“I knew that I was obviously going to be nervous.” Leonie Benesch, the new star of BBC One’s Around the World in 80 Days, is describing the first scene she shot alongside David Tennant: a heated argument from episode three between her character, journalist Abigail Fix, and Tennant’s nervy explorer Phileas Fogg. She recalls an almost out-of-body experience mid-scene, staring at Tennant’s “very red, peeling, heavily injured face” (all make-up and prosthetics, thankfully) and feeling “overwhelmed” as her character went toe-to-toe with his in the middle of a desert.
“I did have a few moments where I was like, ‘I’m shouting at David Tennant! This is very surreal!’,” she says.
Shouting at David Tennant is just one of numerous examples she gives when asked if she had any “pinch-me” moments during filming. (Others include an “incredibly cool stunt” from episode seven; travelling to South Africa for the first time; and the realisation that Hans Zimmer would be scoring the soundtrack.) “Those moments you’re like, ‘Oh! What am I doing? I’m living my childhood dream’.”
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While the TV series is inspired by Jules Verne’s 1872 novel, Abigail Fix is a brand new character created for the BBC adaptation (her name is a wink to an original book character, Detective Fix). Abigail is also the show’s beating heart from the get-go. Whereas Tennant’s moustachioed, Victorian gentleman Phileas Fogg is lacking in confidence, Abigail has buckets-full – a trait that German national Benesch, who studied drama at Guildhall in London, says she shares.
“I don’t come from money at all. When I came to London, I got myself into huge amounts of debt just to go to drama school,” she explains. “I don’t know if it’s narcissism or bravery, but to come to London and audition for drama school where it’s not your mother tongue, and just go there and [be] like, ‘Yeah, I belong here’. I think that’s a trait that I have, and I’m grateful for it. And I think that’s something Abigail Fix has. She enters a space, and she doesn’t care whether or not she’s supposed to be there. It’s just where she wants to be right now. I think we share that.”
However, Benesch quickly makes a joke about how she doesn’t share all of Abigail’s attributes, namely the character’s ‘daddy issues’, which become more prevalent as the show goes on (“I don’t think I need to prove anything to my dad!”). Abigail is determined to become a serious journalist, even penning the article that first opens Phileas Fogg’s eyes to new possibilities in travel (and ultimately leads him to take on the titular travel wager) – but she butts heads with her overprotective father, a newspaper editor, who refuses to give her a byline.
Benesch is speaking to RadioTimes.com via Zoom, but as in Around the World in 80 Days, her energy fills the screen. Plants overflow every surface in the kitchen visible behind her, and she wears long dangling earrings spelling out ‘heart’ and ‘burn’, a word for each ear.
Although the upper-middle-class Abigail Fix exudes a kind of ‘jolly-hockey-sticks’ Englishness, it was in fact Benesch’s German passport that landed her the part.
“It had to do with the way it’s financed,” she explains, referring to the show’s German broadcaster ZDF. The series producers were looking for someone German (to please ZDF, she says), but who also spoke with perfect, unaccented RP, and they were quickly referred to Benesch, a newcomer whose biggest English-speaking role to date was as Prince Philip’s sister in The Crown.
Benesch won the part of Abigail Fix, but found the prospect of filming equal parts exciting and daunting. “I was nervous. Because it’s the biggest part I’ve ever played; it’s not my mother tongue; and it’s David Tennant,” she says.
Around the World in 80 Days is ideally placed to catapult Benesch into stardom. Not only is it a primetime BBC period drama, starring national treasure Tennant and premiering on Boxing Day (a day many of us spend glued to the telly, weighed down with mince pies), but the show has already been renewed for a second season.
The news isn’t a total surprise for Benesch, who recalls the idea of a second season being pitched to her towards the end of filming (at the time, she responded: “Yes, 1,000 per cent!”). However, she’s struck by how early the official season two announcement came. “I mean, that’s one hell of a confident announcement,” she says. “It’s very, very exciting,” adding: “I would do pretty much any job with David [Tennant] involved, just because that means I can learn more from him. And obviously, I’m a baby,” she jokes.
Benesch (who previously starred in the German neo-noir Babylon Berlin) admits that she initially struggled to get a handle on the light-hearted, eccentric tone of both the show and her character: “Originally, I approached the character from my comfort zone, which is quite earnest and dramatic.”
She reveals that director Steve Barron pointed her towards another British period drama, The Durrells, for reference. “He was like, ‘That’s the kind of tone we need for the show’,” she says.
Phileas Fogg and Abigail Fix’s nationality is often played up for laughs during the first few episodes. “I think it [the series] looks at that side of Britishness with a lot of humour but warmth,” Benesch says. “That British ignorance that both of them have; very upper-class, superior, you know, how they effortlessly enter a room and start talking about things they maybe have actually no idea about – it’s being shown up. It’s being offered. Everyone gets to enjoy how silly they are, but I don’t think it’s spiteful. I think it’s really humorous. And still – maybe there is a little bit of criticism. Yeah.”
Benesch’s own experience with some of the “silly” aspects of the British class system informed how her character, Abigail, views Passepartout (Ibrahim Koma), Mr Fogg’s mysterious valet and the third member of the show’s central trio.
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“I think most of the time, she’s generally frustrated because she cannot put him [Passepartout] in a box, he won’t fit,” she explains. “And that [frustration] I think I have seen as a German living in the UK – people get a bit confused when they hear me speak to them [and] find out that I’m German… One of the first things you find out about each other in an English or British context is, ‘Where are you from? Who do you probably know? What’s your background?’ It happens immediately. And that was quite strange to me. When I first moved here, I had no idea what people were on about. And then there comes a frustration with people when they can’t place you. And I think that’s very much what Abigail experiences with Passepatout, because he doesn’t make sense to [her].”
The chemistry between Passepatout and Abigail is obvious from the start. Are they the 19th century’s answer to the famous will-they-won’t-they Friends couple, Ross and Rachel? “Yes, maybe!” Benesch laughs. “That’s a good way of putting it… I think she is attracted to him.”
Phileas Fogg, an old friend of Abigail’s newspaper editor father, serves as a kind of eccentric, slightly inept uncle or guardian to her over the course of their travels. What was Benesch’s experience like working with national treasure David Tennant?
“No matter what he does, he’s always brilliant. And then on top of that, he’s also such a great number one on the call sheet, because he leads by example, in the best way,” she says. “He always has a nice word to say to everyone, but it doesn’t make anything about him. Something I’m still to learn.”
And where will Benesch be on Boxing Day, when the TV series set to launch her career airs in living rooms across the country?
“I will be here, in the UK,” she says, gesturing to the plant-filled flat behind her. It will be a “small,” low-key viewing party with her flatmate and flatmate’s family. “I think we’re going to sit down and watch it all together.” A pause. “And my cat, obviously, is going to be watching.”
Around the World in 80 Days will be released on Boxing Day in the UK on BBC One, and in the US on Sunday 2nd January via PBS. Visit our Big RT Interview hub for more conversations with the biggest stars in TV and film, or find something to watch with our TV Guide.
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