When Chris Chibnall, creator and writer of Broadchurch, arrived at Claridge’s for the Radio Times covers party last January, he’d just come off the phone to Los Angeles having made the first step towards the dream-casting of London-born Oscar- nominated actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste, star of the long-running CBS missing-persons procedural Without a Trace. While writing series two of ITV’s totemic whodunnit, “Marianne had sort of lodged in my brain,” Chibnall reveals. “But I never thought we stood a chance of getting her, as she’d been away from the UK for so long, had a big career in Hollywood and all that.” But if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
By the time I find myself in the dimly lit basement of a Marcus Wareing “small plates” restaurant in the West End, Jean-Baptiste is just about to wrap filming and head back for the Hollywood hills.
“Suitcases packed!” she enthuses, letting out a huge, warm, throaty laugh, fully aware that this makes her sound impolitely eager to check out, when in fact being a part of Broadchurch – and being back on British telly for the first time since a guest role in forgotten ITV detective series Sharman in 1996, and then as Doreen Lawrence in the 1999 TV film The Murder of Stephen Lawrence – has been “a fantastic experience.”
Although secrecy surrounded the plot at the time of our meeting (she plays no-nonsense defence barrister Sharon Bishop), expressing devotion to Chibnall was clearly permitted. “Listen, it’s a lovefest, man!” (much of what she says comes with a built-in exclamation mark). “He’s a magician, man.” In return, Chibnall describes her as “Sharp, funny, intelligent, intuitive, no-nonsense and always on the money.” He reveals that one of the other cast members calls her “the coolest woman on the planet”.
She wears her success lightly and although she’s clearly adapted to life on the West Coast, having emigrated full- time in 2001, she hasn’t lost her London accent, a feat she credits to living in a “very English household” – her husband, ex-ballet dancer Evan Williams, is English, their eldest daughter, 16, has an English accent (“How, I don’t know!”) and their youngest, aged 12 ,“goes in and out”.
The part of New York- accented FBI investigator Vivian Johnson in Without a Trace, which ended in 2009 after seven years and 160 episodes, gave the 47-year-old Jean- Baptiste security, a rare gift for actors, and she still gets “New York taxi drivers” screaming at her, “Hey, Vivian!” Did she miss the glamour of Hollywood when working on Broadchurch in West Dorset?
“The quality of the product is the most important thing,” she insists, getting serious for a moment. “It doesn’t matter if there aren’t huge tables full of food, all day. None of that matters.”
So basically the fruit plates are smaller on a British production?
Another laugh. “What fruit plates? I’ve come from a world where you shoot an episode in eight days. Here, it’s supposed to be two-and-a- half weeks per episode. So just having that bit more room to breathe has been really good.”