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Nicola Walker on BBC One's Marriage, Unforgotten exit and future roles

Speaking to Mark Lawson in the latest issue of Radio Times magazine, Nicola Walker says playing Sean Bean’s wife in an intimate new drama from the makers of Mum was harder than it looks.

Nicola Walker in Marriage
BBC / The Forge / Rory Mulvey
Published: Sunday, 14th August 2022 at 9:00 am
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This article was originally published in Radio Times magazine.

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Eight years ago, something happened that changed Nicola Walker’s attitude to acting. She was rehearsing A View from the Bridge, a revival of Arthur Miller’s classic of betrayal in an Italian-American family, which would become one of her career highs, transferring from the Young Vic to the West End and then Broadway.

During an early run-through of one scene, the play’s director, Ivo van Hove, stopped her and suggested, gently, that she was overacting. “I was sobbing, saying, ‘You don’t want me to act. You want me to do what I would do in my kitchen!’ And Ivo said, ‘Yeah, do what you do in your kitchen with your partner’. It was a great wake- up call for me: ‘Just shut up and say the words. Don’t get in the way with your stupid acting.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”

It’s possibly no coincidence that, the following year, 2015, Walker made her debut as DCI Cassie Stuart in ITV’s Unforgotten, creating one of television’s most understated but overwhelming characters. Further evidence of her low-key but high-impact style can be seen in BBC One’s Last Tango in Halifax, River and The Split.

But it’s in Marriage, a new four-part drama written and directed by Stefan Golaszewski, that van Hove’s note about naturalistic acting proves most useful. For, as Emma, wife of Sean Bean’s Ian, Walker has long scenes actually in a kitchen. “Stefan had to really calm me down early on, because he said he did a lot of takes and suspected I wasn’t used to that. In all the telly I’ve done, if you’re not hitting the scene within three takes, you know you’re doing it wrong and wasting time. With Stefan, 12, 13, 14, 16 takes is not unusual. So, I spent the first week getting used to that. I was caught in that thing of gotta get it right, whereas Stefan is into you’ve gotta get it real, which takes longer.”

A consequence of so frequently repeating action was revealed to Walker in a scene where Emma chews a chocolate bar. To reduce nausea or weight gain, actors doing eating sequences are offered the chance to spit out the food when the camera cuts. “The crew, lots of whom have worked on Stefan’s stuff, asked if I wanted a spit bucket. And I said, ‘No, no, I’ll just eat it’. But after 18 takes, you really need the bucket. Apparently, on [Golaszewski’s BBC Three sitcom] Him & Her, Russell Tovey once ate 24 chickens.”

Nicola Walker and Sean Bean in Marriage
Nicola Walker and Sean Bean as Emma and Ian in Marriage BBC / The Forge / Rory Mulvey

The illusion of naturalism is carefully orchestrated. So meticulous is Golaszewski that 52-year-old Walker was provided with Emma’s laptop computer and mobile phone a few weeks before shooting started so that using them would become second nature for her. Walker and Bean were also given rehearsal time to become familiar with Emma and Ian’s house. “It had to look like we knew where the recycling bin was and so on.”

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Prior to Marriage, Walker says her most difficult task on screen had been driving a 1970s tractor in Last Tango in Halifax. Then Golaszewski asked her to load a dishwasher. “This sounds ridiculous, but making it look like it really is your dishwasher is very hard. Emma would know where everything went, so I had to, too. You suddenly realise how easy it is to tell a lie on camera and you have to eradicate that, whether it’s pushing for a big dramatic moment or not quite remembering which shelf in the fridge the milk is on. But the number of takes helps you get there.”

The most affecting aspect of Marriage is that, through the inevitable troughs of a long relationship, Emma and Ian are bonded by a terrible event that happened long ago, yet they almost never refer to it. “Their daughter keeps saying, ‘We need to talk’, and they just won’t. Because most people don’t. We don’t carry the past blazing around in the present because we couldn’t get up and make our breakfast if it was in the forefront of our mind all the time. Emma can’t talk about this thing that has happened because it’s too big. When she lets even a squeak out of it, it’s followed by a complete emotional breakdown. It’s embedded in their relationship, but they can’t talk about it.

“I feel that about grief. When I lost my mum –a long time ago now – there was a month or six-week period when I felt that someone had pulled back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz and I really felt I saw the world for what it was: a very frightening place. Then, slowly, the curtain comes across again because you can’t live at the sharp end of grief. And that’s what Ian and Emma have had to achieve.”

Sean Bean and Nicola Walker in Marriage.
Sean Bean and Nicola Walker in Marriage BBC / The Forge / Rory Mulvey

If further emotional research were needed, the co-stars have six marriages between them. Walker smiles. “I’ve only got one, so Sean brings up the average!” She considered it impolite to ask Bean what it was like to have been married five times. Walker and her partner, actor Barnaby Kay, have been together for 27 years, a similar span as Emma and Ian, but only married late on. “Me and my husband, because we both lost a parent young, we thought, after we had a child, we ought to get married, in case one of us dies, so that the legalities are clear. Which is not the most romantic reason to get married but is probably the only thing that would have got me to sign a piece of paper. I’m not a great advocate of marriage in real life.”

How does Walker decide which parts to play? After all, she must by now be offered so many. “I’m not, actually. I don’t know if you can do anything about that. I started when I was 21 and did a long time in theatre before TV came along, so I’m still convinced that I will never work again. It’s not faux humility; it’s how I’m programmed. I go into next year with nothing on the slate for maybe the first time in 10 years. Part of me is excited and part of me is terrified.”

But having played multiple detectives – from Touching Evil and Scott & Bailey to Annika and Unforgotten – presumably she would be wary of more cops? “Never too many! I don’t feel like that. If the script was good, I’d play another detective. But I can’t believe I’d ever find one I loved as much as Cassie.”

Unforgotten
Sanjeev Bhaskar and Nicola Walker in Unforgotten ITV

On 29th March 2021, when Cassie Stuart was unexpectedly written out of Unforgotten in a startling finale to the fourth series, there was speculation that Walker had become bored with the part or too busy on other shows. Neither, she says, was the case. “I’ve worked with [Unforgotten creator] Chris Lang more than any other writer and we are friends. From the very beginning, we talked about Cassie’s story being finite; Chris was always putting her through a story arc that would damage her emotionally. The buzzword was that she was an empath, and the problem with being an empath is that eventually you break. I felt that to have her keep coming back would make her seem like a superhero. So it was very much a joint and long-planned decision.

“But on reflection – we all feel the same – if we’d known COVID was coming, we would have given people a less depressing storyline. I feel guilty because, when it came out, I thought, ‘Crikey, we could have given them something more cheerful. The last thing they need is to be made to feel really sad about this brilliant cop.’”

Six years as Cassie increased public recognition that began with 57 episodes as Ruth Evershed in the BBC One spy drama Spooks from 2003 to 2011. “In terms of the public, Spooks was the one, and still is, as it’s streamed a lot. But the Spooks audience is so witty. The first time I realised, I was in my local supermarket and someone sidled up and said, ‘The condor has landed; the geese fly tonight’, and wandered off down frozen foods. It was never just a run-of-the-mill ‘I love the show’.”

After Marriage, will people come up to her at the fresh fruit and tell her how awful their spouse is? “I hope they do.” She’s sure, though, there won’t be a sequel called Divorce. “Ian and Emma would never split up. That’s the point.”

Marriage stars Nicola Walker and Sean Bean on Radio Times cover

Read more:

Marriage begins on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Sunday 14th August at 9pm. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.

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