The first question I want to ask Sophie Ward is: has she abandoned acting? The former model, whose early film credits include Young Sherlock Holmes, and who has since built a steady career with films including Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre and most recently on TV with A Very British Scandal, took many by surprise when she produced a debut novel, Love and Other Thought Experiments, in 2020. Not just any novel either but an audacious work of philosophical fiction that won rave reviews and a Booker long-listing.
This week she publishes her second, The Schoolhouse, a taut, moody, intelligent thriller about a missing child. So what’s the story? Is she now Sophie Ward the novelist instead?
“Lots of people asked me if I took up writing to get out of acting,” she says, sitting model-straight outdoors at a Hackney café. “That wasn’t the case; I love my job. But as an actor you spend your life waiting for other people to ask you to do something. I like the autonomy of writing. I like being alone.”
Like her debut, The Schoolhouse draws on Ward’s interest in philosophy and psychology (Love evolved alongside a PhD she completed in 2019 at Goldsmiths), although where that novel explored a gay relationship through the surprisingly accessible prism of various philosophical “what if” scenarios (one chapter imagined the thought processes of an ant), The Schoolhouse examines the legacy of childhood damage through the more conventional framework of a police procedural.
Part of it centres on a woman profoundly scarred by a childhood incident involving a couple of boys at an experimental school in the 1970s.
“I’m very interested in how you let go of stuff that happened in your childhood,” says Ward, who, as the eldest child of the actor Simon Ward, describes her own childhood as happily feral and chaotic. “You can carry around an awful lot of shame, even though as a child you are not responsible. Often these are quite small incidents but they can add up in ways that make you ask: what sort of person am I?”
Ward, 57, has had plenty of reason throughout her life to wonder who she is. Bright enough to apply (unsuccessfully) to Oxford when she was 19, she nonetheless has always felt on the back foot academically, partly because, as a child, she and her sisters were often “on the road” with her parents, sleeping in dressing rooms “propped up in waste paper baskets”, and partly because she attended an alternative school on the Islington-Hackney border, very much like the one in her novel, and modelled on the Montessori system which emphasised learning through play – it’s now a private school.
“We were all taught together in one room. But its very admirable inclusivity ethos, which meant any child could attend regardless of whether their parents could pay, extended to children who’d been to borstal and over time it developed a bit of an aggressive atmosphere. I loved it but I barely learned a thing.”
Her parents eventually took her out, but by that point Ward had ideas of her own. She had badly wanted to become a ballet dancer but was too tall. Desperate also to act, she begged her parents to let her attend the Anna Scher school, the influential Islington after-school club whose alumni include Kathy Burke and Naomie Harris. “They hated the idea because they really didn’t want me to become an actor at so young an age, but I told them it was only 10p.”
By the age of 10 she was starring in the JB Priestley adaptation The Other Window on TV. By 15 her angular, enigmatic beauty had got her signed to Models 1; at 18 she appeared in the Roxy Music video Avalon, pirouetting in a froufrou ballet dress like a trapped tropical bird.
She moved to New York, regularly appeared in Vogue and became known as “a face of the 80s”, and she now looks back on these heady, glamorous, discombobulating years with a mix of discomfort and curiosity.
“There was quite a bit of making sure your door was locked at night [when you were staying in hotels], but I was quite a prude. I’m aware other bad stuff was happening, but I was lucky. Nothing too ghastly happened to me. Maybe because I was young for my age, I didn’t look like a grown woman. I was also way too thin, although not because I had an eating disorder; I was just very skinny. I feel sad about that, looking back, because thinness is held up as a standard and that’s an awful thing for young women.”
Did she hate being looked at? “Oh no, I’ve always loved the camera. I mean more from the feminism point of view in terms of what it means to be attractive. I didn’t want to be part of that.”
So she devoted herself to acting. In 1992 she made a rare appearance alongside her father in Peter Kosminsky’s Wuthering Heights. “But we were both a little shy about working with each other. I wish we hadn’t been because it’s too late now [Ward died in 2012].”
In 1988 she married vet Paul Hobson with whom she had two sons, Nathaniel and Joshua. Yet she had also been aware for some time that she was attracted to women and, with the support of her husband, quietly began having lesbian affairs. In 1996 she met the Korean-American poet and filmmaker Rena Brannan, to whom she is now married, and that was that.
She and Hobson amicably separated, and Brannan moved back with her to the Cotswolds (they now live in Hackney), where Ward’s two sons accepted her straight away.
The acting profession wasn’t so kind. The story became a tabloid sensation, not least since Ward had recently appeared in the TV adaptation of Joanna Trollope’s A Village Affair, playing a wife who leaves her husband for another woman. “There was quite a lot of discussion as to whether I could be believable in a straight role any more,” says Ward.
What does she think about the corrective of “authenticity casting”? Does she now believe that only gay actors should play gay roles? “I’m not sure you can square it up and make everything fair because gay people didn’t get work for so long. It doesn’t work like that. And I really respect the actor’s job so I wouldn’t want to say that an actor can’t play a certain role because they don’t understand what that is.
"I thought the film Ammonite [which depicts the 19th century fossil-hunter Mary Anning, played by Kate Winslet, as gay] was amazing. Kate is a great actress. It didn’t matter.”
Ward comes across as settled, warm, happy in her own skin. “I haven’t given up acting [in the past year she’s worked on Agatha Raisin, Strike and a Michael Winterbottom project; she’s also appearing in an Agatha Christie adaptation on stage in the autumn]. “But having not been able to do ballet because you are too tall, having not been able to act because people don’t want you, well … The joy about writing novels is that you don’t need anyone’s permission. You just do it.”
‘The Schoolhouse’ (Corsair, £16.99) is out now