Louise Brealey on playing a blind character in The Widow – and why a sighted person was cast in the role
The Sherlock star did extensive research for the part as she "felt a responsibility" to do it justice
In the new drama, which stars Kate Beckinsale and is largely set in the Congolese jungle, Brealey plays a blind piano tuner named Beatrix. It was a challenging role because in order to portray her character convincingly, many of Brealey's scenes required her to make absolutely no eye contact with her co-stars and to use various pieces of kit such as a walking stick for the blind.
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Brealey reveals that when she first read the script, she was surprised a blind actor wasn't being cast for the part, but after being made aware of a development in the plot (one that would be too much of a spoiler to reveal here), she understood why the actor needed to be sighted.
“Obviously I was a bit like, 'Well, there are plenty of gloriously talented people with visual impairments who don't get a crack at the whip,’” says Brealey. “Once [the reason why a sighted actor was being cast] was revealed to me, I was happy to do it.”
On whether she would have played a blind character had it not been necessary for the actor to be sighted, Brealey is unsure. “I don't know, is the truth,” she says. “It's a very complicated issue, and especially at the moment there are a lot of conversations happening about where the edges are for actors.
“I think it's really important to get as much diversity as possible in our business because we're representative. These are the stories we tell ourselves as a culture."
Brealey explains that she did “a lot of research” for the role of Beatrix because she felt a “responsibility” to do the part justice “especially in the climate of you have to be something to do something”. Bryan Cranston, Eddie Redmayne and Dustin Hoffman are all actors who have previously been criticised for playing disabled characters.
“I felt a responsibility,” says Brealey. “I thought, if you're going to tell this story you've got to make sure that first of all it is representative because it is written by people with sight.” The Widow is created by Harry and Jack Williams, the writers behind The Missing, Baptiste and Liar. Brealey’s research about the experience of blind people led to conversations regarding the script.
A key part of Brealey’s preparation for The Widow was meeting a novelist who is completely blind. “We went for a trot around Battersea Park,” she says. “He knows the route because when he was sighted he used to do it. I went with him and I had a stick of my own, and for a big chunk of it I was holding onto his arm and he was leading me, we were having a good laugh about the blind leading the pretending-to-be-blind. He was tearing around at a rate of knots.”
She also read a lot about the idea of ability and disability. “One thing that struck me enormously,” she says, “was that we define someone as having a disability because the world we have constructed makes that person unable to get around easily. We are disabling these people by not having things like dropped curbs and all the accoutrements that help people to get on. Because our world is so geared towards so-called ‘ability’, that's what makes a lot of people with challenges feel they are disabled."
Brealey adds that her work with a movement expert was “illuminating” and that she also practiced using a Liquid Level Indicator for filling a teacup with boiling water at home.
A big challenge during filming was restraining from making eye contact with Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who plays another blind character named Ariel. “We found it really peculiar and quite isolating and disconcerting to not have each other to act off in terms of a visual,” Brealey explains.
Brealey reveals the other difficulty was playing the piano when she doesn’t know how. “I said to them, ‘To be honest, if you want a bit of guitar, I'm your man, but if you insist on it being piano you're going to have to give me a couple of lessons.’”
In the end she got to play on a Steinway which, in her own words, was “pretty sexy”.
The Widow airs on Monday and Tuesday evenings at 9pm on ITV from 8th April