Doctor Foster's Bertie Carvel on playing one of the most hated characters on television
The actor discusses the audience reaction to the show's finale, how acting is like journalism and the cult of celebrity
People had plans for the shears in the title sequence of BBC1’s Doctor Foster. As the marriage of Gemma (Suranne Jones) and Simon (Bertie Carvel) unravelled, sympathy snowballed for the deceived wife. In the run-up to the hotly anticipated final episode, fans of the show took to social media, expressing the view that castration was too good for the spineless Simon. Hauled onto the sofa on daytime TV, Carvel (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Babylon, Coalition) shared his fears that he’d be attacked on the street.
“I didn’t really mean it,” he says, looking sorry to disappoint. “Interviewers say these things with a grin on their face, and you kind of play ball. I never feared for my life, but it’s true that public reaction to the show was phenomenal. It seemed to engage all those gut reactions – anger, pity, fear – that tragedy, according to Aristotle, is supposed to excite.”
It’s quite a leap from primetime to Aristotle, but Carvel, 38, is that kind of actor. A self-diagnosed tendency to “overthink everything” bears fruit in fantastically finely calibrated performances. He scooped an Olivier award for his monstrous turn as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical. As Nick Clegg in Channel 4’s Coalition, on the other hand, he steered scrupulously wide of caricature. And if Simon in Doctor Foster got under our skin, it is due largely to Carvel’s portrayal, a forensic case-study of guilt and cowardice.
“Simon has already made his bed before the drama begins,” he says. “He’s a couple of years into this mess, this spiral of lies. Until very close to the end of the series, his main objective is not to have the sky fall in. Partly that’s about protecting himself, but it’s also about protecting this house of cards that he has built, because he knows that the consequences, if he's found out, are going to cause a huge amount of damage. So my preparation for the role had a lot to do with what it feels like to be caught between a rock and a hard place.
“I have no interest in defending Simon,” Carvel goes on, “but we all do things that others might consider wrong. To err is human. I think Simon is errant, but I don’t think he’s evil. If he was simply a nasty piece of work, then viewers would just think, ‘Well, thank God Gemma’s out of that.’ What makes you angry and sad for her, is that somebody she loves, and who loves – or has loved – her, could betray her in this way.”
After weeks of mounting tension, the final episode of Doctor Foster drew ten million viewers, many of whom – if Twitter was anything to go by – felt cheated of a good old-fashioned blood-bath; in the closing scenes Simon, testicles intact, set off for a new life in London with his young, pregnant mistress.
“I was actually surprised to hear that people were disappointed with the ending,” says Carvel. “The bit that surprised me was the sudden violence of Simon pushing Gemma against the window and knocking her out. You have to think what that does to him, in terms of the way he feels about himself. He goes off to London to live with Kate and so on, but he’s got that violence on his conscience, and this isn’t a man who has a deficit of conscience. I should think that, in terms of cosmic punishment, he doesn’t come off lightly, he doesn’t get away scot-free.”
Given his bent for analysis, it comes as no surprise to learn that Carvel’s mother is a psychologist. His father, John Carvel, is a distinguished Guardian journalist.
“I’ve always felt that acting is, to some extent, like journalism. It’s looking for truth,” he says. “One of the things I love about Doctor Foster is that although it is in some ways a melodrama, it is true to life. And when, in life, did the ‘goodies’ get the treasure and the ‘baddies’ get their just deserts? It doesn’t work that way.”
Beyond the barest biographical bones — a childhood interest in fantasy role-playing games, a first class degree in English literature from Sussex University – Carvel’s personal life is a closed book. “I’m realising that the cult of celebrity is a horrible thing to be part of,” he says. He sounds genuinely distressed, like a man waking up from a bad dream to a worse reality.
“I’d rather be anonymous,” he goes on, “but of course I want my work to go wide, and you make that slightly Faustian pact, don’t you? I think I’m getting better at having a sense of humour about it, not taking myself too seriously, butyoudohavetobecareful–wealldonowin the age of social media. You can’t any more think, ‘I’ll just be who I am and that will come across.’ Because unfortunately we live in a world where the presentation of facts is so much louder than the facts themselves.”
As an actor, he argues, the last thing he wants is for the characters he plays to be overshadowed by his own personality. And if that means the women of Britain are out for his blood, so be it.
Filming for series two of Doctor Foster starts in September. Can Carvel give us any kind of steer on the further adventures of Gemma and Simon? “Mike Bartlett, the series writer, is in his garret, creating as we speak. There’s nothing I can tell you. And if I did,” says Carvel with a rare unguarded smile, “I’d have to kill you. I’m really interested to see what Mike does with Simon now, and viewers, I’m sure, will have a lot of fun speculating.”