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.
The Miniaturist Interviews: Romola Garai
Romola Garai plays Marin Brandt in The Miniaturist, premiering soon on BBC-1, here she talks about what drew her to the drama and being in a costume drama where she pretty much only gets to wear one costume.
What attracted you to the role of Marin?
I’d read the book shortly after it came out and I thought it was a really surprising novel, really interesting and with very strong feminist themes in it, so I was very excited about it. Time passed and then an email popped into my inbox with the subject, The Miniaturist. I thought it was fantastic they were making it and I was really excited to read the script.
It’s a very genre-bending novel; it appears to be like a costume drama we have seen before, but very quickly we realise that it’s not that. It’s about a woman coming into her own in a society that’s very patriarchal, it’s about a love affair, it’s about discrimination, and it’s about people trying to survive in an incredibly controlled state. It’s a thriller and it’s also a story about political and emotional awakening.
Marin is a particularly interesting character, I think she has one of the best arcs. When I first read the book, she was the character that stayed with me, and when I read the scripts I immediately remembered everything about her. She’s told in beautiful detail in the novel, which John has retained in the script. Marin is just a great character to play, it was a real treat.
Tell us about Marin.
When you first meet her, because the story is told through Nella’s perspective, you meet a woman who seems very cold and intimidating. Then gradually you get this drip-feed of information about her; you see she’s been helping Johannes run the business and you learn that they were orphaned at a young age. She’s very intellectual, she’s very well read, and she’s not married, which is very unusual at the time.
One of the reasons I found her such a fascinating character is that she’s full of secrets and she’s layered; very conflicted and has great faith, but also passions. The house they live in is essentially a tinder box of secrets that Marin has been sitting on to try and stop the secrets exploding out. However although it seems she is trying to keep a lid on it I think she believes that they could subtly break all the rules and be free within the house at least, if only her brother stopped acting so recklessly.
Hopefully audiences will question what is driving her hostility towards Nella. Marin needs Nella a lot to maintain the appearance of being a normal household but it’s also very important that Nella is afraid of her so that she doesn’t try digging and discovering the secrets that they are all trying to keep – because if anyone finds out then their futures are ruined.
What was it like doing the scenes between Marin and Nella?
I loved working with Anya, she’s an incredibly accomplished actress. She’s got a difficult job in this, because Nella has to be very innocent at the beginning of the story, which is always difficult for an actor to play, and also more innocent that a woman of that age would be now. She’s constantly making discoveries, she doesn’t have the information that the rest of us do so she’s always learning new things, and she’s done that with real beauty and subtlety. I really enjoyed doing all our scenes together.
Tell us about Marin’s costume.
Marin only had one costume until a very late stage of the story. Her costume is typical of the puritan values of the period which rejected anything that smacked of luxury or louche values. They also didn’t wear make-up in this period at all, certainly not women of this class and station, and the hair was very simple and scraped back. Her head would have been covered at all times, so I had a black cap that I wore, but to be honest when I wore it I couldn’t really hear what anyone was saying and also talked incredibly loudly because I couldn’t hear myself, so essentially I was shouting at the other actors!
What makes The Miniaturist stand out from other period dramas?
I’ve done lots of historical pieces but there’s something very unusual about this. When you do contemporary novels set in the past the writers are able to do a lot more, and tackle complex themes which writers writing at the time weren’t able to do. More than that, it’s interesting in that it explores a number of different genres. It has elements of a thriller and then it becomes a family drama and then it becomes a polemic about what happens in societies that are so controlling.
I hope people will sit down to watch the show because it’s a pretty costume drama and will be surprised that it is actually rebellious and constantly bringing up important issues – and that they’ll be so engaged they won’t be able to look away.
Trust Me Interviews: Sharon Small
Interview with Sharon Small, who plays Dr. Brigitte McAdams in new three part psychological thriller Trust Me which airs this August on BBC One.
What attracted you to this project?
I liked the character and the premise of the piece – I don’t think we’ve seen this before. And everyone is like an armchair detective, everyone is an armchair actor or doctor, so I thought that people would get off on that and think, gosh what would I do in that circumstance? The audience are the people who are privy to the truth and not us. With my character, Brigitte, I like her neediness, her sassiness – she’s fun and quick-fire talking – and quite honestly I rather fancied myself as a doctor [laughs].
How would you describe your character?
Brigitte is a good person; she’s sassy and is a really good doctor. She has got some issues, but she is trying her best to run this ward and with great intentions, which I think a lot of NHS doctors are.
How did you prepare for the role?
I grew my hair so that I could tie it up – normally I have short hair. We had a fantastic medical training day with Dan and got to do airways and cannulas and stitching and things like that, I loved that. The most important thing for me was to go around the actual A&E department (or ED department as I now know it’s called) in Edinburgh. We met this fantastic doctor – just watching him and really getting to observe what goes on in a ward, the dynamic, what people do and noticing that people are always looking at folders, everyone’s always collaborating and talking to each other. Everyone is always moving around, a lot more than you think and not that quickly. It’s less dramatic than you think.
Is your character challenging to play?
She was. Similarly in something that Jodie mentioned, I had quite a lot of medical jargon to say quite quickly, but I had less of the procedural stuff to do in terms of operational things. As the character is more and more revealed I had to make sure that I took care of how that happened, and that it was subtly done.
What makes a hospital a good arena for a drama?
It’s an ever-changing landscape, a hospital. Every new sort of event that you’re presented with means that you’re having to make life-saving decisions. People’s lives really are at stake, and honestly, my little taste of pretending that I was an ED doctor made me feel quite powerful. If I could fix people so that they survived, that would be an amazing ability.
What are the biggest challenges that you have faced so far during filming?
Saying the medical words Metronidazole – Met-ron-ida-zole, Metron-i-dazole – and trying to make scrubs look even remotely interesting, I don’t rock scrubs like Jodie does, I’m way too curvy for that!
What do you hope audiences will take away from this drama?
I hope that they’ll find themselves in that dilemma of wanting Cath/Ally to succeed, because she’s a good person and she ironically is brilliant at the job. I’m hoping that they’ll see the dilemma that she has, and as you want her to keep succeeding, it means she’s going to keep compromising people as she goes, as well as herself.
Trust Me Interviews: Jodie Whittaker
Jodie Whittaker plays Cath in three part psychological thriller Trust Me which airs on BBC One this August.
What appealed to you about this project?
I was sent the script for the first episode and it fascinated me because it went in a completely different direction to how I thought it was going to. Particularly at the beginning when she’s suspended for whistleblowing and loses her job. It could have gone so many ways, and the fact that she takes on this new identity isn’t the way that I thought it would go. I love the fact that her choices are quite morally dubious – they certainly aren’t black and white. She makes decisions that are quite challenging to justify, even though we know her reasons. I’ve never acted in anything medical before, so it felt completely new.
How does Cath’s lie come about?
Cath starts off by having a conversation with her best friend, Ally, who is a middle grade doctor in A&E and is giving it all up to emigrate to New Zealand. Ally is packing up the life that Cath would have loved to have had, leaving it all behind to go and do something completely different. Suddenly there is an opportunity for her to take on the identity of her friend and in that panic, not necessarily the clearest thinking moment in her life, she does it. Once you set off on a path of lies it’s very difficult to undo it without bringing everything crashing down.
Did you receive any training on medical procedures?
Yes! The writer, Dan, who is also medical consultant and a doctor outside of TV production, showed us a load of stuff that he used when he was training people. He brought in the CPR dummy and showed us how to do a cannula and he, very bravely, let me put a cannula in his vein. I did it right, thank God! Also, YouTube is amazing. The genius of the internet is that you can basically sit at home and Google medical procedures, and TV shows such as 24 hours in A&E, which I watched hours of.
How else did you prepare for the role?
With regards to the technical stuff, we had an on-set consultant so that there was always someone to help when we had to do the procedures. The best thing for me was that my character was also out of her depth and didn’t always know what she was doing, so it kind of covered my own personal fumbles. I’m not someone who likes to over prepare for dialogue scenes, because I think that makes me not listen to what the other person is saying as I’ve already decided how I’m going to do it. It immediately makes it interesting and new and you can’t plan for that, which is great. You can’t ‘wing’ the medical stuff so I had to do my research for that. One of my friends is a Sister in A&E and I sent her a lot of messages asking ‘how do you pronounce this?’ and ‘what does that mean?’, so basically she was my personal medical coach even though she works full time!
Is it challenging playing someone who leads a double life?
Yes, but no more challenging that playing someone who has had something happen to them that I haven’t personally experienced. What’s hard is trying to gauge how good a liar she is, or how in a panic she is. You’ve got to be careful, because you can’t make the other actors seem stupid. These are intelligent, fully formed characters that you’re working with, so it was a fine line of being able to deceive and it not being something that comes easily to her. However, it can’t be that it makes everyone around her feel a bit like an idiot for not working it out. That was tricky, but the director is there to help guide you through it.
Did the uniform help to get you into character?
Yes. It feels odd when you put it on. I did five weeks of studio filming, back to back – all the medical stuff was contained so everything started to become a bit like second nature. The first few times I had to put on an apron, the ‘take’ ended up being about 15 minutes long. Then I worked out that you shouldn’t put the gloves on before the apron! There was lots of daft stuff like that, but you then get into a rhythm. It’s good because it makes you immediately feel like you look the part and then all I had to do was make sure that I knew the lines!
What were some of the challenges that you faced during filming?
I’m not very good with learning dialogue when there are lots of medical terms! I enjoy the adrenaline of being on set because I’m quite good at choreography, I respond well to being taught something physically. That’s why I was terrible at school, because they talk you through things rather than physically show you. I enjoyed doing the different types of surgery as it was fascinating, it’s nerve-wracking but you realise that you can do it. Also, the team who created the props put in so much hard work to make sure we didn’t mess up our bits. I struggled with having massive speeches that involved these medical words. I don’t have a brain for that!
Did you enjoy working in Scotland?
I absolutely loved Glasgow! The crew were phenomenal and the city is wonderful. I could move my family up there and we had a great time as there were loads of brilliant restaurants and everyone was lovely. It was brilliant and I would snap up another job there very quickly, although it does get very dark and cold over winter!
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