Why did you want to get involved in Close to Me?
This show had a lovely reversal of the usual, far too familiar, sensitive, caring female taking a supportive role to a male as they wrestle with existential dilemmas. This was very refreshing.
What can you say about Robert at the outset of the series?
He’s an estate agent in late middle age who has been married to Jo for a considerable amount of time. He realises that his role is to try and aid his life partner in a physical and emotional recovery, but also support her going through menopause. Jo is having identity issues which are, according to my female friends, very common in late middle age, where you wake up thinking: who am I? The way they are treated in society shifts. Rob’s business is also in trouble and there’s a sense of emasculation, because a lot of the money has come from her side of things. He’s certainly not in the throes of youth and idealism.
Did you read the book?
I worked purely from the script. I’ve had experiences before of things being in the novel that you might want to use, but they’re not there in the script. It’s an entirely separate venture.
How is the marriage from Rob’s perspective?
I think he’s very romantic about the marriage. He’s ready for the kids to go, or at least that’s what he’s telling himself: we all tell ourselves lies and versions of the way to proceed. I’ve seen it in a couple of my friends’ marriages where the kids have left and there’s been a real rapprochement, an infusion of energy and romance. I’ve also seen the opposite. I think Rob is pushing for the former, for their time together. He’s written as being very in love with his partner, possibly more in love with her than she is with him.
How does he get on with their kids?
They have a pretty good relationship, although there are a few areas where he expresses his displeasure about their choices in life. There’s an indication that he has issues with his son, and with his daughter, he doesn’t like the boyfriend – an age-old story!
How do those relationships evolve after the accident?
He’s at odds with his son and daughter about caring for his wife. His argument is that he’s on site all the time and knew her before they did. The son wants his mother to be told absolutely everything up front about where she was in her life, Rob wants to do it a little bit at a time: don’t give her too much, too soon. There’s tension there and I hope some gallows humour as well – this isn’t a very solemn, sombre drama. There’s huge capacity for gallows humour in dysfunction.
Does Rob quite enjoy being in the driving seat in the relationship for once?
Control is definitely an issue and that causes tension with his wife, their friends and the children. If there was a sense of the emasculation, pre-accident, perhaps it’s an opportunity, dysfunctionally, for him to reassert traditional masculine/feminine roles.
Did you do any research?
No, I’m not really a research junkie. I tend to just put my costume on and make believe, rather like my kids. It has really helped the work, watching my children play together with their incredible leaps of imagination and roleplay.
If you lost the past year of your life but could hang onto one memory, what would it be?
Oh, something with the children for sure. My most recent was dropping my daughter at school, seeing how free she felt to say goodbye to her dad in the knowledge that I would be there watching her happily walk into school. Then taking my son up the road and having 15 minutes with him in a coffee shop. He was completely and utterly absorbed in his latest book, a Manga anthology. He said nothing to me! I was invisible. I took a photograph of him, absorbed in his book with his hair nicely combed because I’d done it that morning. So just being able to observe the happiness.
What did director Michael Samuels bring to the project?
We spoke about how male angst and existential concerns are secondary to the female. We agreed that would only be enriched and supported if the male supporting character was three-dimensional and similarly complex. Every moment we tried to move away from the character as a cypher, which so often happens with female roles. We enjoyed serving the female narrative because we’re both bored with male angst – although because he wore a mask all the time, I have no idea what Michael Samuels looks like, frankly.
The menopause is so rarely shown on TV drama isn’t it?
Yeah, I thought a bit about what Polanski did with Rosemary’s Baby and the female experience of pregnancy, the hormonal changes that impact on identity. That was my first experience of seeing a very female-led perspective on existence and reality. It was very satisfying to see that explored here through the menopause.
How did you enjoy filming along the south coast?
I took my bucket and spade! We were filming flashbacks from high summer, in autumn, but we had these freak weather days which helped us. We’d all been locked away since March, so we had cabin fever and were just delighted to be working, earning, being creative.
Was Rob and Jo’s house to your taste?
Not at all. It was designed within an inch of its life. I live a far more rackety life.
What’s coming up for you?
I’ve just worked with Lucy Montgomery and Rhys Thomas on an origin story for the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist – they’ve taken that character and they built an entire ten-part series around him for BBC and NBC. All the characters are retained from the story apart from the bore that is Oliver Twist, and I play Fagin. It’s a joyous experience working with Rhys and Lucy, they’re very creatively free. I won’t be singing in it, but if we get a second series, I’m going to suggest that.