Natascha McElhone: ‘The worst influence on me is myself’

'I’m a huge fan of technology, but I do think that morality lags behind,' says Natascha - Mike Marsland
'I’m a huge fan of technology, but I do think that morality lags behind,' says Natascha - Mike Marsland

Natascha McElhone is best known for her roles in the films Ronin, The Truman Show and Solaris, numerous stage performances, and television shows Californication, Designated Survivor and The Crown. In the new ITV series Hotel Portofino, she plays Bella Ainsworth, the proprietor of a retreat for the English upper classes in 1920s Italy.

She has three children, Theodore, Otis and Rex, and lives in London.

Bets thing about running the Hotel Portofino

Meeting people, I would imagine. If families are coming to stay, or couples, or there are clandestine relationships, and you’re curious about people, which Bella obviously is, it would be like owning a huge goldfish bowl. Her ability to put people at ease and put them together is remarkable.

Best childhood memories

My mum and stepdad [journalists Noreen Taylor and Roy Greenslade] raised me in a house where the two people at the top of the pyramid were mutually respectful and loving and having a great time together. Their love story was the best thing and it was wonderful to be under the umbrella of that.

I grew up in Brighton and we had access to a tunnel that went through these gardens onto the beach. And we had a lot of autonomy – a time to dance around and play with friends. I’m really grateful for that and I’ve tried to create similar spaces for my children.

Best thing about your appearance

I don’t think any actors like the way they look. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I tend not to look too much at the screen when I’m on it.

Best moment in your career

Maybe this is just nostalgia speaking, but the whole environment around Surviving Picasso [1996 Merchant Ivory film] with Anthony Hopkins. It was my first film, directed by James Ivory, and there were so many incred­ible actors in it, such as Jane Lapotaire, Julianne Moore and Dominic West. Those days were dreamy; it just felt very magical.

Best thing a fan has ever said to you

It’s strange when someone says something that is complimentary. I don’t know if this is universal, but I kind of don’t hear it. It sort of goes away. It’s almost like those security checks on your voice that the bank does. You check that it’s OK, and that someone’s not being offensive, but beyond that, it just doesn’t stick.

Best influence

I am lucky to have a handful of incred­ibly close friends. I’m not on Facebook or Instagram and don’t have pretend friends. These friends give good chat – and rigorous honesty – which is good for all of us, I think.

A friend of mine called Maria Popova has an amazing blog site called The Marginalian (it used to be called Brain Pickings) and you should check it out. She’s wonderful and inspiring – not that my other friends aren’t, of course.

Best night out

My wedding night: it was incredible. [McElhone married the plastic surgeon Martin Kelly in May 1998; he died of a heart attack, aged 43, a day after the couple’s 10th wedding anniversary in 2008].

We had the most amazing wedding ceremony in Ménerbes, in Provence. It was in a Greek Orthodox church with frescoes all over the walls and no electricity. We just had a harpist, a huge choir and candlelight, as it was in the evening – we got married at 5pm.

Best thing in your house

The atmosphere. I walk in the door and, apart from the leaking roof, I instantly feel elevated and happy. There is an amazing atmosphere in my house, even if I say so myself. It’s a joyous place to be.

Natascha McElhone as Sister Josepha Montefiore in NBC series Revelations
Natascha McElhone as Sister Josepha Montefiore in NBC series Revelations

Worst thing you've ever done

I don’t know if I want to tell you! When I was young, I was a little out of control and I went to lots of different schools, and got expelled from a couple. That probably caused my parents a lot of distress, so I wouldn’t want those details in print! The best thing I’ve probably ever done is apologise to them.

Worst influence

The worst influence on me is myself. I can’t really blame anyone else. I choose to get led astray when I get led astray. I take full responsibility.

Worst celebrity moment

Occasionally, I’ve gone up to someone who looks incredibly familiar, and you’re quite sure they’re friends with your auntie Mary Ellen and that you last saw them at a family gathering, but then you realise, “No, it’s Harrison Ford”, or whoever. I can’t remember who it was I have done it to – it wasn’t Harrison, because I’ve worked with him – but I do remember being quite mortified.

Worst career decision

I really enjoyed the experience of working with Trevor Nunn on the 2014 West End production of Fatal Attraction – it was a terrific and really happy time – but I’m not sure about the need for [the original 1987 film] to have been reiterated into a play. Unfortunately, my co-star Mark Bazeley fell ill and had to miss half the shows, and it ended up being one of those experiences where you just thought, “Is this bringing much joy into the world? Is it powerful enough? Is it relevant enough?”

Worst experience with a pet

Recently, my cat Vlad went missing (I’m sorry for the name), and a vet called from Basingstoke to say, “We’ve got Vlad.” And I said, “That’s impossible.”

He had been missing for a few days, but he runs around the cemetery behind our house and we don’t worry too much because he just comes back for a bit of grub at night and then goes back out again. Anyway, I was trying to figure out how on earth he had ended up in Basingstoke. He still had his collar on, so I don’t think it had been a cat-napping. The vet said: “He probably jumped into the back of a van on your street belonging to someone who was doing some painting or decorating or whatever and was commuting in from outside London.”

He was picked up by someone outside Basingstoke Tesco, so I had to drive down and get him. He was really p----- off when he saw me – I think the vet had fallen in love with him.

Worst thing you've ever bought

My car. I don’t know the make, it’s just a car. I don’t want a car. I used to need one for the boys, but I don’t now that my youngest is 14 and can buzz around London on public transport on his own. I prefer to ride around on a bike.

Worst thing about technology

I’m a huge fan of technology, but I do think that morality lags behind. Technology changes people and has changed society without us noticing. The rigidity of the reward/punishment aspect to social media – the likes and dislikes – is a downward trajectory; it plays on negative emotions.

Worst thing in your house

The plumbing! And things always seem to break. I just spend all my time fixing things. I just repainted my son’s room. And during all that rain, there was a leak in the skylight and it’s just ruined all the new paint. What’s the point? It feels like a Sisyphean task.

Can you imagine what the plumbing must have been like in the Hotel Portofino in the 1920s? I think it would cause Bella a lot of issues, but she always seems to look immaculate and not like she’s had her head down a loo.

Hotel Portofino continues at 9pm on Friday on ITV1. All episodes are available to watch on ITVX