Ruth Wilson didn’t get to go to her first Golden Globes. A nominee in 2008 for Jane Eyre, the actress was foiled by the writers’ strike, which reduced the ceremony to a news conference that she watched from a hotel bar. Seven years later, she returned for the ceremony—and won. “It was nice enough just to be there this time,” Wilson says the morning after she bested Viola Davis, Claire Danes, Robin Wright, and Julianna Margulies to win Best Actress in a Drama Series for her role on Showtime’s The Affair. “I was up against those incredible actresses; I didn’t expect to win at all.”
But while Hollywood may be calling her a newcomer, Wilson disagrees. “I feel like I’ve been around longer than people actually know,” the 33-year-old says over lunch in Manhattan a week before her Globes victory. “I haven’t shot to the top. I’ve just done this zigzag slowly uphill.” One major zig: an acclaimed yet brief role on the cult crime drama Luther. But then there was the zag of 2013 and a stretch of films in which she seemed to be acting in circles. “I found myself doing a lot of the same parts—mothers somehow left alone with a child in their hands,” Wilson jokingly recalls. “I felt like I was repeating the same thing. Once they used the same wig for Saving Mr. Banks and The Lone Ranger, I thought, I need to stretch out.”
She finally got her chance with Sarah Treem’s ambitious slow-burn drama The Affair. In her first leading role on American television, the actress earned critical attention as beguilingly shy waitress Alison, whose titular tryst with writer Noah (Dominic West) leaves heartbreak and murder in its wake. “It was an intense show, and it was exhausting for me. [At one point] I didn’t think I was going to get through it,” admits Wilson, who asked her mom to come to set to help her through the last push of filming. “I was going mental…. But it’s been worth it.”
The show popped as one of fall’s surprise hits, and scored its own upset at the Globes when it won Best TV Drama over favorites like Game of Thrones and House of Cards. The victories will put plenty of attention on Wilson and the series—a good thing given that The Affair has already been picked up for a second season, which will start shooting later this year. Wilson says she hopes season 2 will involve less intensity, and maybe even a smile, for her beleaguered character. “It might branch out into other people’s versions of events,” she says. “That might give us a bit of rest!”
And she’s going to need it. After The Affair wrapped last September, a worn-out Wilson craved a return to her home in London, but stayed in New York after being offered the lead opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Constellations, Nick Payne’s romantic dramedy, which was a huge hit on the West End. “I read the play, and with Jake involved I couldn’t say no,” Wilson recalls.
In Constellations, which runs until March 15, she plays Marianne, a wisecracking physicist whose fate is tied to the cosmos amid a time-hopping romance with a beekeeper (Gyllenhaal). “We instantly got on and understood each other and what the piece was. It’s really vital that you have chemistry off stage. I look for it on every job, the chemistry with Idris or with me and Dom. It’s vital that you create that place of safety off stage [so] you can be free to be big on stage.”
While Constellations marks her Broadway debut, Wilson is a two-time Olivier award winner (England’s version of the Tony Awards) for her work on London’s West End. But acting wasn’t always the plan; Wilson studied history at England’s University of Nottingham, which she secretly selected for its drama department. “I didn’t feel confident enough to bring acting up to my parents,” she says. “I had no contacts, and I didn’t know how I would go about doing it, but I knew I was thinking about it.”
Validated by her experience doing college plays, Wilson subsequently decided to go to drama school, which led to an agent and, just six lucky months after graduation, Jane Eyre. In those early days her costars included other up-and-coming actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch and David Oyelowo, whose careers also brought them to this year’s Globes. “It’s manic at the beginning, with loads of people you know but you never get a chance to speak to,” says Wilson. “But all my friends were there.”
Now Wilson hopes to use The Affair‘s momentum to go “off the beaten track” with her future career moves, which could include developing a film with Jude Law and collaborating with a star ballerina from the Paris Opera. “I got here so far through doing what I do, so I’m not going to stop doing that,” she says. “What happens with the added pressure of something like ‘a moment’ is that you just have to stick to your guns.”
This article appears in the Jan. 23 issue of Entertainment Weekly.