Orla Brady is freezing. A chill wind has blown in from Canada or somesuch – can you tell that I’m not exactly feeling sorry for her? – and she’s wearing all the clothes that she usually keeps for when she’s over, well, here, where I am, where it’s not even 6pm and yet it’s been dark for nearly three hours. It’s cold too. “Oh it is really bright here,” she says, impervious to my huff. “The sun is glinting on the water and everything is bathed in golden light.” Yip, all sympathy gone. Brady is in her home in the Santa Monica mountains, where she lives with her husband, wildlife photographer Nick Brandt. I am in Edinburgh. “You feel like you’re in an episode of The Killing, do you?” She guffaws.
Brady, her Dublin accent undimmed from nearly 15 years in the States, is a talker. Best known for her role in the award-winning US series, Fringe, and as Siobhan in the BBC1 drama, Mistresses, most recently she appeared in the penultimate Poirot episode as Countess Rossakoff. There has also been a French cop show and an episode of Wallander and a South African drama in which she played a political reporter taken hostage. All of these roles will pale into insignificance, though, when I tell you that she is to appear as a key character, Tasha Lem, in the Doctor Who Christmas Special. Yes, that would be the special in which Matt Smith ‘dies’, regenerating into the form of the one and only Peter Capaldi.
Obviously the secrecy surrounding the show is a tad higher than that accorded to issues of national security, but we know that Brady is Lem because some wag found a copy of a call sheet with her name on it and leaked it. And we know that she says portentously, “The seige of Trenzalore is now begun” because it’s in the trailer. Trenzalore is the place where – OK, before we go any further, I must confess that I am no Whovian. In fact, I’m fairly sure that they don’t like that term, but such is my limited knowledge I don’t even know that. I can tell you that Lem is a mysterious figure from the Doctor’s past, resplendent in a purple dress and some impressive make-up. She appears to be on the side of the Anglican Army who were allied with The Silence in the episode A Good Man Goes to War. And, at this point, I confess, the well of my knowledge has truly run dry. I’m not boasting, I’m at an age where I was a bit young for it the first time round (too scary) and I’m a bit old for it now. Brady didn’t watch it at home growing up in Dublin, she’s the second of four children, they didn’t have the BBC, just RT1.
“Occasionally you’d be in someone else’s house and you’d get to see an episode of it as a treat,” she says. “We always thought of the BBC as English telly so in my head Doctor Who is a very British phenomenon like watching the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day. I think I still had that old fashioned sense of it in my head so when I was asked to do it I thought, oh, of course, I’d love to do that little British show, that’d be fantastic.” It was the 50th anniversary episode which she watched live on BBC America that gave her a sense of what she had got herself involved in. “A friend came up and we sat with a blanket and cups of tea, closed all the curtains and didn’t let the sun in. My husband kept walking in every so often and shaking his head and saying ‘what’s happened to my wife? You used to watch art films with me and now it’s Doctor Who.’” She laughs.
Her other awakening happened when she was filming in Belgium earlier in the year shooting The Price of Desire, a film about the pioneering architect and designer, Eileen Gray, whom Brady plays. It was rehearsal week and Brady was in her hotel and flicked the telly on. “You know what it’s like, you’re in a new place where you don’t know anyone and you feel a bit glum. So I put BBC1 on and I had it burbling in the background as I pottered about. And then I suddenly heard what was the announcement of the new doctor. I stopped in front of the television to watch. Out came Peter Capaldi and I remember thinking oh of course, that’s absolutely right. Inevitable, it couldn’t have been anyone else.”
The shoot, she says, was just like any other than the fact that there were so many recognisable characters on set. “There were iconic creatures around the place,” she says. “You’re on a show where you recognise every character when they walk in – oh my goodness here are the Cybermen. You recognise them from the past which made it a bit like working with lots of famous people but they were all monsters.” There was one other difference too. “I was terrified of losing my script. You have your name lasered across it so I thought if I lose it, not only will I be responsible for dreadful spoilers which would be an awful shame, but someone will take a photograph and it will be my name. There I was on trains clutching my script, not looking after my purse or my passport or anything.”
It’s obvious that Brady has enjoyed her time mixing it with the Time Lord, but it’s also clear that she’s created a career which allows her to play interesting people and, even better, to research them. She speaks eloquently of Eileen Gray, who, she says, was “absolutely visionary”, a highly regarded modernist who deserves to be better known.
“Her way of thinking of architecture was literally inverse to Le Corbusier – she thought from the inside out,” Brady says. “She thought first of all of how people live, their furniture, how they move. She used to walk her plans. She was interested in how a person lives comfortably, with time for the practicals in life but also to dream, to think, to expand as a human being if you like. To not merely exist but to live.”
As a matter of fact, it’s not a bad description of how Brady has organised her life. In her mountain home, where she lives with Brandt, her husband of 11 years, the couple spend their time growing their own veg and walking their dogs on the beach. It sounds like an idyllic existence, very different to the hustle and grab of LA.
“I don’t feel part of LA any more,” she says. “I do go into LA but I feel like a yokel going into town.” She laughs. It reminds her of another aspect of Gray which appeals to her. “She was very uninterested in talking about herself, or bigging herself up. She was the complete antithesis to the Facebook/Twitter generation which is all about me and my interesting life. If she was asked about herself she’d move the subject on. She was interested in talking about the work that she made, but those achievements were enough, they spoke for her. There’s a great elegance and understatement to that way of being.”
So Brady lives near LA, but not in it and certainly not in the culture of it. And that, it seems, suits her just fine.
“I still feel there is a place for me in the British scene,” she says, “that I can contribute something or other. I’ve never believed that about the scene over here. I was a bit fretful about losing the British/Irish dimension of my career so I really worked hard at going back and forth and saying to my agent don’t forget about me, put me up for things and I’ll travel and meet people.”
Of course, living in the States and working in Europe means that Brady spends at least half her year away from home.
“I go away for work, that’s just what I do,” she says. “It’d be lovely to come home at night and make a pot of stew but I do the job I love and I have to travel for it and that’s fine.”
Surely she’s playing it down? An international career, full of travel and interesting projects and people – it sounds better than fine.
“You make it sound more glamorous than it is,” she says. “International career? That makes me think of beige leather seats and all that. I can tell you when I was working on Doctor Who I was in a hotel right beside the ring road in Cardiff.” She laughs heartily.
• Doctor Who is on BBC1 on Christmas Day, 7:30pm.