Shirley Henderson is known as one of Britain's more prolific actors, appearing in films that include Trainspotting, Bridget Jones's Diary, and 24 Hour Party People. Granted her face is still hard to place, but with leading roles in independent films such as IFC Films' Intermission (opening March 19), Dogme director Lone Scherfig's Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (opening March 26), Close Your Eyes (opening April 16), and many more on the way, Henderson should finally earn her long-awaited recognition.
Mass audiences first took notice of this diminutive and youthful-looking character actor as she demonstrated her supple soprano in Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy as Leonora Braham, the Victorian actress portraying 14-year-old Yum-Yum, one of the "three little maids from school" in The Mikado. Once director Chris Columbus saw this emotional, dual performance, he contacted the Scottish lassie about playing the haunting schoolgirl Moaning Myrtle in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
"I did not know what Moaning Myrtle was—I hadn't read the Harry Potter books," Henderson recalls. "So, I read it and I went, 'You're joking. She's 14. That's ridiculous. I don't understand this.' And then I read it again, and I thought, well, this is a great character and she's demented and emotionally highly strung. She's got adult emotions, and that's why they were seeing all kinds of ages for this part—young and old actresses, but no children." Henderson then 36 years old, won the part after six months, donned pigtails, and used her distinctive, gravelly, childlike whisper to make the ghostly character highly memorable.
Henderson's roots in performing began with her voice. She belted Barbra Streisand and Gladys Knight ballads as a teen for talent shows while on family holidays and at raucous pubs known as "working men's clubs." Indeed she continues to live in the same "wee village" in Fife, Scotland, and followed her initial interest in drama by going to Kirkcaldy Technical College for one year—the same school attended by other notable Scots, including Ewan McGregor and Dougray Scott. It was at Kirkaldy where professors told Henderson that she should be studying at England's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, so she packed her bags and decided to pursue the stages of London.
For 12 years she performed at the National Theatre Company and the Royal Court alongside names such as Dame Judi Dench and Sir Peter Hall, playing roles such as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Miranda in The Tempest, and the title role in Euridice. She did "odd bits of telly" in between stage productions, most notably in The Way We Live Now, for which she received a Royal Television Society nomination as Best Actress, and Hamish Macbeth, in which she played opposite future Trainspotting star Robert Carlyle. While auditioning for roles, Henderson heard every kind of rejection, including, "You look too young," "We hope you haven't come far," and the simple "No, no thanks."
"Or they don't look at you, or they're talking while you're auditioning, and what's the point?" she says. "But you have to keep looking, you have to keep having a go, and for one bad audition there's a good one. I think acting is changing. People are expecting it to be had quickly, but, certainly when I was starting, your 'in' was theatre. If you could get a play, you were doing amazing. Films were way in the distance." Or were they? Henderson says her introduction to Method acting and her breakthrough to film came when she auditioned for director Michael Winterbottom, who eventually cast her in three of his famously improvisational films: Wonderland, The Claim, and 24 Hour Party People.
For 24 Hour Party People, she met with the real Lindsay Wilson, the wife of Tony Wilson, an integral force in the Manchester music scene, and observed her behavior. For Intermission, Henderson donned a fake mustache to play the traumatized Sally. And for Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, in which she plays a single mom in a love triangle, there was no research. Naturally she approaches each part with a different process, but one constant exercise for her is to talk to herself as the character beforehand. "I have to practice and start speaking to myself all day and imagining speaking as the character before I start filming, so I just get second nature with it," she explains. It's bizarre behavior, really, when people can see you on your own. It's ridiculous, but that's how I find the confidence to play the character."
Currently, Henderson has no high aspirations to conquer Hollywood, but she feels grateful for what she has accomplished in her career so far. "I kind of did away with all of [those aspirations] years ago," she says. "Yes, I'm lucky to be in Bridget Jones and Harry Potter and these types of films, and, yes, they do reach the masses, but I still have a long way to go before people really know who I am or what I've done. I didn't expect this ever to happen, and on a very small scale compared to some people, but if [fame] doesn't come then I'll still be content with what I've got."