Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp has seen her fair share of film and TV adaptations over the years — Reese Witherspoon in 2004’s film version, Natasha Little in the 1998 BBC version, Eve Matheson in the 1987 BBC version, Susan Hampshire in the 1967 BBC version — but the literary heroine gets her most modern take yet thanks to Olivia Cooke, star of Amazon’s Certified Fresh 2018 miniseries.
The show, which hits Prime Video on Dec. 21, is based on the classic William Makepeace Thackeray novel, and while it’s still set in early-19th century Britain, there are plenty of modern touches that make Becky’s story feel less like a stuffy period drama and more like an evergreen story about a resourceful woman clawing her way out of poverty at any cost is applicable to any era.
Gwyneth Hughes’ adaptation is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, and features the “Villainy, crime, merriment, lovemaking, jilting, laughing, cheating, fighting, and dancing,” as Cooke’s spirited Becky climbs her way up English society all the way to the court of King George IV.
In anticipation of the series’ U.S. release, Rotten Tomatoes spoke with star Cooke about playing a classic literary character, nailing a posh English accent, and what shows she’s been streaming lately.
Recently, just ’cause it’s off the top of my head, Sally4Ever, the Julia Davis HBO show. It is so outrageous. It is so, so good. I mean, me and my boyfriend are watching it and we have to watch the past episode two or three times during the week just so we can get ready for the next episode that comes out on Sunday. It is so outrageous. It is so, so good. I mean, me and my boyfriend are watching it and we have to watch the past episode two or three times during the week just so we can get ready for the next episode that comes out on Sunday. Her sense of humor is so off color and so dark and so wacky. You can kind of see the improvising, and I actually love that you can see the actors just barely holding it together because of what they’re saying and what’s coming out of the other person’s mouth is so outrageous. It’s delicious. It’s so wonderful to watch.
I don’t have cable! I have Amazon, I have Hulu, I have Netflix, I have HBO.
I just started watching on Netflix — I know, blasphemy! I’m in an Amazon show — it’s about all these investors trying to work out if they ought to invest in a new restaurant: Million Pound Menu. One the other day was Cuban-inspired street food that we want you to invest like $500,000 in to house six or seven restaurants around the country. I think it’s these usually lovely eccentric people that just want to create a product that serves people and doesn’t harm anyone else. It’s low stakes, and it’s really nice to kind of switch your mind off, too.
The Bisexual on Hulu. I’ve watched that actually in England. That was Channel Four in England, now it’s just come to Hulu. It shows the part of London that I think is quite cool and aspirational but also realistic and the writing’s really good and the acting is wonderful and it’s about the sexual politics around different gendered relationships. It’s really interesting.
Fleabag season 2. I’m excited for that. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say what, so I won’t, but I just worked with an actor who just filmed it and I was trying to get him to tell me secrets. I’m excited for that to come out next year.
And Veep! I’ve been going back recently and watching all the Veeps from the beginning to end and I’m excited about that. I’m especially excited to see what they do with their administration in light of everything that’s happening here. It’s so funny watching it a few years ago and being like, “This is crazy. This would never happen,” and then some of the storylines that were filmed before this current administration are now so realistic and so real and you’re just like, “Oh my God, they are Nostradamus.”
Jean Bentley for Rotten Tomatoes: I feel like being in a period historical drama is a right of passage for an English actor. So what was it like doing this, for you?
Cooke: It was great. I’ve done a historical period piece before but that was only two months and it was a film. But doing this for five months and getting dressed in the morning and being put into your corset and then being sewn into your dress. You kind of start the day with this weird meditation/tradition, which helps you get into character and be like, bloody hell, no wonder women wanted to liberated because this is miserable. But yeah, if especially you’re a young actress and they just get you into a corset then automatically you’re like this treasured, virginal, ingenue.
RT: It struck me while watching that I’ve actually never seen you in anything where you use your own accent — you’re always playing an American.
Cooke: Yeah I was really worried going in ’cause I’m doing a very posh English accent, and I’m worried that I can’t do this now. I’m worried that I can’t act in something that is close to my own accent!
RT: I think it worked out. How did you feel?
Cooke: I don’t hear American and I don’t hear my own accent, so I think I’m all right.
RT: What did you like about Becky?
Cooke: She’s just so naughty and so mischievous and conniving. She says exactly what she thinks and she’s so unapologetic for her actions. I think playing someone like that is usually only reserved for the men. And I think of a Fleabag or a Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep — these women that I’m so drawn to have these qualities where they’re incredibly flawed people but they kind of know it as well, and they’re using that to their advantage. Especially with Becky, [it was] a time when women didn’t have jobs unless you were a very, very low status. She’s using her wit and her charm and her skills as seductress to get by in life and to rise to the ranks of society. I just think she’s pretty clever and she’s pretty conniving for doing that.
RT: Had you read the novel this series is based on?
Cooke: When I got sent the scripts and they signed off on me, and I signed on, I read the book. It’s a really incredible book. It gives you a visceral sense of the time, but also William Makepeace Thackeray has written these incredibly flawed women, Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp, who are at two opposite ends of the spectrum. Neither one of them is this archetype or vision of what a woman should be in life.
RT: Reviews of the show have mentioned that it makes the story relatable for a 21st-century audience. Would you agree?
Cooke: I do, and I think all of us made a bit of a conscious effort because we weren’t there at this time in the early 1800s. You don’t really know what people act like. Gwyneth Hughes has done such an amazing job of adapting the book and really making it her own, in a sense, as well. The dialogue is there on the page, but in terms of physicality we don’t have to act with a big rod up our asses. You can be a bit more silly. You can be a bit more frivolous with your performance and more flamboyant. I think it works. Also, we adopted this motif of giving the occasional glances to camera in order to let the audience in and let it be a little more accessible and a bit more conspiratorial. So they’re in on the plotting and the conniving with Becky, and I think other period dramas sometimes hold the audience at arm’s length because it does feel too foreign, the way people live. But with this it’s a bit of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, you’re on the same level as me.
RT: What’s next for you?
Cooke: I did an episode of the anthology Modern Love for Amazon. So Amazon is keeping me employed, which is nice. And then I did a film in summer with Riz Ahmed called Sound of Metal, directed by Darius Marder.
Vanity Fair is available Friday, Dec. 21 on Amazon Prime.