Actor Marama Corlett tells DQ about her transformative experience playing the mysterious Corporal Angua in BBC America’s cyberpunk thriller The Watch.
As an actor, Marama Corlett has picked up numerous credits in genre-splitting, often fantastical dramas, from Sinbad and Blood Drive to His Dark Materials and The City & The City, as well as an appearance in Marvel movie Guardians of the Galaxy.
“What excites me is to be able to completely transform physically as much as possible and to live in a different world,” Corlett tells DQ. “I love the idea of being unrecognisable from one character to the next.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that she is now starring in BBC America’s The Watch, a “punk rock thriller” about a band of misfit police officers inspired by characters from Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Corlett plays Corporal Angua, a mysterious character with a dark and painful past who is also a werewolf.
Alongside characters including Captain Sam Vimes (Richard Dormer), ingenious forensics expert Constable Cheery (Jo Eaton-Kent), naïve but heroic Constable Carrot (Adam Hugill) and last scion of nobility Lady Sybil Ramkin (Lara Rossi), Angua forms part of the City Watch in the fictional city of Ankh-Morpork, where crime has been legalised. The series puts them alongside trolls, wizards and other improbable heroes as they seek to foil an evil plot to resurrect a great dragon, which would lead to the destruction of life as they know it.
“Essentially, they’re a bunch of misfits living in a city where crime has been legalised, which takes away the purpose of her role,” Maltese actor Corlett explains. “When we meet Angua in the first episode, she’s bored, sitting around shooting pigeons in this stagnant city. But as the story unfolds, we find she’s also lying low to protect herself. On the outside, she comes across as composed and tough. But on the inside, she’s riddled with fear and guilt – and she’s also a werewolf.
“We see her struggle with her duality, which is uncontrollable. I found it useful at the time to read about how victims of trauma can enter an altered state of reality, sometimes called disassociation, which was a way for me to relate to Angua becoming a werewolf. The whole process was very exciting.”
Corlett wasn’t familiar with Pratchett’s work before she read the scripts for The Watch, which is headed by lead writer Simon Allen (The Three Musketeers) and lead director Craig Viveiros (The War of the Worlds). She says she was drawn into the world of The Watch by the central group of fantastical characters and the timeless themes explored by the show.
“Sir Terry is clearly one of the most prolific and successful authors of his generation and I have huge admiration for him and the extraordinary multiverse he created,” she says. “It’s been a privilege to be trusted with one of his beloved characters.
“Although this isn’t a straight adaption of the books, it is inspired by his characters, so there was also a lot I could take from that. The themes of The Watch are very universal, following these unlikely heroes in the face of corruption. They are seemingly powerless to fight injustice. What resonated with me is that although they are extraordinary characters, they all have faults, which I guess makes them human. And as an actor, that’s what you need. Through tragedy and despair, humans discover hope, compassion and empathy.
“I love that on the way to saving the world, these characters show courage in acknowledging their weaknesses and together take action and move beyond their limitations, which is what I feel like we’re doing at this time with the way the world is at the moment.”
Within the dynamics of the City Watch, Angua is charged with training and keeping alive rookie Carrot. It’s a responsibility that pulls Angua out of her hidden existence and leads her to form a close bond with Carrot, who Corlett likens to “a new puppy.”
“He’s excited and he wants to make changes very quickly because he sees something isn’t right here,” she explains. “At first, Angua finds his energy and his character quite jarring. But as the story unfolds, you realise he is very much needed within the Watch and he is a big part of what will make that change moving forward.”
Another character Corlett became fond of is Sergeant Detritus, a huge troll made of stone who is played on stilts by Craig MacRae and voiced by Ralph Ineson (Chernobyl).
“He’s about seven-and-a-half feet tall and I’m five foot, so you can just imagine us on set together,” she jokes. “But he’s a great character. Although Angua is very strong and tough on the outside, there are a lot of wonderful scenes between Angua and Detritus that bring out a very motherly nature from Angua.
“Because Angua turns into a werewolf, she is often put into a cell because of what could happen to her friends or what she might do to the people around her. You see this lovely bond between Detritus and Angua and how he is very protective of her. But although he is this giant troll, he is also extremely fearful of her and what she could do to him when she turns into a werewolf.”
The show’s extensive use of special effects on set and prosthetics for the actors meant MacRae would spend hours in make-up to become Detritus. Similarly, Corlett wore numerous prosthetics for her transformation from blonde, shaven-headed Angua into a werewolf, as well as coloured contact lenses to change the look of her eyes.
“What I love is that the make-up, prosthetics and VFX teams worked on a more subtle look for the series,” she says. “The initial transitioning into a werewolf that we see in the first episodes leaves some room for the audience’s imagination. I remember discussing this with our first director, Craig Viveiros, and our showrunner, Simon Allen, when we started prep in Cape Town. It was a really smart decision, as it allows the audience to focus on the emotional consequences the physical transformation has on Angua and to discover the psychologic implications of the character’s duality.
“I had a really great time working on Angua’s physicality too and had a fantastic team guiding me, run by our action director and stunt coordinator Darrell McLean. Fighting rehearsals and crossbow firing, it was all a lot of fun.”
The steampunk world of The Watch was brought to life on set and on locations around the aforementioned South African city of Cape Town, where filming began in summer 2019, just a few weeks after Corlett won the role of Angua. After seven months of filming, production had to pause in March amid the Covid-19 pandemic, with the final weeks of filming eventually completed in London in August ahead of the show’s launch in the US earlier this month.
“I got the script from my agent and sent a self-taped audition in and then was called to London to meet the director and producers,” Corlett remembers. “It took a good month-and-a-half to hear anything back, but then I got the role and it was a very quick turnaround to fly out to South Africa and start shooting.
“We had an amazing team, from our set designer to costume, make-up and props. They created this extraordinary world for us to play in. There was huge detail in the sets. We didn’t need to imagine it; it was all there for us and it was just incredible.”
Corlett describes seeing the towering Sergeant Detritus on the first morning of shooting as her favourite moment on set. “There is a scene where I see Captain Vimes and Sergeant Detritus walk towards me and it was just incredible. I just thought, ‘Here we go.’ It was wonderful.
“I just loved every minute of it because it was an incredible experience. You could really immerse yourself because the sets were so grand and you’re in South Africa where your backdrop could be this huge mountain and then suddenly you’re in the desert. It’s a dream for an actor to be surrounded by that kind of world.”
Though The Watch has drawn criticism for its departure from Pratchett’s novels – his daughter Rhianna has said the series “shares no DNA with my father’s Watch” – Corlett says the show’s focus on the rise of the underdog means it has a universality that viewers around the world can tap into. BBC Studios, which produces The Watch with Narrativia, has already sold the series to Chinese streamer Bilibili as part of a wider coproduction deal.
“You’re going to follow a bunch of misfits at the point of despair tasked with saving a corrupt city and its people,” Corlett says. “ People watching it will find someone or something to relate to within all these wonderful characters. We’re living in such a strange world right now, we all need a bit of escapism.”