Like the two million others who watched her play Madame de Montespan, Louis XIV’s smart and witty lover with an outrageous sex drive, you’ll have seen Brewster in the nude — a lot. You’ll know that she looks hot in a pubic wig and that she’s pretty bendy in the bedroom. But what you might not know is that Anna Brewster is actually terribly shy.
Or so she tells me, when we meet after today’s photo shoot in a studio near Primrose Hill on one of April’s freak heatwave days. It’s boiling in here, but Brewster looks cold. The 33-year-old is sitting awkwardly on her slender legs; her shoulders hunched up to her ears as if the temperature in the room isn’t sweltering. When she speaks she looks at me, half hiding, through loose strands of brown bobbed hair. We’re talking about how she has recently moved back to London after four years living in Paris. ‘I can understand French but I don’t speak it,’ Brewster says, fiddling with her hands. ‘I’m too shy, I can never pluck up the courage to try it.’
How does someone who is too timid to order a croissant in French wind up naked as a baby in a £21 million television show with a crew count of around 250 in the Palace of Versailles? ‘Being an actor allows you to be someone else in a way,’ she says, not entirely convincingly. ‘If you are shy and quiet, acting is like an outlet — it almost enables you not to be that person.’
True to her word, on set Brewster is a different being. When she stands in front of the photographer’s lens this morning, I observe her relax entirely. She’s not the first actor to come out as shy. The shy actors club is an odd one, whose paid-up members reportedly include Johnny Depp, Jim Carrey, Tom Cruise, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. And while Brewster enthusiastically asks me questions about which restaurants I like and talks at pace about the toxicity of social media, on some topics — the name of her favourite pub, for example — she is intensely tight-lipped.
She’ll happily talk about sex on camera, however. ‘Quite liberating’ is how she describes being filmed seducing King Louis (played by George Blagden) with full frontal nudity for Versailles. ‘There was something about living in Paris and being immersed in French culture that I was like, “You know what. F*** it.”’ Having a French boyfriend at the time helped. ‘He made me feel comfortable and accepting of my body. Inherently as an English person I’m quite a prude.’
Versailles was Brewster’s first major part in a TV series. ‘It was a challenge and responsibility in so many ways. But I thought if other people believe in me, I should probably believe in myself and get on with it.’ Her next role is her first lead in a film, a Netflix production airing this autumn of comic noir The Last Days of American Crime, in which she plays femme fatale Shelby Dupree.
Despite the upward trajectory, Brewster didn’t shoot to fame overnight. She laughs when she works out that she has been in the business for 17 years. Born in Birmingham to teacher parents (her accent now is more plummy than Brummie), she got her first gig in the British film Anita and Me, based on the book by Meera Syal and released when she was 16 years old. ‘My teachers were like, “Anna, really?” At school my name would always be called first in the register and I’d always get such anxiety to say yes.’
Soon after that she was scouted as a model, and, after sitting her A-levels, Brewster moved to London, where she enrolled on, then dropped out of, a degree in styling and photography at London College of Fashion as modelling jobs for Hermès, Vogue and Dazed & Confused flooded in. ‘I never really wanted to do it [modelling],’ she says. ‘It just happened.’ It was an era of supermodels, super-photographers and super-lax photo shoots. Did she ever feel vulnerable? ‘I’ve definitely been booked for jobs where there was an element of nudity involved that I’ve not been comfortable with. But I felt like I couldn’t say no because I was on the job and I couldn’t stand up and say, “I’m not happy with this.” I think that everyone who worked in fashion at that time knew a photographer who was in the wrong.’
Though Brewster regularly sits front row at Saint Laurent and Chanel shows, she’s keen to point out that she doesn’t model for a living any more. The model-to-actor jump is historically a career-killer for women (note that Brad Pitt and Depp did alright). Does she feel like she’s made it? ‘I’ve earned my stripes in both fields and I have nothing to be ashamed of,’ she says with conviction, though she also mentions she doesn’t feel like a proper ‘actor actor’. ‘I’m too silly for that.’
She’s happy to be back ‘home’ in London. She lives in Angel with her Versailles co-star Alex Vlahos (when I raise an eyebrow she buries her head in her arm and moans, ‘no’) and spends time watching The Great British Sewing Bee on telly, going to pubs that shall not be named, and eating at Jolene in Stoke Newington. Her shyness gets the better of her when she’s recognised in the street. ‘Ground, swallow me up,’ she laughs. ‘The social aspect is something that I am tackling, but being shy is part of my nature. I don’t ever want to lose that because it makes me who I am.’
All jewellery from Sotheby’s London Fine Jewels sale from 10am on 5 June. Price estimates range from £1,000 to £250,000. More information at sothebys.com/jewellery