Silent Witness begins it’s 18th season on BBC One next week and the season also marks Emilia Fox’s tenth year on the show, here she tells us why she is still keen to expand the boundaries of her character and how she maintains the balance between work and home.
You’ve been playing Dr Nikki Alexander in Silent Witness for 10 years now. What initially attracted you to the role?
When Nikki was first introduced she was a tomboy and she was a real live wire. She had a great spirit and was fun, and she was passionate about her work. She’d thrown herself into everything whether it’d be hobbies or work or the people that she became involved with. She was really good at betting on horseracing – I remember that! Her specialist skills were archaeological anthropology and I found that fascinating linked with the pathology as well, so there was something to really get your teeth into as an actress, not just as a character but also learning the whole new world of anthropology and the medical science of pathology. Key to it as well was the dimension between the three main characters as that was really well written. I think it gave room for Tom Ward and I to build on that relationship between Harry and Nikki into a moonlighting scenario of ‘Will they? Won’t they?’ which was fun to play.
What do you think are Nikki’s best and worst traits?
Nikki’s best trait is that she throws herself into her work with heart and soul but it’s probably also her worst trait because she sometimes gets involved too deeply, and can’t really stand back from the situation. She has terrible taste in male suitors and I think that is probably to do with an absent father. Also being a workaholic and fear of commitment!
Describe Nikki’s relationship with Jack, Thomas and Clarissa.
Nikki’s relationship with Jack is like brother and sister. They really look out for each other but they also bicker, but you feel that they really care about each other. They don’t talk about each other’s’ personal lives too much but you feel that within the work environment they’re very much with each other. With Clarissa, she has the insight on all of our characters. She’s the knowing one in all sorts of ways, professionally and also personally, so she has a sort of good humoured commentary on the characters. I think it’s lovely for Nikki and Clarissa being the females together on things and they have this teasing relationship with Jack. Thomas is Nikki and everyone’s boss, so they’ve got to a point where they really respect each other. They haven’t always seen eye-to-eye on things, but I think that the relationship is building between them.
Do you relate to Nikki yourself?
We’ve sort of grown together over 10 years, so I do relate to her in because I have been her for so long. She contains a lot of me in her. I try to keep elements separate but I have a total understanding of her being a woman at a certain time in her life, who has thrown herself into her work and she’s so much part of my everyday life. She’s been a constant through all sorts of bits of my own life, so yes I do relate to her in many ways.
Do you have to research for your role?
The research really started when I got the part and it was suggested that I go and see an autopsy – which I did. It was interesting in many ways. He was an old man, so it seemed like a natural death but what was fascinating was the process of going through the body until finally pinning down exactly what it was that had caused his death. My fear was that I would faint or be embarrassing in that situation, and of course because it was so riveting you don’t. I really understood why Silent Witness is a programme that people are interested in, because it is the detective process of going through the body and the clues are there in front of you. Afterwards I found it quite thought-provoking because I was thinking ‘Is this it? Is this what life is all about?’ That you end up on a mortuary slab with people you don’t know looking at you, in such an exposed situation? I found that quite haunting. I remember being on the train going back and feeling quite upset by it. Then by the end of the train journey I thought actually, no, life is all about living it in the moment and making the most of it while you’re here. This was backed up by a second autopsy I saw on a young man who had a tragic untimely death, which really reconfirmed that we must make the most of life.
Could you describe your working practice on set?
First of all as soon as we get the scripts, I like to do a timeline for Nikki all the way through the two episodes so at any time I can go back to my timeline and see exactly where she is in terms of what scene she’s just been in or what scene she’s going to be in. This is for practical reasons but also emotionally, so you know where you are in relation to the other characters. So if it’s a romantic graph you need to draw, you need to know when they’re meeting, when you start feelings things, tensions or whatever. Certainly so with a case because they’re such intricate plots so you need to know what you know when, and be very precise about that. Also with the medical stuff, you really need to know what you’re talking about because sometimes it can feel like another language, so you need to be really clear on where you are in the story and what that means in each scene. So that’s how I start really; with the script. On set, the joy of it is working with the director and the other actors, so I like to try and make the other actors and feel as comfortable as possible so we can try things out. With David, Richard and Liz we have a kind of shorthand with each other. Then the rehearsals and working with the crew – you really rely a lot on them telling you what works and doesn’t work. I just try and make it as fun as possible!
What do you enjoy most about being part of Silent Witness?
I really enjoy the everyday of coming into Silent Witness. I look forward to it. I look forward to telling the stories, the filming process, seeing the Silent Witness family every day. Every time the series ends I mourn it and look forward to seeing everyone again like it’s a new term at school. Pretty much everything! I’m very lucky. I really enjoy my job.
What do you least enjoy or find most challenging?
The autopsies are like exams! They loom over the filming process. They normally come at the end of the shoot on each story. Each story takes five weeks to film – that’s two episodes – and the autopsies come in the fifth week, and so for quite a while you can put it off and think ‘I’ll learn it closer to the time.’ Then suddenly the time comes and I think I’ve got all these lines to learn! ‘Do I understand what I’m saying?’ And also trying to make it look real when you’re actually doing the autopsies, so you’re not only remembering the lines, you also have to learn new medical procedure on the day. That’s the difficult bit of it. The hours are long, but as an actor you get the lucky side of it with the crew here all the time. The series is top and tailed by extreme weather so it can be very cold!
Do you have a most memorable moment so far?
I have lots of memorable moments. The first scene I ever shot was when I was brushing my teeth in the mortuary and Leo came in and said ‘What are you doing? Who are you and why are you brushing your teeth in the mortuary?’ That’s the sort of character Nikki was when she first came into the show. But my most memorable moment was when I sat as myself at the desk in the science room, and Tom who was playing Harry came in and went ‘That’s my desk you’re sitting at!’ and from that moment it formed that relationship which was always teasing. It happened unexpectedly but it really was the foundation for the next 8 years of filming. Other memorable moments were the death of Leo and I think the introduction of the new regulars, who have formed this team which has evolved Silent Witness into the next stage of its life.
What’s the element in series 18 you are most looking forward to watching yourself?
I think all the stuff we did on the London Underground. It was so exciting shooting it. We were doing it guerrilla style, just jumping on and off tubes. We were doing scenes in front of the public on the tube, and goodness knows what they thought! They’re sitting there coming in and out of work and we would be literally going up and down the tube lines until we’d got the scenes. We would jump off; go across platforms and onto another one. It was really exciting because often you’re in really far away locations or the studio, and what’s so great about Silent Witness is that it is a series which is very much set in London and I think this series really shows off where we are rooted.
How do you balance your work and family life?
It’s a juggle. You’ve just got to constantly keep the balls in the air and have lots of support, which I do in Rose’s Dad and Cassie who lives with me. She copes with all the early mornings when I go off to work. Contrary to what people believe – that filming can be difficult being a parent – it can also be incredibly good because you get afternoons, mornings or days off. So there are lots of opportunities to go back and be with my daughter Rose that I wouldn’t have if I was doing a 9 to 5 job. Sometimes when the storyline focusses on the guest characters, those few days I get to be at home with her and just be Mum doing the school run and things like that. The studio is really close to my house, so I’ve always been able to go backwards and forwards in any breaks I have in the day. In fact she used to have her very own Silent Witness room which was way bigger than any of our trailers!
You’ve achieved so much. What ambitions do you still have?
I still want to work as much as possible. I still want to keep evolving Silent Witness as much as possible. I like to do as much different stuff work wise as I can in-between series; to play characters which are as extreme as possible away from Nikki. I think I’d like to direct one day, maybe produce and I’d like to write children’s books.