As Ivy Stuart, the kitchen maid in Downton Abbey, Cara Theobold was usually to be found below stairs stirring up the soup, as well as the downstairs staff. This week she’s swapped her mop for a baseball bat and stepped out in an altogether different role as a demon hunter in horror comedy Crazyhead.
From Misfits creator Howard Overman, Crazyhead airs on E4 and Netflix and is full of dark comedy and more twists and turns than a demon impaled on the aforementioned baseball bat (more of that later). The six-parter hopes to take up where Misfits (which followed a gang of young offenders on community service who have been struck by lightning, endowing them with superpowers) left off. As well as action and exorcisms, axes in heads and buckets of blood, there’s humour and laughs as the series explores friendship, relationships and finding your way in life.
This time round 26-year-old Theobold is the lead, playing Amy, a bowling alley attendant who realises her friend is possessed by a demon. Not only that, but her friend is not the only one. Demons are on the march and they’re out to get us, with only Amy and fellow demon hunter Raquel (Susan Wokoma – Chewing Gum) to stop them. Up until now the mild-mannered Amy sensibly kept her sightings of demons to herself, but an encounter with the incredibly violent and volatile Raquel wakes her up to the reality that demons really do exist, and it’s kill or be killed. It’s time for Amy to step up.
As well as slaying malevolent, axe-wielding fiends, Amy and Raquel have their own demons to vanquish as they pick their way through the social and moral pitfalls and pratfalls of being a twentysomething.
“Under the scary demon action bits it’s a story about friendship and the dynamic between the characters,” says Theobold. “That’s what I fell in love with reading it. Amy has always believed she was crazy so to meet someone who says ‘no, I see them too and they’re real. They’re out to get you and me and everyone you love, and we’re going to have to fight them’, it forces her to be her real self. And as the series goes on she discovers what she’s made of. It turns out she’s kick ass and brave and willing to lay down her life.”
Wakefield-born Theobold always wanted to be an actress, starting at the City Variety Youth Theatre in Leeds around nine and playing Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at 10.
“My dad recently found some camcorder footage of me in costume practising my Titania lines and I’m tiny!” she says. “But I knew then I had found something I loved and wanted to keep doing it.”
After school, encouraged by her dance teacher mother and teacher-turned-artist dad to pursue a creative profession, at 18 she left for London to study drama at Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
She was in her final year when she landed the part as Ivy, in one of the nation’s favourite, record breaking period dramas, but was allowed to finish her course early to don the kitchen maid’s apron for series three and four.
“At the time I couldn’t believe it. It was quite surreal, but I just went with it. It was a whirlwind because it was my first job and my first audition. I had never been on a set before. I was incredibly lucky to get the part and left college to join the show, so I was really thrown in at the deep end. But if you want to succeed you have to go for it,” she says.
“There’s a certain element of being in the right place at the right time,” says Theobold “but I have worked really f***ing hard for it too. I have been incredibly lucky in each situation to be there, but it’s not just luck, because I have worked very hard to get those opportunities. And when you get them, you have to run with it.
“It’s like Amy in Crazyhead, you have to take it on and fight for it, and then you’ll be taken on an adventure you’ve never been on before.”
As well as sharing in the Screen Actors’ Guild Award achieved by the ensemble cast, she carried off a wealth of experience from Downton, a series that won a Golden Globe in 2012 and was nominated for 16 Primetime Emmy Awards. Working alongside a host of acting talent, including the likes of Dame Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville, she took the opportunity to study how they worked at close hand, and also learned the ropes of working on a TV set.
“The rest of the cast were brilliant to watch and I learned from them all. Every job has been like that. I’ve learnt something from each one.”
Theobold was most recently on our screens earlier this year in ITV drama Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, playing the lead opposite Rafe Spall. Previous TV slots include the BBC 1 series The Syndicate, starring Lenny Henry, where the staff of a stately home win the lottery, a kind of Downton meets Spend, Spend, Spend, and she’s also been in the BBC’s BAFTA winning Call The Midwife. Last Tango in Halifax saw her filming close to home, while Channel 4’s Scrotal Recall, brought her to Glasgow to shoot the contemporary comedy of sexual manners, an experience she relished.
“It was out and out comedy, great fun and it had heart,” she says.
With sleuth ghost story Harry Price, Theobold moved from realism into a world of mystery and suspense, although the emphasis was more on mystery than murder and mayhem.
“Everyone loves a ghost story, don’t they?” she says, “and Harry Price was more to do with solving the clues than the scary element, but it’s definitely a thriller.”
Now with Crazyhead, she is getting the chance to exercise her horror and mystery muscles and really let rip.
“It was surprisingly scary when we all came to watch it at the screening,” says Theobold. “There were bits I’d forgotten about that made me jump. When you’re making it, because it’s CGI, you’re looking at actors with green dots on their faces and using your imagination. But watching it, you get the full effects and it’s really scary, especially the demon faces and exorcisms.”
But Crazyhead isn’t an out and out slasherfest, as the comedy elements are just as strong as the horror in this genre-bending series.
“The genius of Howard Overman’s writing is that one person might be fighting a demon yet at the same time, over on the other side of the room there’s someone having a comedy moment. We played the truth of each moment, because comedy comes from truth, even if you’re dealing with demons.
“Then the comedy undercuts it so it works really well. So there’s a lightness of touch that comes flipping from scary to funny.
“I think that’s a particularly British thing, the comedy in horror. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, there’s an awareness of both. But the way it’s filmed, how it’s shot, the colours, it looks cool and has an element of Americana to it, which is great because it’s on Netflix.”
So would it be fair to say that Crazyhead is Buffy the Vampire Slayer with laughs?
“Well I don’t know Buffy, I’ve only seen bits, but I know it’s popular and has a special place in people’s hearts, so being compared to that is cool. But this is something new and hopefully will stand on its own. For me it’s new and different. It’s not like anything. It’s just Crazyhead.
“When we were making it, we all felt like we were making something really special and we had so much fun doing it. You hope that comes across and people watch it and like it, so we can do it all again with another series. Turning into superheroes with your mates, I love it!”
With Crazyhead in the can Theobold was able to leave her flat in north London behind to go on a road trip in California. Being able to travel is one of the things she loves about a job with built in time off.
“It’s a profession where you get breaks so it’s nice to get out and see things. You have to make the most of the in-between times in this job because they’re a big part of it. When you’re on a project you have to soak up every last drop, then do the same when you’re not. It’s a really weird job. But I’ve always enjoyed the excitement of the unknown. Things can change in a phone call and you never know what’s coming next. And that’s what I want, that this job will always be exciting.”
Another thing Theobold is happy about with Crazyhead is that it champions women and places them centre stage, something she feels strongly about. In between series of Downton she appeared in the theatre in London Wall, a comedy about workplace equality. Her turn as secretary Miss Bufton won plaudits and was a role close to her feminist heart.
When she was growing up she admired “strong, witty women” like Emma Thompson and Julie Walters and “watched a lot of comedy too, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler.
“Someone like Julie Walters makes each and every role different and that’s really inspiring. That’s what I love about my job: being able to play different roles. It’s so easy to get pigeonholed and get stuck playing one type of girl, with period drama especially, but it’s important to fight against that, to transform and tell different stories. You want to be challenged by each role,” she says.
“I don’t think I’ve suffered too much from that because I’m Northern,” she says in her Yorkshire accent. “Crazyhead, Downton and Midwife couldn’t be more different and I’m really enjoying that. That’s why I wanted to do Crazyhead, because Amy is so different. I want to do comedy and drama and Crazyhead has both.”
And it’s not just a female lead that makes Crazyhead interesting, it has a female double act too, with Susan Wokoma’s Raquel wielding her eBay-bought baton with abandon and standing shoulder to shoulder with Amy.
“So females in the leads and a double act too. You rarely see that,” says Theobold. “Thelma and Louise, Scott and Bailey, there aren’t many. They are their own people and not there because they’re attached to some guy. It’s not look at us, it’s look at what we’re doing. They’ve done a beautiful job of creating these flawed heroines for us to play. They’re girls but also vulnerable, which makes them more real. And we’re playing characters who have such a journey to go on.”
Theobold loves keeping fit and enjoys running and racing around, so playing the part of a demon hunter was a gift.
“Ivy in Downton was very hard-working but it was mainly in the kitchen whereas Amy has fewer limits. This was very physical. We had a brilliant stunt co-ordinator who taught us how to move and fight, with an unusual choice of weapons to attack the demons with.”
Unusual? Like what?
“A penguin,” she says. “Not a live one, of course.”
And just out of interest, what is the best way to catch a demon? Since they’re among us and on the march.
“Oh, you have to stick a pole up its arse and set it on fire. A shard of ice in the heart will do it too, but mainly a pole up the arse.”
So now you know. n
Crazyhead is on E4 on Wednesdays at 9pm, and on Netflix now.