Britannia Series Three | Interview with Sophie Okonedo (Hemple)

Why did you want to take the part of Hemple?

I love her, she’s such a great character. It was huge fun, every day. She’s quite naughty, and she doesn’t follow the rules. She’s full-on fierce, complicated, fearsome, scary, funny, sexy and dangerous. She plays by her own rules.

She arrives with a bit of a bang …

Yes, she arrives on a chariot with a whole following of acolytes. She also has two huge dogs and an owl so there’s quite a lot going on! She’s come to make things ship-shape and to pay respect to the gods, and to sort things out because she feels her husband hasn’t been keeping up with what he’s there to do, which is to make their cult the most dominant powerful religion.

How does Aulus respond to her arrival?

He’s not too pleased! She’s a difficult wife and doesn’t give him an easy ride. He might be in charge, but she’s the dominant person in that relationship, so he’s never going to get off lightly. She’s a pain in the neck as far as he’s concerned.

He’s taken another wife in her absence. How does she feel about that?

I don’t think she’s jealous in that way, so she uses it to her advantage. Because she’s got so many hidden motives, she thinks everyone else has got them too, so she’s trying to work out what’s going on, what the truth of the situation is, and if she can use this new wife to her advantage. She’s got quite a lot of lovers herself, so I don’t think she’s particularly faithful! She’s free and easy in that way.

It’s all orgies and wine and animals!

Basically! Everywhere she goes, there’s an orgy. She’s either going to one or she’s just left one, or else she’s involved in a sacrifice. In the same way other people get on the bus and go to work, that’s her general day-today existence.

Her other rather unusual hobby is cannibalism, it seems.

Yes. She likes to partake of the flesh, literally. She’s got eclectic tastes, and one of them is human beings. She’s a woman with an enormous appetite for everything.

Aside from the character, were there other reasons for wanting to take the part?

The weird thing is – and this is the first time I’ve ever done this – I was a massive fan of the show already, so I couldn’t believe it when I got the part. Jez and Tom are such great writers, and I love the cast. I just love the world. I love the whole thing. I came a bit late to the party, but I saw the first and second series together in one go, and I thought particularly the second series was fantastic.

What’s it like, arriving on set and coming into something established when you’re already a fan?

I was envisioning this summer of hanging out with all the cast that I adored from afar, chewing the cud with them, but that was not to be, as we were in the midst of a pandemic. We were in our bubbles and isolation, and you only saw people you were acting with within your bubble. You didn’t really see anybody outside that, so there was no hanging out to be had which was sad.

The good news was, because it’s an established show, and because it’s a very well-oiled machine run by Rupert [RyleHodges] our producer, we were able to go back to work quite early in August when most productions were still struggling. So even though we were shut down for four months, we were back on quickly because it’s something that’s been done before. A newer show or a less experienced producer might have struggled with that.

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Did you get to film in many locations or were you mainly studio based?

We were at Wembley most of the time! We would have been in a lot more glamorous places like Snowdonia, Dorset and Cornwall, all these amazing places, but the pandemic meant we couldn’t. We did find some really interesting places, though. We did some filming around Tunbridge Wells. I spent most of my time in the studio, but she does go feral later on and goes on a walkabout.

Whether you’re in the studio or outdoors, it’s an incredible set! Everything looks very muddy, cold and wet – because it was. A lot of it was filmed between September and January, so it was freezing. When we were roaming around the forest looking freezing, we really are! It all looks very real when you get there. It’s muddy, dirty and slippery, and that’s the way it was.

Hemple is surrounded by animals. Is that a part of the job that you enjoyed?

I do. I’ve had a lot of experience with snakes already. When I did Anthony and Cleopatra, I had a live snake every night. It was even the same snake handler! I didn’t have the same snake, but I was familiar with them so it wasn’t too bad. I’ve worked with horses before and I’d worked with that trainer before. The dogs were huge, but they were very friendly. They always bring something to the scene, it’s always nice. I like that sort of stuff.

Previous to doing Cleopatra, had you been a bit wary or frightened of snakes, or were you always okay with them?

I didn’t really think about it. I didn’t think they’d be a problem, and they weren’t, so it was lovely really. When I was doing Cleopatra, we talked about how it had to be a live one because if it was a rubber one it would be silly. As soon as they were part of the show, it was wonderful. Having a live snake every night, I absolutely loved it. I actually had a snake on stage with me during my warm-ups before the show. I wouldn’t have one as a pet though, a dog is enough for me!

Can you describe Hemple’s look?

Yeah, I’ve gone for a cross between some Roman influence crossed with Donna Summer or Diana Ross. A touch of pop. I wanted a playful, glamorous look. The costumes are fantastic. I managed to get a little bit of influence with my hair, I wanted very big Diana Ross hair, and they went with it, so that was good.

That goes very well with the contemporary music of Britannia.

Yes, that’s what I love about this show so much. Also, when you think about Veran’s brother, he was a bit Iggy Pop. So I definitely felt with Hemple there was room for modern influences as well as the historical ones.

It sounds like you were very involved in creating her look.

I was, but the costume designer Ann Maskrey is absolutely amazing. I had some say in a few things that I liked – one of them was a very tall, black hat – and there were certain things that I might have said, “Oh, can we have that a bit bigger?” but she had already gone ahead and made the designs look fantastic so I didn’t mess with it too much.

What I did have quite a lot of say in was my hair, and the way I looked. I wanted my makeup to look smudgy, and not too made up. It’s make-up, but it looks she’s got a big tin of paint and thrown it over herself. It’s always discussion and negotiation, but the hair was something I was very strong about, that she should have this mane that got bigger and bigger and bigger.

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The language is also a mash-up between modern and classical. Did you enjoy your lines?

I really love the relationship between me and Aulus. Sometimes the language between us was really classical and then other times we would be squabbling like husband and wife. It went through all those different extremes, which I really liked. It was sometimes like a kitchen sink drama, except we were talking about killing and eating people. So that was really good, that was really fun. Also, I’ve known Dave [Morrissey] for so many years. We’ve been around together, we’ve worked together, he’s directed me in a show, and we’re friends. It was easy to work with Dave every day.

Did you get straight on the phone to him when you got the part?

I sent him a text saying, “Fancy me as your wife?”

How fun is it to let rip with someone you know and trust so well?

It’s very easy. A lot of time we just have to not laugh! We were having good fun. Some of his lines are very funny. It was a very enjoyable and easy experience. I love acting with Dave, so that was great. I loved some of the insults I got to use against him!

What about the rest of the cast?

I did most of my scenes with Annabel [Scholey] and Dave, and Annabel’s great. I didn’t have much with Mackenzie, but he got to direct me a few times. I was really happy because I’d never worked with him before, and I really wanted to work with him. He’s got no ego at all, and is such a nice person. He’s very still and quiet, to the point, and gets on with it. He knows what he wants. With the circumstances of Covid, when filming can feel difficult, it’s a real relief having that quiet, still voice around you.

Was there anybody you’d have liked to have a scene with, but didn’t?

All of them! Julian Rhind-Tutt, and the band of actors from the other group who went on the road trip. I was so sad that I didn’t get to see any of them.

Do you have a particular standout scene?

I do remember seeing Dave dressed up in some of his post-orgy outfits! He ended up wearing nothing but one of my dresses and a Roman helmet, and it looks like he’s not wearing anything from behind. I’ve got a picture of us side by side, it’s a really fun picture. We look like The Odd Couple or something.

Did you manage to get through those scenes without corpsing, or was it a terrible struggle?

Oh, no, it happened all the time! But the thing is, Hemple laughs a lot so I can laugh as Hemple. I sometimes played her a bit shy and coquettish in between all the different things, depending what she wants from the person. So she can get a little bit like a giggly girl to manipulate people. It was really fun.

How did you prepare: did you base her on anybody either in history or anybody that you know?

No, it was an amalgamation of things. I thought about her voice and worked from that, and thought about where she pitched her voice, that came to my mind first of all and I took it from there. I wanted her to be able to manipulate with her voice. I don’t know how I come across, I never watch anything I do. It’s a shame, but the one thing that ruins Britannia for me is I won’t be able to watch it anymore because I’m in it!

Would you not make an exception for this?

I’ve watched bits that I wasn’t in but I don’t find it very helpful, watching myself. It makes me more self-conscious as an actor for later jobs, so I’d rather not!

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.