Rebecca Ferguson: ‘We were on set, a hand slipped onto my arse – I said, “Don’t ever f***ing touch me again”’

Rebecca Ferguson is tucking into a plate of bacon and eggs in a London hotel room, her diamante-studded heels discarded on the floor beside her. “Have you had breakfast?” she asks as I arrive, pointing to the bowl of yoghurt and granola she’s lined up for dessert. “I tried to not eat breakfast until lunchtime, but when I know that I shouldn’t, I just want it.” She takes a mouthful. “But I’m really ready, I can speak and eat.”

She’s right. Somehow the Swedish actor, star of the Mission: Impossible franchise and the 2017 musical phenomenon The Greatest Showman, manages to speak, eat and maintain such powerful eye contact I can hardly bear to glance down at my questions. Ferguson is here to promote her new film, The Kid Who Would Be King, in which she plays a tree-dwelling sorceress who sets out to murder a child and enslave all of England. Or, as she puts it with a note of fondness, a “b***h”. “I can say that,” she adds, “you can’t.”

The 35-year-old is self-assured and forthcoming; she doesn’t do reticence. Nor is she easily fazed. When she played MI6 agent Ilsa Faust in 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, she was practically the only woman on set, either behind the camera or in front of it. “It doesn’t matter, I’m there for the challenge,” she says. “I train with them, I do the stunts with them, we hang out together. We’re just family.”

Have there been times when that wasn’t the case? “God yeah, definitely,” she says. “I have definitely, no shadow of a doubt, been treated unfairly. I’ve walked off a set with a male director once. I thought, ‘I’d rather fly home, and be sued for not continuing, than go through this s**t again.’ But confronting that was the most scary thing I’d ever done – walking off the set and saying, ‘I’m not shooting until you and I have had a conversation outside.’”

Rebecca Ferguson in ‘The Kid Who Would Be King’ (20th Century Fox)
Rebecca Ferguson in ‘The Kid Who Would Be King’ (20th Century Fox)

That conversation didn’t go the way Ferguson planned. “I realised he was very manipulative,” she says. “I think it’s called gaslighting. He made me think that I was going crazy. And I thought, ‘How the f*** did this happen? God, you’re good. You’re either very brilliant, or very dangerous.’ And I had to retrack and think, ‘No, no, what am I actually saying? I need to say something. I’m making a point, and I need to get to the end of it.’”

Did she manage to resolve it? “I did,” she says brightly. “We walked onto set, a hand slipped onto my arse, I hit it off, and I said, ‘Don’t ever f***ing touch me again.’ And he never did. That was it.”

Some actors seem somehow smaller in the flesh, a little less impressive – but Ferguson emits the same slow-burning magnetism that carried her from a breakout role in BBC‘s The White Queen in 2013 to that star-making turn as agent Faust (whom she’s confirmed she’ll be playing for a third time in the series’ next instalment). She doesn’t say what she was filming when that unpleasant experience took place, but it would have been their loss if she had not returned to set.

As Morgana in The Kid Who Would Be King, in which a modern-day schoolboy stumbles upon King Arthur’s sword and must embark upon a quest to save the land, she spends much of her time tethered to a tree, her own veins indistinguishable from the roots that crawl over her body. Morgana is a grotesque figure, inside and out – but Ferguson leaps to her defence.

“She’s a woman who was born with magic, and was seen as something disgusting and horrendous,” she says, “because no one understood it. She was cast out from her family. Of course she’s dark. Of course she’s lonely. Of course she’s self-centred. Because she was never loved! Just like some politicians in the world.”

Political analogies crop up throughout the film – “A land is only as good as its leaders,” says Patrick Stewart’s Merlin – but that wasn’t on Ferguson’s mind when she read the script. “I wasn’t sitting there going, ‘Ooh, that’s Europe today, isn’t it? That’s America.’ But it’s hard not to make those comparisons, and it’s beautiful how it works. I remember when we did The White Queen, we talked about women fighting for the throne, and I realised we’re still fighting the same battles. It never ends. It never stops.”

That’s why she thinks the #MeToo movement is “so bloody brilliant” – it’s given women the courage to fight those battles. “And yes,” she says, “some people are gonna have to stand in the line of the bullet for change to happen. C’est la vie. It happens. And you’re not there for no reason. There’s no smoke without bloody fire.”

She admires the women who have revealed experiences of assault or harassment recently – even if they did so some years after the incident took place, or after another victim had come forward. “It’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking, ‘Oh, that made that path easier, didn’t it? You followed someone else’,” she says, “when it should be, ‘Bloody well done. I wish you could have done it when it happened, so you wouldn’t have had to have years of s***. But at least you did it.”

“To come back to [my experience],” she continues, “I don’t know why, but I will call it out, and I did that time. And it did make a difference, and that was enough for me. But that was an easy one. That was in the open, on set, among hundreds of extras. That was not me alone in a corner somewhere.” Besides, she adds, “it probably has happened to me without realising other times, [and I’ve thought], ‘This is OK, this is just how it happens, this is the business’.” She hopes her baby daughter, with whom she was pregnant while filming Mission: Impossible – Fallout, grows up to never think the same. “I want my daughter, whenever she feels unjustly treated, whenever she feels uncomfortable, whenever her gut says ‘no’, to speak up.”

Rebecca Ferguson and Tom Cruise in ‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’ (Rex)
Rebecca Ferguson and Tom Cruise in ‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’ (Rex)

Ferguson has two children – baby Saga, with her husband Rory, and 12-year-old son Isac from a previous relationship. “He’s the new man for the new society,” she says. “When he asks things, I’m very honest. We had lots of conversations about sexuality when he was younger. He would say, ‘How do Olaf and his boyfriend have children?’ And you have to sit down and go, ‘These are the options: you have surrogacy, you have this…’ So at the age of five, my kid knew all about bees and bees, or flowers and flowers, or flowers and bees. We have a lot of discussions about trafficking, prostitution, rape, all of it.” Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.

She’s also determined to never tell him he can’t cry. “When people say that to their children, I’m not kidding, I want to slap the parents over the face. There’s nothing that makes me more pissed off than unfairly treated children. Religion as well, when you force that upon your children…” Her publicist interrupts. We have a few minutes left. “So The Kid Who Would Be King then!” she cries. “We’ve done #MeToo, we’ve done gender, we’ve done politics…”

She wasn’t planning on venturing into these areas – particularly not #MeToo. “It’s such a sensitive subject,” she says. “It’s our trust in your writing. That’s the issue. The more fairly and justly it’s portrayed… that’s how you help equality.” She smiles, and points a finger at me. “That’s your job, love.”

The Kid Who Would Be King is out in UK cinemas now