Simply Dolly Wells

Dolly Wells: how Sister Agatha in Dracula found fame at 48

The Times UK   |   Written by Jane Mulkerrins

It was a bit of a ‘hot priest’ moment when Sister Agatha appeared on our screens in the must-see TV drama, Dracula. Everyone was asking, who is the woman under the wimple? Step forward British actress Dolly Wells, who confesses she actually once wanted to be a real-life nun. Interview by Jane Mulkerrins

While the British public was nursing its collective hangover on January 1 – devouring the last of the Stilton wheel and the trifle, while simultaneously signing up for veganism, Dry January and general, broad-spectrum deprivation – climbing out of his 466-year-old coffin and instantly, powerfully seducing us all was the most flamboyant, unapologetic glutton of them all, Dracula.

The three-part BBC miniseries, written by Sherlock creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, brought 2020 in with quite a bang – Claes Bang, the Danish dreamboat whose toothsome Transylvanian count is reimagined as a fine-dining gourmand, the sort of vampire who’d want to know exactly which school tie had decorated the neck of his next dinner.

But the breakout star of the witty, sexy, cinematic period-to-present-day drama was Dracula’s opposite number, Sister Agatha, the heavily accented atheist nun who faces down the devil armed only with a crucifix and a loose collection of folklore. Moreover, the woman under the wimple, British actress Dolly Wells, is suddenly having a moment – at 48 years old.

It’s a bit of a Fleabag “hot priest” scenario, in fact, I tell her, when we meet for breakfast in Brooklyn, where she’s been living with her husband, American photographer Mischa Richter, also 48, and their two children, Elsie, 17, and Ezra, 14, for the past 7 years.

 

‘That’s what I’ve heard,” she shrugs, beaming broadly. “It’s weird being so far away, because I only see the reactions on Twitter or Instagram – which I keep thinking I’ve got to give up anyway – so it feels a bit removed, because I’m not there to really know.

“My agent was saying casting directors are ringing and saying, ‘This is your year,’” she shrugs again. “But I haven’t noticed it yet. It sort of feels like, ‘OK, now what?’”

Seven years in the US have clearly done nothing to dent her characteristically British deflection of praise or pride. But it’s a Tuesday morning, and her agent has also sent her a shot of today’s Chart of Lust in Grazia. She pulls out her phone to read me the caption. “Number one, new in. Dolly Wells stole the show in Dracula, though Claes Bang put up a good fight. Also, we adored her in Doll & Em [the Sky Living comedy-drama she wrote and starred in, alongside her best friend Emily Mortimer].”

“That’s hilarious. When I was 23 and I had just started acting, one of my first agents said, ‘I think you’re going to be somebody that just does really well in your thirties and forties,’” she recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, great. What do I do for the next 15 years?’ But it’s been true. Star Stories [the Channel 4 sketch comedy show] came along when I was about 35, and I began just constantly working.”

Her Dracula co-star Bang – best known until now for the Swedish film The Square – is also hitting his stride at 52. “I think it’s different, maybe, if you’re the romantic lead and it’s very much about your looks,” she reflects. “But with character actors, it’s just not.” She will freely admit that aspects of playing the ascetic Sister Agatha were slightly unnerving, though. “Being told there was going to be no make-up, I was like, ‘Oh. I’m not 24.’ But hopefully this all feels encouraging to other women.”

Today, Wells arrives at the rustic restaurant – a favourite of both her and Mortimer, who lives around the corner and comes here to write – bundled up in a huge beige and brown Patagonia quilted jacket, over an orange A-line corduroy dress and yellow tights. It’s the sort of ensemble that works on quirky, leggy ectomorphs like Wells, but on anyone else would strongly resemble an Easter costume. Wells positively crackles with charisma but, refreshingly, is far from slick with Hollywood polish. There’s a smattering of grey at the roots of her brown bob, and she’s entirely make-up-free. She settles down opposite me, all elbows, angles and energy, and tears into a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of green tea, much of which she manages to spill into the saucer.

Dracula came about, she tells me, because she kept telling her agent, “I really want a job back in England.” But she also felt an immediate affinity with Agatha. “She’s Dutch, and I’m a little bit Dutch – well, my stepfather is half-Dutch – and I’d gone to a convent school [Mayfield Convent of the Holy Child Jesus, East Sussex],” she reasons. Until the age of 12, she had even harboured ambitions of becoming a nun herself. She was in the UK for a five-and-a-half month filming stretch, returning to New York briefly for the premiere of her own film Good Posture, which she wrote and directed, at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival last April.

An agent said she’d thrive in her forties. ‘I thought, “Well, great. What do I do for the next 15 years?” ’

“It was a pretty great year, actually,” she nods, slopping tea back from her saucer into her cup. “I don’t think I was quite taking it all in at the time. It’s only afterwards you’re like, ‘Wonder how I did that? Will I be able to do that again?’” Honestly, she doesn’t appear too anxious.

Wells grew up in Kensington, the youngest of six children (“Catholic,” she shrugs, merrily), the daughter of Teresa Chancellor, whose ancestors were earls and baronets. Wells’ cousin is the actress Anna Chancellor. Until the age of 18, Wells believed her father to be the half-Dutch aristocratic Edward Gatacre, who divorced from her mother when Wells was five years old. Six years later, when her mother married the satirist and co-founder of Private Eye, John Wells, Dolly told them she’d be jealous if they had children, to which her mother replied, cryptically, “Well, we sort of have.” “My first thought was, ‘That might be me,’” Wells has said. “I remember going to school the next day, pushing it away but thinking, ‘If that is true, what does it mean?’”

When she reached 18, they told her outright – they’d had an affair while Chancellor was still married to Gatacre, and Wells was her father.

“It definitely made sense, but I also kept it to myself a bit, because it’s confusing; it’s a shock,” she says today. “So, at first I was like, ‘Wow,’ shout it from the rooftops, and then I felt, ‘Oh God, this takes a bit of time to get used to.’ But I was very lucky, because I had two very lovely men who were sweet and devoted.” She changed her surname to Wells, and has spoken of the joy on his face when she called him Dad in front of a university friend.

Wells died when Dolly was 24. Halfway through our breakfast, she receives a text from an old friend back home. “Oh, that’s so sweet,” she exclaims. “My friend’s sending me a picture of a rose she’s just laid on my dad’s grave.” Is it an anniversary, I ask. “No. She just wanted to put it there to celebrate Dracula.”

Long before Wells ever confirmed he was her father, he was already stoking the fires of her ambition. When she was eight years old, he was playing Denis Thatcher in Anyone for Denis? in the West End. “He took me on stage one night,” she recalls, reverently. “There was nobody there, but I remember looking out from the stage at the auditorium and thinking, ‘There’s something very exciting about this.’

“And people would come back to our house after the play – Edward Fox or whoever. There’s something about actors being so open and friendly that seems intoxicating when you’re a child. It’s a strange job, no doubt about it. But there’s a freedom and a thrill that is quite hard to resist, especially if you grow up around that.”

 

Having missed the grades to study drama, Wells read English and classical literature at Manchester University, then landed a job on the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary. “It was the grimmest thing. I was really bad at it,” she says, pulling one of her frequent, exaggerated faces of utter distaste. “I think they thought that, because of my dad, I would have gossip, and I so didn’t. He didn’t say anything exciting. He’d say, ‘Tell them Spike Milligan’s book has just come in out in paperback.’” Fortunately, six months later she won a place at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

Wells and Mortimer, meanwhile, had met first as children on a joint family ski trip, but only became close in their early twenties, when both were “dumped by terrible boyfriends”. Shortly afterwards, aged 23, Wells met Richter, who had grown up in Provincetown, Massachusetts, but come to the UK to study at Chelsea College of Art. “Will Self put on this evening of performances and art in east London. Mischa was on the door, selling tickets,” she recalls.

“I remember just being really taken by him. He asked for my number and I wrote it down on a really tiny piece of paper. Someone had told him he had to leave it three days before ringing, so for three days I was in hell thinking, ‘We don’t know anybody in common. If he’s lost that number, he has no way of getting in touch with me.’” On the third day, he rang.

The couple married at 28, and had their first child at 30. Did her own unconventional upbringing instil a desire for something a little more conventional? “Yes, maybe I did think, ‘OK, I’d like to think that this bit is safe,’ ” she says, drawing a box on the table with her hands. “And then you can go off and be brave in other areas.”

Mortimer, also married to an American – actor Alessandro Nivola – relocated to Brooklyn long before Wells, and they would spend hours on the phone. The initial impetus for making Doll & Em was an excuse to justify their transatlantic phone bills.

I first met both women back then, in 2013, in a house high in the Hollywood Hills, on the set of the celebrity-skewering, self-deprecating comedy. Mortimer plays a pampered actress who hires her newly unemployed best friend, Dolly, to be her assistant. The show’s modest budget bore no relation to the size of the A-listers they managed to land, with cameos from Susan Sarandon, Chloë Sevigny and Andy Garcia. The second season, in which they stage a play in New York, featured similarly starry turns from Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ewan McGregor and Evan Rachel Wood.

Learning John Wells was her dad was ‘a shock. At first I was like, “Wow.” But it took time to get used to’

It also featured a cameo from Harvey Weinstein. Wells groans loudly and clutches her hands across her face when I mention this particular guest star. “Don’t, I know,” she moans. “I feel so ashamed of that. We wanted Sam Mendes – I probably shouldn’t really say that – and then it was like, ‘OK, maybe we can get Harvey Weinstein.’ And I suppose, to justify it, we felt like he was playing a sort of questionable character, but it still felt … I mean … I still feel uncomfortable.”

What was her take on him? “He was pretty crazy and powerful. He waltzed in and everybody had to be ready and on alert.” Did Wells have any inkling of the extent of his reputation? She exhales. “I suppose it was one of those things that, if you’d really thought about it, you probably knew, but then [when you heard], it was just like, ‘Oh my God.’”

The family moved to Brooklyn, not only to film that second season, but also because Richter wanted to be back on the east coast. “If Emily hadn’t been here, I don’t know what I would have done. I told her, ‘You’re going to have to help me with everything. You’ll have to share all your friends. It might be too much.’ That scared me,” she admits. “We’ve pushed our friendship in so many ways.”

The friendship, clearly, can survive – they have just written another TV comedy, Please Be Frank, in which they will both star, examining the “toxic, completely co-dependent relationship between two women”.

 

Being a transplant here in the US, she reflects, has also pushed her in many ways. “I think there is more opportunity here, and work became a bit more important, because it’s expensive here. It’s a big mortgage,” she says candidly. “But I was a bit lonelier here, and there’s less chance to just f*** around having tea and a nice time with friends. So I think I just got on with it a bit more.” Americans are also, she says “so encouraging”. “I think if I’d been in England I would have felt a bit cringey saying I was writing and directing a film,” she says of Good Posture. “Maybe I wouldn’t have dared.”

Richter has also just made his first film, a documentary about his home town, the free-spirited Provincetown. Do they, I ask, tongue in cheek, sit around discussing directing?

“We do a bit,” she confesses, wholly seriously. “His is beautiful. It’s shot on 35mm and it looks just magical. We do talk about films we like, although at the moment the four of us are watching Love Island.”

Mention of the glossy reality show, a cavalcade of perfect teeth, plump breasts and pert bottoms, leads to a dissection of Hollywood aesthetics and the extent to which some will go to cheat the ageing process.

“It’s a weird idea, really, because that’s your face,” says Wells, scrunching hers up extravagantly. “That’s what you’re using for your work. And age doesn’t actually seem as important any more,” she continues. “Sister Agatha could have been played as a woman of 32, but Steven and Mark are very cool in that they are not trying to meet any specific criteria – they just want the person who plays the part best, in their eyes, or says the lines best. And people have really responded to her. She’s bold and sassy and tough and sympathetic.” And with that she grins … beatifically.

Dracula is available to view on iPlayer









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