If you’ve ever turned on your TV – or pressed play on your streaming device – then you know Harriet Walter’s face.
The British thespian has been prolific these past few years, popping up in everything from Killing Eve and Succession to The Crown and Patrick Melrose – in the latter she had an unforgettable albeit fleeting role as a snarling 80s-era Princess Margaret which was pure joy to witness.
A mainstay of British TV, film and theatre, the highly regarded Walter (she’s a Dame, you know) has been so busy that when COVID-19 rolled around and shut productions down across the entertainment industry, she found herself breakfasting with her husband, Guy Schuessler – but every day.
It’s an upside to this tumultuous year in which everyone has been trying to find the silver lining at an otherwise emotionally bruising time.
“Mostly what I find really pleasant was being at home with my husband for months because we’ve been travelling around – he’s an actor as well,” Walter told news.com.au.
“And here we are, every single morning he was going to be at breakfast. That was great.”
Still, Walter was grateful to have one gig pop up during the pandemic lockdown because, as she puts it, “it’s not good to have so much time to think about how we don’t know what is going to happen with the world, work is a helpful distraction”.
That project is a revival of iconic 1980s series Talking Heads, a series of monologues written by playwright Alan Bennett and performed then by the likes of Eileen Aitkens, Maggie Smith and Patricia Routledge.
Walter is among a class of top British actors to take part in the 2020 series starting tonight on BBC First on Foxtel* and Fetch, which also included Martin Freeman, Tamsin Greig, Jodie Comer, Imelda Staunton and Kristin Scott Thomas.
The series consists of 12 episodes, each fronted by one actor who tells the audience a story in character. Walter takes on a story previously portrayed by Stephanie Cole in 1988 about a recently widowed woman, Muriel, who finds her fortunes gradually diminished.
Over 36 minutes, it’s just Walter talking to the camera, a stripped-down performance that relies entirely on one person convey the emotional heart of the story.
It also depends on Walter memorising long stretches of monologue. She confessed that she did flub a line right at the end of a long take – “I think that did happen once and it went right at the end as well” – but she just got on with the job and did it again.
“Maybe the director would remember it differently, but I don’t think I ever did more than three takes,” she said. “I’ve been flashing lines in my head for three weeks, it was a good challenge for the first three weeks of COVID lockdown to have a monologue.”
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Her episode was filmed in one day with the crew having rehearsed the blocking and other technical aspects the day before. Because of the pandemic, the rehearsal and pre-production process was completely different, and she had more input than usual.
“We rehearsed on Skype and Zoom, then I had conversations with the designer about costumes and we were to bring any costumes we had because the BBC was trying to keep the cost down so that the profits would be higher that we could give away to [COVID] charities, and also eliminate the need for going for fittings and being in too close quarters with other people during lockdown.
“We had one rather great time when on a Zoom call and the hair and make-up designer was talking my husband through cutting my hair,” Walter mused. “It was actually very successful. I had a rather good haircut!”
For her character Muriel’s look, Walter took inspiration from her mother. “I sent photographs of my mother because there were many aspects of Muriel that are quite like my mother. For instance, my mother always dressed in bright colours and I don’t tend to.”
Walter said she resisted watching Cole’s original performance in Talking Heads but then relented.
“I’m afraid I kept saying ‘don’t watch, don’t watch, don’t watch’ and then I did,” she admitted. “The thing is that I’ve done a lot of classical roles in my life that I knew other people had done before me. And you get used to the idea that you can’t compare one performance with another.”
One of her recent roles that is definitely incomparable is in runaway hit and Emmy winner Succession. Walter has only appeared in three episodes across the first two seasons but as Lady Caroline Collingwood, the mother of the three Roy children, she’s a scene stealer.
Walter had actually worked with one of the “Roy kids” previously almost 20 years earlier – Kieran Culkin in 1999 TV miniseries, The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns. Culkin was a teenager at the time although Walter remembers him being “a little boy” and even showed him a photo of him as a rosy-cheeked sprite.
Walter, who was nominated for a Guest Actress Emmy this year for her role, said she’s still not sure how she was cast in the series created by writer Jesse Armstrong, a man she called a “genius”.
“I don’t know how anyone gets cast. It’s always one of these mysteries that makes you feel a little bit vulnerable – what they think of me that they think I can play this awful person.”
But as audiences saw in the second season, perhaps Lady Caroline has a more complicated side which leads her to that fractured and contentious relationship with her kids.
“I’ve just written that up. I showed Jesse Armstrong [Lady Caroline’s] backstory the day because I thought I’ve had two years to think about what’s happened to her and who she is.
“I thought we’d better be on the same page about this and if he doesn’t agree with me, let him say now or forever hold his peace. We need to be on the same page for that bit.”
Walter confirmed that she’ll return to Succession’s third season for “probably only in one episode”. We can’t wait.
Talking Heads starts on BBC First on Foxtel and Fetch on Sunday, October 18 at 8.30pm
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*Foxtel is majority owned by News Corp, publisher of news.com.au