‘When Keeping Faith came along my world suddenly got brighter’: Eve Myles on starring in BBC Wales record-breaking drama

Eve Myles talks typecasting, Jodie Whittaker's Doctor Who and learning Welsh for her role in sleeper hit Keeping Faith

(RT, Richard Grassie)

Eve Myles shouldn’t really be posing for Radio Times barefoot in a tutu. Nor should she be sitting outside a London photographer’s studio, three glasses of sauvignon blanc down, talking about her biggest role to date – as Faith Howells in iPlayer word-of-mouth hit Keeping Faith (critically acclaimed when it aired on BBC1 Wales; more than 9.5 million downloads and counting; airing from this week on primetime BBC1… and still causing a run on yellow raincoats).

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Myles should instead, according to her career plan, be taking blood pressures and delivering babies in Cardiff. For in 2013, while pregnant with her second daughter and wholly disillusioned with acting, she decided to retrain for a second career as a midwife and obstetric sonographer.

The career volte-face, she says, was born from boredom and frustration. “Frustration over not being challenged,” she explains. “I have to be challenged in all areas of life. I can’t just run – I have to do a marathon. I always like to be pushed as far as I can go.”

Myles was doing all right, having found a degree of fame as Gwen Cooper in Doctor Who and Torchwood, but she’d fallen out of love with her work. She’d started looking into courses, until her own midwife clipped her wings. “I nervously told her, ‘I’m thinking of going into midwifery.’ And she said, ‘What gives you the idea that a woman in labour wants to look up and see Gwen Cooper?’” Myles laughs at the notion that the role that made her name was among the things now holding her back.

“Gwen Cooper is such an iconic character that you do get typecast. There were now roles I didn’t have to prep for or research. I couldn’t do my job and I’m a very unhappy person when I can’t do my job. Every job needs to turn me on, to scare me a bit. That’s why I’m alive – I do work I don’t think I can do. I needed a shake-up. And then Faith came along. The world suddenly seemed a lot brighter.”

Brighter is a strange word to use, since Keeping Faith – Matthew Hall’s hyper-real emotional thriller about a successful lawyer forced to cut short her maternity leave when her solicitor husband suddenly disappears – is a dark and unsettling look at the secret life behind a seeming idyll. And besides, there’s “being challenged”, and there’s chasing the near-impossible. The script for Faith was in Welsh, and Myles, though born and raised in Powys, spoke not a word.

“Nothing,” she says. “Place names, maybe, if I practised. I mean, if they’d said to me,‘It’s being filmed in Russian and English’, it would effectively have been the same thing.” Having turned down the role four times, she finally accepted. “It was an impossible challenge that I had to take,” she says. Her agent and family thought she was mad. But despite being heavily pregnant at the time and living in one unheated room with her daughter and husband (actor Bradley Freegard) while their shambolic Cardiff house was refurbished, Myles was adamant she’d learn her native tongue in just four months.

(Keeping Faith, BBC)
(Keeping Faith, BBC)

“I cancelled everything,” she says. “There’s no magic wand or easy way of doing it, you just have to sit down and learn it. Nora [her Welsh teacher] had to put all the lines on an audio file for me and every morning before the girls [by then she’d had her second daughter] woke up, I’d listen for two hours when I was running. I’d drop off the kids and then I’d sit with the scripts and revise and revise. It wasn’t fun. There were points when I wanted to throw in the towel because it was impossible, I was going mad.”

Then, while still preparing for the role, Myles was taken ill. While she was in hospital, the producers unexpectedly cast her husband as Faith’s husband Evan (Freegard had originally auditioned for a smaller role and not got it). How did she take the news in her post-operative state? She laughs. “I asked for more morphine.”

Myles laughs a lot – loudly and warmly. And she speaks candidly and generously about Freegard. “I didn’t think it was going to be easy. But I was so excited for him because he’s waited for this break for a very long time, and I knew he’d fly.” Keeping Faith wasn’t the first time the couple had worked together (at the RSC they’d played brother and sister in Titus Andronicus, keeping their then new relationship secret), but the central themes of Hall’s script – spousal betrayal, deceit, abandonment – made acting alongside her husband especially difficult.

Wasn’t it hard, spending her days as Faith trying to unravel her missing husband’s web of deceit, then coming home to find his real-life alter ego watching telly on the sofa?

“It was very odd when I had to go through some hard scenes as Faith, then go home to Brad. I had an attitude coming through the door. But Bradley is a very kind man and a calming influence. It was hard – I’m so different to Faith and he’s so different to Evan, and we really had to pull ourselves away. But that’s the point of this drama and the reason I didn’t become a midwife. The point of this drama was it made me really work hard.”

Twice as hard: Keeping Faith is a co-production between Welsh-language channel S4C and BBC Wales, so each scene was shot at least twice – in Welsh and in English. “We didn’t make eight hours of drama, we made 16,” she says.

Eve Myles in Broadchurch
Eve Myles in Broadchurch

Myles is a grafter. Raised with her brother by a working-class single mum (her dad is Glaswegian, and they remain close) on a council estate in the small town of Ystradgynlais, she fell in love with performing before she even knew acting was a job. “I don’t think I had much choice,” she says. “We entertained each other a lot, me and Mum. Even now I’ll walk in and she’ll burst into song and do something ridiculous in front of my daughters and we’ll howl with laughter. She walks into the room with a flannel on her head. I want to be that woman, she’s utterly bonkers. My mum’s nearly 70 and she’ll come in and give tea to me and Brad and she’s mooning us! We were always role-playing and making each other laugh.”

Myles didn’t have the option of studying drama at school. An unconscious hobby became a potential career only when an actress held an after-school club and, having seen her act, suggested Myles audition for the National Youth Theatre of Wales. Not only did she get in, but she won a scholarship, which paid half the £700 fee for a three-week course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. To find the remaining £350, she did car boot sales and “sold junk in the miners’ welfare hall. When events were on, we’d go round with buckets. My community mucked in and raised the money.”

She hopes they’re proud of what she has achieved with their help. “I’m proud of Ystradgynlais and what they do and the am-dram they did there. Those are brilliant, brilliant people and it carved me, it’s defined me. There was warmth and love and I wanted that in Keeping Faith. I wanted tradition in Faith and that’s what we’ve got.”

From there, Myles applied for a fulltime course at the drama college. She split her new trousers during the audition, said, “Sorry! My cockles are out!” and was working as a holiday rep in Greece when she got the call to say she’d been accepted. She remembers, “I slept on Bradley’s floor for three weeks because I had nowhere to live and we’d become good friends. And then, after my first year, I knew that I couldn’t go any further because we couldn’t afford it, me and my mother. There was no money whatsoever.”

While studying, though, she landed an audition for the BBC Wales series Belonging and, after an initial knockback, secured a part that funded her studies. “It kept me in college. I got my degree and was on that show for ten years. One day I realised, ‘This is what I do now’.”

Next came an audition for Doctor Who, in front of her heroes Mark Gatiss and Russell T Davies. That led to Torchwood, and a brief stint living in Los Angeles. But Myles has no intention of leaving Wales for London, Hollywood or anywhere else. “I didn’t want to be one of these mums that moves the kids around all the time with work and they never get any sort of foundation. My friends are the girls I went to school with. It’s really important to me. My best friend is a dog groomer. We’ve known each other since we were two, and she refuses to watch anything I do. I’ll call my mother and my friend’s there having her dinner!”

Next up for Myles is a role in series eight of ITV’s Cold Feet, as a character based loosely on writer Caitlin Moran, and a second series of Keeping Faith is in development. There are no plans to revisit her Torchwood character Gwen Cooper, but Myles remains close to Gwen’s creator, Russell T Davies, who recently cast her in his acclaimed drama about Jeremy Thorpe, A Very English Scandal. And she says she’s hugely excited to see her former Broadchurch co-star Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor Who.

“I can’t wait. Jodie will shout and stamp and be elegant and beautiful and strong and powerful and everything you’d want in the new Doctor. She’s one of our greats, she’s phenomenal. I have two daughters and my little one is eight and a half and she’s so excited. There’s such a buzz in school that there’s a female Doctor. It’s very empowering. I feel very much that now is the time of the woman – whether it be the viewer or the leading lady or the story or the documentary or your news correspondent or journalist, whatever. It’s more balanced now.”

She believes the flexibility of TV streaming services has played a part in reaching female audiences, and in making female-led series a success. “Reese Witherspoon has been a real advocate for this, and especially with Big Little Lies, what she’s doing and Nicole Kidman is doing – it’s great we’re getting really loud voices. I’ve done this for 20 years and I feel like there’s been a whisper and now, finally, we’re shouting.”

Whatever happens to her career from now on, Keeping Faith has changed everything for Myles. “I turn 40 this month and I don’t want to look back and think, ‘Why didn’t I do that, why was I scared of something that never happened?’ I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than not do them at all. Life is really fragile and really short. I want my two girls to look at their mother and go, ‘I can do that if she can do this’. I don’t want to give them the fear of doing something new, something they think they can’t do. I want them to give it a go anyway. That’s how I try to live.”

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This article was originally published on 9 July 2018