friends or family. I just got on the train with my suitcase, rehearsed for a week did tech for a week and then I was doing the show.”

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, about six Catholic choir girls let loose in Edinburgh for a day, opened in 2017 at Duke of York’s Theatre. It received rave reviews and Hainsworth was regularly singled out for praise as Orla, a teenager trying to be normal while in recovery from cancer.

Not everyone enjoyed it, however. “It was very sweary and people would walk out a lot. Our record was 30 in one show. That’s quite intense… They didn’t like seeing schoolgirls swearing.” Perhaps there is a through line to her work on Metal Lords? “Yes,” she laughs. “I’m now a professional swearer.”

Meanwhile on screen she has been building up an impressive CV which includes ITV period drama Harlots, the BBC adaptation of Les Misérables in 2019 and the film version of Emma, starring Anya Taylor Joy, the following year.

Despite her success, she fears how hard it has become for working-class actors to make it. “I don’t come from the wealthiest of backgrounds,” she says. “And the fact I’ve got into this career somehow is really rare and I feel really lucky that I get to do it. I’d love to see more working-class actors getting to do what I’m doing at the moment. It would be really nice to have more diversity.”

She has made “wonderful friends” in the industry, she says but most are upper and middle class and almost all went to private school. “They’re all incredibly talented and work hard, but there are lots of incredibly talented working-class people and it’s just impossible for them, with what they’re having to deal with which is so sad. Let’s get them in, they’re some of the most interesting storytellers.”

 (Photography Natasha Pszenicki, Hair Ben Talbott, Make up Emily Wood, Assisted by Monty Vann)
(Photography Natasha Pszenicki, Hair Ben Talbott, Make up Emily Wood, Assisted by Monty Vann)

When we speak, Hainsworth is looking for the next challenge, though is coy about what that is. On each new project, imposter syndrome remains a problem, she says, but Screen Daily including her in its 2022 Star of Tomorrow list, published in June, should help. This initiative has an extraordinary track record for spotting talent since its inception in 2004 – a year in which it included Emily Blunt and Benedict Cumberbatch – and is a huge boost to be included.

“I’ve been reading that list for so long. It’s properly incredible, they’re really good at picking people. And I always hoped and prayed I would be one of them. I hoped and I hoped.” When she heard the news, “I totally cried.”

So in all, 2022 has been a “really nice year… wonderful and surprising,” The problem with that her run of successes, surely there’s not much to feel angry about. “Don’t worry,” Hainsworth laughs, the picture of anything but rage. “I just carry it with me, bubbling in the bottom of my belly.”

Red Rose starts tonight at 10pm on BBC Three and the whole series is available on iPlayer now