Catherine Steadman’s second career was born on an impossibly hot day in the desert. “All I could think of,” she said, “was the sea.”
An actor best known to American audiences as insouciant heiress Mabel Lane Fox on Season 5 of “Downton Abbey,” Steadman was filming the television series “Tutankhamun” in Namibia several years ago — in full Victorian costume, complete with corset. “It was just boiling,” she said, in a telephone interview from her London home. “I thought about going swimming, being by the sea, a cool breeze. I starting thinking about what plot you could get around that setting, if you wanted to read a book.”
From that initial spark came “Something in the Water,” Steadman’s 2018 debut novel: a psychological thriller about a couple who make a terrifying discovery in the sea during their tropical island honeymoon. The book became a New York Times bestseller and a pick for Reese Witherspoon’s book club. A second novel, “Mr. Nobody” (the current selection for Moira’s Seattle Times Book Club), was published in early 2020, and her third, “The Disappearing Act,” will be out next spring.
For Steadman, who studied at The Oxford School of Drama and has appeared in numerous British television shows, films and stage productions since the mid-2000s, becoming an author wasn’t exactly planned. But storytelling through written words rather than performance had long simmered within her. “I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision to become a writer,” Steadman said. “It just seemed like another form of storytelling that was suddenly open to me.”
Many actors, she said, are natural writers: “You’re ingesting so many stories, digesting them from the characters’ point of view and fleshing out the backstory and looking for arcs and plot twists and structure. I think it’s innate, it sort of becomes habitual. A lot of actors have that kind of improvisational thing that can translate into writing really well.”
And writing, it turns out, is something that can coexist nicely with acting. Film and television work by necessity involves a lot of waiting around; Steadman often found herself writing in her trailer, or during downtime on the set. The bulk of “Something in the Water” was written during a two-month lull between acting jobs — “I’d just get up every morning and go at it, and keep going at it until it was dark outside.” When it was finally finished, “the next step seemed to be to try to get people to read it,” so she did some online research and sent the book to a few agents. One responded quickly — and just like that, the actor was now a published author.
Though it’s fun to imagine Steadman tapping away on a laptop in a corner of the “Downton Abbey” set, that particular job predated her writing career. But she speaks of it fondly. “It was a well-oiled machine by the time I got there,” she said of the show, praising its experienced crew and “family atmosphere.” She’s quite certain that her character, who spent the season caught up in a love triangle between Lady Mary and Tony Gillingham, lived happily ever after. “She’ll be fine,” said Steadman of Mabel, with a laugh, “but I don’t know about Tony.” (Mabel, who married Tony after Lady Mary cast him off, was “very strategic in choosing him,” Steadman said.)
And she was happy to discuss her favorite costumes: a riding habit that was entirely handmade (she dreamed of keeping it, but was told it was headed for a museum), and a crystal-encrusted 1930s flapper dress. “They could get their hands on these real museum-piece articles of clothing,” she said of the “Downton” costume department. “It was a real privilege to be able to wear them.”
Just as Steadman’s acting career has taken her many places, her books have led her on new adventures. For “Mr. Nobody,” which has at its center a mysterious man who doesn’t know his own name, she dove into research on dissociative amnesia and fugue states (starting with “Neuroscience for Dummies” and watching numerous documentaries). “There’s something fascinating about the idea that you could wake up one day and not remember who you are,” she said. “I think it catches a lot of people’s imagination.”
And her upcoming third book takes her both close to home and far away: Its main character is an actress in Los Angeles for pilot season — which is, Steadman says, a setting ripe for a thriller. “Actors from all over the world fly into L.A. [to audition] for all the network and cable shows — it’s a huge melting pot of strangers in a city for a couple of months,” she said. The story is based on “a lot of things about the industry which are quite strange, some behind-the-scenes stuff, some characters that are based in real life, some stories that people have told me. Hopefully it gets across the strangeness of that particular time of year in that place.” (Steadman made it clear, with a laugh, that she has not personally experienced the thriller part of the plot, in which a fellow actress mysteriously disappears.)
Though acting jobs have dried up during the pandemic, Steadman is hopeful that work will return. “In the last couple of weeks I’ve been taping a lot more auditions,” she said. “It’s all touch-and-go at the moment.” But she’s used the downtime to work on her fourth novel, and to try something new: writing a television adaptation of the Jess Ryder novel “The Ex-Wife.”
“It was something I hadn’t tried before, and I wanted to give it a go and see how close to novel writing it would be,” she said, of screenwriting. “Two worlds sort of colliding!”
Moira’s Seattle Times Book Club will meet online to discuss “Mr. Nobody” at noon on Wednesday, Dec. 16. See seattletimes.com/books for more information.