Was the script for Close to Me an instant page turner?
It was. From the beginning, Jo was this character where you thought you knew what type of person she was – married, kids, happy – then because of her brain injury, she becomes completely unpredictable. As an actor that’s a godsend, when you realise you can go into all these different characterisations, full of humour and imagination.
Are you a sucker for a psychological thriller?
I really am! There’s a lot of interest in identity these days: how do we know who we are? In that sense, Jo has temporary brain trauma and she’s mirrored by her father, who has dementia: two people hanging onto straws and the truth won't let them be. It keeps on creeping into these recalcitrant brains. There's something so beautiful about that, especially today – the truth still matters.
But the truth doesn’t come in one piece for Jo.
Absolutely, it comes in little traces. She's tracking these leads, she is a detective in her own life, which is so interesting. Where do you go next? What does this information mean about my life? Every time you think you know, you don't.
What can you say about Jo when we meet her?
Jo is a woman who has everything. She’s independently wealthy, intellectually stimulated by her work as a translator, she is in a stable relationship with her solicitous and supportive husband, and her kids have just moved out of the house. She’s a woman in the blossom of her life, but then she has a fall. When she wakes up, she has lost just over a year of her memory. As she struggles to regain that memory, she has this gnawing feeling that there's something that she needs to know, that her friends, her kids, her husband, are withholding information from her. Now she must find out the truth, whilst suffering from her brain injury and she’s not sure what or who she should trust.
Would she have had these realisations without having had the fall?
Kierkegaard said that we live life forward but understand it by looking backwards. So, you don’t really understand your life until you’ve lived it enough to look backwards. She goes through that rediscovery of the truth that she was blind to.
How is she feeling about her kids?
It's hard to tell how much she’s doesn't know about them because of the amnesia and how much she doesn’t know about them, because she just didn't know. That’s a very good distinction. At a certain age, children start having secrets from their parents, because parents have expectations that they make good choices, that they get a good education and so on. One scene I love has Jo, completely without inhibition, screaming at her son, going, sorry for wanting you to be a well-educated, well-adjusted happy person! I laughed when I read it because that’s what it’s like as a parent. You despair sometimes because you don't want to be the busybody correcting your children. But on the other hand, you’re trying to get them to finish their education and to be prepared for life.
Is empty nest syndrome kicking in for her as well?
Yes, the love of a child is stronger even than romantic love. It has this overwhelming quality. When that object of that love is no longer present, what do you do with it? Where do you place it?
How do her relationships evolve in the aftermath of the fall?
She hates feeling like a victim and not having agency in her life. More importantly, she has expectations about where the children are in their lives, and it turns out they're not exactly where they’re supposed to be.
How is her relationship with Cathy?
Everyone has a best friend, the person with whom communication just happens. Yet something has happened between them that has broken that energy. Jo doesn’t remember what that is, so there is this whole horrible thing that she has no knowledge of.
How does Jo feel changed within herself?
Trauma does shake your sense of self-knowledge – she finds herself feeling weaker and weaker, and it’s only through her enormous resilience and grit that we see Jo pulling through these terrifying experiences.
This is your first project where you’ve been executive producer. What has that involved?
I’ve been involved in script meetings, production decisions, hiring the director… It’s been wonderful to really have a say, but it wasn’t about power, but about continuing to create consensus around what story are we telling and why.
Is it something you've wanted to do for a long time?
I think so. As a female actor and a feminist, at times I do find it difficult to shed light on human existence through the roles traditionally available to female actors. Even A-list names are often hindered by whatever the studio considers to be tasteful to the audience. This long-form storytelling allows you to develop pieces that are much more eloquent in showing the lives of women. With this, I made sure the intentions of the author of the book were reflected in it – the story of a woman going through menopause. It was incredibly important to me that we shed light on this important rite of passage for women. We needed to render visible people who basically become invisible during a time when they truly need society, family and friends.
Was this your first time working with an intimacy coordinator?
Yes, and it was such a great relief to make sure my fellow actors felt really safe and respected. I have these intimacy scenes with one actor who is very young and wanted to be sure that he was safe and felt empowered to make decisions without feeling exposed. It was a freeing experience and very healthy to set boundaries in a business that famously has issues with boundaries.
What kind of research did you do?
Most of it was online and in books, because we were in the middle of Covid, so I couldn't visit people. We also had doctors to guide us through what exactly would we be doing medically in various moments. What I found astonishing is, one does extraordinarily little. The brain will take its own time to heal, and that comes from resting – but Jo doesn’t feel like resting!
If you lost your last year of memories but could pick one to hang on to, what would that be?
My beautiful little 14-year-old boy wishing me happy birthday with a breakfast tray and a beautiful painting. It’s just the joy of watching that little boy grow into this big boy.
How did you enjoy filming in Hastings and on the south coast?
It was lovely, the cliffs were beautiful. I was amazed by the countryside and the physical beauty of the nature; it was just amazing.
What were the biggest challenges of working on the show?
The Covid protocols were absolutely exhausting, but the fact that we really adhered to them is the reason why we never had a positive case on our 80-member crew. Doing hard physical labour in these hermetically closed masks all day long, we lost a lot of time and got way too little sleep for way too long. It was absolutely physically and mentally gruelling but, at the same time, really fun and life-affirming to be doing this in our own little bubble. The worst part for me was that as I was travelling back and forth between London and Copenhagen with my children in school, then the borders closed because Denmark had the mink variant, so that was very hard. But the crew were so resilient and worked so hard.
What do you what do you hope you will take away from the show?
We’re all very interested in the role of identities in a world where we constantly remove the edges around them. this story to a large degree affirms the will for truth and this belief in the resilience of the individual. I admire Jo for continuing to work to find out the truth. She doesn’t give up and we've seen a lot of that in the real world as well.