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TV Interview

Olivia Williams ('Case Sensitive')

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DS Charlie Zailer (Olivia Williams) from 'Case Sensitive'

© ITV / Hat Trick Productions

New ITV1 thriller Case Sensitive kicks off on Monday night at 9pm. An adaptation of Sophie Hannah's third novel to feature her characters DS Charlie Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse, this two-part drama stars Olivia Williams and Darren Boyd as the crime-solving duo. We had a chat recently with former Dollhouse star Olivia to talk about her new role, partying with the police and what it's really like to work in US television!

How would you describe your character Charlie Zailer?
"She is a female Detective Sergeant. She trained at the Met, but has moved out to the provinces for some undisclosed reason. She's greeted with quite a lot of suspicion by her new colleagues, which is not helped by the fact that at her welcoming party she got drunk and snogged one of her Detective Constables! That didn't get things off on quite the right footing! But she is a good and intuitive detective who gets on very well with people. She's good at reading human behaviour and being empathetic to what's going on. But she's paired up with this Detective Constable [Simon Waterhouse] who she unwisely snogged. He is extremely efficient and obsessed with detail, but possibly almost autistic in his ability to get on with people socially. So that's their yin and yang. They're opposites in that respect. Zailer is very professionally competent, but privately confused, I think it's fair to say."

With so many cop dramas on television, what is it that makes Case Sensitive different?
"Our director Charles Martin, who is an extremely clever and talented man, didn't want to make a police procedural, he wanted to make a thriller. It was very exciting to have him onboard, because he set out to make a good, interesting suspense-filled film that is beautiful to watch, and interesting to try and solve. So the fact that it is a police procedural was of secondary interest to him. It was of primary interest to me, but it's only when you have all these forces working together that you get something interesting. He was interested in the themes of the crime and the relationships between the characters, as much as he was in getting the detail of police procedure right."

Were you familiar with Sophie Hannah's novels before you were cast?
"I wasn't. I promptly read some of them and was just so excited to find a Detective Sergeant that I felt I could really play. I've wanted to get into British telly [because] it's a big area in my career that I've never really covered. I've done film and stage, but never really television in this country. Whenever I went up for The Bill, they always said I was too posh, so I was very pleased to find that there was a Detective Sergeant with a PhD that I could play! Not that I have a PhD, but people seem to think that I look like I might have!"

Were you nervous about meeting the expectations that fans of the novels might have?
"You know what, I've played Jane Austen [in 2008 BBC film Miss Austen Regrets]. Nothing is more scary than the people who love Jane Austen. I'm sure that the people who love Sophie Hannah are a bunch of teddy bears compared with the terrifying prospect of playing Jane to a load of 'Jane-ites'. I was pelted with rock cakes for being too tall to play Jane Austen!"

What research did you undertake to play Charlie Zailer?
"The production company very kindly set me up to spend a day at the police station in Lewisham, and then through another contact I spent a day out doing some door-to-door with some Detective Constables in Lambeth, which was astonishing. It was a really illuminating day. I found out a lot about the life of the modern police force and my respect for them went up enormously. Then they invited me to their Christmas party and my respect for them was correspondingly balanced on that occasion! They certainly know how to have fun and let their hair down! But when you're playing a character, it's just as important to know how they play as how they work. That was extremely informative for my performance and I thank them now for sharing their lives and experiences with me for a week or so."

Was your performance inspired by any television detectives from the past?
"Well, there is only one really for me. Helen Mirren will always be the benchmark to which we all aspire. She set the bar very high and that whole show [Prime Suspect], with Lynda La Plante's writing and all of those great actors, was astonishing. I would love to attain that level of quality and realism, bearing in mind that our director on this was looking to make a filmic piece. That was our style and our take on [the genre], which I'm very proud of."

Do you feel like there's a lack of strong female characters in UK crime drama?
"I can't complain! My career, certainly since I've been 30, has been full of tough, interesting, professional women. I'm looking to play some weak and abused wives! I haven't said 'Honey, your dinner's ready' in my entire career, I don't think."

Would you be interested in playing Zailer again in future adaptations of Hannah novels?
"Well, my signature's on the bottom of a contract somewhere that says if ITV and the general public call me back, I'll be there!"

How would you compare working in US drama to working on a UK series?
"The Americans buy your life. The actual work [in the US] is fantastic. The writing and the quality of the work is fantastic, but the way that they buy you is quite scary. Someone could ring up at 11 o'clock today and say, 'We want you to audition for a job. It's shooting on Vancouver Island for the next eight years, if we like you. If you get on the plane and get the job, you have to do that for the next eight years, for this amount of money that I'm going to disclose to you now. Would you like to do that? Would you like to move your family, your husband, your children, your home, to Vancouver Island for the next eight years for this amount of money? There will be no negotiating beyond this phone call - make up your mind now!' And then a year later, you wake up in Vancouver Island and realise that you should have asked for more money! If it's not working out, that's tough. But if they change their mind and they cancel you, you've [already] moved the dog and the children. You're halfway through a sentence, the camera's pointing at you and you're acting, then all the lights go out and they say 'Show's cancelled, bye!'."

Do you think you will focus on UK television in the future?
"No, actors are incredibly stupid! If someone rings up and says 'There's a TV show shooting in Vancouver Island for this amount of money so make up your mind now', they tend to say yes! If the script and the work is good enough, and your husband agrees to come with you, then you go. It's wherever the good work is. For me, I'm really happy to say that this year the good work has been here [in the UK] with Case Sensitive and a play I'm in at the West End, called In A Forest, Dark and Deep. One American [Neil LaBute] wrote it and another American [Matthew Fox] is the other star, so I'm incredibly indebted to America for a large percentage of my career, but I love living and working at home."

Case Sensitive begins on Monday night at 9pm on ITV1.

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