Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Article: Keeley Hawes on the Second Coming of Ashes to Ashes (2009)

"Keeley Hawes on the second coming of Ashes to Ashes" by Hugo Rifkind for The Times, April 6, 2009.

Critically panned at first, Ashes to Ashes has found an eager audience on both sides of the Atlantic, to the delight of its star.

Keeley Hawes is relieved. Ashes to Ashes, in which she stars, had its premiere on US television the night before, and the reviewers didn't hate it. “There was one review,” she said, “which said: ‘This may be the best thing on television'. On American television! The best! That's got to be good. Hasn't it?”

It's not, necessarily, the reception that she was expecting. It wasn't like that the last time, over here. She jokes about it now, but she jokes about it so much that you suspect she isn't really joking. “The worst thing,” she says, “is when you get a text from someone saying: ‘Don't read the Mail today'. And of course, you do. Because it's the only way you have some sort of... control.”

When Ashes to Ashes first aired, just over a year ago, the reviews were bad, and the bits about her were awful. “A godawful small affair!” roared one tabloid, quite cleverly. Another described her as “an annoying, screeching toff who makes viewers want to punch the telly”. The upmarket papers were no kinder. “I rarely see properly bad acting on TV any more,” sighed one.

“I don't know how I went back on that set,” Hawes says now, sitting across from me on a Soho sofa and still looking incredulous. “But I did, and I'm really glad I did. Even though everything... landed on me.”

Even some of the nicer reviews at the time described her as “miscast”. What they actually meant, she now realises, was “not John Simm”. Life on Mars, in which Simm had starred a year earlier, was a smash hit. Ashes to Ashes, the sequel, was only conceived because Simm didn't want to be in it any more. The rest of the cast roared back on to our screens, guns literally blazing, led by Philip Glenister's fantastically popular Gene Hunt. And in the middle of them all was Hawes. The new straight man. Only, not a man.

“I'd never do it again,” she says. “I'd never step into somebody else's shoes. I should have been more daunted. The reaction! People just could not get their heads around the fact that I wasn't John Simm. I'm not! I'm never going to be!”

She remembers one woman in particular, a fan, whom she met with a friend on Charlotte Street. “She was furious with me. ‘How dare you speak like that to Gene Hunt! He's a good man!'” Her eyes grow wide. “This is a grown woman, in Soho. Talking to me about a time-travelling show, talking to me about some characters that don't even... I mean, it astounded me. How fond of Gene Hunt they were. And how cross they were that I was getting one up on him. And I'm, like: ‘Wow. I didn't write it.'”

It didn't help that Ashes to Ashes initially wasn't quite as good as Life on Mars, either. “Sure,” Hawes allows. “Fine. Life on Mars had something like thirty drafts. It was seamless. Ashes to Ashes went into production very quickly. It was never going to be so perfect.”

Perhaps as a result, it was hard to know which was the leading role. In Life on Mars, Glenister's Hunt was a supporting character. Ashes to Ashes was a two-headed monster. “I went into it thinking it was all about Phil,” she says, “and Phil went into it blaming it all on me.”

Flawed or not, it was a hit. Reviews aside, seven million people watched the first episode. By the fifth, one quality newspaper announced that Ashes to Ashes had “stepped out of the shadow of Life on Mars.” The BBC commissioned a second series. Hawes says there will also be a third.

Sitting opposite me in her agent's office in Soho, the actress is almost unrecognisable. The hair is Joan of Arc sleek, rather than a 1980s bouffant, and the make-up is softer, making the face less pointy. She's wearing a sort of drab, green, floor-length tunic thing. Not a red bra strap or a fishnet in sight. “I probably look like a prisoner of war,” she jokes, although it's done in a very high-fashion way, as though looking like a prisoner of war was her fierce intention on leaving the house.

The fashion of the 1980s, she says quite devastatingly, is not to her taste. Still, within the show, she takes an interest. “I'm not male,” she points out, “so there was the potential for a fantastic wardrobe. But I'm also in every scene and we are working six days a week. When am I supposed to change?” On location, it takes half an hour. Five times a day, and you're losing three hours. “Either you're looking at a half-hour episode,” she says, “or it's ‘Oooh, lets do the off-the-shoulder top again'.”

At any rate, in the last series, her character Alex Drake felt that she was living in a semi-sane mental construct after being shot by a madman in front of her daughter. Consequently, Hawes points out, she probably wasn't in a shopping sort of mood. In the new series, Drake is more resigned to her surroundings. The wardrobe thus flourishes. There are some scenes, she says, that she has been deliberately written out of so that there is time to get her dressed for other ones.

Hawes says she remembers little bits of the early 1980s - Rubik's Cubes and the like. She's 32 now, but exudes a slightly mumsy vibe which makes her come across as a little older. Maybe it's her off-screen voice, which has a slightly 1950s cut-glass edge, or maybe it's just the way she's dressed, as if she's just left a very chic London Blitz.

One of the tabloids, she says, once asked her to do a revealing joint photo-spread with the glamour model Keeley Hazell. “Keeley and Keeley,” she says. “Maybe what they didn't like about me from the beginning was that they couldn't work out why I didn't want to do that.”

Her three kids are aged 8, 4 and 3. The key to being an actress and a mum, she jokes, is to keep it a secret. “Just don't tell anybody,” she says. “That's my advice. Wear big dresses. I worked through all my pregnancies. Death at a Funeral, and before that A Cock and Bull Story.” Her eldest child - Myles, who wants to be a zoologist - was fathered by her first husband, the cartoonist Spencer McCallum. The pair had a brief, eight-week marriage, which ended shortly after Hawes landed her role in Spooks and met husband two, her co-star Matthew Macfadyen.

At the age of 9, Hawes played the Pied Piper in a production at her primary school. “I loved it. And my teacher said I was good at it,” she says. “And yes, I do remember my lines, and no, I won't tell you what they were.” The family lived over the road from the Sylvia Young Theatre School, in Marylebone, North London, and across the road she went. The perfect voice probably came from there, rather than from her upbringing. “My dad's a black-cab driver,” she says. “For my parents, well, it's very exciting, they like seeing me in places, but it's not their world. They certainly didn't trot me out there, with glitter in my hair.”

Emma Bunton, of the Spice Girls, was a contemporary. Afterwards Hawes did work experience in the fashion departments of She magazine and Just Seventeen and worked as a model. “Although I wasn't very good at it,” she says. How can you be bad at modelling? She sighs. “It's possible. I lived with some other models, and travelled, but it was never going to be a long-term thing. It was sort of like my year out.”

Her big acting break was in Dennis Potter's Karaoke in 1996. “Terror,” she says. “Mostly. I walked into the read-through and sat at the back, next to the costume designer. They had to come and get me, to sit next to Richard E. Grant. It was my first grown-up job.” There were other blips on the radar in the following years (Tipping the Velvet, Complicity) and then in 2002 there was Spooks.

“We work very differently,” she says, of the co-star who became her husband. “He just says no to everything. I get much more. It's nice, say, when you go to something like the Baftas. You are both aware of what you have to do.” Both spent almost three years in Spooks, during which time it did, indeed, win a Bafta. “Three series is quite enough,” she says. “You start to become a character. Well. We did get married, didn't we?”

Spooks, like Ashes to Ashes, was made for the Beeb by the production company Kudos. “They're great,” she says. “They make shows like Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars! Most people would go: ‘Erm, time travelling, what what?' But they go: ‘Yeah, f*** it, let's give it a go'.”

She had never actually seen Life on Mars, she admits, when they first started sounding her out about the sequel. On the day that she had her audition alongside Glenister, her youngest son reached up and stuck his finger into her eye. “He scratched my cornea,” she says. “I had cocaine eye drops, so I couldn't feel half my face and I had the biggest eyepatch. So I was led in, trying to look all cool and sexy and Alex-like, with this big thing on my face. Holding on to the casting director.”

Hawes won't reveal what happens in the next two series of Ashes to Ashes, but she will say that the ending made “the hairs on the back of my neck stand up”. Also, she says, existentially, the next series should be a little less confusing. In the last one even the actors didn't always know what was going on. “Does this make sense for that?” she mugs. “Does that make sense for this? Should I be doing this because of that? Do I know that I know this and he knows that and he doesn't know but I know? Ooof. Sci-fi.”

In terms of forward planning, she's cagey. She's thrilled that the show has had a good reception in America, and she thinks about Hollywood a little, but also wonders if it might be a bit too much of an upheaval. “Matthew did Frost/Nixon here,” she points out. “Hollywood could be nice, but I might be in something shit, in which case it would be really bad. I've got a great script right here. I'm in the best thing on American television! I'm going to say that to everybody I meet.”

She's happy. Hopes you're happy, too. And if she could play any role in the world? “Easy,” she says, deadpan. “Gene Hunt.”

The new series of Ashes to Ashes begins on April 21 at 9pm on BBC One.


Hugh Jee From Jersey said...

Very interesting stuff about the star of my new favorite show.

Nice work as always!

I.J. Parnham said...

A good interview. Thanks for that.