“I've always been of the attitude that I would rather be a smaller part in something good, than the lead in something crap. I just don't have that ego.”
Katherine Kelly is talking about Innocent, the second series of the crime drama which airs this week on ITV and rather than a small part, she’s playing the lead, and can be assured that her new show is far from “something crap.”
Innocent, from writers and co-creators Chris Lang and Matt Arlidge who share executive producer duties with Jeremy Gwilt, produced by TXTV, runs on four consecutive nights this week and ITV will be hoping it’s as popular as the first series, one of ITV’s highest-rated dramas of 2018 with an average of more than seven million viewers per episode.
Kelly plays Sally Wright, a teacher accused and imprisoned for having sex with her 16-year-old pupil, then murdering him. Now cleared and released, she returns to her home town of Keswick in the Lake District, determined to reclaim her life and clear her name. Not as easy as it sounds, especially when the boy’s killer is still out there.
The cast also includes Jamie Bamber (Marcella, Strike Back) as Sally’s ex-husband Sam and Priyanga Burford (Press, Avenue 5) as his new wife, with Shaun Dooley (Gentleman Jack), as DCI Michael Braithwaite.
It’s the latest role for Barnsley-born Kelly has worked continuously since she graduated from RADA in 2001. Now 41, she has worked continuously in theatre (Royal Shakespeare Company, The National, Donmar Warehouse), on TV (Last of the Summer Wine, Coronation Street, Cheat, Liar II, Happy Valley, Mr Selfridge), film (Dirty God, Official Secrets) and on radio (BBC 3 and 4).
Each of the roles she plays, from Lady Mae in Mr Selfridge to DI Jodie Shackleton (a part written for her by series creator Sally Wainwright) to Maloney in The Field of Blood, based on the novel by Denise Mina, to Detective Karen Renton in last year’s Liar, is informed by Kelly’s love of finding out as much as she can about character and context.
“I do a lot of research,” she says. “I’m always banging on about it whatever character I do.”
With filming on location in the Lake District and Ireland delayed by lockdown, Kelly was able to turn her attention to looking at women in the prison system and how it works for women. In the past she had done a workshop at the National Theatre with Clean Break Theatre Company (set up in 1979 by two female prisoners to bring the stories of imprisoned women to wider audiences), spending time with women who had been incarcerated, but this time round Covid meant the research was book and film-based.
“I had to do it in a more remote way with books and documentaries and, and there's a lot of stuff on YouTube… current prison diaries and I watched some fantastic documentaries such as Louis Theroux talking to Amy Beck.”
[US teacher Amy Beck turned herself into police in 2010 for having a sexual relationship with her former student, a 14-year-old, later sharing her story with Theroux for his BBC documentary on registered sex offenders living in Los Angeles.]
“But I think the most helpful thing for me was a four-part series still available on Channel Four called Prison. The second episode, called Trauma, I watched that a number of times because I felt the inmates they followed had the weight in them I wanted Sally to have.
“She doesn't really talk about her time in prison and she's very, very forward thinking, wants to draw a line under it, wants her life back. But you really need to feel like she's suffered, from not just prison life but also probable isolation for five years. If you don't believe she's carrying that weight, then the story’s flawed.”
Rather than appear in back to back shows and roles so she’s never off the screen, Kelly tends to appear in award-winning, once a year drama series. Is this by discernment and design?
“Well when you get the scripts, it's very hard to tell. I've read some and thought, this is a sure thing, then things just aren't realized in the way you thought. You can never really be sure if something's going to be popular, what's going to be good; it’s just your best guess.
“For me it's always down to the scripts. I'm an artist and TV is a director's medium, and we are all just colors on that palette, and you want to bring the right color to that show. I'm much more interested in the show as a whole, you know. I always read the whole script - I don't read it through the prism of my own character - and think ‘would I watch this?’ And then I start thinking about whether I could play that character.”
With a young family at home, Kelly is no longer keen to film by day and do theatre at night as she once did.
“For me it's quality not quantity and I'm very all or nothing. If I'm doing something, I'm really doing it. I'm not very good at spinning lots and lots of plates. I‘ve realized that about myself as I get older, and yes I've turned down jobs when I feel like I've got a bit too much on.”
Now in a position where she’s rarely without a script in her bag she stresses the importance of living a life that’s not too far removed from ordinary.
“I remember doing a scene where my character had to order a drink at a bar and I thought I don't know what people drink now in a bar, it’s been so long since I've really truly gone to a pub, and it's not been some sort of red carpet where you're handed a bottle of champagne. Do people drink lager and black anymore? and it really bothered me, because I thought how can you represent real life if you're not in real life?
The solution was to go to a Wetherspoons with her mum.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this is what people drink now. They buy a bottle of Prosecco and shove it in a thing, it’s cheaper that way, and the red wine is on tap, now I know.’ It becomes a very small world and moving from set to set and getting fed, it's not real and you want to reference and represent real.”
Kelly was drawn to Innocent initially by the script, written by Chris Lang and Matt Arlidge and by the character of Sally and her journey within the context of a wider crime thriller.
“What I loved about this character was that there’s the thriller side of it, the murder case and the investigation, and actually, Sally has a different story, which is that she wants her life back. She wants to be back in her town, integrated back into society, and I haven't really seen that on screen very much.
“I'd seen it a lot in real life, it made a lot of sense to me in terms of people I know and how they put one foot in front of another after a deep trauma, things that you think, ‘how would you ever get out of bed again?’ The way Sally was written rang true to me in that sense, but I feel like I haven't really seen that kind of character as a leading lady on screen so that's what made me want to play her. She doesn't have the responsibility of the plot. She's got a much more quiet, characterful journey than that.”
While it’s in no way comparable with being confined in prison, a few months in lockdown then shooting on location on a restricted film set during the day and returning to a hotel at night might have informed playing someone who has been in prison, probably much of it in solitary confinement.
“We live in a free country don’t we, and actually some of our freedoms have been taken away and I think that's certainly felt very strange to me to not, in theory, be allowed to go somewhere and do some things and I think, probably more than usual, people will be able to relate to what Sally is going through.”
“When she comes out of prison she stops the car because she can, she winds down the window because she can, and then she puts her feet in the lake because she can.
“I read one woman saying when she was released from prison she couldn't wait to walk in a straight line again, because when you exercise in prison you have to keep walking around in a circle. That really lived with me that. Everything would have been decided for her. Now she’s allowed to do what she wants.”
“And because Sally was rumoured to be a sex offender, she would probably have been isolated so she wouldn’t have had a prison community. So, yes, with the last four months that we've all had, we can all probably relate to that sort of loss of freedom and then, being given those choices again and wanting to kind of plug back in, come back to life.”
With a career that sees her do a single series, often in ratings hit shows that go on to have more series, Kelly doesn’t hanker after returning to a role.
“I'm not really very backwards thinking,” she says. “I don't really think in retrospect and I don't even really daydream or think that far forwards either. I just take every script as it comes. I think for me it's better to not have any plan because if I'm thinking I’d like to do a period drama again, this sensational drama that’s set in 2022 might come along. It's just not a helpful way to think. I like to be a blank canvas and take every story as it comes. I like variety, and perhaps the one-offs worked well because when I’m in character I don't have to hold anything back for another series.”
“I’m not against it, I mean Mr Selfridge was four series, but I always think it has to come back for a reason and with that there was. But I'm not a fan of making things for the sake of it. I think there's just so much to choose from and I think audiences see through it. Gone are the days when we had four channels and we've just got to suck it up what's on at nine o'clock. We've got the power now with our remotes or phone, and there's just so much to watch that it has to be great for it to rise to the top, and I love that.”
Despite the intense nature of some of her roles, particularly Sally, who has been imprisoned for a crime she didn’t do, Kelly doesn’t find it hard to leave her characters on set.
“I’ve always been like that really. I remember one of my first roles was for the RSC and back then you did them for a year, a year and a half, and it was a tragedy, oh my god, it was set in biblical times so just think what a woman would go through in terms of the First Testament; it was harrowing. And I remember one of the cast members going god you just don’t even seem to… [be affected].
“I can really leave it, and I think with filming more so than theatre. There's always the next day, always another scene. On set I'm very focused, I’m there to work and do it to the best of my ability, give it all when I'm there. So there's no kind of residue afterwards. It's like an athlete, you know, everything’s in that 100 metres, no point having a good think about it at the end. It’s gone.”
Despite the fact that many of Kelly’s appearances, whether stage or screen, have been serious dramas, thrillers, crime series and tragedies and Innocent sits firmly among those categories, she confesses to a love of comedy, like a lot of us during lockdown.
“This past year I’ve definitely been drawn more to comedies than dramas,” she says. “I mean I've not had a lot of time to myself, with having young kids and I've been working a lot, but yeah I've completely binged Schitt’s Creek. I mean Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy have been my idols since I was a teenager in Christopher Guest films and I just adored that. And I really love Julia Davis, so Sally 4 Ever [Netflix], and I listen to Joan And Jericha, [Sally Davis and Vicki Pepperdine’s comedy agony aunts podcast]. I’m a lot better with podcasts because I can load the dishwasher while listening. And I’ve started watching Call My Agent.
“But there isn't a particular genre that I love, I just like watching people being on top of their game. I love being surprised by people as well, seeing people in a role you wouldn't expect to see them in, especially in a comedy and think god, you’re really funny.”
Now Kelly has turned her hand to writing comedy herself in the form of a podcast, due to be released shortly.
“I've just done a comedy drama podcast that will be around soon. I’ll make sure on social media people know where it is, just because it's been a while since I've played a comedic role,” she says.
“But you know I like it all, audio, theatre, film, telly. I like all of it.”
Given that Kelly does so much research into each character she plays, does she find that she takes something enduring away from each one?
“I think every character I play enriches me as a person. I always say that you get out what you put in, even if that doesn't necessarily appear on screen. It's so lovely to have a spotlight shone on a certain area, in this case prison life. In others it might be a different era or something.
“You know I find all of it really enriching because all I'm interested in doing is work that really examines what it is to be a human being, and every job, you dig further down into that.”
Innocent is on ITV, Monday to Thursday at 9pm (17th to 20th May). Following transmission on ITV, the series will be available on ITV Hub and BritBox UK.