The ‘Motherland’ star has always found hilarity in the moneyed and horrible. As she faces the end of the world in the dark comedy ‘Silent Night’, she speaks to Adam White about being drawn to the grotesque, the controversy over voicing Kate Middleton, and the perils of knowing too much about your colleagues
Lucy Punch is aghast. “God, imagine the protests!” she exclaims, her mouth curled into mock outrage. “People will be throwing buns at me. I’ll be getting cappuccinos in the face.” We’re talking about a hypothetical UK release of The Prince, her animated sitcom that briefly enraged the tabloids this year. It was inspired by the royal family, and she voiced our future queen consort. “I was never told to do an impression of Kate Middleton,” she insists, drawing out the syllables like a troublemaker dragged into the headmaster’s office. “It was meant to just be a silly character. It was really unfortunate timing.” It was shown in the US just a few months after the death of Prince Philip, amid peak empathy-slash-hysteria for the royals. “Maybe they should have waited until the Epstein trial, when people are like: ‘We hate them again!’”
It’s the only time in our conversation that the friendly, buoyant Punch sounds like one of her characters. In her new film Silent Night, and, well, most things she’s in, the 43-year-old flings comedy hand-grenades with a Cheshire Cat grin. Posh chaos is her currency. The type of women she tends to play – Cameron Diaz’s know-it-all rival in Bad Teacher; the ear-splitting ingenue decapitated by the roadside in Hot Fuzz; Motherland’s Amanda, aka the one-woman Gestapo of the school gates – are other-worldly creatures allergic to tact and boundaries.
“I’ve played many ugly stepsisters,” Punch boasts from the Hampstead house she’s been put up in while filming the second series of her farcical Sky comedy Bloods. She’s not so much talking as she is beaming, her blonde hair in loose, Stevie Nicks waves and her accent so precise and enunciated that you’d never know she’s lived in Los Angeles for 15 years. Over Zoom, she’s gazing up at the living room ceiling, wondering why she loves playing terrible people. “Smugness and self-satisfaction and ego alongside massive insecurity,” she lists off. “They make an interesting mix. I’ve always liked people just verging on the grotesque. Not to be friends with, of course, but just to observe.”
Punch, per tradition, steals the show in Silent Night. She plays Bella, one of a cluster of moneyed flibbertigibbets – Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode and Annabelle Wallis are among the rest – who’ve descended upon a country pile for Christmas. So far, so Richard Curtis. Then, as if Charlie Brooker’s suddenly hijacked the script, they start to address the dystopian elephant in the room: a toxic fog is lurking towards Britain, the end of the world is nigh, and all of them are planning to kill themselves by Boxing Day.
“I’ve seen The Road, there is no f***ing way I’m living like that,” Bella insists. “I can’t do post-apocalyptic monochrome.” Punch plays her as a sociopath in a luxe power suit, her pitched-down voice landing somewhere between Patsy from AbFab and a rich girl dying of consumption.
“She’s a very old-school, opposite-of-woke character who says really inappropriate stuff,” Punch explains with glee. “A sort of broke aristo.” Bella’s situation has also left at least one person confused. A few days before our call, Punch was giving an interview to an American journalist, who asked her what it was like playing the film’s “only lower-class character”. She re-enacts her response, her elastic features shifting into a kind of befuddlement. “Eventually I realised, ‘Oh, you’re saying that because she’s got no money!’ And it’s such a massive difference in terms of the class system over there. In America, class is completely based on how much money you have. So even though [in Silent Night], you’ve got this whole bunch of very privileged characters, Americans don’t think Bella’s one of them. But she’s very, very upper class. She just happens to have spent all her ancestors’ money.”
Punch says she feels “slightly removed from everywhere”, even if she calls LA home for most of the year. It’s where she owns a house, and where she and her partner raise their six-year-old son, but she’s still thrown off by some of the country’s rhythms. She’s so frightfully, golly-gosh English that it comes as no surprise. “Auditions there are brutal,” she says. “It’s very: ‘Just do it, then get out.’ It’s disrespectful. Here, it’s a much friendlier, cosier process. You come in and have a cup of tea and talk about yourself. There, no one cares. You’re just sitting in a room with 10 people who look vaguely like you.”
Before moving to the US, Punch had been a jobbing actor since her teens, appearing in Midsomer Murders, Doc Martin and Nickelodeon’s Renford Rejects. She’d been educated privately – at Godolphin and Latymer School in Hammersmith – and I wonder if she ever encountered the kinds of people she has ended up playing. “Oh, hanging out with all my aristocratic friends, you mean?” she jokes. “I’ve certainly come across a wide range of people, but I do generally find the British class system amusing. Here [as opposed to in the States], you can’t get out of it. All class systems are disgusting, but I like that you can change yours there.”
After training at the National Youth Theatre, Punch was consistently employed as an actor, but the parts themselves became tedious. “I moved to the States because I kept getting cast as posh idiots. I was like: ‘This is boring. I know I can do more than this.’” She booked a sitcom there almost immediately, a series called The Class that people predicted would be the next Friends. It wasn’t, but Punch decided to stick it out in America all the same. “I ended up working a lot, and with an American accent,” she remembers. “People would make judgements about me [in the UK] that I’m this dizzy type of person, because of how I talk. But I’m not that person at all.” She played a gloriously potty-mouthed sex worker in a Woody Allen film – the otherwise joyless You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger – and the offers suddenly poured in. She’s been a nymphomaniac wrestler (in Dinner for Schmucks), a wicked floozy (in Into the Woods), and a gluttonous supervillain (in Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events). So no more posh idiots. Instead? “Quite often I’m, you know, the posh bitch.” It’s progress. Sort of.
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She notes the irony that, just as she had bought a house in LA after years of renting, the UK made her more famous than ever. Motherland – which finished its third series on BBC Two last summer – is a bitingly funny snapshot of middle-class, Mumsnet-era parenting, with Punch its breakout star. She is marvellously tyrannical in it, and a master of chic passive aggression. Fans tend to be terrified when they spot Punch in the street. “I’ve had a few moments of people looking nervous of me,” she recalls. “I’m there like: ‘I’m not that person really! I promise!’”
In general, though, she’s more comfortable with that odd sensation of being seen than she used to be. She remembers driving past a bus with her face on it shortly after she began working on The Class, and having a mild panic attack. “This sounds so weird and pathetic, but I felt so embarrassed, teary and exposed seeing my face going –” (she flares her nostrils and juts out her front teeth, like a chipmunk). “I couldn’t bear it.” Right around the time that Bad Teacher came out, she was pushed into hiring a publicist, but dropped them a few “awkward” magazine shoots later. “My partner says I’m a shy show-off. Interviews as well are so odd, and revealing stuff about yourself. I don’t mind talking about my work, but people who talk about things that are terribly personal, I’m like: ‘Why are you sharing that?’”
Plus, you can sometimes get to know someone’s worldview a bit too well. I mention Graham Linehan, who co-created Motherland with his then wife Helen Serafinowicz before appearing to leave the series. Today, his name is not so much associated with his pioneering comedy work – Father Ted, Brass Eye, The Fast Show – as his views on trans women, and his related suspension from Twitter for “hateful conduct”. Punch winces. “It’s sad,” she says. “And he just disappeared on the show and it wasn’t really ever talked about. When we did the pilot, I was like: ‘I can’t believe I’m working with Graham!’ He was so brilliant. He still is so brilliant. But, yeah, it’s like…” She sighs. “You gotta keep some stuff back. Pipe down, everyone, be quiet. You can get really put off by it.”
She’s happy with her current level of fame, where people seem to recognise her face from something or other, yet rarely know her actual name. That may change, though, if any of the self-produced projects she has in the works get off the ground. She’s quiet on the specifics, but she’s constantly pitching dark comedies to production companies. “I love characters that are not necessarily likable, or who are deeply flawed,” she explains. “I never understand actors who want to play ‘strong women’. Because you can be strong and also awful. You can be so much more complicated than that.”
Would she ever go lighter, perhaps? Or try and be in something a bit more conventional? “It would be nice to play a sweeter character,” she says. But as she mulls the idea over, she seems to get turned off by it. “I think I’d always look for the flaws, though. Or the bit of ugliness, because that’s always funnier. That’s always real.” She looks up to her ceiling again. “Otherwise it’s just boring, isn’t it?”
‘Silent Night’ is in cinemas now and will be released at home via Altitude on 6 December