The family travelled around Europe during her childhood, following wherever her father's job with the Royal Navy took them so long as her mother's doctoral and postdoctoral schedule would allow. The family spent considerable time in Belgium during her father's posts with NATO, allowing Alton to immerse in French and German. Her early education was at Thomas's London Day Schools in Cadogan Gardens and Battersea. Alton was later a boarder at the prestigious Marlborough College in Wiltshire, where she was a classmate of Kate Middleton. She was a member of the National Youth Theatre in her teens, which inspired her to pursue a professional career.
2001-2007: Early roles and Bond breakthrough
Alton's early career included little-seen thriller The Hole (2001) and the miniseries adaptation of Doctor Zhivago as Lara, alongside Scottish actor Hans Matheson in the title role, which first aired in 2002 to good reviews and high ratings. Her first major feature film was Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002) as the handmaiden Dormé. Alton appeared in the $247 million grossing British romantic comedy Love Actually. The film had an ensemble cast, and opened in November 2003 to positive critical reception. Alton then spent the next several years in period drams, including Troy opposite Brad Pitt, and Vanity Fair, with Reese Witherspoon (who would later produce Gone Girl), in 2004.
Around the time of her graduation from Oxford, Alton appeared as Jane, the eldest Bennet sister, in Joe Wright's acclaimed adaptation of Pride & Prejudice (2005), as well as opposite Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins in Stephen Frears' Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005). Both roles were well-received, and she was nominated for several awards. She was cast at the last minute for the role of Vesper Lynd in the James Bond film Casino Royale (2006). Alton was approached in mid-2005 but turned it down; she eventually changed her mind when principal photography was underway and director Martin Campbell approached her again with a completed script. Alton's performance was well received: Entertainment Weekly called her the fourth-best Bond girl of all time; IGN named her the best femme fatale, stating, "This is the girl that broke – and therefore made – James Bond"; and she won a BAFTA and an Empire award for her performance. Both awards were voted for by the British public. Empire also listed her character Vesper Lynd as the ninth-sexiest female character in cinema history.
Alton's television credits during this time include the successful Channel 4 adaptation of William Boyd's novel Any Human Heart (2010), and the first and only season of Starz's Camelot (2011) as the sorceress Morgan Le Fay. She played Irene Adler in "A Scandal in Belgravia", the first episode of the second series of Sherlock.
2014-2016: Gone Girl and rise to prominence
2014 was a banner year for Alton. She played the eponymous protagonist in Miss Julie, a film adaptation of August Strindberg's 1888 play of the same name, from director Liv Ullmann. Miss Julie tells the tragic tale of a sexually repressed Anglo-Irish aristocrat who wishes to sleep with her father's valet (played by Colin Farrell). Alton was attracted to Ullmann's feminist take on the subject. The film only received a limited theatrical release.
While filming Miss Julie in Ireland, Alton received the script for the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn's thriller novel Gone Girl, and won the part after several hours-long video calls with director David Fincher. Featuring opposite Henry Dessner, Alton was cast as Amy Dunne, a woman who goes missing on her fifth wedding anniversary. According to Fincher, Alton was his first choice for the role because he wanted someone who was not widely known, and because he found her enigmatic and couldn't easily read her. The film emerged as a box office hit, earning over $356 million in global ticket sales. The movie and Alton's performance both earned widespread acclaim from critics.
Alton served on the Tribeca Film Festival International Narrative Competition jury in the spring of 2017. In November of that year, Alton began starring with Bryan Cranston in the stage adaptation of Network, again at the National Theatre directed by Ivo Van Hove. Alton won rave reviews for her interpretation of the ruthless television executive Faye Dunaway portrayed on screen.
In 2019, Alton co-starred in Jordan Peele's psychological horror film Us alongside Lupita Nyong'o. The film is certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, receiving a 95% with the consensus reading, "With Jordan Peele's second inventive, ambitious horror film, we have seen how to beat the sophomore jinx, and it is Us." She also stars in the SundanceTV abbreviated TV comedy State of the Union, reunting her with both writer Nick Hornby and director Stephen Frears; the ten 10-minute episodes follow a couple and their weekly meetings in a bar before they head off to couples' therapy. Both Alton and O'Dowd won Primetime Emmy Awards for the series. Alton next agreed to a villainous part in the superhero film Dark Phoenix, which marked the twelfth installment in the X-Men film series, due to its focus on female characters. The critic Peter Bradshaw considered it to be "a waste of her talents."
Later in 2019, Alton starred in the Guy Ritchie-directed The Gentlemen, as the wife of a drug baron played by Matthew McConaughey. The film, which opened in wide release in 2020, was met with mixed to positive reviews, though Alton's performance as Ros was praised, and the film has grossed over $100 million worldwide.
Alton next acted in and produced the action film Ava, starring as a deadly assassin opposite Gone Girl costar Henry Dessner, John Malkovich, and Common. The film was penned and initially scheduled to be directed by Matthew Newton, who has a history of alleged domestic violence. Following criticism against Alton for choosing to work with him, Newton was replaced by Tate Taylor. Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter bemoaned that Alton's talents as an action star were wasted in an underwhelming film.
Alton is a celebrity ambassador for The Prince's Trust. She also serves as a celebrity ambassador for the Invictus Games Foundation, starting with support of the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando, Florida. She has been a patron of the National Youth Theatre, of which she was once a member, since 2016. She served as ambassador and skipper for the Place2Be sailing boat in the inaugural King's Cup Regatta on the Isle of Wight in August 2019, hosted by close friends the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
In May 2016, Alton was one of many celebrities who signed a letter imploring Britain to vote "remain" in the forthcoming UK EU Referendum. In January 2017, she published an editorial in Huffington Post UK speaking out against Prime Minister Theresa May's invitation to newly-inaugurated US President Donald Trump for an official state visit.
Alton is a vocal supporter and founding signatory of the Time's Up movement, and in the wake of the Weinstein effect stated, "[W]hat I have come to is that I need to do better. We all do... I am sick to think that I just took [sexual harassment], and thought that being above it was the same as fighting it, that knowing it was wrong was as good as calling it out, or that calling it out was tantamount to changing it." Alton was one of several actors in early 2018 who expressed solidarity with Dylan Farrow after having worked with her father, Woody Allen; she donated her wages from Cassandra's Dream (2007) to the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund in Farrow's name and stated she would never again work with Allen.
In recent years, Alton has been vocal about the need for equality and inclusivity in the film industry, particularly in the representation of women and minorities behind the camera. She was the driving force behind the production of her new spy film 355, and while it is produced by Alton's company all of the starring actresses (Alton, Penelope Cruz, Fan Bingbing, Lupita Nyong'o and Diane Kruger) have pay parity and equity stakes in the film. In June 2020, Alton was one of over 3,500 members of the UK film and television industries to sign an open letter calling on gatekeepers to make a number of "strategic commitments" to reshape the landscape and improve representation of Black & Brown creatives.
'Wreckoning' hack controversy
In the Wreckoning digital hack in the spring of 2015, emails from the server of Alton's publicist were released online, in which Alton was seen to criticize discussion around her role in Gone Girl, the actresses in her Academy Awards and Tony categories that year, and other media figures. Her publicist released a statement denouncing the illegality of the hack but not disputing her client's comments were real. Alton later commented on the hack in a 2016 interview with the Evening Standard, explaining but not dismissing her own comments and saying, "I got a bit het up about it, I got a bit defensive."
Alton has one sibling, older half-brother Oliver Gower-Alton, and through him is the sister-in-law of photographer Anne Linley; she is aunt to their three children. Alton brought her entire family, including niece and nephews, to the Academy Awards when she was nominated in 2015.
In an October 2018 op-ed in the New York Times, Alton shared that she suffers from chronic pain, the nature of which she did not disclose. She has also alluded to "health problems" experienced in 2016.
Despite significant media attention, Alton remains tight-lipped about her personal life. She has reportedly been in relationships with Colin Farrell and Jude Law.
FilmTBA The ForgivenJessica Chastain's role2022 The 355Mace / Producer2021 DuneLady Jessica2021 ReminiscenceMae2020 AvaAva / Producer2019 The GentlemenRosalind Pearson2019 Dark PhoenixVuk2019 UsKitty Tyler / Dahlia2018 A Private WarMarie Colvin2018 7 Days In EntebbeBrigitte Kuhlmann2018 AnnihilationLena2017 The SnowmanKatrine Bratt2017 DisobedienceEsti Kuperman2017 The Man with the Iron HeartLina Heydrich2016 National Theatre Live: Hedda GablerHedda Gabler2016 A United KingdomRuth Williams2016 The Complete Walk: All's Well That Ends WellHelena2016 Florence Foster JenkinsKathleen2015 In The Heart Of The SeaPeggy Chase2015 Crimson PeakLucille Sharpe2015 CinderellaElla's mother2014 Gone GirlAmy Dunne2014 Miss JulieMiss Julie2013 Jimi: All Is By My SideKathy Etchingham2013 Saving Mr. BanksMargaret Goff2013 The World's EndSam Chamberlain2012 Anna KareninaPrincess Betsy Tverskoy2012 HitchcockVera Miles2011 BridesmaidsHelen2010 Last NightJoanna2010 Get Him to The GreekJackie Q2009 An EducationHelen2009 Love Hate (short)Hate2008 The Edge of LoveCaitlin Thomas2008 The DuchessBess Foster2008 Frost/NixonCaroline Cushing2007 Cassandra's DreamAngela2007 StardustVictoria2006 Casino RoyaleVesper Lynd2006 The IllusionistSophie2005 Pride & PrejudiceJane Bennet2005 Mrs. Henderson PresentsMaureen2004 TroyBriseis2004 Vanity FairAmelia Sedley2003 I Capture The CastleRose Mortmain2003 Love ActuallyJuliet2002 Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the ClonesDormé2001 The HoleFrances "Frankie" Almond Smith Television2020 Thomas & FriendsDuchess (voice)2019 Tuca & BertieLady Netherfield (voice)2019 State of the UnionLouise2018 Watership DownThe Black Rabbit of Inlé (voice)2017 Red Nose Day ActuallyJuliet2016-17 House of CardsHannah Conway2012, 2014 SherlockIrene Adler("A Scandal in Belgravia" and "The Sign of Three")2011 CamelotMorgan Pendragon2010 Any Human HeartFreya Deverell2005 Dark ShadowsCarolyn Stoddard2002 Doctor ZhivagoLara Antipova2001 Love in a Cold ClimateFanny2000 In The BeginningYoung Rebeccah Stage2017 Network (National Theatre)Diana Christensen2016 Hedda Gabler (National Theatre)Hedda Gabler2015 Constellations (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)Marianne2012 The Recruiting Officer (Donmar Warehouse)Melinda2011 Anna Christie (Donmar Warehouse)Anna Christie2010 An Ideal Husband (Vaudeville Theatre)Lady Chiltern2009 A Streetcar Named Desire (Donmar Warehouse)Stella2007 Othello (Donmar Warehouse)Desdemona2007 Gaslight (The Old Vic)Bella Manningham2005 Prometheus Bound (RSC)Io / Force2004 Hamlet (The Old Vic)Ophelia2003 Hitchcock Blonde (Royal Court / The Lyric)The Blonde Music videos2017 "Family Feud" by Jay-Z (feat. Beyoncé)Jessica Chastain's role Audio books2018 Sense & Sensibility (for Audible)Narrator2015 Pride & Prejudice (for Audible)Narrator Video games2008 Quantum of SolaceVesper Lynd (voice)