When critically acclaimed actress Zoë Wanamaker was a child growing up in London, going into Selfridges department store on London’s Oxford Street was an everyday occasion. The actress plays Princess Marie in the series which returns to ITV on Sunday night. Here she talks about shopping in the legendary department, getting caught up in the research and the show itself.
“When I was a kid, my mum used to go to Selfridges all the time and I used to go with her,” says Zoë. “I remember it really well. My mum is American so going into department stores was the norm. Selfridges was fairly close to where we lived so it was a place to go.
“Selfridges was a real experience for me. It was massive! It’s changed so much now but it was a very glamorous place, and still is. The architecture is so beautiful. I love the clock and the doors and it still had the wooden floors. It is a beautiful shop.”
Zoë reveals that although she has frequented Selfridges she was unaware of the history behind the store founder, Harry Selfridge.
“I didn’t know anything about Harry Selfridge, but for me that was the fun of doing this job. I enjoy the research. Reading about Harry is quite a revelation. He was a genius. The whole idea of placing items on shop counters was his idea – but then he was surprised when people nicked things!”
Zoë also enjoyed researching the real life history of her character in Mr Selfridge, Princess Marie, mother of Prince Serge De Bolotoff.
“I took a lot of the background research about my character from Lindy Woodhead, who wrote the book Shopping Seduction and Mr Selfridge. I’ve also been reading a lot about Russian history, particularly during that period in which my character lived.”
In the series we learn the extravagant and glamorous Princess Marie Wiasemsky was a direct descendent to a founding father of Russia. She claims to have been later hounded out of the country by the Bolsheviks.
“The fact the aristocracy had to get out of Russia very quickly and take as much wealth as they could carry without being searched was very important to me. You can see the desperation of having to survive and get by in a foreign land.
“To have to run must have been terrifying. Imagine horses chasing you across snow and ice and trying to get on a train and out of there. Apparently the mentality of the aristocracy was extraordinary. In Moscow, before they had to get out, the manicurists were run off their feet because the women had to have their nails done!”
We first meet Princess Marie in all her Russian glory at the high society wedding between Prince Serge De Bolotoff and Harry Selfridge’s eldest daughter, Rosalie.
Says Zoë: “The first time you see her is at the wedding of her son Serge who has married into the Selfridge family. His bride is the beautiful Rosalie Selfridge.
“At the reception afterwards she seems to know everybody! She’s quite a character. In history she’s described as a bombshell.
“One thing that stands out is that she adores her son. She thinks he’s the best thing since the invention of the telephone. She loves that he’s married into money. That makes her very happy. And the excitement of marrying a Selfridge is great.
“Harry Selfridge moves in the same society which she moves in. Princess Marie goes higher because she knows lots of royalty and lots of rich and powerful people in England. She is a great society mover.”
Zoë continues: “Although Harry Selfridge is American, it’s clear he’s done well for himself. He’s powerful, rich and charismatic and interesting. That suits her fine. For her son that is fantastic. Also, as family there’s a possibility Harry might invest in Serge’s aeroplane if Serge plays his cards right.
“I think the match has mutual benefits as the marriage elevates the Selfridge family too. It must have been a huge thing for his daughter to marry Prince Bolotoff.”
The costume designer, James Keast wanted to make a big impact with Princess Marie’s character through her styling. Rich and opulent colours, fabrics and designs were used, and Zoë was pleased get involved in the process right from the beginning of filming.
“At the wedding the hat Princess Marie wears is fantastic. We decided it had to look like a crown. We went on the premise that the hat would be completely eccentric and the look regal and powerful to accentuate her character, particularly as it’s the first time we meet her.
“She had been in Paris before arriving in London so she would have spent a lot of money on clothes of the couture at the time. She would have had the very best clothes and it was very important she looked moneyed.
“The detail is wonderful. The costume designer has been great and very supportive. We talked a lot about what she would wear, the colours, jewellery and make-up. We looked at a lot of pictures and talked about different styles, and that she always had to look up to date.
“The era wasn’t one I was unused to. When I was doing The Cherry Orchard at The National Theatre, the set designer, Bunny Christie found a fantastic book on Coco Chanel. It was a wonderful pictorial book on what Coco was wearing at this period and we based a lot of those costumes on them. Corsets had just started to go, so the shape was different. I now love the style, as I think James and the team on Mr Selfridge have done the most beautiful job.”
Coupled with fantastic costume creations, Zoë also has some of the best one-liners of the series – enough to rival Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey.
“She’s a force to be reckoned with,” laughs Zoë. “I love her one-liners. She’s arrogantly funny. But she’s got to be witty and sharp – to go through all she has and keep your sense of humour, you have to be funny.”
Speaking further about her character Zoë says: “Princess Marie is a complete aristocrat. It’s not unusual for her to be waited on hand and foot. She never closes doors because someone else is meant to do that. She never picks things up and she expects someone else to clear up. It’s always been that way.
“There is one scene when she gives Serge and Rosalie a samovar as a wedding present. Samovars were considered the most beautiful, expensive piece. In the old days, to give something like that was a big thing as they cost a fortune. When she’s asked how to use it she’s got no idea at all, but that is because it’s always been done by someone else!”
Zoë continues: “When it comes to money she doesn’t think anything of charging everything to Harry Selfridge’s account. As far as she’s concerned it’s totally normal. She’s the mother of his son-in-law and that’s just how things are.
“She was known as a serial spend thrift and that’s how she lived all her life.”
In order to take on the role as Princess Marie, Zoë had to master a Russian accent with the help of voice and dialect coach, Liam Robinson.
“Liam was a godsend. He did a lot of research for me. He has a Russian model as a friend who speaks English in a certain kind of way. He recorded her voice and I spent time listening to her. I didn’t want to make the accent too ‘meerkat’ because that’s going slightly too far. Instead I wanted to give her an aristocratic tone so it wasn’t incomprehensible or laughable.
“During the filming of the wedding reception there were a couple of Russian speakers. I started speaking to them and asked them if my accent was ok. It was good housekeeping, and I got a seal of approval so that was good!”
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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