Why did you want to write about the adult entertainment industry?
Porn is a part of our lives, whether we know it or not, but as a society we don’t know anything about how it’s made. I’ve been trying to get the series away for about nine years, ever since I had a conversation with Patrick Spence. He’d recognised it was an area I was interested in and asked if I was interested in writing some television about it. What it is at heart I think is a story about class. Once I started to look at porn much more closely, I started to understand better what the appeal of a job that is so unappealing to most of us is, and I felt that for many of the women I encountered especially, that appeal was practical – the chance for working class women to make a good wage, at least for a finite time, while still being able to fit a career around child care and time with their kids in a way that a job in the gig economy or at a supermarket, say, simply doesn’t allow. There are many reasons relating to damage that women especially come to porn – what surprised me was that there are also many reasons relating to maternal pragmatism.
How did you find your own perspective on porn shifting as you wrote it?
I certainly embarked on writing with a far more entrenched position than the one I ended with. But drama is dull when it prosecutes a single argument so the process of writing is to undermine your own beliefs repeatedly, test them, see where the seams are weak. Meeting people in the industry was crucial, and that in particular did a lot to nuance my perspective. Rebecca More for example, who consulted with us through the writing and production process, is one of the smartest, funniest women I’ve ever met. Does she present a difficult challenge to some of my most fundamental feminist beliefs? Absolutely. Do I deeply admire her? Absolutely. And that’s the contradiction I wanted to thread through the whole show, so that the “problem” of Jolene Dollar keeps becoming more complex, every time you think you understand where you are, we take you somewhere else. So Jolene is at once a victim of a culture, but also a perpetrator. A proper examination of women’s agency in the Me Too era demands that we look at the ways we have power as well as the ways in which we still don’t.
What did Hayley bring to the role of Jolene?
Hayley is one of the most extraordinary actors of her generation and the kind of actor I like most, a tragi-comedian – these are rarer than you think. I think her performance is simply electric and every time I watched an edit I was staggered anew by her ability to make me both laugh and cry, sometimes within ten seconds of each other. She’s so technically gifted and has this radiant warmth to her, and it was thrilling for me to feel that she was both portraying exactly the character I thought I’d written, but also doing a huge range of dazzling things with Jolene that I never even imagined. Because she’s a writer herself, she was extraordinarily detailed in her attention to the lines, she learnt every broken word, every repetition, hesitation, punctuation, and then made them sound real, not written. That’s an unbelievable gift to give a writer – it happens in theatre, but on screen, the speed of production and lack of rehearsal means you usually have to be happy with approximation. Hayley is exacting as an actor while also appearing completely free,
And how about Siena, Kerry, Joe and Rupert and the rest of the cast?
We were just incredibly lucky with all of our leads, Joe Dempsie plays Rich so beautifully, his level of realism is exquisite, and I love the way his deep decency sits in tension with some of Rich’s shadier behaviour. We meet the character as a good guy I think, and it throws us when we slowly realise his economic dependency on Jolene, and how that has skewed what is otherwise a pretty great marriage.
And Siena just took our breath away with the commitment and depth she brought to her performance. Amy’s probably the hardest character to inhabit in the show, and Siena found a mental space for her that was just so compelling, and troubling, and wild. You feel the danger and damage of Amy so acutely without having to be beaten round the head with it – but she also has killer comic instincts.
We got very attached to Stella not being a ‘TV MP’ – the middle-class woman with the RP accent and the nice blouses you’ve seen a million times before. We wanted a sense when Stella looked at Jolene of “there but for the grace of God” – that she’s got mates from school who could have easily ended up in Jolene’s world. And Kerry just knocked us sideways with her take on the character, she brought such intelligence and compassion to Stella, she made me believe her as a politician who genuinely gives a shit, and her scenes with Hayley, I found it electrifying that neither of them would brook a sniff of sentimentality. To me this makes their relationship so thrilling, because they don’t let each other get away with a thing. We talked a lot about episode 3 a lot like a mini road movie between them.
Rupert’s performance is so delicious, but what I enjoy most of all is the quiet, broken dignity he brings to Carroll. In many ways he’s an antagonist in the story, but he’s also a victim of the shifting balance of power in the porn world. In Rupert’s hands these contradictions are deftly drawn out, and deeply moving I think. When we first meet him, Carroll wields a huge amount of power – but he’s a dinosaur, destined to become extinct, but Jolene still has time to evolve.
Alex Jarrett is our youngest principal actor and yet the detail, restraint and intelligence she brings to her performance is incredibly mature. She makes Phoebe as heart breaking and infuriating as a real teenager.
Do women hold the balance of power in porn?
It’s a fascinating question, and the answer is changing rapidly I think. My hunch is that it will always be a world in which abuses of power are liable to take place, and more often than not those abuses will be perpetuated by men to women. On one hand, it’s the only industry in the world where women can make more money than their male counterparts across the board. Yet if you spend any time in the porn world, what you basically see is a lot of is many women in their early twenties and many men in their late fifties. Which I think tells you a lot. That said there is a huge boom in women directing and producing and it’s the old story of controlling the means of production -
technology is midwifing more power for women, because they can produce their own material. I think that will create deep and enduring change for the better in many ways.
How would you have written it nine years ago?
It would have been roughly the same story, but not as good! I’ve become a better writer in the time it’s taken us to get to the screen, and my feminism has probably become more generous and spacious – there is the world as we’d like it to be, then there’s the world as it is. And I think nine years ago I approached Jolene much more via the former – now I’m more interested in how people with limited choices navigate the latter. Once I started meeting real women, I just desperately wanted her to be alright. I lost interest in doing anything that deliberately punished her, but also wanted to take her to a place where she really unravelled her own performance, and found a more truthful version of herself to live with.
What do you hope viewers take away from the series?
I hope they take away a love and respect, grudging or otherwise, for Jolene. Most of all I hope they are gripped, that it makes people laugh and cry and gasp and have their minds taken off face masks and takes their minds off face masks and antibacterial gel. I hope it encourages people to think in a more complicated way about the choices other people make