The prime of DCI Jane Tennison: Actress Stefanie Martini talks about reprising one of Helen Mirren's most famous roles
Taking on the role of one of TV’s most iconic detectives – made famous by Helen Mirren – in a Prime Suspect prequel, STEFANIE MARTINI has some big shoes to fill. Kerry Potter finds out how the rookie actress is taking to her new beat
Stefanie Martini may be facing the biggest challenge of her fledgling career – reprising Helen Mirren’s iconic role of Jane Tennison for new ITV drama Prime Suspect 1973 – but today she’s facing a different trial. We’re in the outer reaches of Southeast London in a working men’s club in Blackheath, where the members are bemused to spot the 26-year-old actress in their midst. A gaggle of them abandon the snooker table to gawp at the pretty lady having her photo taken for YOU. A lesser woman might be intimidated, but Stefanie is not a lesser woman.
Stefanie Martini may be facing the biggest challenge of her fledgling career – reprising Helen Mirren’s iconic role of Jane Tennison for new ITV drama Prime Suspect 1973. Dress, Temperley London. Shoes, Jimmy Choo
Stefanie prepared by watching several episodes of the original series, then ‘letting it go’
She’s sanguine about following in Dame Helen’s footsteps: ‘Of course, it’s terrifying, but only in an exciting, positive way. What an opportunity!’ And she’s equally sanguine about her new ale-supping fanclub: ‘This place has got so much character.’ It’s not her first foray into such an environment: ‘We filmed a few scenes for Prime Suspect 1973 in a working men’s club, actually.’
Later we chat in the bar and, while I’d love to be able to tell you that Stefanie goes method and polishes off a pint of Guinness and a bag of pork scratchings, she plumps for a rather actress-y mug of boiling water – she’s careful to avoid too much caffeine and dairy. She’s not faddy, she says, she simply has a professional duty to look after her body, lest she falls ill while shooting.
Despite graduating from Rada just 18 months ago, Stefanie is relaxed and self-assured. I tell her she reminds me of fellow actress Ruth Wilson. She’s heard this before and is ‘100 per cent happy with that. I think she’s brilliant in The Affair and Luther.’
So how on earth to tackle playing a young Jane Tennison, the much-loved trailblazing detective created by veteran crime writer Lynda La Plante and played by Helen from 1991 to 2006? The new series is a prequel; while the original kicked off with Jane in her 40s, in Prime Suspect 1973 she’s a 22-year-old rookie. ‘The first thing was to try not to be overwhelmed by it,’ says Stefanie. ‘And then to approach it as I would if it were a completely new thing – because I am not Helen Mirren. The worst thing would be for people to watch it and see me doing a rubbish impression. I had to make sure it was my own. Helen’s performance is brilliant and it’s nice to know where [the character] ends up. But in this show, Jane is a different person. She’s so green.’
The series charts her learning the ropes at Hackney police station, a hotbed of ‘make the tea, love’ 1970s sexism. Among her colleagues/tormentors is DS Gibbs, played by Blake Harrison (Neil from The Inbetweeners), almost unrecognisable playing things straight while sporting a 70s moustache. His character is spotted blatantly staring at Jane’s bottom in the first episode.
Despite graduating from Rada just 18 months ago, Stefanie is relaxed and self-assured
A self-described ‘big nerd’ at school, Stefanie was highly academic as well as passionate about drama, singing and art. TOP, Sonia Rykiel, from Fenwick. RING (just seen), Stone Paris
When a prostitute is found murdered, DI Bradfield (Australian actor Sam Reid) allows Jane to work on the case and slowly but surely she makes her mark. ‘At first she is scrappy and under-confident, but she starts to fight to be listened to when she has ideas. You see her take more control.’ Stefanie found it surprising just how ingrained sexism was in the era, with a police advisor on set telling her that at the time female officers still had to carry a handbag on the beat: ‘It’s not as though the women police officers made the tea and complained about it. They just did it, they accepted that was the way. Things have obviously changed and some of it is generational – none of my male friends would demand I made them tea. But everyday sexism is still there. The expectations about the way women should look, the values placed on our bodies, the pay gap. And men making comments to women in the street – it happens to me, it happens to every young girl.’ Helen famously said that she regrets not telling people to ‘f*** off’ more freely – sage advice? ‘Haha, yeah. Maybe I should take that on board,’ Stefanie smiles.
She hasn’t spoken to her predecessor. ‘I don’t even know how I’d go about getting in contact with Dame Helen Mirren,’ she says. ‘But she has definitely been an inspiration to me.’ Nor has Stefanie met Lynda, the writer of the original Prime Suspect series (and of the novels based on the TV show), whose 2016 book Tennison the new series is based on.
Controversy swirled around the production when Lynda, who was supposed to be writing the TV adaptation, walked away late last year, apparently due to artistic differences. There were reports that she disagreed with Stefanie’s casting, although Lynda’s only comment has been to describe the situation as ‘sad’. She has form on this front, having left the original production of Prime Suspect three series into its seven-series run; she later spoke about her dismay at Jane’s descent into alcoholism.
Stefanie with Tom Hollander in Doctor Thorne
When I ask Stefanie if she feels a duty to do Lynda proud, her smile dims for the first time. ‘Um, I’d love to do anyone who has been involved in it proud. A lot of time and energy has gone into the show. And I’m honoured to be working from the novel she wrote,’ she says stiffly. I mention the directive Lynda once gave to Helen: don’t have Jane smile so much. Stefanie shrugs it off: ‘I didn’t know that. I smile. As I’m quite new to acting I do things and I don’t really think about them.’
It will be interesting to see what Lynda makes of her famous creation’s youthful incarnation. Stefanie performs well in the first episode, conjuring up a timid ingénue who shows flashes of steeliness. She prepared by watching several episodes of the original series, then ‘letting it go’. Fortuitously, her first professional acting role after leaving college in 2015 was a part in Endeavour, the Inspector Morse prequel, in which Shaun Evans plays another iconic police officer in their younger years. (Shaun was among the first to email his congratulations when Stefanie got the Prime Suspect part.) ‘It was lovely seeing him doing something so unique in comparison to the original,’ Stefanie says.
As for her own formative experiences, she points to growing up in rural North Somerset as being key. ‘I loved climbing trees, having that freedom, beauty and openness. It has kept me down to earth. Living in London and being an actress means there’s always lots of exciting new things. But all you need is your favourite people around you.’ These include her construction manager father (Stefanie is a quarter German on her paternal side, hence the European-sounding name: ‘It’s not a stage name but everyone thinks it is. I’m not nearly obnoxious enough to choose Martini!’) and her mother, who works in HR. Then there’s her businessman stepfather (her parents divorced when she was 14), her student brother, 21, and her sister, 25, who works with people with autism. In all, there’s not a whiff of showbiz in her background.
A self-described ‘big nerd’ at school, Stefanie was highly academic as well as passionate about drama, singing and art, and applied to Oxford University to study English literature. After being rejected, she began an art foundation course, before deciding to follow her heart and pursue drama. She got into Rada on her second attempt and paid her way with bursaries, student loans and working in the college bar. Her determination and work ethic is ‘100 per cent from my parents. I always had part-time jobs as a teenager.’ After graduating, she won the role of Mary Thorne in Doctor Thorne, Julian Fellowes’s ITV drama – just in the nick of time. ‘That day my bank card got declined and I was in a panic, so financially it was a huge relief to get the part. Being an actor is hard – sometimes you have money, sometimes you don’t.’
Mary is a virtuous but penniless young woman who believes she can’t marry her genteel and rather gorgeous neighbour Frank Gresham (played by Harry Richardson) because she isn’t of comparable social standing. Tom Hollander plays her kindly uncle, the titular doctor. Tom has been described as a ‘sex thimble’ – her thoughts? ‘What?!’ Stefanie splutters, bursting into the kind of horrified laughter you’d deploy if your best friend admitted she fancied your dad. ‘That’s the worst! A sex thimble?’ He does have a lot of female admirers, I reason. ‘I can imagine. He’s a lovely man. I learned so much from him, from simple technical stuff such as how not to look at your mark [where the director tells the actor to stand] when you enter a scene to, well, everything.’
Another co-star was Cressida Bonas, the former girlfriend of Prince Harry. ‘She was part of a lovely group of girls.’ Did Stefanie ask her about Harry? ‘Not at all. She was focused on her work.’
While most graduates are still finding their feet, Stefanie is gliding gracefully towards the big league. Last year she finished filming US fantasy series Emerald City. Then there’s Crooked House, an Agatha Christie film adaptation with an all-star cast, including Glenn Close, Gillian Anderson and Christina Hendricks. Stefanie plays a young heiress who hires a former flame (played by Max Irons) to investigate when her grandfather is murdered. ‘It was great to absorb all these strong women,’ she enthuses.
Stefanie has previously criticised the dearth of decent roles for women, saying: ‘I hate the girlfriend roles in films, I am bored by them’, but concedes that she has been lucky thus far: ‘The parts I’ve played have all been strong characters who are not plus-ones. Mary Thorne ends up inheriting everything and it’s Frank who wants to marry her. And Tennison just cares about her work, which is really refreshing.’
Stefanie’s ambitions are simple: ‘Just to keep doing work I find interesting.’ She’d like to still be taking on challenging roles in her latter years, à la 71-year-old Helen Mirren, ‘but as an actress it’s impossible to plan your life. I’m still at an age where I can be quite selfish, there’s nothing tying me down.’ She politely declines to reveal whether she has a partner, but speaks brightly about the idea of having a family in the future.
Stefanie as Jane Tennison
Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect with Richard Hawley
She does talk a lot about her friends though – she lives in a messy, fairy-light-strewn flat in North London with two female friends. They go out for breakfast (Stefanie is ‘obsessed with avocados’), walk on Hampstead Heath, practise yoga and love music festivals.
But back to Blackheath’s working men’s club. Stefanie is about to head for the door, where a taxi awaits to whiz her back to the city. Before she goes, I ask her why she describes herself as a ‘life enthusiast’ on her Twitter profile. What does that mean? ‘Well, it would be ridiculous if I wasn’t positive, given the situation I’m in. I’m very lucky, there’s a lot of fun to be had and a lot of great people out there,’ she replies, with one final megawatt smile. I clock her fanclub gathering by the door to catch one last glimpse of the nascent star and ask how often she gets recognised. ‘Never. It’s great. I don’t think it’ll happen.’ Famous last words.
Prime Suspect 1973 starts next month on ITV
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