In a poky room in ITV’s central London offices, Nicola Walker is, literally, on the edge of her seat. Not, let’s be clear, with excitement at the prospect of a press interview and an hour talking about herself. She’s perched expectantly, as if steeling herself for a job interview. The actress will clasp and unclasp her hands throughout our meeting, cut-to-the-quick fingernails working into her flesh. But despite the seeming apprehension, Walker is bright, smiley and given to bursts of nervy laughter.
It’s in sharp contrast to her demeanour the last time we met. Three months previously we had been on the set of six-part ITV crime drama Unforgotten, in which she plays DCI Cassie Stuart. In scenes from the opening episode, the 45-year-old star of Last Tango in Halifax, Babylon and Spooks was decked out in a white crime-scene boilersuit and peering into a shallow grave. Accompanied by fellow officer DS Sunil Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar), they are considering the skeleton of a young man uncovered by builders beneath the basement of a house in north-west London.
“Your gut feeling?” asks DCI Stuart of a forensic archaeologist. “Are we talking Richard III or five years ago?” “Could be 5,000 years ago,” comes the reply.
“Let’s try to find out how he died,” Stuart says with quiet intent. “Whoever he was, I think we owe him that, at the very least.” The scene completed, I asked Walker if her character is Unforgotten’s moral compass – the do-right copper determined to identify some-one’s son, and someone’s killer, no matter how long ago the crime was committed. It was an easy compliment, but she rejected it.
“I don’t think it’s a moral obligation she feels,” she replied firmly. “She gets to know this boy and… there’s an emptiness in her that this case fulfils. So it’s less morally crusading – she’s got quite an empty home life that previously was very full. And something about his case gets under her skin…”
Seeing her again now, I remind her of how, well, narked she seemed to get. “I know!” she hoots, relaxing instantly. “I thought, `I’m not the f***ing moral compass!’ It really annoyed me!” she cackles. “Isn’t that ridiculous? But it was because of the scenes we were doing that week. I didn’t want her to be that way, and I didn’t feel [series creator] Chris Lang had written her that way, but I think maybe I was frightened that was the way I’d go with it. The path of least resistance. But it’s more complicated than that… That’s why I got a bit bitey,” she smiles guiltily.
The murder case, it transpires, is “only” 39 years old and DCI Stuart’s investigations shake up the lives of four middle-aged people – a knighted businessman played by Trevor Eve; a vicar played by Bernard Hill; Tom Courtenay’s wheelchair-using retiree; and Ruth Sheen as a woman who helps to run a youth football team. All, somehow, are implicated.
At the heart of Unforgotten is a question thrown up by a slew of real-life cases, ranging from the US pursuit of director Roman Polanski since the 1970s for having sex with an underage girl to the prosecution of former Nazi concentration camp guards; from Jimmy Savile to Cyril Smith. Do historic crimes become less wrong – or the allegation of them less worthy of investigation – because a significant period of time has elapsed?
Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar in Unforgotten
“Nicola’s able to push forward those arguments and themes with great warmth and humanity,” says Lang. The dramatist has worked with Walker twice previously, on Torn (2007) and A Mother’s Son (2012). “She was the first person we approached, and thank God she said yes.”
Walker waves away such effusiveness, lest our conversation get too “actor-y”. “Because that always makes you sound like an idiot,” she notes good-naturedly.
Walker may have won an Olivier award for the National Theatre’s adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and is poised to head to the US with Mark Strong for the Broadway transfer of the Young Vic’s acclaimed revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. And she may also be on BBC1 this month in another promising crime series, Abi Morgan’s River. But don’t go thinking this is a golden moment for the hard-grafting actor, who has worked solidly since graduating from Cambridge University 25 years ago. This is “just” her line of work, no self-aggrandising analysis required.
“My husband is an actor,” Walker says of Barnaby Kay, with whom she has a nine-year-old son, “and we don’t talk about acting at home.”
Walker is happier dishing out compliments than taking them. One of her best friends from university is Bake Off ringmistress Sue Perkins.
“I thought Sue was fantastic from the first moment I met her,” she beams. “And when she was Footlights president, she gave me the position of Falconer. That’s the person who picks up all the empty cans and overflowing ashtrays at the end of a smoker session where people have got up and done really interesting sketches that they’re working on. I wasn’t a writer/performer and never have been,” she shrugs.
Rachel Weisz was another contemporary, and the two cut their acting teeth together. One production took place in a London boozer. “I was boarded up in the window of the pub for the first 45 minutes of the play – through a crack I could see Rachel being brilliant, then I had to break out of it and cry!” Walker laughs, the mortification still evident.
That self-doubt, and the desire for self-improvement, course through her. Ask her about how the success of Last Tango in Halifax has made her a favourite of the nation’s Sunday-evening living room (and last year won her a Bafta nomination), and she again swerves the compliment. Being able to work with actors of the calibre of Derek Jacobi and Sarah Lancashire over three series simply made her more confident that, on Unforgotten, she could work alongside pros such as Courtenay and Eve.
Filming the fourth series of Last Tango has been pushed back, as creator Sally Wainwright is currently working on the second series of Happy Valley. But the schedule change was a lucky break for Walker, as her Broadway commitment will keep her in New York until February.
Nicola Walker with Sarah Lancashire, Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi in Last Tango in Halifax
“So I didn’t have to make some awkward…” she begins. “My two great fears are either not working, or working on something that means you can’t do something else you really want.” She smiles again, and wrings her hands some more. “It’s so stupid, isn’t it?”
Not really. It’s real, it’s honest, and it’s the kind of guileless attribute that makes Nicola Walker so compellingly watchable on telly and on stage. Speaking of which: is she daunted by taking an Arthur Miller play into his heartland, in his centenary year?
“Yeah!” she shoots back cheerfully. “If we weren’t daunted by that we would be idiots. But I’ve never had a career in America, so the way I figure it, if it goes wrong I just get to come home for Christmas!”
Unforgotten begins on ITV tonight (Thursday 8th October) at 9.00pm