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Emma Corrin on gender fluidity and bringing Virginia Woolf to the West End

Britain’s brightest young actor is turning heads in a vibrant new adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

Emma Corrin has become one of Britain’s fastest-rising young talents since emerging onto the scene in 2020 playing Princess Diana in The Crown, and is now dazzling audiences in Michael Grandage’s stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, Orlando. Here the star discusses female empowerment, gender fluidity and the excitement of bringing Woolf to London’s West End.

Emma Corrin on bringing Theatre Show Orlando to the West End
Emma Corrin by Damian Frost

When a fresh-faced, 24-year-old Emma Corrin first burst onto the scene in 2020 playing the wide-eyed young Princess Diana in Netflix’s royal drama The Crown, the show’s creator Peter Morgan was quoted as saying Corrin was “born to play [the] part”. But if there’s one role the beguiling actor feels truly destined to step into, it is surely that of Orlando, the gender-fluid, era-hopping hero of Virginia Woolf’s seminal 1928 novel of the same name. Corrin – who has identified as nonbinary since 2021 and prefers to go by the pronouns “they/them” – is currently doing just that in a critically-acclaimed West End adaptation of the tale directed by Michael Grandage, which is playing to packed-out audiences at the Garrick Theatre. “[The show] is a passionate ode to love and freedom, and discovering who you are,” says Corrin. “And all the questions we wake up in the morning asking ourselves, like ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who do I love?’”

Emma Corrin on bringing Theatre Show Orlando to the West End
Emma Corrin by Damian Frost

Despite being written almost 100 years ago, the story feels refreshingly modern and more relevant than ever today. Woolf wrote the novel as an ode to her lover Vita Sackville-West, who liked to dress as a man, and the story reveals an idealised version of the kind of life they might have had together, had they not found themselves living almost 40 years before homosexuality was legalised in England and Wales. Neil Bartlett’s pacy adaptation has received rave reviews, none more so than for the show’s lead actor, who is being hailed for their “coltish charisma” and “pure star quality”, as well as their impressive number of costume changes as they flit between genders and decades. “I think it’s the most costume changes anyone’s ever had on stage,” says Corrin.

“I think that we’re so used to defining ourselves, and sadly that’s the way society works, within these binaries - it’s taken me a long time to realise that I exist somewhere in between. I’m not sure where that is yet.”

Famously described as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” by Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson, the novel spans three centuries and opens as Orlando, a young nobleman in Elizabeth I’s England, awaits a visit from the Queen. Charting the poetic hero’s adventures as he flits between centuries and meets the key figures of English literary history, halfway through the story Orlando awakes to find that he is now a woman, with the book going on to satirically explore the role of women in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the novel ends in 1928, Orlando is a wife and mother, standing at the brink of a future filled with new hope and promise. The book has long been hailed as a feminist masterpiece, and has gone on to become one of Woolf’s most celebrated and popular novels.

Emma Corrin on bringing Theatre Show Orlando to the West End
Portrait Photography by Damian Frost; Orlando photography by Marc Brenner

This is not the first time Corrin has worked with Grandage – he recently directed them opposite Harry Styles in his film My Policeman, where Corrin plays the young wife to Styles’s closeted gay copper. Grandage said that he never considered casting anyone other than Corrin in the role of Orlando, both due to their undeniable acting talent and the fact that their nonbinary status brought “a certain experience” to the performance that would otherwise have been lacking. Though Corrin is still at the start of their gender journey, they are more than happy to speak openly about it, despite admitting that it felt “scary and revealing” at first. “I think that we’re so used to defining ourselves, and sadly that’s the way society works, within these binaries – it’s taken me a long time to realise that I exist somewhere in between,” says Corrin. “I’m not sure where that is yet.”

Emma Corrin on bringing Theatre Show Orlando to the West End
Portrait Photography by Damian Frost; Orlando photography by Marc Brenner

At a time when gender fluidity and LGBTQ+ rights are at the forefront of conversations like never before, Orlando is likely to appeal to the younger generation in a way that many West End productions simply can’t. The show has over 10,000 tickets available for just £10, in a bid to make it more accessible – something that Grandage has made a key mission of his production company ever since he first set it up in 2011. Corrin and Grandage seem to have a natural affinity when working together. “He has a very clear vision, and you always feel safe and comfortable knowing that he knows exactly what he wants,” says Corrin. “But he also creates this very generous collaborative space, where we’re all floating around ideas. I think as an actor, when you feel safe in a rehearsal space and able to play – because play is at the centre of it all – you can just explore what feels right, and how you say things.”

“I think as an actor, when you feel safe in a rehearsal space and able to play – because play is at the centre of it all - you can just explore what feels right, and how you say things.”

Corrin returned to the 1920s for their other most-talked-about role of the year, that of Connie in Netflix’s film adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s transgressive novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was coincidentally published the same year as Orlando. Corrin stars as the unhappily married Constance Chatterley, while Jack O’Connell takes on the role of Mellors, the estate gamekeeper who awakens her emotional and physical passion. Much has been made of the film’s sensual love scenes, as well as a particularly memorable moment where Constance and Mellors are seen leaping around a meadow in the middle of a downpour, completely naked. Like Orlando, it’s another tale that was ahead of its time, and Corrin has said they were particularly drawn to the project because of what it had to say about female empowerment, a thread that runs through the majority of their performances to date – including, of course, their breakout role as the young Princess Diana in The Crown.

Emma Corrin on bringing Theatre Show Orlando to the West End
Portrait Photography by Damian Frost; Orlando photography by Marc Brenner

Corrin was an unknown when they stepped into the shoes of one of the world’s most famous women – and one of the most notoriously difficult to portray on the silver screen. It was a role they landed almost by accident, after being asked to help out with a chemistry reading in 2018 during the search for an actor to play Camilla Parker Bowles. Corrin’s knowing performance as the vulnerable Princess went on to steal the show – no mean feat when you’re acting opposite Olivia Colman – later landing them a Golden Globe and catapulting Corrin into the spotlight overnight. Despite describing the experience as “intense”, Corrin took it all in their stride, never seeming phased by the exposure or media attention. As for whether embodying such inherently feminine roles as Diana and Connie feels at odds with their current gender journey, Corrin has always denied seeing that as an issue, stating that their gender identity is not a rejection of femininity but rather “an embrace of it”.

Emma Corrin on bringing Theatre Show Orlando to the West End
Portrait Photography by Damian Frost; Orlando photography by Marc Brenner

Corrin was raised in the Kent countryside, born the eldest of three to a business executive father and a speech therapist mother (who, handily, helped them perfect Diana’s unique lilting drawl). They fell for acting when they were a child, happily spending their days creating imaginary worlds involving fairies and elves. Corrin chose their Catholic girls’ school largely on the basis that it had a huge theatre, and a degree in English, education and drama at Cambridge University followed. Corrin’s parents have always been supportive of their decision to identify as nonbinary, something they admit to feeling “very lucky” about. “I’m still figuring it all out, and I think everyone is, and that’s kind of the point,” says Corrin. “There’s no fixed identity, especially for people in the queer community. It’s going to be an ongoing journey.”

“There’s no fixed identity, especially for people in the queer community. It’s going to be an ongoing journey.”

When not filming, home is in north London, where Corrin lives with four university friends, none of whom work in the acting profession. Off-duty, Corrin is refreshingly low-key, loving nothing more than gathering their pals for a night of games. But they’re no stranger to a glamorous turn on the red carpet, where their daring take on fashion – “the weirder the better!” – has been seen as a key part of their gender journey. Corrin works with super-stylist Harry Lambert (who also dresses Harry Styles) to create their statement-making looks, which have ranged from a Loewe balloon-print dress and balloon bra at this year’s Olivier Awards to the JW Anderson fish bag dress they wore to the European premiere of My Policeman and a head-turning Miu Miu black dress and cape combo for the TIFF premiere (Corrin also happens to be a face for the Italian brand).

Emma Corrin on bringing Theatre Show Orlando to the West End
Emma Corrin in Orlando. Photography by Marc Brenner

Next up, Corrin is taking the lead in a new eight-part series, Retreat, helmed by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the duo behind runaway hit series The OA. In it, Corrin plays an amateur sleuth who attempts to solve a murder at a secluded retreat, and stars alongside Clive Owen. But for now, all of their focus is on Orlando and its jam-packed, eight-show-a-week schedule. When Corrin, a self-professed huge Woolf fan, first revealed the poster for the show on their Instagram page, they captioned the snapshot “someone please pinch me”. The actor is a natural on stage, with their West End debut last year playing the title role in Anna X at the Harold Pinter Theatre landing them an Olivier nomination. We have a feeling their turn as Orlando might just clinch them that gong – and be the first of many more to come.

Orlando is playing at The Garrick Theatre until 25 February.

Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Rd, London, WC2H 0HH

Portrait Photography by Damian Frost

 

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