Interview with Indira Varma and Luke Treadaway for Unspeakable

Explain a bit about your new drama, Unspeakable, and who you both play.

L: Unspeakable is a story about a woman called Jo [played by Indira] who has a ten-year-old boy and an eleven-year-old girl. Jo divorced her husband a couple of years ago, and for the last year has been in a relationship with this man Danny, who I play. About four months ago, he moved into the house, and they’re obviously in a really good relationship, they seem like they are very much in love and it’s fun and they’re happy.

I: I think they probably tested the relationship considerably before making that commitment, because I think as a single mum, you wouldn’t invite a man to come and live in your home lightly. So they’re starting in a really good place.

L: But then on the morning the drama starts, a text message comes in, and it’s like a bomb going off in the house [The text suggests that Danny is abusing Jo’s daughter].

It’s quite a contentious subject matter. Why did you want to get involved in this project?

I: Well, I didn’t think “Oh, I MUST do something about sexual abuse.” I don’t think you choose things in that way.

L: The fact that it’s a one-off drama that is a contained story – it’s not very often that something like this comes along, where it’s very claustrophobic. There’s not loads of locations, there’s no car chases, it’s a small cast and it’s about two human beings, and what happens between them. There’s a restraint to its scope – we’re not going to spend three episodes going off on a red herring. There’s a very immediate situation at hand - this text message comes in: What do you do? What happens with the trickle effect of paranoia, and questioning everything? How does that potentially destroy what was a wonderful relationship.

I: It’s also very emotional. It’s really satisfying, as an actor, to not be doing a procedural, where there’s loads of expositional dialogue, you’re serving the story, you’re serving the lead role’s character or whatever. Here it was very much about what these characters are feeling, and the relationship between them, and that’s a gift for an actor.

It’s written and directed by David Nath, whose background is in documentaries. Do you think that makes him take a different approach to the subject?

I: Definitely, without a doubt. Not just a different approach to the subject, but to the way we shot it, and the way we rehearsed it – it’s very unusual nowadays to get rehearsals even in a drama. He told us that he was originally a journalist, so he knows how to spot a story. So that helps, in a drama. And then, obviously with his documentary experience, he can smell bullshit. That helps us as actors too. So it’s really exciting for us to work with someone who isn’t going “Ooh, the shot doesn’t look sexy enough – lift your chin, it looks much better on that profile.” Here was someone who’s not as concerned about the look of it, and is much more interested in the characters’ emotions, and the narrative.

L: We weren’t laying track and lighting for hours. A lot of it was handheld, a lot of it was shot with natural light, and it was all set in one house, so it does have that documentary feel – it doesn’t feel like an over-polished TV drama. It has a rawness which you don’t see that much of. A lot of people enjoy a natural, real way of storytelling – it’s not slick, and I really like that. I think it works really well for this story

Does the fact that it’s just a one-off drama, and it’s filmed mostly in one location, mean that it was quick to film?

I: It was quite quick, but there was still a lot of setting up. We played a lot of Scrabble.

L: We did do an hour of TV in twelve days though, it’s pretty good.

Who won the Scrabble?

L: Oh God, this one [indicates Indira] every time. I was the three-letter king, I couldn’t get past that.

It’s one of those dramas that, while you’re watching it, makes you ask what you would do in that situation, isn’t it?

I: That’s my favourite type of TV – or any type of storytelling. TV that makes you think. There’s not a pat little ending at the end of the story, and everything’s wrapped up in a nice little bow. Actually, often with theatre, your audience has to think, and has quite an active role to play. I hope this drama makes the viewer work – not in a laborious way – but I hope it stimulates them, it challenges them in an exciting way.

According to the press release, it’s inspired by real life cases. Did you learn anything about those?

L: I don’t know of any specific cases. David [Nath] told me the same thing, that there were some true life cases, and that’s where he’d come up with the idea from. I think he researched them, and that all informed the script that he wrote. But I didn’t feel compelled to go and research lots of cases like this. I’m not sure it would have been a helpful thing in terms of portraying Danny.

It’s emotionally pretty intense stuff, and it’s a horrible subject matter to deal with. Does that take a toll, when you’re filming?

I: There are moments – I certainly had moments when I was really upset. Especially if I was containing something, and the character doesn’t express it. If the character expresses the emotion, it’s a relief. But if it’s an emotion that’s there, but your character is sitting on it, that’s different. So sometimes I’d have a moment where I’d go and cry or something like that.

L: It wasn’t like that for me. I didn’t feel I was tormented every day, largely because for most of it my character doesn’t walk around carrying the burden of knowing about this text and its implications. But I never look at scenes or stories that are intense as a negative thing. I think of it as being able to go to work and have a fulfilling meal. If you go in and all you have to do is something mundane and uninteresting psychologically, then that’s more likely to play on my brain – “What did I do today, why am I here?”

Does it feel really different going from enormous productions like Fortitude or Game of Thrones to something much more intimate like Unspeakable? Does it even feel like the same job?

L: The periphery around it is different – we weren’t on any massive stage sets, we weren’t on any locations, costume and make-up was in a bedroom upstairs as opposed to a make-up bus outside. But the moment you’re actually there for, between ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’, is exactly the same. You’re just believing in that world for that moment and trying to be as honest as you can with whatever it is you’re doing at that time. So for me it’s exactly the same.

I: But also I think because it was a bit smaller, and possibly because of Dave’s documentary background, there was a slightly more collaborative feeling to it. We were allowed to discuss things, and he as open to suggestions, and even did a little bit of a rewrite in one scene after rehearsal. So he was great at doing that, and getting us involved and listening to our thoughts.

Did you improvise much?

I: There was some, yes. There was one scene on the last day when Dave said “I won’t write that, just improvise it.” And I felt like “Hang on a minute!” because it can get really messy if you just improvise. But it worked really well. And with the kids, we improvised quite a lot. It was great, really creative and open.

L: Yeah, you didn’t have to go through 17 discussions to change a comma. It felt like it was a small crew, small cast, one house for two weeks, and we were going to make this story, and the floor was open to anyone’s ideas.

You were working with the hugely talented Neil Maskell as well – how was that?

I: Yeah, we know each other socially, and it was great, because when you love somebody’s work, you can’t wait to work with them.

L: I didn’t have any scenes with him on this, but I’ve done a few other things with him before, and he’s brilliant. It was nice to see with him again, he’s brilliant.

I: I think we just lucked out, as well, that everyone had the same work ethic. You’re not doing something like this for the money, so everyone’s gone in there with the right attitude – they want to make the best drama that they can.

Luke, you were recently said to be in the running for Doctor Who. What did you make of that particular rumour?

L: There were millions of names being tossed around, most of which bore no relation to who was actually being seen or talked to about it. The first I knew was when I read about it on the internet, so no, I was never in the running for it. And I’m so glad it’s Jodie, by the way, I think it’s brilliant. But it was never anything that was remotely in the reality of my world.

Indira, you’ve been in Game of Thrones? Has that experience changed everything for you? Do you get recognised the whole time by obsessive fans?

I: No, because I don’t think my character has enough screen time, and it’s such a huge cast. But also, I’ve been in this business 20 years, and I haven’t been one of those actors who shot to fame playing Doctor Who or doing something that’s really exposing. There’s always one job that people associate you with. I did Luther, and when that first came out, there were quite a few people who would recognise me on the tube. Then that died down, and it’s something else. Obviously Game of Thrones is international, so I might be in Malaysia and suddenly people will go “Oh my God, you’re in Game of Thrones.” That’s a bit more random, and the profession is becoming more and more global, so you are recognised in random places.

Kiera Godfrey