Downton Abbey star Laura Carmichael heads down under to star in psychological thriller The Secrets She Keeps. The actor and Helen Bowden, producer, tell DQ about adapting Michael Rowbotham’s novel and filming in Sydney.
After six seasons starring as Lady Edith in the global phenomenon that is Downton Abbey, Laura Carmichael recently returned to the character she first played in 2010 when writer Julian Fellowes transplanted the period drama to the big screen.
But in her next role, she’s leaving the Crawley family far behind by travelling down under to star in domestic noir The Secrets She Keeps, based on Michael Robotham’s bestselling novel.
The six-part thriller sees Carmichael play a pregnant woman called Agatha, who believes Meghan Shaughnessy (Jessica De Gouw, Underground), a mother whose parenting blog Agatha reads obsessively, has the perfect life. When she discovers Meghan is pregnant again and they are both due at similar times, Agatha builds up the courage to speak to her.
While these two women are very different – Meghan lives a comfortable life, Agatha less so – they do have one thing in common: they each hold explosive secrets.
Made by Lingo Pictures for Australia’s Network Ten, The Secrets She Keeps is produced by Helen Bowden and Paul Watters, with Rick Maier and Jason Stephens exec producing. DCD Rights is the international distributor of the show.
Sarah Walker and Jonathan Gavin partnered on the scripts, while Catherine Millar and Jennifer Leacey shared directing duties.
Here, Carmichael and then Bowden talk about the central characters and the relationship between them, adapting Robotham’s book and filming in Sydney.
Laura, what drew you to the project?
I loved the script and I was instantly intrigued by Agatha. It felt unlike anything I had seen before.
Had you been interested in working in Australia and how did the experience differ from working in the UK?
I had just been on holiday to Sydney around Christmas time and had fallen in love with the city. I felt like I must have sent out some vibes of wanting to return, as a few months later the project came to my agent. I loved how it didn’t feel that different being on an Aussie set compared with the UK; it’s a sort of universal language, I guess. Although the catering in Oz is another level – absolutely delicious every day – which can’t always be said of the UK!
Were you familiar with Robotham’s novel?
I hadn’t read the book before doing the project but read it when I got the part. He’s a wonderful writer, I couldn’t put it down.
Why did Sarah Walker and Jonathan Gavin’s scripts stand out to you?
They were such page-turners. I loved that they felt so truthful, which makes the show at times terrifying and the next moment heartbreaking.
How would you describe Agatha?
She is tough, volatile, headstrong, burdened and impulsive.
Why does she idealise Meghan’s life?
To Agatha, Meghan has it all – the perfect life with the perfect family. She wants what Meghan has.
How did you prepare for the role?
The main thing for me was to piece together Agatha’s past, to timeline her life and experiences and sort of spend time in that headspace.
What was life like on set?
We did have rehearsals, which is always so helpful. It was a busy shoot with lots to contend with, so it was good to have some time set aside to talk things through. Both our brilliant directors, Catherine and Jennifer, were so wonderful at preparing us for the shoot.
Why do you think are audiences drawn to psychological thrillers?
They’re exhilarating. To be kept guessing as an audience is always more interesting than having things spelled out for you, and I love trying to find those thriller beats.
How does the series keep viewers on edge through the six episodes?
I hope the feeling you’ll get is that you’re never sure what Agatha is going to do next.
Helen, how did you acquire the rights to the novel?
Lingo’s literary scout, Shona Martyn [formerly of Harper Collins Australia], mentioned during a conversation one day that Michael Robotham, whose wildly successful books are all set in the UK, was Australian. She said that despite the gritty settings of his thrillers, he lived and worked on Sydney’s sunny Northern Beaches. I needed no further encouragement to read all his books and go up there to meet him.
I had no doubt we could re-set The Secrets She Keeps in Sydney, and Michael agreed. He was flattered by my enthusiasm but wary of handing the rights over to someone he didn’t know. He’d been a bit burned over one of his earlier novels. Fortunately, he is a close friend of both Christos Tsiolkas, who wrote The Slap, and Marele Day who wrote Lambs of God, two books I have produced for the screen. They each gave me a great rap, having loved the process and the resulting shows, so we were quickly in business.
How did you conceive it as a TV drama?
Honestly, it didn’t take a huge amount of work to conceive Secrets as a drama series. The book is superbly plotted. Once you start reading, you really can’t put it down; and it’s complex, so the six episodes just seemed to fall out of the pages. The characters, particularly Agatha, are also deeply compelling. I’ve done lots of adaptations and this one lent itself to the process very easily.
What are the keys to adapting a psychological thriller for TV?
In making a thriller, you enter into a pact with the viewers to keep them on the edge of their seats, to dish out the adrenaline, the voyeurism, the paranoia. We have definitely tried to do that, but you also want the viewers to be embedded in the worlds and the worries of the characters, to care for them and believe in them.
The challenge is to toggle between those two modes in a way that can’t be seen or felt but which draws you ever more deeply into the story. In The Secrets She Keeps, we are trying to also talk about the social fabric and the corrosive effect narcissism and greed are having on our lives.
We are trying to draw out the real connection between these two women, these two mothers, who seem on the surface to be inhabiting different universes. For me, that is the key – to say something worthwhile at the same time as completely surprising and entertaining your audience.
Have any plot points or characters been added or removed in the adaptation process?
Class is central to this story, yet Australia likes to think of itself as a relatively classless society. The truth is a lot more complicated. Social class might be more disguised than it is in the UK, but it is certainly there. Setting Secrets in Sydney meant making a myriad of subtle but important changes to reflect this authentically.
In addition, the novel is perhaps more interested in Agatha and her actions than in ‘yummy mummy’ Meghan. We wanted a true dual narrative, so we built more complexity into Meghan’s work and marriage to give her more of an inner life.
We also wanted the two women to have some key things in common, despite the class divide, so we made Meghan the product of a blended family as well. Meghan and Agatha were both unhappy growing up with stepfathers. This fuels their willingness to take drastic action to protect their own children.
What makes the series stand out as a domestic noir and how did you achieve this?
Based on a true story, the crime at the heart of The Secrets She Keeps is not the standard thriller fare of murder or rape. The story is set almost entirely in two very distinct domestic spheres and tells of an unlikely friendship, how each woman has a secret and the lengths to which she will go to keep it. We hope the audience will be totally carried along by the twists and turns of the story, and there are many nods to the thriller genre, but there is also a truthful exploration of these worlds, these marriages and the protagonists’ hopes for the future.
How did you identify the writers and what do they bring to the project?
Sarah Walker [lead writer] and Jonathan Gavin were obvious choices for us. They have both written smart, accessible, female-skewing dramas. We thought they’d make a terrific combination. It was also fascinating to have Michael Robotham in the writers room while two such able writers dissected the novel and rebuilt it for television. He found it surprisingly thrilling.
Where was the series filmed and how did you use locations in the story?
We filmed in Sydney, where trains run from one side of the city to the other, taking Agatha from her grimy flat in the down-at-heel western suburbs, across the glittering harbour, to Meghan’s world of the spacious, leafy Northern suburbs.
They meet in the local supermarket where Agatha works, a remnant of gentrification, barely hanging on in the face of competition from the big supermarket chains up the road. Meghan’s mothers’ group meets in the gorgeous local park for lattes and yoga, their prams like an expensive flock of enormous birds. It’s where Agatha, newly confident of Meghan’s friendship, tries awkwardly to join in.
Agatha has a consolation place in a deep green glen in Tunks Park, dominated by a post-war bridge high above it, while her mother lives in Katoomba in a modest house that backs onto the spectacular escarpment of the Blue Mountains.
We are trying to show the myriad aspects of Sydney, not just the ridiculous beauty the world usually sees.
What challenges did you face in production and how did you overcome them?
In Australia, we shoot about seven minutes of drama a day to meet our budgets. Trying to make world-class fiction at that speed is terrifying – there’s no room for error. Our best weapon is preparation. Lingo believes in resourcing development as well as possible, supporting our writers and directors ahead of the shoot, to ensure we can all make the most of every precious minute once production begins. I think Laura was shocked at the pace to begin with, but she got into the swing of it and went on the ride.