For a large chunk of The Drowning’s minutes-long opening sequence, the actress Jill Halfpenny is completely silent.
She plays Jodie, a woman whose young son went missing, presumed drowned, at a lakeside family outing. Nine years later, she spots him, now a teenager on his way to school – and on impulse she follows him, wild-eyed, abandoning her car and tailing him, by bus and on foot, her gaze never leaving him.
Jodie has no proof that the boy, now called Daniel, is actually her own lost son – but from that moment, she’s beyond certain, an evolution of emotion that’s conveyed without any dialogue.
Halfpenny, who has a son of her own, calls the show’s premise a “nightmare”. “Even if you don’t have children, it’s pretty easy to imagine that that is the worst thing you can go through. It’s sort of every parent’s nightmare, isn’t it? It’s a true nightmare. So it was easy for me to kind of understand that.”
The former EastEnders actress has been promoting The Drowning from her pink, art-filled living room, where she’s also been “doing lots of Zoom auditions” for future projects. (Asked if she finds these auditions awkward, she raises her eyes skyward: “Oh my God. Honestly, you wouldn’t believe.”)
Shot in Dublin, the opening sequence was “actually quite hard” to film, as production for the show was locked down from March until August due to COVID.
“The reality of them [action sequences] is that we’re doing them in different sections, possibly months apart from each other… They’re actually quite hard to do in that sense because you want to get the continuity,” Halfpenny explains exclusively to RadioTimes.com.
The months-long break in the middle of filming also made it impossible for Halfpenny to get her grief-stricken character out of her head.
“I think when you sort of leave a character and know it isn’t finished, even if it’s a couple of weeks you’ve got off filming and you have to go back, you can never quite let them go, because that’s the point. The point is, you have to sort of stay with them. So she [Jodie] was percolating the whole time.
“But I mean, it was a very unusual time as well. She was just, like, on my mind.”
When we first meet Jodie, she’s in a particularly dark place. She’s isolated from her family, struggling financially, and to rub salt into the wound, her ex-husband is now playing happy families with her former best friend.
The character’s inner-life is the perfect storm of stress, bitterness, and all-consuming grief, a bruising combination that Halfpenny couldn’t help but bring home with her during filming and beyond.
“The real truth of the matter is, by the time I finish that show, it always happens to me at the end,” she says. “I’m always really relieved to come home and be with my son again. And then I just sort of think, ‘Oh, God, I feel really heavy.’ It’s sort of an emotional hangover. And you think, ‘Oh, God, I feel awful.’
“I’ve got one friend in particular who’s like, ‘Yeah, there’s a reason for that. You’ve been living in this person’s head for three months, and they’ve not been particularly nice thoughts.’
“You always cringe a bit as an actor to say that,” she adds, “but your body doesn’t know that those feelings that you’re creating are not real. So your body is literally creating stress, tension, pain, grief. But you sort of have to go, ‘But it’s not mine! Or is it?’
“Because actually, as actors, we do kind of use our own pain anyway. So it’s a real mix. But I think what you have to do is, you have to be sensible about it, and go, ‘OK, I’ve got to try and shake this off a bit, and do a little bit of what actors do’ – because we all have different things to just shake that off, and go onto the next…”
At the start of the series, Jodie is stuck in an emotional purgatory until she spots teenage Daniel. Putting her life on pause, she obtains fake documents and blags her way into a music teaching position, solely to get close to him.
She also meets Daniel’s father, Mark, a brusque widower and architect played by Rupert Penry-Jones (Persuasion) in The Drowning cast. Jodie is privately convinced that Mark somehow abducted Daniel when he was a boy, but publicly she’s flirtatious, inviting herself over to the family home. The two adult characters almost immediately establish a charged, love-hate dynamic, butting heads over what they believe is best for Daniel.
“Rupert really played [that role] brilliantly, I think, this idea that he’s just really socially inept. Mark is just not a very sociable man. He doesn’t really know how to be with his child, let alone be with people,” Halfpenny explains. “It’s almost the awkwardness of them both, and also the fact that Jodie felt really disingenuous but also was like “f**k you” – I think that’s what creates the charge, you know?” she says, laughing.
“There are so many things going on, that it’s like they’re staring into each other’s eyes. But neither of them really know what the other one’s thinking. They were fun as well, to play those scenes.”
From the start, viewers will be familiar with many of the character types in The Drowning; from the brooding, ‘is-he-evil-or-just-misunderstood’ Mark and the ‘potentially-too-nice-to-be-true’ brother (Jonas Armstrong), to the love triangle with the adulterous hubbie who falls for the wife’s best friend.
However, there are narrative choices that will take many by surprise, particularly a twist at the end of episode two.
“I think you can expect the unexpected,” Halfpenny says of the series. “I think that things get a lot worse before you get any sort of answers.”
She also defends her character’s often rash choices: “It’s not to excuse her bad behaviour, because she does behave badly sometimes. But I find her behaviour really understandable, because I defend her. But I suppose what I’m saying is, when it all comes out, you just see how everyone can collude to believe, or to stick to something, if it serves them. If it’s serving their life, it’s amazing what people will put up with.
“It’s satisfying, the end, because you know what happened. But…” she adds, “it’s terrifying.”
The Drowning airs Monday to Thursday at 9pm from February 1st 2021 on Channel 5. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide.