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TV Interview

Freema Agyeman ('Law & Order: UK')

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Freema Agyeman as Alesha Phillips
ITV's Law & Order: UK returns to our screens tonight, kicking off with the tale of a former Premier League footballer who is killed in what appears to be a bungled robbery. But is there more to the case than meets the eye? Over the next six episodes, expect to see a few familiar faces crop up, including Spooks star Nicola Walker, Lark Rise to Candleford actor Matthew McNulty and Rome's Tobias Menzies. To mark the show's return, we caught up with series star Freema Agyeman to chat about what's coming up for her character Alesha, the departure of co-star Ben Daniels and the social satire of Family Guy!

What's coming up in the fourth series of Law & Order: UK?
"You're always going to have your usual main plot of a murder, more than likely, or it may deal with a serious sexual offence or something like that, but we've also got the side-themes that run alongside those. This series starts by looking at this culture of fear... that's happening in society now and the issue of intervening when you witness a crime. That's in the news a lot at the moment. It's also a topic that absolutely everybody is going to have thought about at some point. It has a direct effect on all of us, just by living in society. You kind of think, if you did witness something, what would you do? That's the first [episode]. Then we've got other issues like family betrayal, assisted suicide, conspiracy, mental health, child abuse and racism. All quite emotive subjects, but that is the nature of the show!"

The show deals with some quite controversial topics. What are your thoughts on that 'ripped from the headlines' approach?
"Well, in the first series, I think the longest read-through we had was two hours. Basically the actors, the producers, the writer and the director all get together and we go through our halves in turn, so the cops will have their own read-through, and then the lawyers have their own. I think our maximum one was two hours, and that's only to read 25 minutes of script. But we just started talking and talking. Back then, you kind of thought, 'This is the first time I'm really going into depth with issues like schizophrenia', for example. That's not necessarily something that I'd known much about, and I really used those opportunities to learn about things like that. Sometimes it's hard to shake that off at the end of the day when you start hearing all these facts. But paradoxically now, I think that just by talking about it, and dealing with it, and being part of airing and discussing the issues, I feel a little bit more positive about it. You kind of feel like you've put the world to rights a little bit by the end of that meeting or by the day that programme airs, because you think, or hope, that you've raised issues that will touch and affect people and maybe get them talking. So it's kind of a positive thing for me now."

TV Interview - Freema Agyeman
Is it tiring working with such emotionally charged material?
"Yeah, it can be. They're long days as well, so it's a long time of the day to be thinking about the issues. I do try to switch off when I get home as much as I can, because you need to be in the head-space where you can contribute artistically as well, and not just be completely morose. If I'm honest with you, that's kind of how I feel after I watch half an hour of the news anyway! It's all just so hard-going sometimes. So I might just get in and occasionally be a bit of an ostrich, and watch an episode of Family Guy or something. But then again, that [show] isn't without its social commentary either! But it's in a slightly more satirical way I guess!"

Your character was raped in a previous episode. Are you pleased that the story is still referred to and hasn't just been dropped?
"Well, I had a meeting with one of the producers and we were talking about it. Obviously it is a really serious issue and so for a series that doesn't follow through with storylines from episode to episode and they're all very standalone, we really had that discussion about the bridge between series one and series two, because we felt that it wasn't something that you could just completely gloss over. So we did refer to it again, which is quite out of character for the show, and then it has been referred to beyond that as well. That was us trying to deal with a sensitive issue with some compassion. However, to try and then keep in line with the format of the show, we did talk about it and we discussed that it's okay to approach this next series with the sense that, in all of our lives, things happen to us that don't define us every day for the rest of our life. It's okay, I think, for us to see Alesha in her workplace, dealing with other rape cases and other serious sexual offences without having to refer back to herself. So we don't go into that so much this series."

Are you happy with the way that Alesha has evolved throughout the series?
"Massively. I am seriously pleased. I feel like there are aspects of her that have been the same throughout the whole series. She's still that liberal voice of reason. But we do see other sides of her, because she does sometimes make less informed, more emotional judgement calls, and will just back the underdog, so that she's the one giving a voice to the disenfranchised. That's been very much from the beginning and that's still going on now. But I think in series one, she was very much there to listen and learn, and if you cut to what we're doing now, she's just taken the reins more. She's prosecuting a few cases now as well. Her level of involvement and responsibility has just grown massively. What keeps me interested in the part as well is that I can see that there's room to grow further. We see her having moved forward in her career and her work relationships, so it feels a bit like a graduation actually. I'm loving her arc. In something that doesn't focus on character, I think, as much as we can within the format, she's definitely had that growth."

Ben Daniels as James Steel
Ben Daniels, who plays James Steel, leaves the show at the end of this fourth series. How has it been working with him?
"He's just one of my best friends. We were just texting a minute ago, because he's actually doing another job that's filming in the same studio that we're in tomorrow! We see each other and speak all the time. I think and I hope that I've really made a friend for life in him. In this business, as an actor, you meet so many different people all the time. But every so often, you meet somebody in the job that you think, 'I have a friend for life there' and I definitely believe that to be the case with Ben. That's on a personal level, but definitely for the characters as well, I think that last episode [with Ben] is very much a rollercoaster. Alesha is totally standing by the man that she has grown to know and respect, which the audience will feel as well, but then it becomes apparent that she may trust who he is, but she may not know who he was. She's blindsided by some of the revelations that come through the episode, and the audience will be too. Again, for a show that doesn't focus on the regulars, this one is out of the mould."

How have you found working with your new co-star Dominic Rowan?
"Having just waxed lyrical about Ben, you can imagine my fear about who was going to come next! I knew whoever was going to be in that role, the majority of my material would be with them. You're spending the majority of a 12-hour day with that person. So I was sincerely relieved to discover that Dominic is just such pleasant soul. We are like fire and ice. He's sort of like the serious older brother and I probably am the irritating younger sister! That's our dynamic. He's very dry and very witty. But he does bring something different [to the show]. I've just been watching the rushes and, in his wig and his gown, he absolutely looks the part."

The US Law & Order also went through a number of cast changes. What do you think it is about the franchise that allows it to succeed even when the stars leave?
"Well, it's purely because the two main characters of the show are the city and the crime. To be honest, that is what makes the show unique, I think. That's what the focus of every episode is. You have this team of people that work brilliantly together and take this crime from the beginning to the very end, and take the audience on that journey, but [the show] is always going to be about the crime itself. Therefore, I think the format absolutely supports cast changes, which is great. It keeps it refreshing as well. It owes its longevity to that, I think. You're bringing new blood into it and they inject new energy. Clearly it's a formula that works, because they hit 20 seasons [in the US]."

Do you have any plans yourself on how long you'll stay with Law & Order?
"Well, I loved the American version. I loved it in the early '90s, around seasons three and four. It was my favourite programme and I still dip into it now, so I am a genuine fan of the show and obviously I feel slightly more biased with [the UK version] because it's ours and I'm involved! So I just love all of it. I also really enjoy playing Alesha and, as I said before, I do think that she's had a brilliant journey. I feel like my confidence in playing her is growing and it's just making it an altogether pleasurable experience. So as long as that continues, I'd love to still be part of it. At the moment, I'm very much in that zone, so if you ask me [how long I'll stay] now, it's 'How long is a piece of string?' However long the show goes, however long I feel I'm growing and however long they want me there is how long I'll stay."

Law & Order: UK returns to ITV1 tonight at 9pm.

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