"I sometimes wish I could just be a voice": Rosamund Pike on her new podcast drama and her love for audio
Pike plays a woman whose past catches up to her in a new audio drama based on the novel by Kim Hooper.
Two thousand seven hundred and sixty three people died in New York on 9/11. Yet within that official statistic are a number of people who disappeared on that day and whose remains have never been found. That mysterious gap in knowledge is the basis for Kim Hooper’s novel People Who Knew Me, in which New Yorker Emily uses the horror of those murderous attacks as an opportunity to flee a difficult family situation and set up a new life in California as Connie Pryne, bringing up a daughter, Claire, on her own. Yet 14 years later, when she receives a cancer diagnosis, she realises she must confront the life she ran away from, if only for the sake of Claire.
Now the book has been dramatised by theatre writer Daniella Issacs and Sharon Horgan’s Merman Pictures as a podcast for BBC Radio 4, starring Oscar-nominated actor Rosamund Pike and Hugh Laurie. Speaking to Radio Times, Pike was unequivocal about what drew her to the role of Emily/Connie.
"I’m interested in lying: characters who don’t tell the truth or manipulate the truth are extremely interesting to play - think Amy Dunne (Gone Girl) or Marla Grayson (I Care a Lot). The idea of someone using the National Tragedy of 9/11 to fake their own death, and escape one lie, only to find themselves supporting a much more intricate web of lies was very compelling. I am interested in the ways lies gather energy - which inevitably, sooner or later, becomes too strong to contain."
The writer Isaacs concurs with that view about the appeal of the story: "I’ve always had a fascination with the spectrum of truth and lies. I was thinking as I was writing it about what makes people lie. We all lie. I lie. But the way [Connie] struggles through her lie is to never be the bad guy. [She’s not really bad] she’s a messy woman responding to a messy world."
It’s that compassion for Connie/Emily and Isaacs’s empathetic treatment of the situation that resonated with Pike. She enthused: "[Daniella] wrote these scripts beautifully; and that’s why, although what [Emily] does is deplorable, we understand it, and we feel the mess it creates, and the terrible burden it imposes on her."
So while Emily/Connie can be grouped with previous duplicitous Pike characters such as Amy Dunne and Maria Grayson, the actor is keen to emphasise that the experience of playing those famed manipulators didn’t inform how she approached playing this role. "Emily/Connie is not a killer. She is also far more of a coward than Amy Dunne. It is cowardice that traps Emily in the first place, the cowardice of not being able to come clean and take responsibility for her own behaviour. Amy is a narcissistic sociopath. I don’t think Emily/Connie is either of these things. She does something that has a devastating impact on other people. Those people may never be able to trust again, but she is not a sociopath."
Although she can relate, to a certain degree, with how Emily reacts to the problems in her life, the idea of living a lie to get away from a difficult situation is not one that Pike would personally ever consider. In what could almost be a mantra, she says, "I have learnt that telling the truth always frees you."
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Isaacs, by contrast, hints at a darker side to her personality when discussing the appeal of writing about Emily/Connie and the effect of her decision on those around her: "I fear this makes me sound like a psychopath, but I enjoy writing characters that transgress what is societally acceptable. Because I’m constantly suppressing things to be acceptable, perhaps writing about these things helps me not do them."
But both women readily agree that adapting Hooper’s novel as an audio drama was an opportunity to get deeper into the character of Emily/Connie at two stages of her life, as a recent graduate starting out on a romance and then years later in Los Angeles, when she’s looking back on what she did to escape from New York and the consequences of her actions.
Isaacs says, "I was really excited… for two reasons. Firstly for allowing us as listeners to immerse ourselves into her psyche, more than could be done by watching her. And I liked the idea of eavesdropping on conversations. I wanted to make it as real as possible."
Pike adds: "As this is audio, I can play both Emily in her 20s in New York and Connie in her 40s in LA - both her identities, the real and the reconstructed; and there is a third character, Connie’s internal voice, the voice that cannot lie…"
Isaacs also directed the drama and the way she recorded, eschewing the traditional radio drama set-up of actors in front of microphone stands, scripts in hand, in favour of the actors wearing headset mics and using tablets for scripts so they could be mobile and as naturalistic as possible, was something that Pike enjoyed: "Daniella embraced the messiness of real life through the audio - she wanted to hear mouth noises, sniffs, chewing, snivelling, breathing, catches of emotion, voice cracking – all the things engineers often try to iron out. She encouraged us to play and live the scenes, physicality was a huge key - you hear physicality in the voice, if the character is moving, bending, sitting or standing, eating, driving, taking a shower - you hear it all. It certainly was [liberating]."
It may seem odd that, at a time widely hailed as a golden age for TV, an acclaimed screen actor is recording a radio drama – often shoestring productions put together quickly – but Pike has appeared in a few audio plays and narrated podcasts in recent years, and her switch to audio is by no means a result of restrictions on filming caused by COVID. She’s adamant that audio holds a special place in her heart: "I love this medium. I’ve been a dedicated listener of audiobooks since I was a child. I sometimes wish I could just be a voice… I love the free rein the imagination gets with audio only… and I love not having to be seen!"
That’s borne out by the other recent projects she’s done: the scripted comedy podcast Edith! about the wife of president Woodrow Wilson who, when he had a stroke, hid it from the American public and basically ran the White House while her husband was in a coma. "Another liar!" notes Pike.
Then there’s the Audible documentary podcast Mother, Neighbor, Russian Spy, which she narrated — it’s been so successful it has inspired her to work on developing another documentary series. And finally, she’s read the audiobook for the third book in the Wheel of Time series, The Dragon Reborn (available on MacMillan Audio now), another project that enthuses her. "It is fun to be recording the book series at the same time as playing Moiraine in the television series. And it’s many, many hours in the recording studio!"
If you enjoy People Who Knew Me, Daniella Isaacs leaves us with a tempting thought,
"I hope to collaborate with Rosamund on other things. [She was] really supportive; passionate, open and playful."
People Who Knew Me is available now on BBC Sounds and begins airing on BBC Radio 4 at 10.45pm tonight (Monday, 26th June).
Take part in the Screen Test, a project from Radio Times and the Universities of Sussex and Brighton, to explore the role of television and audio in our lives.