Monday, 28 December 2015
Tuppence Middleton on playing Miss Havisham in Dickensian - Harper's Bazaar
Tuppence Middleton’s portrayal of a young Miss Havisham in the BBC’s new serialisation, Dickensian, has all the hallmarks of a career-changing role. Miss Havisham is a character that many actresses wait decades to play - Gillian Anderson and Helena Bonham Carter both played her in their forties - but Middleton landed the role at just 28 years of age. The drama itself - which sees all of Dickens' characters living on one street - also looks set to be one of the cleverest (and possibly the most controversial) Dickens adaptations to hit our screens in recent years.
“I was taken aback when they approached me to audition for Miss Havisham,” Middleton tells us when we chat to on a cold, wintry day in mid December. “Then I realised the story focused on her as a young woman and I thought, great, that’s off the list! Most actresses don’t get to play the role until they are in their forties or fifties - I hope to play her now, and when I’m in my fifties!"
Middleton received the call about Dickensian the day after she’d flown back to London from Russia, where she had been filming another period drama for the BBC; War and Peace. But it’s not that she intended to focus on costume dramas as a career choice, instead the two roles “just happened to come along at the same time”. Today, the Somerset-born actress is talking to me from the hairdressers, where she will be ensconced for the day, having her hair bleached for the second series of Senses8. The Netflix original - about a group of telepathically connected 20 year olds - has a cult following both here and in the US. Middleton’s character, Riley Blue, is a bleached blonde, edgy ingénue. She also has a fragility that couldn’t be further from the role of the quietly intelligent, self-contained Miss Havisham.
“People think of Miss Havisham as embittered, vengeful and eccentric,” muses Middleton. “I didn’t watch the performances of Gillian Anderson or Helena Bonham Carter,” she continues, explaining that she chose instead to focus on "trying to show the woman before she became embittered; this young woman with dreams and ambitions - who had just inherited money - and had her future in front of her. Then something went wrong.” Middleton had lengthy discussions with the director about Miss Havisham’s extreme reactions to rejection. “If you put it within the context of the period, it makes sense," she explains. "The shock and humiliation of knowing you’d given half your wealth to a con artist. The shame would have been beyond belief, in that age. We simply can’t comprehend that today.”
Tuppence Middlton as Miss Havisham. Picture courtesy of the BBC
It was also incredibly important to the actress that Miss Havisham was not just depicted as a caricature. The motivation of the character therefore became all-important. “She’s a slightly repressed woman, with little experience. So when she falls in love she really falls in love. I wanted her to be a sweet woman, but she also had to be a woman of extremes. To sit in your wedding dress for 30 years, to manipulate Pip and Estelle and to break a young boy's heart, that takes a strong woman.” The series continues until the moment when the “sweet woman” is jilted and turns into the Miss Havisham we know. “It’s a great story arch,” she continues. “I couldn’t resist taking the role, mainly because of the scene where she gets jilted. It was a gift and a real challenge for an actor. We put aside a day to shoot that one scene. I went home and just went to bed afterwards, I was exhausted.”
Middleton seems conscious to keep a distance from her roles; “I’m not a method actor. I try to stay separate, but to imagine what they’d feel, to put myself in their shoes.” She is also glad her career has seen a steady rise, instead of meteoric success overnight. The actress has done both TV (Black Mirror, Inspector Lewis) and film (The Imitation Game, A Long Way Down, 2015’s Jupiter Ascending) but has leaned more towards the former in recent years. "It wasn’t conscious, but I’m glad I’ve had a slow and steady career path. I wanted to develop my style and I wanted to be the one making the decisions. Sometimes, when you become a success quickly, those decisions are out of your control.”
Middleton remembers the atmosphere on the Dickensian set as being “totally great - filled with young actors, which made it fun" - but quite a contrast from the Russia-setWar and Peace, filmed with Bazaar's December cover star Lily James. “That was bitterly cold," she remembers with a shudder. "I was lucky that a lot of my scenes were shot inside palaces, but the boys were outside riding horses in the ice and snow. Freezing!” Dickensian, on the other hand, was filmed in a studio in England, in the middle of summer. “There we were, in this extraordinary heat, dressed like it was Christmas and with this pretend snow everywhere. The make-up artist had to keep mopping the sweat off everyone’s forehead.”
Regardless of the heat, Middleton assures me that “it looks cold”. She also thinks that the Dickens purists will approve. The 20-part series was penned by Eastenders scriptwriter Tony Jordan and follows the format of a soap – half an hour episodes, each with a cliffhanger at the end. “I think it works; it is still a drama ultimately, and it feels tantalizing,” she says. “Each character is so unique and recognisable – it was fascinating, seeing a trailer door open and think ‘oh, there’s Scrooge!’ I met a lot of people who, when I told them about the idea, said ‘God, I wish I’d thought of that.’”
Arthur and Amelia Havisham in Dickensian. Picture courtesy of the BBC
Dickensian first airs Saturday 26 December, 7PM, BBC1