Two years ago, in the grip of a wild swimming obsession, Lydia West impulsively decided to dive into Lake Como, one of the deepest lakes in Europe. “You’re not allowed, and my friend told me not to, but I said: ‘I’m going to do it.’” The water was calm at the surface but concealed strong currents. In the shocking cold she couldn’t catch her breath, and, while suffering a panic attack, she was pulled away.
She tells me this with a bemused smile – no big deal. It’s a consequence of frequently travelling for work, setting up in a new city, becoming someone new. “The moment I step out of my head, I tell myself I’ll do something risky, make a new friend, cut my hair off,” she says. So what happened? She counted her strokes, centred herself, and cleared the current. She’s unscarred by the experience. In fact she’s just back from Canada, where she filmed the CIA thriller Gray, and where she swam around the Toronto Islands at any opportunity. “You’re not really allowed to – it’s very dirty. But I dived right in. I always jump right in.”
In fewer than five years of professional acting, West, 29, has revealed her own hidden depths, and a willingness to take the plunge. Her first job was the acclaimed Years and Years by Russell T Davies, with whom she also worked on last year’s It’s a Sin, two very different performances that saw her named Bafta Breakthrough Brit. Her list of upcoming co-stars is strikingly varied: Uma Thurman, Priyanka Chopra, Mike Myers, Céline Dion. Her versatility has made her a go-to casting for showrunner Steven Moffatt, their latest collaboration being the murderous mini-series Inside Man, the reason West and I are consuming goldfish bowls of Aperol Spritz on a weekday afternoon.
Inside Man is a very Moffatt creation: a crafty, gothic whodunnit that finds the writer back in Sherlock mode. “The whole idea is we all have murderers inside us, which is such a scary concept,” West says. To give away too much would spoil it, but West plays Beth Davenport, a journalist drawn into a mystery involving an ambiguous vicar, played by David Tennant, in a dark predicament. The series twists this strand into that of a brilliant detective and convicted murderer on death row in the United States, played by Stanley Tucci. Before we go further, a crucial question presents itself: does Tucci make cocktails on set?
“Yes!” she beams. West describes a heavenly Friday night ritual, drinking sundowners in the suave US actor’s trailer: “Italian cheese, homemade pomodoro salad, signature martinis in Kraft coffee cups, with fresh squeezed lemons.” She hasn’t seen the original home video series of Tucci mixing cocktails, one of the few bright spots of lockdown. She has read his book though– she’s a big reader. “What sort of stuff?” I ask, well aware this is a thing actors love to say, even if they’re mostly talking about menus.
“Good memoirs: Maggie O’Farrell, Mary Gaitskill, Michelle Zauner,” she replies. She’s drawn to performers like Zauner – author of the bestselling memoir Crying in H Mart and singer in alternative pop band Japanese Breakfast – who cross disciplines. She was recently impressed by Why Did You Stay? by the actor Rebecca Humphries, and is interested in the quasi-autobiographical fiction of Ethan Hawke. She’s starting the latest Ottessa Moshfegh tonight, she says, and recently picked up a re-issue of an Anthony Bourdain book, for its revised notes. I guess that’s me told.
A soulful performer, West attributes her emotional nature to the mollycoddling she received at home, as the youngest of three. “It was always ‘protect Lydia!’ I’m a soft, precious bird who can’t fly away,” she jokes. For role models, she admires the strength of Halle Berry and Tracee Ellis Ross, as well as contemporaries like Zendaya and Kirby Rose Baptiste. But it’s Viola Davis who has been her guiding star. “She’s visceral, raw, unselfconscious. That’s brave. If I can be half as truthful as her, I’ll impress myself.”
She staked her claim with It’s a Sin, a friendship story played out against the backdrop of the 1980s Aids epidemic. Raucous, joyous and unbearably tragic, it stands as one of the most humane pieces of television ever made. As Jill Nalder, selfless companion to her dying friends, a woman who helped raise social awareness of the illness, West’s performance earned her a Bafta nomination. It resonated with a public more indebted than ever to carers, and even prompted the hashtag #BeMoreJill on social media, perhaps its real metric of success.
The show broke viewing figures for Channel 4; it had 6.5 million viewers in this country alone. “You go from being an actor to being a spokesperson,” West reflects. Her new profile came with another layer of moral responsibility. She notes that the real Jill Nalder, a friend of writer Russell T Davies (Nalder plays West’s mother in the show) has recently published a memoir of her experiences, Love From The Pink Palace. “I didn’t want to class myself as an ally – which I am – when there are activists who have so much more knowledge than me. My reading and research can’t compare to a life’s work.”
Yet the show’s impact was unarguable. The Terrence Higgins Trust made £500,000 selling “La” T-shirts based on a musical greeting used in the series, while HIV testing rates surged to record levels. “Our work allowed people to have conversations on a subject that is stigmatised and taboo,” she acknowledges. To this day, West and her cast are stopped in the street, or receive messages from fans who share their stories of coming out and diagnosis. “I’m not brave– they’re brave.”
Does she get bored of talking about It’s a Sin? “I could talk about it for the rest of my life.” It changed how she thought about her career, she says, and gave her a voice. Her aim now is to open the door for marginalised communities to tell stories they weren’t able to before – including herself as a black woman. She describes her checklist for good work: entertaining, with social impact and a humane creative team. “That’s soul-enriching. I didn’t think you could get that, as an actor.”
West was born north London, not far from where we are today, and grew up in nearby Barnet. Her mother’s family originated from the west coast of Ireland; her father is from Montserrat, a British Overseas Territory known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. Holidays were spent in cottages in Wales, arguing on long car journeys with her brother and sister. Today, her immediate family all work in healthcare, her father in the charity sector, helping to house drug and alcohol abusers. They’re proud of her, needless to say.
There was no childhood dream of fame. She loved dancing, and went to dance college, until injury put a stop to that. At 18, with no idea what to do with herself, she studied business at Queen Mary University of London. “To be brutally honest, I did it to please my parents. When you get older, you realise their validation isn’t worth it.” After graduating, she worked as a PA, but didn’t enjoy it. Having an existential crisis, she left an unhappy relationship, at which point acting suggested itself as a kind of therapy, rather than career. “I wanted to become a totally new person, and dissociate from who I was.”
A fringe play got her an agent. Wanting to learn the craft fully, she enrolled at the aptly named Identity, a drama school that aims to diversity the arts, and boasts John Boyega and Letitia Wright among its alumni. Just nine months into training the audition for Years and Years arrived, and her rise began. “I deferred my place. I think it’s still deferred, actually!”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. West suffered feelings of low self-worth when she was younger, and the industry is brutally superficial. “I’ve had comments from creative teams on my physical appearance, my body shape or my hair type. Throwaway comments do affect you as a young woman.” The friendly, inclusive atmospheres of Moffatt and Davies’s productions are not the rule, and this is unacceptable. Whether you’re “male, female, or non-binary, no one should comment on your appearance”, she says.
As a culture we worship actors too much, she thinks, and it’s not healthy. “I’ve had to let that go. I don’t want to be disappointed.” Her attitude marks a huge shift from the days in which young actors were told to be grateful for work, keep their mouths closed and idolise stars. “Why would I want to work with someone I’ve heard bad things about, or who mistreats me or anyone else?”
West is campaigning with mentor Suranne Jones to have mental health in film and TV taken seriously. She believes there should be an HR person present to deal with difficult issues, and not just for cast. (She remembers being surprised on a few jobs to see co-stars arriving at set and never saying hello to the crew.) A lead role, she reflects, is not about the number of lines; it’s a leadership role, part of which is helping everyone on a job feel welcome and safe. “You have a voice, that someone with a different number on the call sheet doesn’t. I can’t just be quiet in the corner, accepting everything.”
With friends turning 30, she’s looking forward to getting older– not a common sentiment among performers. “Your early 20s go on for so long!” Her youthful features put her in a rarer predicament, with a recent haircut accentuating her baby face. “Someone told me I could play six the other day. Six!” she laughs. “I guess that opens up opportunities.”
Single and living alone in Walthamstow, northeast London, she finds that solitude suits her. She’s free to follow her whims, from boxing and hot yoga to pottery. Her latest fixation is traumatic kitchens. “The Bear, Boiling Point – that anxiety, seeing what chefs go through,” she thrills. With typical over-commitment she’s teaching herself to make sushi, and aims to take a 4am trip to Billingsgate fish market.
She lives in her head, imagination always on. She curates a musical playlist for each month – August was house and afro punk, 80s bangers, Ibiza club classics, and smooth jazz. The melancholy of September calls for indie and soulful hip-hop. She loves Desert Island Discs, Table Manners with Jessie Ware, and Spiritual Shit, a podcast which covers “twin planes, star scenes, ascensions. Deep-cut astrology, but aimed at newbies. That’s where I see myself.”
Would she ever write? She has mapped out an idea for a film, but isn’t sure she would star. “I want to not go down that vanity project route.” So not like Blackbird? I say, referring to the Michael Flatley self-directed star-vehicle in which he plays a Caribbean nightclub spy. “The Lord of the Dance?” she boggles, eyes alight. She’ll drunk-watch that with her mates, like they did with the movie Cats.
We’re both Spritzed up and silly, so it’s time to wrap up. She’s had a boring summer working, she says, and it’s time for some fun. Maybe more wild swimming. “I wanted to do Lake Ontario but everyone said I’d get scabies. I’ll try Tottenham reservoir.” Her schedule may have other ideas. She’s travelling for work again tomorrow, and the next few months will take her to Lisbon, Kerala and Bodrum. Still, plenty of opportunity for waterborne-diseases, haircuts and new friends.
Is she still in touch with those princes of the Pink Palace? I have to ask. Those onscreen friendships felt so real. Very much, she confirms. She recently went on holiday to Berlin with Callum Scott Howells and Omari Douglas, who played Colin and Roscoe in the show. Any fans hungry for the continued adventures of the housemates would be disappointed by what went on. “We thought we’d go to the Berghain and have all the fun,” she chuckles, referring to the city’s legendarily debauched nightclub. “We ended up in bed by 9pm every night.” At least she’s catching up on sleep – there’s a world to change. Go, West.
• The sub-heading on this article was amended on 28 September 2022 to say Lydia West swam around the Toronto Islands, as mentioned in the text, rather than “around Toronto”.
Inside Man starts tomorrow on BBC One at 9pm
Fashion editor Jo Jones; makeup by Naoko Scintu at the Wall Group using Clé de Peau Beauté; manicurist Julia Babbage using Chanel le Vernis in ballerina and la creme main; hair by Jennie Roberts at Frank using Curlsmith Haircare; fashion assistant Roz Donoghue; photographer’s assistant Joe Stone