Tag Archives: Stephen Rea

In the Flesh

Francesca Annis, Imelda Staunton, Stephen Rea and Russell Tovey discuss starring in ITV drama Flesh & Blood, a family drama about modern relationships in which three siblings come to terms with their mother’s new love interest.

The opening moments of Flesh & Blood are illuminated by flashing police lights, with officers trudging across a shingle beach and into a pretty seafront house. A destroyed balcony and bloodied floor reveal signs of a struggle as what appears to be dead body, wrapped up and tied to a trolley, is wheeled away.

It’s an ominous start for this four-part family drama, commissioned by ITV, as long-buried secrets and lies threaten to tear apart the relationship between widowed mother Vivien and her three grown-up children, Helen, Jake and Natalie. The catalyst is Vivien’s blossoming relationship with Mark, whose increasing presence raises suspicion among the siblings as he turns Vivien’s attention and priorities away from them.

As they begin to question their mother’s 45-year marriage to their late father, Terry, and attempt to find out more about Mark, the trio try to pull together amid long-held grudges and their own complicated personal lives as they spiral towards tragedy.

Francesca Annis (Cranford) stars as Vivien, with Mark played by Stephen Rea (The Honourable Woman). Claudie Blakley (Manhunt) is Helen, whose high-powered job causes her to neglect her marriage; Russell Tovey (Years & Years) plays Jake, a gambling addict trying to reunite with his estranged wife while sleeping with his personal training client for money; and Lydia Leonard (Gentleman Jack) completes the family as Natalie, who is sleeping with her married boss.

Francesca Annis as Vivien alongside Stephen Rea as Mark in Flesh & Blood

“I loved it from when I read it,” Annis says of her interest in the project. “It opens up with quite a classic scene – the body being carried out. I like the ease of it all and also it’s two daughters and a son – no acting required there. It was really nice to be offered a script that seemed quite light and then it gradually slips into what it is, which is a thriller.”

Annis says Vivien is too busy having a good time with romantic new beau Mark to notice any upset among her children, but must eventually confront their unease. “She’s a very bright woman and she can see what’s going on,” she says. “Her children, like all children, have got issues and she’s not party to that. But she is very aware that there’s something going on with each one of them.

“Her husband died 18 months before, which gives her the platform to just move on without a sense of guilt, I would imagine. I don’t think she feels guilty. Why should she? It’s not deeply complicated, it’s quite clear she wants to live in the moment and get hold of life now.”

Rea was also intrigued by his “great role” in a show that goes inside “the hell that is family.” He adds: “It’s a nice way for people to think about their own families as they are watching and seeing how fucked up they are. I never know how the family remains as an item. All it does is drive people insane.”

As for Mark’s reception when he arrives unannounced at the family home, “I just thought the girls were horrible to me,” he says of Helen and Natalie’s reaction. “They really were, the way Claudie looked at me. They could have been warmer!”

Years & Years star Russell Tovey plays Jake

Having built a successful business with her late husband, Vivien is not short of money, and thus the siblings are immediately suspicious of Mark’s intentions towards their mother. Rea’s ambiguous performance, meanwhile, means viewers are equally unsure of his motives.

“It was difficult because there had to be an ambiguity and a lot about him was much less presentational than some parts that you get,” the actor explains. “I thought that was quite interesting. He’s a man who’s trying to live a new life.

“The writing is very, very good,” Rea adds of Sarah Williams‘ scripts.  “It’s very easy to inhabit, and that’s all you ever look for when you get a script. You know within two pages if it’s got a structure and a sense of itself, and this is particularly good. She’s really considered how she wants to approach the whole notion of family.”

Chief among those struggling with Mark’s arrival is Jake, who finds himself drifting through life after being dumped by his wife and sleeping with one of his personal training clients for money, which he then spends on his kids.

“Jake is like the most popular boy at school, who didn’t do well academically but just sailed through on charm and being cheeky, had loads of mates, was really sporty, left school and never really grew up,” Tovey says of his character.

The ITV drama also stars Lydia Leonard as Natalie

“I feel like he’s one of these people that would say your school years are the best years of your life. When people say that now, I’m like, ‘You left there when you were 16. What the fuck have you been doing since?’ I find it so strange.

“He’s an example of when men get to their 30s and they just drift too far away from the shore and can’t find their way back and don’t really know who they are. He’s led a quite a charmed life with his family. Now he’s definitely got this alpha-male toxic agenda, which he’s never really dealt with.”

Things come to a head when Jake discovers his mother is in a new relationship and doesn’t need to turn to her son for support in the aftermath of Terry’s death. “That’s the role [Jake] should have taken when his dad died and it’s holding a mirror up to him and saying, ‘You failed at life, you’ve nearly sent your kids out onto the street because you’re a gambling addict, you broke up with your wife. You’re failing,’” Tovey notes.

“He’s a man trying to blame someone for where he’s got to in his life, and then Mark turns up and he’s like, ‘Bingo, it’s him – that’s the reason it’s all screwed up for me.’”

Through Jake, Flesh & Blood shines a light on mental health issues, focusing on a character struggling to turn his life around. “He says at one point he got into gambling because he wanted more money for his kids, and that’s so tragic to me because it’s that paradox,” Tovey says. “I love him. I love playing him. I love the nuances in him. I love how proud he is, how arrogant he is.”

Blakley, Tovey and Leonard would often improvise on set to hone their sibling dynamic, but their relationship is in stark contrast to Tovey’s recent series, Years & Years, in which his character Daniel had a close bond with brother Stephen (Rory Kinnear).

L-R: Imelda Staunton, Claudie Blakley and Lydia Leonard pictured during filming

“When you go to other people’s families and you spend time with them, they always feel quite alien to your own,” Tovey says. “I find that fascinating. In Years & Years, Stephen and Daniel felt like they were best mates and they talked. In this one, they are with each other all the time but they know fuck all about each other. They’d be there for each other, but they wouldn’t know what was going on or why they’re there.

“I thought that was really fascinating in what Sarah’s written, and it’s good for the thriller because it means that so much stuff can be bedded and hidden and obscure and kept away from the truth.”

Complicating matters further for the family is neighbour Mary (Imelda Staunton), who has lived next door to Vivien for 40 years. Despite not being family, Mary appears unhealthily attached to Vivien and her family’s unfolding drama.

It’s through Mary that the drama opens up, with her voice offering early narration as she recalls events from her perspective, with each subsequent episode featuring a different voiceover.

The Oscar-nominated actor, known for film roles in Vera Drake and the Harry Potter franchise, says she was drawn to project through the page-turning script, the characters’ messy lives and the fact she hadn’t ever done anything quite like it. “She’s a pretty ordinary woman, she’s a bit weird,” she says of Mary.

“She’s just a good mate next door, but a little bit protective, one might think. It wasn’t what I thought it would be, and then it was, and then it changed again so it really kept me guessing. You don’t know where it’s going and it didn’t have a logical arc, which is quite nice.”

Filming took place on the south coast of England in Sussex, on location at real beachfront houses. An uncharacteristically unbroken spell of beautiful weather accompanied the 10-week shoot, evident on screen, meaning all the actors relished their time on set. They also praise director Louise Hooper’s relaxed approach and willingness to empower her cast’s creativity, hence the aforementioned improvisation.

“It really didn’t matter if you emailed her in the middle of the night, she always got back to you,” Annis recalls. “She was great and she always listened to everybody.”

“These guys are at the top of their game, they’re fantastic,” says Hooper (Cheat). “They’re bringing tonnes to it and, because they’re so experienced and relaxed, and I’m pretty relaxed about everything, we can enjoy it and talk about it and discuss things.”

There’s nothing relaxing about this story, however, as the family face up to a multitude of problems, while the prospect of a murder taking place is likely to keep viewers intrigued through the four-hour running time.

But rather than being the main pull of the series, produced by Silverprint Pictures and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, the thriller element “just gives it another layer than just a family dynamic,” adds the director. “It works really well, and also what I like about it is it’s not pushed too much. The family is the main thing and the thriller’s the little tease.”

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Making Peace

Writer Andrew Davies has slimmed down Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace into a new six-part drama for the BBC. DQ hears from the creative team behind this lavish production.

For anyone who’s always wanted to read War and Peace but never found the time, Andrew Davies might just have the answer.

The acclaimed writer has previously adapted Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, among others.

Andrew Davies had never read War and Peace before he was asked to adapt it
Andrew Davies had never read War and Peace before he was asked to adapt it

But now he has turned his attention to Tolstoy’s weighty tome, condensing it into a lavish six-part drama for BBC1 that will premier on January 3.

“I’d never read War and Peace; I’d been saving it up for my old age,” he jokes. “So I was pleased when Faith (Penhale, then head of BBC Wales Drama but set to become joint CEO of Lookout Point in February) invited me to read it with a view to adapting it. I took it on holiday and read it on a beach in Antigua and came back very enthusiastic about the book and very positive. It’s a little bit difficult to get into at the beginning but I’ve sorted it out.

“You have to remember the names of three families, that’s all it is. Nobody need bother reading it now because I’ve got all the best bits out of it! I didn’t find it too daunting. You have to be very arrogant to take on these jobs with these great works of literature and not be frightened of them. I give my own interpretation, take the bits that I love and express them as well as I can.”

Described as “a thrilling, funny and heartbreaking story of love, war and family life,” War and Peace features an ensemble cast headed by Lily James, James Norton and Paul Dano. It also stars Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson, Rebecca Front, Aneurin Barnard, Tuppence Middleton and Stephen Rea.

It’s produced by BBC Cymru Wales Drama, in partnership with The Weinstein Company, BBC Worldwide and Lookout Point, while Tom Harper is on directing duties.

“It’s the weight of it – everyone looks at it and goes ‘Oh, no!’ People don’t even want to start it,” producer Bethan Jones says of Tolstoy’s 1,300-page book. “How many of us have it on our shelves and have never read it? But we were looking for a piece that hadn’t been done for a long time, something we thought was due, that we needed to make, something we felt had a contemporary feel.

“It’s all about young people – their lives, their loves and the mistakes they make; the things they go through and the process of growing up, emotionally as well as physically.”

Stephen Rea in War and Peace alongside Gillian Anderson
Stephen Rea in War and Peace alongside Gillian Anderson

Rea, who plays Prince Vassily Kuragi, adds: “Sometimes the translations of War and Peace are very poor or heavy-handed, but the first thing I saw with Andrew’s script was how easy it would be to play. The language was light and easy. It’s an incredible piece of work.”

Davies focused the story around three characters in particular. Pierre, Natascha and Andrei are at the heart of the story, with their families and their relationships built into the wider narrative.

The writer’s preference for focusing on youth was shared by Harper. Jones says: “Tom’s brilliant. He’s very young and he brings youth to the piece so it feels very contemporary – not through any wobbly camera style but through the real, young heart he’s brought to the show. Tom also works so well with the actors and draws out interesting, fresh performances.”

Filming for the production took place across six months in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania as the production team quickly decided that 19th century Russia couldn’t be replicated on the backlots at studios such as Pinewood.

“It felt important for the creative direction of the show that it should feel very authentic,” says Penhale. “If we were building, we would have had to build five Russian palaces, which, given the budget, wouldn’t have been feasible. But it also mattered to us that we shot in St Petersburg, that we went to some of the locations where some of these events would have taken place. It adds to the sense of truth and naturalism to the production. I hope viewers get a sense of Russia as a character in the piece.”

Faith Penhale
Faith Penhale is set to join War and Peace coproducer Lookout Point early next year as joint CEO

The seven-year timespan during which the story takes place also meant the crew was always on the move to film scenes at each location in both summer and winter.

“We started in January in winter in St Petersburg and moved to Lithuania, and we did some in Latvia as well,” explains Jones. “As the seasons wore on, in the beginning of the summer we went back to St Petersburg, so it was a very well-thought-out shoot. The crew were brilliant.”

Overseeing such a huge production did have its challenges, of course, and none so big as the language barrier. “We’d be doing a big scene with lots of extras, either military or a huge dance scene, and we’d have English, Lithuanian, Russian and Latvian speakers,” Jones recalls. “If we had any huge challenge, we couldn’t move as swiftly because we were having to tell everybody in their own language what to do. It was fascinating, though, I really enjoyed it. A couple of us are also Welsh speakers, so we threw that into the mix and really freaked them out!”

Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein might be best known for award-winning films such as The Artist and The King’s Speech, but within 24 hours of BBC1 announcing its plans to adapt War and Peace, he was on the phone to Penhale to help bring his “passion project” to life.

“Harvey tracked me down to my office in Cardiff and was ringing repeatedly on the hour,” Penhale says. “We had a great phone call where he said, ‘If you’re doing War and Peace, I want to do it. This is my favourite book of all time,’ and it went from there. It’s really born out of his passion for it.”

Hollywood actor Paul Dano (12 Years a Slave) is among the big names in the ensemble cast
Hollywood actor Paul Dano (12 Years a Slave) is among the big names in the ensemble cast

Negeen Yazdi, president of international production at The Weinstein Company, says of the coproduction process: “The project matches the ambition, scale and material we want to be working on. With the BBC, we discovered very quickly our tastes were aligned, our ambitions for the project were aligned and that we’re not that different in the way we work. We’re all committed to the show and, above all, the show comes first. Like any working family relationship, there were disagreements and discussions but all in a very healthy way.”

Once The Weinstein Co was onboard, War and Peace was subsequently picked up in the US by A+E Networks-owned Lifetime, A&E and History, which will all simulcast the series from January 18 next year.

“The BBC and Weinstein marriage has been a surprisingly effective and powerful thing, in terms of both attracting talent and cast and making a statement to the industry that this is a big deal and you’d better pay attention,” says Simon Vaughan, CEO of Lookout Point. “That’s what it takes to get heard in a marketplace where thousands of new hours of TV are being produced each year.”

Vaughan adds that while coproductions of this magnitude can be tricky to navigate, all parties united behind Penhale’s leadership to bring the series to air.

“It’s about leadership – who’s the boss?” he says. “Faith was the boss and we all work for Faith. That is how it was from the beginning. As difficult as some moments were, when a call needed to be made, it got made. Somebody has to drive the train and if you don’t have that, run a mile. I’ve been around the block and done difficult coproductions and if there isn’t one clear leader, forget it. Don’t make it.”

As with any adaptation, plot points and character details have been chopped and changed, but Jones says Davies’ War and Peace is “very true” to Tolstoy’s original text.

“Inevitably there are some changes and characters that aren’t there – otherwise we’d be doing a 95-part series,” she says.

On the back of Doctor Who and Sherlock, BBC Wales has built up an impressive drama slate, and War and Peace is set to be the most ambitious yet.

“It is a great place to work,” Jones adds. “It started some time ago with the regeneration of Doctor Who. We’re quite bold. It’s very small but tight and hardworking team. We like to push ourselves.”

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