Gina McKee has her rule.
“I’ve always been quite straightforward about what I will talk about — my work,” the British actress says.
When it comes to personal or family questions, forget it. “I’m married, but I don’t have children” is about all you’ll get — and only to correct false reports that she’s the mother of two.
Don’t bother asking about her husband, or even his name. “That’s where I draw the line,” she says with polite charm.
Thankfully, McKee has plenty of work.
—She’s back as Irene Heron Forsyte in the three-part PBS “Masterpiece Theatre” presentation of “The Forsyte Saga, Series II,” based on novelist John Galsworthy’s serial portrait of a wealthy, turn-of-the-century British family. It airs Feb. 8, 15 and 22 at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).
—McKee also stars in another “Masterpiece” miniseries, “The Lost Prince,” airing April 4 and 11. She plays Lalla Bill, caregiver to Prince John, son of Britain’s King George V and Queen Mary, who was an epileptic hidden from public view in the early 20th century when shame surrounded the illness and treatment was misguided.
—And Wednesday at 9 p.m., McKee plays Helen, daughter to Dianne Wiest’s Lily and granddaughter to Angela Lansbury’s Granny in the CBS “Hallmark Hall of Fame” production of “The Blackwater Lightship.” Set and filmed in Ireland, it’s an adaptation of Colm Toibin’s novel about generational conflict and the struggle to heal emotional rifts as these women care for their AIDS-afflicted brother, son and grandson, Declan, played by Keith McErlean.
Although CBS promos focus on the popular Lansbury and Oscar-winning Wiest, McKee’s character is the glue.
“She is easily watched,” says Hallmark executive producer Richard Welsh, noting that the film includes many close-ups of McKee’s striking, angular face. “Her physical presentation is lovely and graceful, and yet her technique is flawless.”
Many, no doubt, already know McKee as Bella, the crippled friend in the 1999 romantic comedy “Notting Hill,” starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.
Dressed with casual elegance in a glitter tweed coat, the 39-year-old actress chats over tea — in her case, just lemon dipped in hot water — at a Hollywood hotel.
Influenced by Loach, LeighMcKee grew up in a coal-mining village in northern England — “a very industrial working class area ... where the creative industries were a hundred miles away, not on the radar.”
In retrospect she believes she was influenced in her career choice by the work of socially realistic British filmmakers like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. She was “blown away” by “Kes,” Loach’s movie about an underprivileged boy’s relationship with a falcon.
“I think it was the first time I had seen, in cinematic form, some representation of a world that I knew. Not the same, but the references were similar — I know people like that, I know houses like that, I know that environment,” she says.
McKee and her friends would also quote lines from the 1970s British television plays “Nuts in May” and “Abigail’s Party,” directed by Leigh, whom she would later work for in his 1993 improvised drama “Naked.”
But it never occurred to her that acting was a career option until producers from the TV show “Quest of Eagles” literally came to her door when she was 14, with only limited experience in local theater.
Today, she has won the highest British acting honor, the BAFTA, for playing a woman from 18 to mid-50s in the 1995 BBC miniseries “Our Friends From the North.”
McKee is again tackling a broad age range in the second “Forsyte” series, which leaps forward a generation from the first six episodes that PBS aired in 2002.
World War I has ended and the enigmatic Irene is “living an idyll” with second husband Jolyon, cousin to abhorred first husband Soames. Their home is Robin Hill, the mansion designed by her late lover, architect Phillip Bosinney.
But this “cocoon of happiness is soon slit open at the seams,” as her son, Jon, falls in love with Soames’ daughter, Fleur.
Irene is seen in the film wearing the looser fashions of the 1920s, so different from the tensely corseted clothes of her youth in which McKee looked so exquisite.
“Although she’s still a bit of peacock,” McKee says, “she’s not the belle of the ball any more.”