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‘What if Johnny has norovirus?’: Tuppence Middleton reveals how OCD affects her work

The actor ‘Tuppence Middleton’, who is preparing to play Elizabeth Taylor in The Motive and the Cue at the National Theatre, said the condition made rehearsals difficult

Tuppence Middleton has spoken about the difficulties of managing the anxiety borne out of her obsessive compulsive disorder while working.

Since rehearsals for her latest project began, the actor has “woken up bolt upright in the middle of the night”, she told the BBC.

Middleton, 36, is currently working on The Motive and the Cue, a new play by Jack Thorne which features the tempestuous relationship between Elizabeth Taylor – played by Middleton – and her husband, Richard Burton, played by Johnny Flynn. Sam Mendes directs and the production opens next week.

“Johnny and I have to kiss in this [play] and one of my obsessions is being emetophobic, that’s fear of vomiting,” said Middleton. “And so I get preoccupied with, ‘Oh what if Johnny has norovirus’?”

The initial period of rehearsals presented particular challenges, said Middleton.

“The first day when you meet everyone, and everyone shakes hands … I’m making a mental note of whose hand I’ve shaken – and then I have to remember while I’m talking to people that I need to go and wash my hands,” she said.

In 2021, Middleton first talked about developing OCD as a child and the “internal” impact it has had on her career. “You find ways of coping with it as you get older and get used to it.”

Middleton’s credits include Black Mirror, Sense8, Our House, War & Peace, Fisherman’s Friends and the Downton Abbey films.

‘You find way of coping with it as you get older’ … Tuppence Middleton. Photograph: Lia Toby/Getty Images

Other actors who have gone public with similar diagnoses include Daniel Radcliffe, Charlize Theron, Jessica Alba and Amanda Seyfried.

Seyfried was diagnosed in her 20s and has said she is on medication to manage her symptoms. Alba linked her OCD to a feeling of a lack of control over own health as a child, meaning that as an adult “I used to unplug every single appliance in my house. Or I’d double-check every door in my house to make sure it was locked at night.”

Radcliffe has said that he was aware of his condition as young as five years old and would feel compelled to constantly repeat anything he said back to himself, which he did as quietly as possible to avoid notice. Therapy helped him manage the condition, he said.

Theron, meanwhile, described having OCD as “no fun at all” but said having children helped her cope better with some of the anxieties.

The Motive and the Cue is Middleton’s first major stage role. The play is set during the years Taylor and Burton first became a couple, having met on the set of 1963’s Cleopatra, while married to other people.

Middleton told the BBC she felt younger people today struggled to comprehend “just how famous they were”.

“They were sort of like exotic animals,” she said, “people wanted to be close to them.”

The play takes place in 1964, when Burton played Hamlet on Broadway in John Gielgud’s experimental production. Mark Gatiss co-stars as Gielgud.

“Every single night, throughout the run,” says Middleton, “there were thousands of people in the street outside the theatre and the roads were blocked off.

“And that would just never happen now, because celebrity doesn’t hold that same kind of pull.”

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