Interview: Sheridan Smith, Black Work

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black_work_itvWhile True Detective gets all the headlines, there’s a new three-part British crime drama starting on Sunday night (20th June). It stars Sheridan Smith – one of Britain’s best young actresses – as Leeds police constable Jo Gillespie, who’s coming to terms with the death of her undercover policeman husband, Ryan. As she battles to stay strong for the benefit of daughter Melly and stepson Hal, Jo is urged by her bosses, DCI Will Hepburn (Douglas Henshall) and Chief Constable Carolyn Jarecki (Geraldine James), to leave it to her fellow officers to find the killer. But when the murder enquiry starts to uncover some dangerous secrets about Ryan, Jo’s faith in the police family of which she has been a part for so long is severely tested. No longer sure who to trust, Jo embarks on her own investigation with the help of friend and colleague Jack Clark (Matthew McNulty), but as they close in on the identity of Ryan’s killer. Sounds juicy. What does Sheridan have to say about it all?

The Killing Times: What appealed to you about Black Work? 
Sheridan Smith: The writer Matt Charman got in touch with me, explained the premise of Black Work and why he wanted me to play Jo Gillespie. She has two worlds: Her family life and then her police family. Jo is strong and tough but goes through so much turmoil and mental torment. It was different to anything I’ve done before. I like trying different things and challenging myself and Matt is a really clever writer, so I said yes.
TKT: Who is Jo Gillespie?
SS: Jo is a police constable married to Ryan, played by Kenny Doughty, who is a police detective. They have a young daughter Melly and Ryan has a 16-year-old son called Hal from a previous marriage who also lives with them. It’s a modern family.
TKT: Ryan has regularly spent time away from home?
SS: There’s a strain on their relationship evident right from the start. Ryan has been working away three days a week training CID officers. At least that’s what Jo thinks. In fact he has been working undercover on a secret special investigation. Jo and Ryan haven’t been spending a lot of time together and hardly talk anymore. He’s a closed book and she’s become guarded and conflicted. But they both adore the children.
TKT: Jo’s world is turned upside down when her husband Ryan is shot dead in mysterious circumstances and she discovers he had a separate life working undercover. That’s a pretty big piece of information to process… 
SS: It must be a horrible feeling to trust someone and then find out they weren’t who they said they were. Jo thinks she knows Ryan and then her world falls apart. She trusted the police force to look after its own family and now she’s not sure of anything. Jo is finding out all this information about somebody she thought she knew everything about. And it turns out she doesn’t know him. I can’t imagine the state of mind you would then be in. To have to take all that in. She doesn’t know who to trust or turn to and fears for her family. Jo is figuring it all out as she goes along in the same way as the audience are. It’s a psychological thriller and a whodunit. There are so many twists and turns and you really don’t know what’s going to happen.
TKT: There’s a very moving funeral scene in Black Work. How was that to film?
SS: We were in a beautiful cathedral and there’s a speech at the funeral about the risks police officers take every day. I have so much respect for people who do these jobs. I’m simply playing a role and acting it out. They have to do it for real. I remember being asked once by some paramedics if they could have a photo taken with me. And I said, ‘I’m embarrassed. You save lives. I just say lines.’ Police, firefighters, the emergency services, they go out every day and do a dangerous job. It must be scary if you’re the wife, husband or partner of someone who does that. It’s really commendable. I am in awe of people who do that.”
TKT: You filmed Black Work close to your family roots in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. That must have been great to do…
SS: Yes, it really was. We filmed in Leeds, Lincolnshire and all around my home area. I was able to use my own accent. Black Work started just after I had played Lisa Lynch in The C Word and my hair hadn’t really grown back that much at all at that stage. We spoke about maybe wearing wigs but then we thought, ‘Why not just go with how I am at the minute?’ So Jo has short black hair, which also fits in with her being a police officer. It made me feel very different to other roles. “I feel so close to me when I’m doing my own accent so it’s quite tricky to turn off my own emotions. When you’re playing someone like Cilla and you’ve got a different accent you still bring a lot of yourself to it but it just removes you slightly. It was lovely to be back home and hear my accent all around me. Although no-one really recognised me with my hair like that. I had to stay in Leeds during filming and even when we filmed in Goole, just down the road from my mum and dad’s, you’re on tight 12-hour days and 6am pick-ups or whatever. But I did manage to get home on my day off.”
TKT: You’ve done so much in the past five years, all of real quality, and yet I can’t remember seeing you in a crime drama before. Have you played a police officer before?
SS: No, I’ve never played a police officer. I played a character called Janey Giles in The Bill but she was on the wrong side of the law. Black Work is not like your usual police drama. A lot of the time Jo is in her normal clothes, although I did get to wear the uniform sometimes. I found the police uniform very empowering. Jo is a PC in the force, only just starting out, and she doesn’t realise how clever she is. And that’s the journey she goes on as she tries to figure things out. That’s why it’s nice that you sometimes see her in uniform but mostly in her own clothes. Filming out on location was interesting. Usually when people see a film crew they might come over and ask what’s going on. But seeing all the police cars and me in uniform, that’s probably why no-one came over to me. They probably thought they’d get into trouble. “When you’re playing someone like Cilla or Mrs Biggs you get all these research packs. I watched all the interviews of Cilla from the 1960s and so on. Of course with this you can’t just go into a police station and say, ‘Can I watch what you’re doing?’ But I got enough information to know where to pitch my performance as far as what it’s like being in the force. I have a cousin in the police force. I’m hoping she thinks I’ve done a good enough job. Or she’ll be on the phone straight away!
TKT: We see you get down and dirty a bit in this, is this the closest you’ve come to an action movie?
SS: We were really out in the moors. It was very muddy and wet. All the camera trucks were getting stuck in the mud. Not glamorous at all. In one scene Jo has to run through some woods and that was exhausting. I was slip-sliding about trying to run. How I didn’t slip up in the air and land in a big muddy puddle, I don’t know. We were jumping over logs and tree stumps. I’ve never done that type of thing before so it was nice to do something different and a real challenge.
TKT: We’ve been told you did your own driving during a chase sequence…
SS: I love driving. Every time they had a double there I was like, ‘No, please, I want to do all the driving myself.’ I full throttled it and loved it. The back end of the car would spin out as I drove away so the crew would all stand back. I was thrilled to play a police officer speeding off and chasing people.
TKT: You went to Buckingham Palace in May to receive your OBE from Prince William?
SS: I was very surprised and honoured to be awarded the OBE. I still can’t believe it. I went with my mum and dad and my brother and it was a wonderful day. It’s just surreal when you’re there. Another world for me and so exciting. I had been at the Palace before and met the Queen. That was for the National Youth Music Theatre. Prince Edward is their President and that’s where I started. So I was asked to go along with the NYMT as one of their patrons and got to meet the Queen then. Prince William was lovely. He said he had seen some of my roles and that he likes Gavin and Stacey. He asked what I was doing at the moment and I explained I was filming The Huntsman movie, which is a sequel from Snow White and The Huntsman and that I was playing a dwarf. He asked how it was done and I explained some things. It was just a short chat. I said what an honour it was and thank you. There were the most incredible people there getting honours and I met so many of them that day. Lovely people from all different walks of life who had done so much work for charity and other things. That was, to me, really inspiring. To be sat among people like that and be the actor among them. Afterwards we has lots of photos taken in the Buckingham Palace courtyard and you also get to keep a video of the day. It was all really special and I felt so honoured. Then we stayed at the Mondrian Hotel in London where the staff were wonderful. When we arrived they had spelled out ‘OBE’ on a table in red, white and blue Smarties along with a marzipan depiction of the actual medal. My relatives from Wales also came over and so we were all celebrating together. An unforgettable day. Absolutely magical, like a dream. I will never, ever, forget it.
Black Work: Sunday 20th June, 9pm, ITV

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