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Mr Selfridge - Amy Beth Hayes interview (exclusive)

Amy Beth Hayes

Interview by Rob Carnevale

AMY Beth Hayes talks about playing the role of Kitty in Mr Selfridge and how her initial audition didn’t provide her with much to go on. She also reflects on what she likes about her character, especially her badness and ambition.

Away from the show, she also recalls working with Mark Rylance on-stage in Jerusalem and how working alongside Steven Van Zandt on Lilyhammer gave her the chance to wax lyrical about her passion for The Sopranos.

Q. You must be delighted with the success of Mr Selfridge so far? The first episode attracted 7.3 million viewers…
Amy Beth Hayes: Yeah, it was brilliant. I think we beat the competition by quite a bit.

Q. Do you feel any pressure ahead of air dates? I guess it’s akin to an opening weekend for a film in some ways?
Amy Beth Hayes: Well, yeah. But I think there’s always a lot of curiosity for a new show and so now it’s important to keep those numbers up and hopefully get more. I was in a show last year, called The Syndicate, and our figures for that grew every single week. And that showed it was catching on by word of mouth. So, the pressure now is going to be to try and get those figures again. I think Mr Selfridge is a show that actually gets better and better. Every time we turned up to film scenes, we said to each other that we can’t believe it’s happened again… it just got better.

Q. I guess also it’s difficult when you have so many characters to introduce as well as setting up storylines…
Amy Beth Hayes: There are so many characters to introduce. I mean, the pilot was a feature long episode to give that little extra time. But the first episode is always the hardest because you’ve got to introduce these characters and get the conflict and dilemma across to the audience as well and you’ve got to try and do that in a really short space of time. As a writer, the first episode is one of the hardest challenges because after that, hopefully, you can start to relax and the storylines can begin to take over.

Q. What appealed to you about the character of Kitty when you first read her?
Amy Beth Hayes: Well, I didn’t really have anything to go on to be honest. I was literally given a scene because the scripts were not finished and they were also sort of trying to keep them confidential as well, so all I had to go on was this one scene, which didn’t end up being in the show anyway. It wasn’t really a lot to go on. So, I just sort of went ‘let’s have a bit of fun with this then’. I don’t think they knew what to do with Kitty as well to begin with. They weren’t sure how bad she was going to be.

But she’s a character that grows on you. In the beginning, I even struggled a bit with the notion of getting people to like me. I thought: “How am I going to do this?” It seemed like a hard job because she seems to not have many redeeming qualities. But as the series goes on, I sort of chipped away at the vulnerabilities and fears that we all have and, through that, I’m hoping that people will warm to her to. I love her. I think she’s absolutely delicious. I love her badness and her sense of ambition. It’s a nice quality, especially for a woman at that time when women weren’t supposed to have ambitions.

Q. How much did you influence the way that Kitty developed? And is it normal to know so little about your character’s journey when you start filming?
Amy Beth Hayes: Well, this was being written as we were performing it, so I think the writers were watching what was happening and watching the dynamics between characters. I think they had a lot of ideas about where they wanted to take the story but some of it came out of watching what happened while we were filming. But that also means you don’t know what’s going to happen to your character. You have no idea. You might be killed off in episode six, so there’s an innocence to the way you play it, which is like real life, because you don’t know where you’re going to end up. So, in answer to your question, I’m not sure I had that much of an influence in the way they wrote Kitty. Hopefully, I showed them that she could be fun. I think she does end up being quite fun.

Q. And is the not knowing element of a character something you’re used to? Or was that a first?
Amy Beth Hayes: I’ve done that before. I think it is quite common now for only one or two episodes to have been written out of six or seven. So, I’ve signed on the dotted line without knowing how big a part is going to be, which is a little bit scary. You have to fake it to a certain degree. But if you believe in the project it’s often fun and a nice challenge.

Q. You’ve alluded to the historical context of the show by saying that women weren’t allowed to have much ambition back then. How much did you know about that period and how much were you surprised to find out through doing Mr Selfridge?
Amy Beth Hayes: I didn’t really know that much. So, it’s been fascinating to learn about because this idea of going shopping was a revolution. There hasn’t been a bigger shopping revolution since. I suppose, the latest one is the Internet and the advent of Internet shopping and the way it has changed the way we shop. But a drama about the creation of Amazon wouldn’t be that exciting. Back then, women weren’t really allowed to have the courage to go out and be fashion conscious in public. And yet here they were being given the opportunity to meet other women, to go shopping, to travel and get on the Tube and they were really being given choice for the first time in their lives. They could go into a store and choose what they might like to wear, for example. And that was a really new thing that women hadn’t had before, which was very exciting. And Harry was also a supporter of the suffragette movement, which I didn’t know and found really interesting. It’s something you will see in Lady May’s character, not to give too much away.

Q. How was working with Jeremy Piven?
Amy Beth Hayes: It was great. He’s a fun guy. And I think his Harry is really funny too. I was watching it the other night and that scene where he’s out shooting and the cartridge keeps slapping into his chest is really funny and nicely played by him, as are his reactions to Lady May. You can see he’s terrified by this Praying Mantis of a woman. I think what he’s doing so well is conveying just how scary it must have been for Harry to come over and convince people to give him thousand of ponds to him so that he could start this enterprise. In the present day, it’s akin to millions of pounds what he was asking for – and that’s all based on his guile and his instinct and just saying, ‘give me the money, trust me’. Similarly, it must have been scary to do for Jeremy, especially as an American to come over here. I would imagine there’s a relationship between Jeremy and his character and what they both did, or are doing – he’s come over to England to spend six months filming a series here. So, I’d imagine it links to that same sort of feeling and it’s something that he could relate to for character building.

Q. And did you enjoy working with Frances O’Connor?
Amy Beth Hayes: Unfortunately, I didn’t get to share a single scene with Frances… but she’s a really lovely woman. We all had a cast get together one night and that was the first time we actually properly in six months had a conversation. Kitty never left the store. So it did feel like I was going to work in a department store because my character doesn’t exist outside of it [laughs].

Amy Beth Hayes

Q. Have you ever worked in retail?
Amy Beth Hayes: I’ve never worked in retail. I’ve sort of done everything else. I’ve been a waitress, I’ve worked in call centres and cafes…

Q. Has it changed the way you view Selfridge’s?
Amy Beth Hayes: Yeah, I guess so because they recreated the set in a warehouse in Neasden, which was full of pigeons! So, it’s interesting because you can see the skeletal structure of it and you then go inside the real shop and take a better look at how things have developed. Usually, your eye is forced to go from the Channel stand to Yves Saint Lauren, so you can’t really see the infrastructure of the building.

Q. You’ve worked extensively in TV and also theatre and I’d imagine one of your many highlights was appearing alongside Mark Rylance in Jerusalem? How much do you take away from an experience like that?
Amy Beth Hayes: That was absolutely incredible and one of the real highpoints in my career. I didn’t do the show at the Royal Court, but joined the company for the West End production of it. At the beginning of the show, there would be this manic 10 seconds of a rave on-stage and then the music would cut out and the play would begin and he [Mark] would open the play in his morning routine of cracking an egg, drinking it with milk and doing a handstand. It was this amazing 30 seconds he did every day. And I’d come off after the rave and sit in the wings to watch what he did every single night.

I was always watching what he did because he was so fascinating because he changes what he does every single day to suit way he’s feeling and what his character is feeling. He doesn’t hold onto stuff, which as an actor is incredibly brave, especially if you have given a good performance because you tend to want to keep that. You’re always looking to find what works for an audience, which isn’t always the same thing either. In that regard, it’s rather like being a stand-up comedian. My partner is a comedian and we find it fascinating how exactly the same set of jokes can destroy a room one night and on the next night get no laughs whatsoever. The science of that is hard to work out. And there’s no point trying to. But as an actor, you’re always interested in how to get the best performance and Mark is just so great at doing that. It’s probably because he’s a genius. He’s so very, very good at what he does and he’s a really caring, generous performer.

Q. Will you continue to work in TV and on the stage and maybe branch out into film as well?
Amy Beth Hayes: Yeah, hopefully… what I’ve learned in my short career of five years so far is that trying to plan things doesn’t really work out because you just end up doing something you never expect. I’ve just been in Norway for the past four days doing a show called Lilyhammer [with Steven Van Zandt]. I’m playing this sort of gothic looking woman with really short hair – you’d never, ever recognise me. But I was having dinner with Steven just the other night. So, these random things happen. I love the theatre, and I would like to do more, but at the minute I also love my screen work, so we’ll see what happens.

*Q. Do you still find yourself pinching yourself at those random moments, such as getting to have dinner with Steven Van Zandt, or getting to work so close to someone like Mark Rylance? *
Amy Beth Hayes: I’ve seen every single episode of The Sopranos about three times each. I absolutely was obsessed with The Sopranos, especially when I was at university. So, just meeting him was incredible because that show really influenced me… watching Edie Falco… I used to rewind her bits and see how she did her scenes because she was so amazing. I’d not seen an actress like her before…

Q. Did you gush about The Sopranos to Steven?
Amy Beth Hayes: You’ve got to really. There’s no point trying to act all cool. If you’ve seen a show and loved it, you may as well tell the person when you meet them. And people like to hear that. It’s makes you feel nice. It’s nice to know when you’re doing something that hopefully brings joy to people. I mean, the story of how he became cast in that show is incredible. He’s Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist. He’d never acted before. His only background was as a musician. I can’t get my head around that. His performance in that show was so nuanced and fantastic and yet he’d never acted before. He’s another genius.

Q. You should ask him for concert tickets to Bruce Springsteen’s UK shows later this year…
Amy Beth Hayes: Do you think so? I could ask him direct, couldn’t I [laughs]!

Mr Selfridge airs on ITV1 on Sunday nights from 9pm.