Peaky Blinders game star on playing Polly: "She's the heart, to me"
Ruth Gibson on stepping into Helen McCrory's role for Peaky Blinders: The King's Ransom.
Creating the VR game Peaky Blinders: The King's Ransom presented one major problem for the British developers from Maze Theory.
The tragic passing of Helen McCrory, who played matriarch Polly Gray in the beloved Birmingham-based TV sensation, left the game with a hole in its heart.
The King's Ransom was always meant to explore the "missing years" between the fourth and fifth seasons of the show, a time when Polly was very much on the scene.
Producer Russ Harding told us last year: "Polly does appear in the game. She is in the game. But rather than mimicking Helen, we're working with an actress to take on Polly and build around her legacy of that character."
And now RadioTimes.com has had a chance to chat with that actress, Ruth Gibson, who has faced the unenviable task of stepping into McCrory's shoes to take on the role of Polly in the game.
More like this
"I've always been a big fan of Helen's," Gibson tells us over a video call. Noting that her path into the acting industry first took her to theatre work, Gibson says that she's "been in the West End simultaneously" with McCrory at various points in her career.
As well as appearing in live-action roles (you might recognise Gibson from the likes of Call the Midwife), Gibson has worked in video games and other forms of voice acting many times over the years, including roles in The Witcher 2 and James Bond 007: Blood Stone. When Gibson first heard about the upcoming Peaky Blinders game, McCrory was still with us.
"The audition came through via my agent," Gibson recalls, "and originally it was for the motion capture for Polly, because Helen at that point was contracted to do the voice work. And I was obviously immediately excited because I love working in motion capture.
"But also, as probably most people in the world are now, I'm a huge fan of the show. And so to be able to kind of step into it in this way, I thought was really, really exciting. So I first did the audition for that. And then I was offered the job to do the physicality for Polly, but Helen at that point was still doing the voice.
"I was watching back episodes of Peaky Blinders, you know, just to kind of absorb myself in Helen's work, to try and encompass that physicality that she has – and she has such a strong physicality she brought to the role – I was actually watching her in Peaky Blinders when I saw the news that she had so sadly passed away. And so it's such a shock."
Gibson remembers being unsure what would happen to the project at that point. She tells us: "We didn't know what was happening. I think Maze Theory hadn't decided what would happen. It was a big shock with all of us.
"And I did say to my agent that I wanted to step back from the project because it felt... I wasn't friends with Helen, but I've met her a few times – as I say, I'd followed her career – and it just felt very uncomfortable for me... that sort of, literally, stepping into a dead woman's shoes."
As Gibson recalls it: "Then a bit of time passed, and we had some conversations with the producers at Maze Theory about what they wanted to do to honour Helen, and to really create a legacy of the character in Polly that she has created, which I thought was a really wonderful way of looking at it.
"Peaky Blinders, and especially the point where King's Ransom is, without Polly is losing something. And I think maintaining the character of Polly is more of a testament to the work and the brilliance that Helen created. And actually keeping her in there, I agree that it was an important thing.
"So then I went back and auditioned again, for the full capture, including the voice, but with a slight shift in this instance. We wanted to have the essence of Polly – and I think because Helen has created such a multi-layered, multifaceted character, finding that depth of her, finding the truth of what she has created – as opposed to doing a mimic of Helen's performance.
"And I really, really hope, when people watch the game, that they will feel that we've found a truth to Polly as a character as a legacy for Helen, but we're not trying in any way to recreate her. In the bits that I've seen, I think hopefully we've achieved that."
We ask Gibson what it is about McCrory's performance that makes Polly such a memorable character.
As Gibson puts it: "I think, initially when she first came in, we had these really strong male characters. You know, we've got Tommy, we've got Arthur, we've got this legacy of the First World War hanging over it, which is very much rooted in a sort of shell shock in those male journeys, in that male experience of the world at that point, and that kind of hard man, and those gangs.
"And I think to suddenly have this really strong matriarch hit the scene, to come in, she just created a sort of whirlwind, because the other female characters up to that point - again, well drawn, but to some extent are there in relation to their relationship to the men, to the male characters.
"And when Polly comes in, she breaks that, and I think she's just a breath of fresh air. I love the strength she has. I love the power she has. But, and I think this is absolutely testament to Helen's performance, she has a vulnerability, and a real softness.
"And those moments, those parental moments, whether it's with her children, whether it's with other characters... she for us, as the audience, bridges the gap between that strength that is necessary, and the softness, and I hope that the player will find this as well."
Gibson continues: "She's the heart, to me, in amongst this strength. And the other thing that I love about Polly is that she links us to the difficulty for women in those experiences. You know, having her children taken from her, all those things that she has gone through.
"I think we as a society historically tend to focus on those more obvious male journeys through things like the war, through things like building this new world, and I think what Polly does is she shows us the damage. The route. The journey for the women, in a way that she has that steel that's been bred into her, combined with this wonderful gentleness, and I think that's one of the things that I really loved when I first read the script of the game.
"They've done a really good job of keeping true to Helen and to Polly, the matriarch. The strong matriarch. And I think that's going to be, especially as it's VR, one of the experiences for the gamer that I hope that they will really take away. That they connect with Polly in a way that I don't think they connect with another character in the game."
Gibson goes on to tell us that she does have certain tools that help her get into the role of Polly, as she aims to capture "that lovely little sort of husky smoker's bit at the back" of the character's throat, without trying overtly to "mimic" McCrory's performance.
In terms of diction, it's all about rolled Rs and tapped Ts with Polly. And aiming to embody the physicality involves thinking of Polly's "really tense mouth" and the "upper body strength, the stillness" of how the character holds herself.
Gibson also has a handy little trick to help her get into a Birmingham accent: the key buzz phrase, if you were wondering, is "I want to be leader of the Labour Party, but nobody takes me seriously." Gibson says with a laugh: "I'd sort of be muttering to myself on set, 'I want to be leader of the Labour Party.'"
After chatting to Gibson, we had the chance to try out the demo for Peaky Blinders: The King's Ransom, which is playable this weekend at the EGX expo in London. Although we didn't get to see Polly in the demo, we did get to walk along stunningly-recreated Brummie streets to the iconic sounds of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds singing Red Right Hand.
We also got to meet Tommy Shelby (voiced by Cillian Murphy) and wade into a gunfight with Arthur Shelby (voiced by Paul Anderson), all of which felt like a very authentic Peaky Blinders experience. If you're at EGX this weekend, do try it out. We're certainly looking forward to seeing more of the game.
Peaky Blinders: The King's Ransom will launch on 9th March 2023 via Steam, Meta Quest 2 and Pico 4.