Ms. McCrory appeared in more than 70 film and television productions and was one of Britain’s most respected stage actors, earning an Olivier nomination for best actress in 2006 for her performance as Rosalind in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” As the vengeful Medea at the National Theatre in 2014, she was “a time-bomb of smouldering fury,” wrote Telegraph theater critic Dominic Cavendish.
Ms. McCrory was perhaps best known as the gunslinging lead actress in “Peaky Blinders,” a BBC crime drama that premiered in 2013 and developed a following in the United States after being picked up by Netflix. Set in Birmingham, England, in the years after World War I, the series follows a gangster family led by Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy, with Ms. McCrory co-starring as his aunt and close adviser.
“Helen was a beautiful, caring, funny, compassionate human being,” Murphy said in a statement. “She was also a gifted actor — fearless and magnificent. She elevated and made humane every scene, every character she played.” Production on the show’s sixth and final season began earlier this year.
Ms. McCrory also played Cherie Blair, the wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), in “The Queen” (2006) and “The Special Relationship” (2010). She questioned Judi Dench’s M as a member of Parliament in the James Bond film “Skyfall” (2012) and appeared in three Harry Potter movies as Narcissa Malfoy, the haughty mother of Draco, Harry’s nemesis at Hogwarts.
“What can I say? I like strong women,” she told the Telegraph in 2015, when she starred in the second season of “Penny Dreadful,” a horror drama on Showtime and Sky, as the villainous Madame Kali. “Most of my friends are strong women. The women in my family are strong women. Characters who aren’t strong women don’t tend to interest me.”
Helen Elizabeth McCrory was born in London on Aug. 17, 1968. Her mother was a physical therapist from Wales, and her father was a diplomat from Scotland whose career led Ms. McCrory to spend part of her childhood overseas, with stops in Norway and Tanzania. She returned to England for boarding school in Hertfordshire, where her drama teacher was Thane Bettany, the father of actor Paul Bettany.
She later said that she immediately felt “at home with the misfits” of the stage. At 16, she applied to the Drama Centre in London and auditioned by reading a speech from “Romeo and Juliet.” It seemed to go well until they asked if she had ever been in love, and Ms. McCrory admitted she had not.
“ ‘But there will be people in the audience whose wives have died, who know about love in a deep and amazing way,’ they said. ‘And you are standing there, talking to them about love? What right do you have? Go away!’ And I thought they were absolutely right,” Ms. McCrory recalled in a 2019 Telegraph interview.
Taking their advice, she moved to Italy, fell in love — the romance sputtered — and returned to win a spot at the Drama Centre. She developed an “obsessive” approach to her craft, she said: “As soon as I am offered a part, I write down similarities and differences between me and the character, then I just work on the differences.”
In 1993 she landed her first major stage role, as the title character in a National Theatre production of “Trelawny of the ‘Wells.’ ” She later returned to star as the ingenue Nina in “The Seagull” (1994) and the lovelorn Hester Collyer in Terence Rattigan’s “The Deep Blue Sea” (2016). “With her incisive wit and ferocious intelligence, she was one of our most charismatic and distinctive performers,” Rufus Norris, the National Theatre’s artistic director, said in a statement.
On television, Ms. McCrory starred in a four-part adaptation of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” which aired on PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre” in 2001. She met Lewis when they shared the stage in Joanna Laurens’s “Five Gold Rings” two years later, playing forbidden lovers. To director Michael Attenborough, the romantic chemistry was palpable: “I could have warmed my hands on it,” he later said. “It was like directing a fire.”
In addition to Lewis, survivors include her two children, Manon and Gulliver.
Ms. McCrory lightened her workload for a few years after their birth, taking supporting roles in movies such as Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” (2011). She later starred on television shows including “Fearless” (2017), “MotherFatherSon” (2019) and “Roadkill” (2020), and voiced Stelmaria — Lord Asriel’s snow-leopard daemon — in “His Dark Materials,” which airs on HBO in the United States.
In 2017, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to drama. She had managed to carve out a wide-ranging career, she often noted, even while being picky in a field with notoriously limited opportunities for women.
“There are things I have turned down because I thought it would be irresponsible to make them,” including projects that promoted “the lie that women are only interesting in relation to the man they were sleeping with at the time,” she told the Independent in 2013. She was also uninterested in stories that were especially violent.
“To constantly reaffirm how terrible the world is just adds to people’s loneliness and their sense of alienation from each other,” she added. “Having said that, I’ve also played a woman in ‘Doctor Who’ who’s half-vampire, half-squid, so let’s not get too heavy about it.”