While we agree that the best of American TV drama, particularly on cable, is leading the way, Jean-Baptiste is evangelical about what the UK has to offer.
“When the Brits do it well, man, they cane it! I don’t think they understand the concept of ‘authored’ over there – it’s all about the writers’ room. Which is why you either get a generic voice or a disjointed form of storytelling. In Without a Trace, we had very talented writers, but very often something would happen and then they’d go, ‘Marianne, you take [co-star] Enrique Murciano’s lines… Enrique, you take Marianne’s…’ and my thing is: that should not be able to happen! You should not be able to interchange two characters. But to serve a procedural piece, with a crime that’s solved in one hour, no real characters are filled in. It really is a different beast.”
Jean-Baptiste is supremely adaptable. Born in 1967 to an Antiguan mother and a St Lucian father who came to the UK in the 1950s, she studied dance aged eight at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire in Greenwich and drama at Rada, getting nominated for an Ian Charleson award for a stage production of Measure By Measure in 1994.
Two years later, she took the film world’s breath away with a quiet, measured performance in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (above), playing Hortense, the daughter who was given up for adoption by white mother Brenda Blethyn, whom she tries to track down. Their tearful and moving reunion in a café was the pivot on which her career turned. The film earned both actresses nominations at the Baftas, Golden Globes and Academy Awards – Blethyn won two, while Jean- Baptiste became the first black Briton to be nominated for an Oscar.
In 1997, aged 30, she went to LA for the first time, long before it was the norm for British actors, and found work in a string of films whose titles may not ring a bell (A Murder of Crows, The 24 Hour Woman).
“At first it was hard because the hours were crazy. I’d just had my first child, I was breast- feeding, running back to the trailer and running back to the set. So, ’98, ’99 and 2000, I was back and forth to the States, and I was kinda tired of making that trip.”