Skins - Hannah Murray interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
HANNAH Murray talks about returning to the role of Cassie for a one-off episode of Skins and why the role gave her a rare opportunity to act her age.
She also talks about playing Gilly in Game of Thrones and delivers her theory on who is best equipped to survive the series, working with Tim Burton on Dark Shadows and why going to Cambridge proved to be an invaluable experience.
Q. So, what was it like to return to the role of Cassie in Skins? I gather you were a little reluctant at first?
Hannah Murray: Well, as soon as I heard the actual idea I was keen. Once I knew it was exploring her character really in depth and they were going to take into account how much she may have changed over the period of time since we last saw her I thought it was a really exciting opportunity to do a TV drama that was slightly unusual. This was completely focused on character and it felt really exciting to be a part of. My reluctance stemmed from not being so keen on merely popping up and saying “wow” a few times to people because that would have been embarrassing. But once I was aware of what Bryan Elsley wanted to do.
And the experience of doing it was really wonderful. I don’t get to play my own age very often. I still play teenagers a lot, which is kind of weird. So, it felt really nice to take on my first really adult role. I was working with Paul Gay, who directed me in my first episodes in the series, so it was really nice to work with him again. And it really highlighted how much I have learned in between about the profession. I felt more in control of my own performance and how to conduct myself on set. It also rounded off a great year for me last year. I did four things in a row last year and Skins was the last one, so it almost felt like I’d come full circle in a sense. There was something very moving about the whole thing.
Q. How has Cassie changed since we last saw her?
Hannah Murray: I think she’s changed quite a lot. I always felt when I was originally playing her that there was quite a big difference between the times you saw her as part of the group and when she was alone. She was a very useful character in the sense that she could be very extreme and a great catalyst for events. She’d be the crazy one and could do the big dramatic thing. But in her individual episodes, you got to see a much more introverted and quieter side to her. And similarly in this episode, there was none of the crazy, wacky, kooky girl aspect to it. It’s much more the introverted, more quietly emotional side of someone who is doing some very serious thinking about her life and who is very worried about how to live in the world. She doesn’t have any of the kind of tics she used to have… of being that spacey, quirky girl. It’s much more subdued and much less self-destructive as well. I think that’s the recurring theme of all three of the pieces. It’s more about growing up and there’s less teenage madness.
Q. Is that harder and more challenging to play… the more introverted stuff and communicating more with less?
Hannah Murray: Yeah, for me personally, I always think my biggest problem is overdoing things. It can be really fun when you’re given a piece where the performance is really over the top. Strangely, it’s more of an effort to be small with a performance. But with this episode of Skins, I felt that if people were going to want to be with her for the whole two hours, it had to be small and subtle, so I was trying very, very hard to be as small and naturalistic as possible. There’s so little dialogue as well, so you have to convey everything by other means, which was all a really interesting challenge for me.
Q. You said Cassie has reached a point where she’s had to do some really serious thinking about her life. What do you think about your own career to date? I’d imagine you’re pretty happy with everything right now?
Hannah Murray: Incredibly well. I feel very lucky. It’s sometimes weird to think that I’ve been doing this for seven years but at the same time it’s also difficult to imagine doing anything else, or life being any different. I do remember before I started acting it was always this impossible dream, so I feel really privileged that I get to do something I love as a job. I think that’s the best way you can hope to live your life… if you can spend the bulk of your time on something fulfilling, then that’s a big thing and I feel really lucky to be in this position.
Q. I read that your parents were initially surprised by your career choice and that they thought, after your degree, that you might pursue something different. Are they on board now, so to speak?
Hannah Murray: [Laughs] They are… but they kind of knew by the fact that I carried on acting while I was studying at Cambridge that this was something I was passionate and serious about, because I was doing it while it was quite inconvenient and difficult to fit in [with my studying]. They came to realise that this was definitely not a phase or something that I’d grow out of. But you’re right, I remember my mum saying at one point: “Well this is a really interesting point in your life. It’ll be interesting to see what the next phase will be.” She couldn’t imagine it carrying on as a career. And to be fair, I felt the same way. No one in my family has ever been involved in this industry, even indirectly. So, both myself and my parents both it was very strange and didn’t really understand it. I think we’d all always assumed that I’d do a normal job… that it was a fun holiday almost. But it also meant a lot the first time my mum said: “I thought you’d end up doing something different but now I realise that this is your career.” I was pleased that she’d come to terms with that fact that and she was happy for me.
Q. And how was the whole Cambridge experience for you and juggling it with the acting?
Hannah Murray: Well, for me doing the two things alongside each other was really healthy and really great in terms of putting each other into perspective. It meant I didn’t take one too seriously. It was never the end of the world… if I got a bad mark in an essay or found myself getting stressed, I just told myself that I had an audition tomorrow and that was what I really wanted to do. Or, if I didn’t get a part, I’d tell myself: “Well, I have an exam in the next couple of weeks, so focus on that.” I couldn’t wallow. But I like being busy and having a lot on. So, it [Cambridge] taught me a lot. One of the things about the Cambridge English course is that they teach you to analyse texts in incredibly close detail. You can literally spend hours on one word if you want to, but that really, really helped with my understanding of scripts and the way I read them. I think I’m very, very good at reading things now and that is more of a skill that I have since completing Cambridge. With Skins, for example, I was involved at an early stage with having meetings with the writer and talking about the script. It gave me the confidence to be able to talk about other people’s writing and it enabled me to discuss things with him about the character and the type of things I might have to offer. I feel like the two things fed off each other.
Q. Talking of great writing, you’re an integral part of Game of Thrones now too, as Gilly. How is that?
Hannah Murray: Being able to be a part of a HBO project is a dream come true for me. I’ve always been a fan of what they produce – Six Feet Under and The Wire were shows I really loved. But because HBO is an American channel, I never really thought I’d get the chance to work for them. So, this is an amazing experience. And the writing is of such a high quality. It was one of the things I noticed straight away when auditioning for Gilly… there were so many things I could do with the scene. It really is so rich the way they write everything… just wonderful. I already knew the show was quite a big deal when I joined in series two but it just seems to go from strength to strength and get bigger and more epic with each one.
Q. I don’t suppose you can say what’s in store for Gilly?
Hannah Murray: Of course I can’t say [laughs].
Q. But do you actually know at this point?
Hannah Murray: Well, I don’t really know. I read the books as we do them. I don’t read ahead. So, I will start reading book four soon because I’m going back in August to start filming. I’ve not seen the scripts yet. That said, although the books lay out to some extent what’s going to happen, and you can get an idea, it’s not as simple as that in the way it’s being adapted. So, you can always be surprised. I do find myself getting stressed out in case I let something slip. And not just in interviews but even with my friends. They’re all fans of the show but some of them don’t even want to know I’m going back to series four because it ruins the surprise that I’m still alive.
Q. How is working with John Bradley (aka Samwell Tarley)?
Hannah Murray: Oh, John Bradley is the most wonderful, wonderful actor and a wonderful person as well. And that was a big thing for me going in because I knew that most of my stuff was with him. When I was offered the role, I watched series one to see what the show was like in general and because I was a little concerned about what he might be like and whether he’d be someone I’d be excited about working with. I think he’d been on screen for three seconds and I knew he would be wonderful. He brings so much warmth to the character and that’s something you can’t fake. So, I could also tell that he was going to be nice. It’s a really great thing to be able to work with one actor so closely. We’ve got to know each other really well and as actors we have a really strong understanding of the way we each like to work. In some ways, we have different processes but we always end up with similar results. John comes from a different background to me. He went to drama school, whereas I learned on the job, so we teach each other a lot as well. It’s one of the things I’m looking forward to about going back to the production – getting to work with him again.
Q. The two of you are really nice in the show. But is there a danger that it means you’re not long for that world? Nice people seem to perish on the show…
Hannah Murray: Well, my theory is that anyone that’s weak actually does quite well. If you’re a Ned Stark type of character you may not survive. Ned got killed in the first series because he was one of the type of characters that made everyone feel safe. If he was around, things might not get that bad – and then suddenly he was gone. Daenerys [Emilia Clarke] seemed an unlikely bet to survive when we first saw her because she was such a young girl. She seemed to have absolutely no reason to survive or be strong. So, I think the show really does favour the underdog. And Sam and Gilly are, in some ways, the most pathetic characters in it but their strength is in triumphing against all the odds. I think it’s the strong characters that tend to get killed off, like Robb Stark. He was a typical hero and he’s gone. So, I sort of have hopes for them [Sam and Gilly] because it’s so unlikely they should survive, especially with a baby as well.
Q. You’ve also recently been up in Scotland filming God Help The Girl…
Hannah Murray: God Help The Girl was really great. It’s actually the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. It was the summer and Glasgow is such a wonderful city. It was myself, Emily Browning and Olly Alexander and we all got on so well. We were like this horrible little gang because we had so many in-jokes. And filming a musical was like the most incredible, fantastical dream of a job. Stuart Murdoch, the writer and director, is a really special human being… really creative but also really kind and gentle. The film has a really low budget but everyone was working together. It was one of those very special experiences on every level. Olly Alexander was also in Skins and we’d been friends for five years, so it was just a great experience.
Q. How is your singing?
Hannah Murray: My singing is not amazing. I’m not a trained singer at all. I’ve auditioned on occasion for proper musical theatre type stuff but I can’t read music and I wasn’t particularly good at it. So, doing the songs in the film was challenging. But from day one, Stuart said that he wasn’t interested in finding the best singer but the person who was right for the character. That said, Emily [Browning] has a huge amount of singing to do and she sings some really difficult songs. She’s incredibly talented. I don’t think I could have done what she does. I had two or three songs and that was stressful because I was quite nervous about it. But, again, Stuart was such a good teacher. He was a really fantastic person to be able to work with.
Q. And you’ve also worked with John Cusack on The Numbers Station. How was that?
Hannah Murray: Again, it was a bit surreal to meet someone like that. I’m a very huge fan of his. But he was lovely to me… really, really kind and interesting. Actors work in different ways… sometimes they’re really focused on their own work, but that’s OK. I think I can be like that sometimes. But John is someone who is really passionate about every aspect of the film and the project. He wants to ensure everyone is enjoying themselves. It’s great to see someone get so involved and be so enthusiastic, who has so many great ideas. It was a lovely little role to play.
Q. And you were a hippy chick alongside Johnny Depp in Dark Shadows. How was getting to star alongside him and to work for Tim Burton?
Hannah Murray: Again, it was surreal. I never thought that would have happened in my life. It was a really interesting experience. Game of Thrones obviously has a huge budget but I did Dark Shadows just before I got to Game of Thrones, so it was my first experience of a huge studio film. They had built an entire fishing village and I was blown away by that. But Tim Burton is really wonderful. He’s really encouraging and he enjoys everyone’s performances. He’s one of those directors you really want to please and he lets you know when you have. And Johnny Depp is magical. I think his performance in that film was wonderful and he was so gracious and so kind to everyone. It was really interesting to watch someone like that and see how they carry their fame and be aware that other people may be uncomfortable by it. He was really good at not making it an issue. He made it easy to forget he is who he is. It was just a fun job.
Q. How are you when it comes to auditioning for someone like Tim Burton? Do nerves play a part?
Hannah Murray: A little bit. But with Dark Shadows, I’d met the casting director a few times before. When I first met her, she said “we’ll see how it goes” but then I got a recall and I went to Tim’s house. That was the most dizzying aspect of it. When you go to someone’s house, it doesn’t really feel like an audition. And I don’t think I read for him… I just went in and had a chat. In a way, if I’d had to read for someone like him then nerves would have been more of an issue. He was very friendly and I literally found out a couple of hours later that I had got the part. I think he’s so well respected and is such a creative force that if he wants to cast you, then he doesn’t have to ask anyone. The decision is pretty instant.
Q. And finally, you’ve also been in New York filming Lily and Kat?
Hannah Murray: Yeah, that was such a dream for me too. I’ve been to the city a few times before but there have been so many iconic films made there. I just kept going in my head: “I’m making a film in New York – I can’t believe it!” I play Kat and she’s actually one of the favourite characters I’ve ever played. She’s a really interesting girl. She’s the more outgoing of the two best friends, Lily and Kat and she’s British. She’s the fun, loud and sexy one, whereas Lily is more down-trodden and in Kat’s shadow. It was nice to play someone who is kind of not very nice and to behave irresponsibly in some ways. It was all filmed in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side, and we had a lot of wonderful night shoots, running around Williamsburg. It was a really fun job. Jessica Rothe, who plays Lily has also become a very good friend and we now Skype every week. I’ve not seen the finished film yet but I’m really looking forward to seeing how it turns out
Skins: Pure airs on E4 on Monday, July 15, 2013, at 10pm.