Karen Pirie | Interview with Lauren Lyle (DS Karen Pirie)

How did the role of Karen come your way?

Our executive producer, Simon Heath, spotted me at the read through for Vigil – he was thinking about casting for Karen Pirie at the time and tells me I stood out. I auditioned at the end of 2020 and it felt like a really natural fit – the script for the first episode was really unlike anything else you would get sent as a mid-twenties, female Scottish actor, this kind of role doesn’t come along often. Usually, you don’t get the chance to play a detective until you’re a bit older, but I felt really akin to her.

I was so excited to get the recall, and I was given interrogation scenes to prepare. They were unlike anything I’d done before, so I had all my friends on the phone, swearing them to secrecy but asking them run these scenes with me, so that I’d done it a hundred different ways! I wasn’t sure if the audition would go my way, but then I got a call at 8pm one Friday night, while I was filming Outlander in lockdown, during a Scottish winter. It was all really dark and sad and then I got this call with the offer, and I just completely flipped out! I was jumping around my apartment, but I couldn’t really celebrate with anyone because we were all locked in our houses! So, I had a drink with one of my Outlander co-stars outside his house instead.

How did your family react when you got the role?

My mum and dad had read the books and they were beside themselves when I told them I’d been offered the role of Karen. My dad kept saying, “But Lauren, Val McDermid is the Queen of crime, do you know that?!” my mum told me my dad didn’t sleep that night. It was all really exciting but such a big whirlwind. I didn’t quite know what I was letting myself in for, and then when I got to the shoot it was just three months of complete joy and exhaustion the whole time. It was the best job I’ve ever done, it was fab.

Karen is quite different for a TV detective isn’t she – she’s not a sexy, glossy cop?

Yes, we discussed that a lot, because her image is described in detail in the books, and I don’t quite look like that version of the character. She’s supposed to have mousy hair for example, but when I got cast I had a blonde bob, which was my lockdown cut – I used to have very long hair for a long time, and I cut it all off during the pandemic to everyone’s horror! I actually loved it, and the director saw it and thought it really stood out – this unconventional, not overly pretty look.

In the books Karen is meant to be unfashionable and odd, and she doesn’t really care about what she looks like, because her job is really all she’s worried about. But I talked to the brilliant costume designer Lesley Abernethy and we decided that she should secretly be a little bit accidentally cool. Val really wanted her to have a bag of some kind, just to carry her detective tools, and I suggested a bumbag, which became really cool, and then the sweater vest came along too. I had quite a strong image of what I wanted her to look like – this modern woman appearing to be a bit androgynous and trying to level up the men. I think she’s got the image in her head of what she should look like to fit in around a lot of men, but by doing that she completely isolates herself into being quite an independent looking person, who looks cool without meaning to.

And she doesn’t wear any make-up, I insisted on that, not even mascara, because she just wouldn’t bother. That’s really refreshing as well, it’s really nice to do something as a woman where you don’t feel you have to look pretty.

When we meet her, Karen has been unexpectedly promoted, and fears she is benefitting from positive discrimination. How does she feel about the new job?

She definitely feels imposter syndrome. She was expecting Phil to get the job because he’s been working among the guys a lot longer, he has moved up quicker and she perceives him to be really brilliant, which he is. The way it’s happened is that it looks good for the police to put a woman on this particular case and that’s why she gets it.

Actually, she probably doesn’t quite understand that at first, and when she suddenly realises, it fills her with insecurity. But at the same time, deep down, she’s got this real determination and she knows she can do it. She goes against all traditional policing, and I think that annoys the guys she works with, that she is inherently really good at her job without having to try that hard. She’s just naturally a really good policewoman and all the guys are having to work a bit harder to keep up. She also takes really untraditional, cheeky routes to do what she needs to do and isn’t afraid of that. She’s just trying to do what’s right, and if that means not completely following the rules then so be it, she’ll deal with the consequences later.

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Is she happy?

I don’t think she’s unhappy. I think she’s quite comfortable where she is, she’s good at her job and she loves being a detective. I think she’s having fun with Phil, who she has an on-off relationship with. She’s young, she’s in her mid-twenties and still figuring herself out, and I don’t think she expects to have so much responsibility thrust upon her just yet. She’s just getting her life going, and she’s enjoying her job, but I don’t think she’s thinking that far ahead. But this case kicks her into gear and she’s determined and ambitious, so that begins to drive her. As soon she starts to feel underestimated, that just puts more fire in her belly.

What kind of research did you do to play Karen?

It was really interesting when we were filming, we started at St Andrews Cathedral and one night we had police escorts with us. One of them was a twenty-something blonde woman, and it turns out she was a detective from Methil, the same tiny town

Karen is from! To me, she was the real Karen Pirie. So we exchanged numbers and we stayed in touch, it was like looking into a mirror for Karen.

Val gave me some pointers about Karen’s background and I watched every detective show that I could, especially series with female leads. Mare of Easttown was actually a really big reference, watching Kate Winslet. It’s an amazing parallel because there’s a real levity and humour to Karen Pirie that I don’t think always exists, but it’s there in things like Sherlock and Mare of Easttown, I think that was the balance that we wanted to strike – of course we had to make sure we had the gravitas and intensity for this really dark story, and the way violence against women is looked at. I had to look into a lot of that and how to tell this story properly. But there’s also the realistic nature of how you approach life and some of Mare of Easttown could be really funny at times, because often you cope through humour.

So I watched everything I could find, and I read the scripts hundreds of times. Much like a detective, I got some huge pieces of paper that I taped together and put on my wall, with details of the whole case. It’s so complicated that I had to make sure I understood it, so I kept referencing back to this map on my wall. There are so many suspects and I had to walk into each scene remembering if Karen really did suspect them or if she secretly trusted them.

Did you enjoy filming in St Andrews?

Yes, it was lockdown while we were there, so it was really empty – we were the only ones there apart from a couple of golf tours, which was fab. We were really lucky because Emer wrote a 5 star hotel into the script, so we all had to stay there! Me and Emer would have breakfast and dinner together every day, just discussing the character and the whole show, exchanging ideas, it was a real joy.

We were actually in Glasgow quite a lot and then moving around different areas. We had a really good time together, we all got really close. Zach (Wyatt), who plays Phil is American/Canadian and wanted to get to know Scotland, so we took him on big trips and climbed Ben A’an to show it off. It was a really young, cool, newcomer cast, so everyone was dead excited and felt so privileged to be able to do the show, and we stayed in our little bubble.

It’s beautiful having the series set in Scotland, some of the landscapes we have are phenomenal, up in Loch Lomond and in the mountains. A friend of mine has watched some of the series and kept asking if we’d used CGI. I kept saying, “No, that’s just Scotland!”.

Will the TV version of Karen be recognisable to fans of the books?

Absolutely, the dry wit and her attitude of not giving a damn are exactly the same as in the books. It was really cool to know that Val McDermid was happy with me being cast in the role, and I had a lot of conversations with her and Emer to make sure I was on the right track.

Is it true that your family makes an appearance in the series?

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Yes, I got my mum, dad and brother on as extras for the final scene of the whole series – they all came in and it was so cool to see them do my job! They’ve never been able to come to a set before, so I felt very proud having them see it, they were all in awe of how big a scale it is, that was special. My mum did jump up at the back of one shot and the whole thing had to stop, but otherwise they were brilliant!

How much of a dream is it to play a detective?

It’s such a pinnacle as an actor, to have that kind of opportunity. There aren’t many female detectives on TV, and the ones that do exist are all much older. I didn’t realise until I started doing all my research that you could be this young in that job, I never thought I’d get the chance to do it yet. Picking up my police badge for the first time, me and Chris (Jenks) who plays Mint were handed them and didn’t quite know what to do with them. So we took ourselves away on set when everyone was on their break, and practiced our badge flipping at each other, just trying to look cool while doing it! I was delighted.

Yes, Outlander began as quite a cult American series, which then grew around the world and it’s got much bigger in the UK now, but this feels like much more pressure, being in an iconic primetime British detective show. We’re so known for these kinds of shows, and it feels like a real privilege to step into one, I’ve got to live up to that somehow.

I hope the audience enjoys it because it is quite a different take on a detective show, with a younger, underestimated woman who didn’t quite expect to have a case like this thrust upon her. I watched loads of female detective shows for my research and many of them tend to be about damaged women who are going through something and their job is their life. Karen is a bit more hopeful than that. Emer and I decided we didn’t want her to be a sad detective, there’s a lot more spark about her. She’s so determined and she’s right at the start of her career, as well as having to fight the battle of a conservative traditional male police force. It’s a really different show to take on, which is super exciting for me as an actor to get to put myself in front of a whole new audience.

Can you see yourself revisiting Karen?

If it were up to me, I’d have signed off series two straight away, we didn’t want to leave the set! So yes, I think there’s a lot more to be done, the books are phenomenal. The next one is partially set in Tuscany, so why would we not want to do that?! But yes, she’s my favourite character I’ve ever played and the one I’ve felt most trusted with, I’ve had a lot of creative control, which is just so cool. I definitely feel we could go again if we are permitted.

Do you think cold case dramas hold an extra layer of intrigue?

Yes, it’s exciting that within this story a lot of things happen within the 25-year gap – there’s the night of the crime and the case itself, but also everything that has gone on in the years that followed. It just makes for a much more delicious, satisfying story, because there’s so much to unpack, and it means you’ve got to keep up. It’s not a boring whodunit and people won’t expect the way it ends, which is the best part. My mum and dad have read the books and they said they had no idea about the big twist. And we all love a big twist.

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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.