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Issue 95 - Exclusive Interview: Ruth Connell

Scotland Magazine Issue 95
October 2017


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Exclusive Interview: Ruth Connell

Christopher Coates speaks to the Scottish star of the hit TV show Supernatural

From kelpies to fairy flags, giant sea creatures to pacts with the devil, haunted castles to time-travel by standing stones, Scotland’s associations with the supernatural are undeniably woven into the mythos of the nation. So when the creators of The CW’s hit TV show Supernatural were searching for an actress to play a new antagonist — the witch Rowena — for their 10th season, it was only natural for them to cast a Scot.

Hailing from Central Scotland, Ruth Connell grew up on a farm near Bonnybridge and, as one may expect from a successful actor, spent much of her childhood with her head buried in books — when she wasn’t watching American television shows, that is. Little did she know that one day audiences across the globe would be watching her perform on the small screen in one of the world’s most popular sci-fi franchises. Ruth’s life on the stage began early. After going along to dancing lessons at the age four to keep her cousin Ruby company, Ruth’s talent for dance led to training at Scottish Ballet and, not long after, her first professional show at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow. As a child, her life’s ambition was to portray Clara in The Nutcracker — something she achieved just a few years later.

“It’s honestly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It left such a strong impression on me that I’ve been trying to get back to that feeling ever since,” Ruth explains. “I used to walk out onstage as Clara and I felt like it was my living room — because it’s Clara’s living room and she’s looking for her nutcracker doll. At the age of 12 or so, you still have that child’s imagination. It really fed into telling me what I wanted to do with my life.” This early success was compounded by being named Scottish Junior and, later, Senior Ballet Champion, which was followed by a career as a professional dancer and choreographer. However, in time she came to set her sights on a future in theatre.

After graduating with a degree in acting from The Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in London, Ruth went on to perform in a number of prominent shows including lead roles in productions of The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Faust. However, like many Scots before her she had an urge to seek out a fresh start and new opportunities in America. “On paper I thought I’d be a New York girl, what with all the theatre there. So I did a couple of weeks in New York and did a workshop there,” remembers Ruth. However, it was Los Angeles that really inspired her and, after a few chance encounters with fellow actors she knew from home and a stroke of luck landing a pilot (albeit back in the UK), Ruth had a good feeling about staying in the sunshine.

“Of course, I came to Los Angeles at the age most actresses are being told to retire,” she admits. “But it was the right point in my life.” Ruth certainly didn’t let this stand in her way and her perseverance paid off. After more or less starting her life from scratch in Los Angeles, three years later she had landed the recurring guest role on Supernatural and thus joined the esteemed ranks of iconic Scottish on-screen villains.

Her character, Rowena, is an immensely powerful and immortal witch who has her roots in 17th-Century Scotland. In seasons 10 and 11 the character served as the primary foil for the fantasy-horror show’s main characters — the demon-hunting brothers Sam and Dean Winchester — before returning again in season 12 as something of an anti-hero. Connell’s admirable depiction of this strong female character has won such international affection from the show’s passionate followers that there’s even an online fan site dedicated to her called ‘Rowena’s Coven’. Nevertheless, Ruth is modest about her considerable success.

“People, for the most part, don’t recognise me or know who I am. But for people that watch the show it’s different. They’re incredibly passionate.” As for the role itself, it could have been written for her. Of course, Ruth admits, being an authentic Scot makes delivering lines in Rowena’s characteristic Scottish accent perfectly natural for her. But, more than that, she nevertheless feels very aligned with many other aspects of her character.

“I always say that I’m ‘tuned to the moon’. I’m certainly open to the fact that there’s energy in the world and I’m quite in touch in that way — probably I would’ve been burned at the stake a few hundred years ago!” she explains. “I’ve definitely invested Rowena with everything that I have.”

On occasion, this investment has also included the addition of Scottish words to the script, in order for her character to come across as more authentic. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t do her homework too. Early research material included Rona Munro’s play The Last Witch, which is based on the sad history of Janet Horne, the last woman to be executed for witchcraft in the British Isles (in 1727), and Diary of a Witch, which was penned by English occultist and astrologer Sybil Leek in the late 1960s.

In order to understand Rowena’s character, Ruth makes it clear that she felt it important to understand more about the history of witchcraft in Scotland and the terrible price paid by so many women throughout our nation’s history. What’s more, it’s something that seems to have inspired some thoughts for future work.

“I think there’s real material there. In the current climate, with things like The Handmaid’s Tale on the television, I think there’s a real possibility for a series about how women, especially women who worked with herbs, were persecuted.” In fact, the role has helped to further develop Ruth’s interest in Scottish history generally — something that’s also been prompted by the move to Los Angeles and the curiosity many people there show in both her accent and her home nation.

“I didn’t realise, until I got here, quite how Scottish I was. In Scotland I felt like a child of the world, but then you come 5000 miles away and you realise how much of you is rooted in home,” admits Ruth. “Recently we’ve had Outlander and before that we had Brave — both of which I think have done a lot for tourism in Scotland. I’m actually the voice match for Princess Merida in Brave. So I definitely get a lot of questions about that too!”

Outside of acting, Ruth is passionate about fashion, harbours a love for beautifully crafted items, and admits to not being averse to ‘a bit of plaid, as they call it out here’. In fact, for some time now she has been an ambassador for the luxury accessories brand Dunmore Scotland — an association that came about, as is so often the case, by coincidence.

“I’m a real magpie. I met a woman at work in LA and admired what she was wearing. She got talking to me and said ‘Oh you’re Scottish? My friend’s doing a publicity campaign you might be interested in’. When I turned up on the shoot there were other Scottish people there that I already knew — of course!”

Ever since, Ruth has been proud to take Dunmore bags, all of which are handmade in Scotland, down the red carpet with her. She says that it’s chance encounters like this with other Scots abroad that make her feel closer to home. However, it’s the wide community of actors she’s met while working on Supernatural and travelling for conventions that has made her feel most at ease with her life in LA and less like a tourist. “It’s really nice that there’s a community feel about our show. We call ourselves the SPN family and I think that what, as an actor or performer, that’s what you’re looking for!”