Thursday, March 23, 2023 | Q&A | Doctor Who actor Pearl Mackie on playing a... | Q&A | Doctor Who actor Pearl Mackie on playing a detective in gripping drama The Long Call




INTERVIEW: Pearl Mackie, DS Jen Rafferty in The Long Call

The Long Call, a gripping four-part drama based on the best-selling novel of the same title by award-winning writer Ann Cleeves is now streaming on BritBox.

The series follows Detective Inspector Matthew Venn (Ben Aldridge) as he returns to his hometown in Devon with his husband. Following the death of his father, he’s back in the place where it all began, not just to grieve but to lead a shocking murder investigation.

After the body of a man is found on the beach close to Matthew’s home, the investigation casts a shadow of doubt over the whole community. To expose the killer, Matthew and his team have to get to the bottom of a case that brings old wounds and a deadly secret.

This powerful and thought-provoking series also stars Pearl Mackie, who plays DS Jen Rafferty, a tough and fiercely determined woman who has recently relocated to Devon with her two teenage kids, Ella and Ben. As a diligent worker and a single parent, Jen muddles her way through domestic life while trying to put some distance between her own traumatic scars from her former life in London.

Mackie is best known for her work in the long-running BBC series Doctor Who, where she played the role of the Doctor’s companion, Bill Potts, opposite Peter Capaldi. Her film credits include Greed, starring Steve Coogan and Isla Fisher.

In this Q&A, Mackie tells us more about her character and what it was like playing a detective.

Who is DS Jen Rafferty?

Jen is a really interesting woman. She has so much drive, gumption and strength of character. She’s escaped a brutal marriage and come to North Devon with her two teenage children to make a fresh start. Essentially, she wants to give them a better life and show them that they deserve to exist without the constant threat of violence in the home. She’s an urban Londoner and, so, quite a fish out of water in rural Devon. But she’s also an adaptable person and a very intuitive detective. She lives for two things, her children and her work.

In what way does her past influence the kind of detective she’s become?

In many ways. After all, she’s been up close and personal, in her marriage, to someone who was very manipulative and charming but also horribly abusive. So, she’s got a real sense of people who are one thing on the surface but are hiding something dark underneath. It makes her a better detective because it has sharpened all her instincts. Sometimes it can make her a little headstrong and rather hard on people she thinks are even potentially abusive. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Don’t we need some police people to be like Jen? Her view is, “I know how it feels to be in a place of violence, and I know that’s not ok. And I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.”

Pearl Mackie as DS Jen Rafferty.

Pearl Mackie as DS Jen Rafferty.

What were the biggest challenges of playing Jen?

I felt the responsibility of playing a survivor of domestic violence and of making it realistic. I wanted to show the ways in which Jen had dealt with it on a practical level but also how much she had buried very deeply and hadn’t dealt with at all. It’s work in progress for Jen that could take many years. The challenge was to show all those layers and not to produce a generalised or cliched picture of someone who has survived domestic violence. There is no such thing as a typical survivor; every person and every relationship is different. So, I did a lot of work on Jen’s back story to get a handle on how someone who appears to be so strong could have become a victim.

The other big challenge was playing the mother of teenage children. My son in the drama was even taller than me! I’ve got several friends with babies and a goddaughter of 13, but that’s very different from being a mum on a day-to-day basis. I have zero experience with that.

It was very important for me to get the dynamic right, especially between Jen and her daughter Ella (played by Melissandre St Hilaire). It’s a really close relationship and potentially more sisterly than anything because Jen was so young when she had her.

Ella takes on a bit too much responsibility and has probably had to grow up a bit faster than she wanted to. Sometimes, it’s almost as if the roles are reversed between them.

Both the actors who played my kids were super professional, and we had a lovely time, both on and off set, because Lee, our director, allowed us to meet up and get to know each other a bit before we even started filming. So, by the time the cameras rolled, we were extremely comfortable with each other, and it made it so much easier to get the dynamic of this young mother and her teenage children absolutely right.

Describe the relationship between DS Jen Rafferty and DI Matthew Venn?

When they first meet, they don’t seem to have very much in common at all. Matthew is very contained and serious – someone who struggles to talk about his feelings and experiences – while Jen is quite forthright and outspoken. So, initially, they clash a bit and rub each other up the wrong way. You wonder how they’re going to work together harmoniously. But what they realise through working together is that they have a lot more in common than they thought – including the way they use their past experiences and their intuition and skill to solve the murder. In time, they really start to enjoy both their similarities and their differences.

You start to see the balance that they strike and how they complement each other. It’s lovely to see. They both learn from each other, and it makes them better people and better detectives.

And how was it playing opposite Ben Aldridge?

A joy. I didn’t know Ben personally before, but I loved his work – including the fact that he was self-deprecating enough to play ‘The Arsehole Guy’ in Fleabag. “I thought, “Here’s someone who takes the work seriously, but not himself.” And I was definitely right.

A lot of The Long Call, on screen, is quite dark and sad, and that did lead at times to some gallows humour – especially with Ben because we found each other quite funny. We filmed the police station scenes for two weeks solid, with Ben in every one of them and me in 95%. There were some very intense interview sequences and briefing scenes where both of us had to handle a lot of dialogue. Sometimes we did four or five of these scenes back-to-back, and occasionally, out of sheer overload, we’d get giggly about the most ridiculous things. At one point, one of us changed the word ‘chalet’ to ‘cottage’, and Lee, the director, picked us up on it. Then, for some reason, the next time we tried to do it, we just couldn’t hold it together. Fortunately, the entire crew was laughing too. Sometimes you just have to be allowed to get it off your chest.”

Ben Aldridge as DI Matthew Venn and Pearl Mackie a

Ben Aldridge as DI Matthew Venn and Pearl Mackie as DS Jen Rafferty.

Can you speak a little more about diversity and the importance of inclusivity in the series?

We were able to have some lovely discussions and to share our experiences – Ben about his journey to being a proud gay man and me about coming out as bisexual. It brought us even closer together, and we both felt really ‘seen’ by each other and by the drama and by the team making it, including Lee Haven Jones, who is also gay. It felt very comfortable and harmonious to be so accepted within this ‘family’ that you make on set when you’re filming over a long period of time. And I think it really benefitted the work too.

As members of the LGBTQ+ community, we were also both absolutely delighted to be part of a mainstream drama that was focusing on a gay man at the centre of a detective thriller. In this case, too, Matthew has a husband, and that relationship is portrayed in a beautiful and loving way. It feels as though it’s 100% time for us finally to be telling these ground-breaking stories.

Although the role doesn’t focus on Jen’s race, it does feel important that when people – especially young people – look at a TV screen, they are all able to see themselves represented and to see their own identity reflected back at them. 

It’s just saying to them, ‘You exist, I see you, and you are important’. It’s exactly the kind of validation that young people – especially in marginalised communities – really need. When I was growing up, I rarely saw anyone on the screen who looked like me or reflected my life or had a real three-dimensional story to tell. So, to be a black woman who’s a lead detective in the police force now on a mainstream TV drama feels absolutely brilliant.

Was playing a detective fun?

So much fun. When I was growing up, I used to love shows like The Bill and when we were about 10, me and my cousin – who is really more like a sister – used to play cops and robbers and practice the arrest speech. It’s embarrassing to say it, but we actually used to read each other our rights! I was pretty excited when I thought I was going to be able to do it for real in The Long Call. I was like, “I’ve got this!” But then I discovered they’d changed the wording quite a lot since then. Absolutely gutted.

Was the filming of all the interior scenes in Bristol a trip down memory lane?

Yes, because I’d been at university there before going to drama school at Bristol Old Vic. It was quite surreal walking around the places where I’d spent five very vivid and sometimes challenging years of my life. I was offered a flat to stay in during filming, which was quite near to The Old Vic and my old stomping ground, but I thought it would be better for my mindset to be somewhere totally different. In a way, although there was so much I’d loved about Bristol, I didn’t want to return to those days where there was so much grappling with who I was and what I wanted to be and how I was going to get there. Had I known back then how the career would have gone, including being cast as Bill Potts, Dr Who’s companion when Peter Capaldi was in the role, and a real game changer for me, I’d have been much more at peace with myself. There was an element of returning now to Bristol to film The Long Call where, without wanting to sound arrogant, I did feel really proud of myself for how far I’d come. I’d have liked that girl back then to see me now.

Pearl Mackie as DS Jen Rafferty.

Pearl Mackie as DS Jen Rafferty.

The Long Call is available to stream on BritBox.

This interview was supplied to News24 by BritBox SA. 

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