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Breathless - Zoe Boyle interview (exclusive)

Zoe Boyle

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ZOE Boyle talks about playing ex-nurse Jean in new ITV period drama Breathless and why it’s so much more than just a medical drama, but rather an examination of women just ahead of the sexual revolution.

She also talks about why she turned to Marilyn Monroe as one source of inspiration, what it was like being a part of Downton Abbey and Sons of Anarchy, why she loves the theatre and getting an initiation from Sir Ian McKellen. Breathless airs on ITV1 on Thursday nights at 9pm.

Q. Breathless appears to have come along at a great time, what with Masters of Sex also exploring the same kind of era and doing well…
Zoe Boyle: I’ve not seen Masters of Sex yet but I hear it’s great. But that period was such an interesting time. Breathless is set in 1961 when the pill was in action but women could only take it if they were married and only then with permission from their husband. Abortion was still illegal and women had very little control over their sexuality, especially in terms of pregnancy… And that’s a particularly interesting time to be able to explore, especially when you know what comes next. I always love drama where you have lots of restrictions because you have characters who have something to fight against and rebel against.

Q. Was that one of the things that attracted you most to the script when you read it?
Zoe Boyle: I shouldn’t mention Mad Men, especially as so many people are calling it the British Mad Men because it’s not, but having said that, I am a massive fan of Mad Men and that whole stylishness that comes with setting something in the ‘60s. I have to admit, when I first got sent the script and had it described as a medical drama, I thought: “Oh whatever, it’s a medical drama… boring!” [Laughs] But then I saw it was set in the ‘60s and that it wasn’t really a medical drama at all. It’s just a backdrop to these people. The hospital brings this group together and it’s very much a relationship drama. Not only that, all the characters are extremely different and they’re all very, very strong individuals. Everyone has a secret and everybody is playing a game of some sort. There is a lot of mystery surrounding them and secrets to be revealed.

Q. How much research did you do into attitudes of the period, especially among women?
Zoe Boyle: I did quite a lot. I failed on the nursing respect but only because my character leaves the hospital in the very first episode. We actually spoke to a nurse who worked in a hospital in the ‘60s, so I got some information on that. But I mostly talked about Jean as a person and who would be her idols? So, Marilyn Monroe was an obvious reference point because she was a girl who used her sexuality to get ahead. I watched her films, and I listened to music from the time. I also did loads of trawling on Pinterest to get images I could use to help get a sense of the aesthetic of the time.

Q. I gather the costumes helped a lot too, especially given how tight the dresses were. It helped with things like establishing the correct posture?
Zoe Boyle: It does. I always get a little anxious before I start any new job, thinking: “I don’t know who this person is…” And I always get a little panicked and start to ask myself: “How am I going to do this?” But luckily, with period pieces, you put on a dress and your hair and the eyeliner and fake eyelashes and you’re almost halfway there because the look is so transformative. So, that was really helpful. I’m naturally a bit of a slouch in that I always tend to dress in comfortable clothes, so it was nice to have something where you don’t have that option. You have to stand up straight because the dresses were so tight and constricting. And women always wore high heels, so that informs you in the sense that you have to walk a certain way. So, costume really, really helps with the physical-isation aspect of things.

Breathless, Zoe Boyle

Q. Was there anything that surprised or angered you about attitudes to women back then from the research you did?
Zoe Boyle: Well, I always knew that sexism was common place but certain lines in Breathless are so shocking… I mean, you have a nervous reaction to them and laugh but they’re so awful. If you think about it, all these gynaecologists were men and their bedside manner was atrocious… and yet here you have women in the most vulnerable position possible. It’s so not the time to be making wisecracks about their love lives or vaginas! But it happened all the time. Jack Davenport said he spoke to a doctor at the time who told him: “Yeah, that was how it was. It is how we interacted with patients.” So, those poor women had to sit there and bear it. And this wasn’t so very long ago. Attitudes have changed so quickly. But seeing shows like this serves as a good reminder.

Q. Was it refreshing to find a show that placed so much of an emphasis on the female characters as well as the male ones?
Zoe Boyle: Absolutely! That’s not to say the men are the villains of the pieces – they have redeeming features. Even the doctor who comes out with some of the worst comments imaginable has sympathy. But Jean is a product of her time. She is a victim who is manipulating men with her sexuality. We don’t condone it now. We see it. But we don’t respect or admire it. But those were the only options for women at that time. Jean wants to elevate herself in life, she comes from a poor background… and the ‘60s were still very class orientated. But she wants to raise herself and better herself within society and that was the only way to do it.

Q. Nowadays, there’s a movement starting to gain momentum against the objectification of women…
Zoe Boyle: I do find the whole objectification of women nowadays, and all the stuff about Miley Cyrus, a bit much… maybe that’s a sign that I’m getting old [laughs]. But at the same time, women have always been objectified, so this Miley Cyrus thing isn’t anything new. It’s been going on forever. Hopefully, it will eventually change but the cynic in me wonders whether it will carry on forever, which is depressing. What I would say about Breathless is that the women in it are very strong. This is really a drama about women. It’s set within the context of a sexist culture but the women characters really come to the fore. They’re not the sort of women who just let things happens to them, they have a part to play in everything. Also, in terms of our drama now in the 21st Century, it’s nice to have something on TV where there are lots of parts for women and a lot of actresses being given a lot to do. I’ve found that in the past British drama has tended to be very male heavy… and maybe that’s a hangover from Shakespeare, whose dramas were male heavy. So, it’s nice to see something like this with so many strong roles for women.

Q. Are you hoping for a second series? And is it frustrating at all that there’s only six episodes, as opposed to a longer American series where you can inhabit the characters for a little longer?
Zoe Boyle: Oh, I’m definitely hoping for a second series. Paul Unwin, the show’s creator and writer, always intended for it to go to several series. He wants to end it in 1968… it’s all mapped out. So, hopefully there’ll be more to come. But he always had it mapped out to be six or eight episodes per series because this isn’t a wide reaching show like Lost or something of that type. It’s a contained drama and has a precise arc for each series. And I like dramas that don’t go on and on and on because there’s so much good television at the moment that you don’t want to feel too tied into one series.

Breathless, Zoe Boyle

Q. Talking of American TV, you were also a big part of the third season of Sons of Anarchy. How was that experience?
Zoe Boyle: Sons of Anarchy came along at a time when I was still getting to grips with camera work and that sort of thing. So, it was very funny doing that show because it was completely new to me and, on that show in particular, you enter into this boys’ club. It’s really male heavy, they all get given Harley Davidsons and they’re such a tight knit crew. When you do the big set pieces they bring in actual bikers, So, it was quite intimidating for a London girl from Hampstead to get into that context [laughs]. But I also learnt a lot from it.

Q. Was it good to have a fellow Brit out there in Charlie Hunnam?
Zoe Boyle: It’s always nice to have a Brit on board because it is a massive cultural difference. He’s obviously very settled in and has been working there for years, so he was already really into that culture. But for me, I struggled with LA culture because it is so very different from London and it took me a while to adjust.

Q. So, will you look to be based in England as much as possible or are you happy to go where the work takes you?
Zoe Boyle: I always go where the work takes me. I’ve never had a massive game plan apart from just doing god work and a bit of everything. I still want to do more theatre, film and TV. I don’t want to constricted to one medium. But in terms of theatre, being close to London is important because it doesn’t get any better than that.

Q. You had such a great entrance to theatre, making your debut in productions of King Lear and The Seagull and working with Sir Ian McKellen. How was that as a grounding?
Zoe Boyle: That was my first job and it really was amazing. It was a proper apprenticeship, it lasted for a full year and we toured the world. And I was working with some of the best classical actors in the country. I was only steer carrying. I would be the little girl in the background with a tray but from that position you learn a lot, and I understudied. So, it was a very good introduction.

Q. And did you get to interact with Sir Ian and learn from him directly?
Zoe Boyle: Oh yes. He’s so generous. He’s a really, really generous man, especially when I was understudy because I went on to play Cordelia, his daughter. He was under no obligation to help me, but we did extra rehearsals together and he was very warm. He always gave such good advice. And he’s very funny too.

Q. Then, of course, you were in Downton Abbey as Lavinia Swire. How do you look back on that experience now and being part of such a TV phenomenon? The second season was where it really exploded…
Zoe Boyle: Yeah, it’s when the frenzy really took over in the States. The first series didn’t really connect with audiences [over there] but then word of mouth happened and suddenly everyone went nuts for it. When I walk into an audition room in LA I still get “It’s Lavinia!” It’s hilarious. But it’s great to have been a part of a phenomenon like that. I was a massive fan of the first series and I watched it religiously, so I couldn’t believe my luck when I was actually cast in it. And I still watch it. I think it’s going from strength to strength… this [fourth] series, so far, is really back on form. I think it’s amazing. And I find it incredible how a show like that could be so popular because it really seems to have tapped into something culturally.

Zoe Boyle

Q. And how much of a gift for an actress is getting to work on a script by Julian Fellowes?
Zoe Boyle: He really knows his stuff. It’s fantastic. There’s nothing I can really add to what’s already been said before. But he manages to turn it [the script] into gold.

Q. Do you think Breathless could emulate Downton’s success, both here and in the States?
Zoe Boyle: Well, PBS has already bought it. They got it even before we finished filming, after they’d seen the rushes and read the scripts. It’s going to be on in the States next year [2014], so that was a bit of a coup. But I think it’s also an indication of how popular British drama is in the States, especially on PBS which already has Downton, Mr Selfridge, Call The Midwife and Sherlock. What’s more, it shows that British drama can compete with the Americans. So, I think it [Breathless] does have a great opportunity to connect with viewers over there as well as here.

Q. What’s next for you?
*Zoe Boyle: Well, I’ve got a few meetings and possibilities. There are a few things floating around.

Q. And is there a yearning to get back to theatre? You were at the Royal Court earlier this year in the critically-acclaimed No Quarter
Zoe Boyle: I loved that show. Appearing at The Royal Court was one of my dreams and I think Polly Stenham’s a fantastic writer and Jeremy Herrin is a fantastic director. I’d love to work there again, or at The Donmar, or The National. I would like to get back to the theatre.

Q. Which do you feel most comfortable in – theatre or film and TV? And do you miss one when you’re doing the other?
Zoe Boyle: They’re both so different. And it’s funny, when I go from one to the other I get a bit nervous. So, for instance, when I went to do Breathless, I was thinking: “Do I remember camera techniques?” And stuff like that. But it’s like riding a bike, you quickly remember how and slip back into it. It’s the same with theatre. But both are really exciting. I would say that theatre is a lot more social, which I like, whereas filming hours are anti-social [laughs].

Breathless airs on ITV1 on Thursday nights from 9pm.