Lesley Sharp certainly isn’t new to the world of detective dramas. From Scott & Bailey to true crime series Three Girls, the BAFTA-nominated actress is well-versed when it comes to fake jail cells, high-speed chases and complex police lingo – although she’s not a huge fan of the latter.
“I don’t know how on earth [Line of Duty‘s] Vicky McClure and Martin Compston and Adrian Dunbar get their heads around some of the stuff that they have to say because sometimes with Scott and Bailey, there were pages and pages and pages of interviews, but it was nothing like that.”
“‘Go into your folders, find document B12, B12 is on the screen’,” she says, doing her best AC-12 impression. “It’s absolutely fascinating to watch but to act like someone who really knows what they’re doing, that’s really difficult.”
Thankfully, Sharp’s upcoming detective drama – Channel 4’s Before We Die – isn’t as jargon-heavy as Jed Mercurio’s recently-concluded BBC One drama. Based on the Swedish 2017 original of the same name, Before We Die stars Sharp as Hannah Laing, a cop who is estranged from her son Christian (The OA’s Patrick Gibson) after busting him for drugs a few years back, and now having an affair with a colleague. When her lover is brutally murdered, she sets out to take down those responsible – unaware that her son is implicated in the investigation somehow.
“I just thought that Hannah was a really interesting, complicated character and that there was a real opportunity to be involved in something which explored a mother and son relationship but in a really unique way,” Sharp tells me over Zoom. “Both Hannah and Christian are at moments in their lives where both of them are lost and both them are trying to get back on track. Both of them need one another very badly.”
The strained relationship between Hannah and Christian is at the centre of the series – much like it was in the Swedish original, although Sharp says the Channel 4 remake is a more “concentrated version”. A fan of Scandi noir – (“I love euro TV drama, there’s some fantastic shows”) – Sharp had watched the original, starring Marie Richardson as Hanna, thought it was fantastic and “really very badly wanted to be a part” of the British remake.
“We’ve kind of taken inspiration from that and, you know, nod our head to them and then have made something which is different because the sort of sensibility of being British characters is immediately different to that whole Swedish vibe,” she says. “But looks-wise I think what we all want is a show that doesn’t look like a UK police drama. We wanted it to be very rooted in the UK but look like a UK that’s dark and a bit lost – like these characters.”
It wouldn’t have been particularly difficult to make the UK look like a dark place considering the series was filmed right in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. “We were just going into that whole tier system and so it meant that, like a lot of TV and film productions that got themselves up and running, there were really really strictly COVID protocols in place – and that’s the way it rolled.”
One upside of filming during the pandemic though was that the Before We Die cast and crew were able to get acquainted with each other and their characters via Zoom over the first lockdown. “Even though there were moments when we were thinking, ‘God, you know, I really hope that we’ll get to make this show,’ because it was looking like it might be in doubt, actually what it afforded us was an online connection. We rehearsed and talked and sort of dug into the background of the characters.”
Speaking about getting to know her on-screen son, 26-year-old OA star Patrick Gibson, Sharp is as gushing and proud as his actual mother might be. “I think that this has been one of the best working experience that I’ve ever had, in terms of connecting with colleagues. He was an amazing colleague – we were very sort of geeky about what a particular scene needed, we would kind of unpick it and do our very best to make it as good as we possibly could.”
With the pandemic throwing obstacles in the way of production, the cast and crew had to be quick to adapt to new filming locations and conditions. “Shifting and making decisions like that quickly on a scene-to-scene basis is only easy if everybody’s connected and sort of coming from the same place.
“It was very fortunate that we were a very sort of tightly knit group so yeah, I love Paddy. I mean I’ve since watched the OA. And it’s a remarkable show and he’s remarkable in it.”
Hannah Laing will be the third police detective Sharp has played over her varied 35-year career, although each of those roles have been vastly different. Scott & Bailey’s Janet Scott was a quick-witted Mancunian DC with a disintegrating marriage, Three Girls’s Margaret Oliver was based on the real-life detective who investigated the Rochdale child abuse ring and Hannah Laing is a Bristol-based cop whose fractured relationship with her son plays on her conscience – but what do they all have in common?
“The common theme is that they are all three really interesting women,” Sharp says. “Really complicated, interesting women at the centre of very, very well written dramas – and that’s what floats my boat.”
Out of all those roles, Janet Scott is what Sharp is best known for, having starred as the titular Scott opposite Suranne Jones’s Rachel Bailey from 2011 until 2016 in ITV’s Scott & Bailey. Does she miss playing the Manchester Metropolitan Police officer? “I don’t really because it was time for the show to end when it ended,” Sharp admits.
“You’re grateful for the fact that it was a really interesting and creative five years of exploring those characters and taking them as far as they could go, but you know, I think it’s really important to know when to end things.”
When I ask whether she’d want to revisit Janet in another five years, the answer is an unhesitant no. “The thing is you know, Janet’s probably retired and living in–I don’t know, God knows where they’d all have gone. I mean maybe they wouldn’t even be police officers. Maybe the three of them should get together not as police officers.”
Born in Manchester and raised in Formby, acting was something Sharp had wanted to do from a very early age. She went on to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama before landing her first role in Alan Clarke’s 1986 comedy Rita, Sue and Bob Too and going on to star in The Full Monty, Vera Drake and BBC drama Clocking Off, mystery series Afterlife and Russell T Davies’s The Second Coming.
“I think what maybe starts out when you’re younger as being something about slightly showing off or being given applause because people think that you’re good at something, as you get older it becomes less about that and it becomes more about the fascination of why people do the things that they do.
“Trying to get into someone else’s headspace is fascinating and I do think in some ways that there’s a link, that that’s what the police do – they try to understand why someone has done what they do in order to try to get them to where that person might be or who that person might be who’s committed the crime, say… I think we’re all quite interested in that.”
When I ask how starting out in the TV industry now differs from when she began acting in the ’80s, Sharp says, “I suppose the kind of general answer is that it was different for everybody in their jobs in the ’80s and ’90s, compared to what it’s like now, because of all this,” before pointing at her laptop screen. “And because of these,” she says, waving her phone in front of her webcam, “and because of Instagram and social media and all the rest of it.
“I just think that, you know, what young actors actors and actresses have to factor into their work is all of the social media and the pressures that come from social media and the scrutiny that they’re under and so nothing goes under the radar.
“So there’s a general conversation about that now, isn’t there, about how actually sometimes that can be too much and the amount of anxiety and insecurity that that causes. And I think that’s just another thing that young actors and actresses have to deal with… it’s tough. It’s really tough.”
A Channel 4 publicist pops into our Zoom chat to tell us we’ve ran out of time, so we briefly say our virtual goodbyes. “Watch The OA!” Sharp says before we log off. “Paddy’s fantastic in The OA and that’s an amazing show.”