Interview: Alison O'Donnell

There's always been a nod to Nordic Noir about Shetland, BBC Scotland's hit crime series. There are the long dark winter nights, endless summer days and a body count that you'd think would scare off the tourists, but actually has them flocking in droves. But in season four, kicking off this week, the Norse influence is even greater with a plot twist that sees the Shetland constabulary following a lead to Bergen.

Alison O'Donnell is back in Shetland on BBC 1. Picture Robert Perry

There’s always been a nod to Nordic Noir about Shetland, BBC Scotland’s hit crime series. There are the long dark winter nights, endless summer days and a body count that you’d think would scare off the tourists, but actually has them flocking in droves. But in season four, kicking off this week, the Norse influence is even greater with a plot twist that sees the Shetland constabulary following a lead to Bergen.

“Yes, the Scandi Noir looms ever larger this time,” says Alison O’Donnell, aka Detective Sergeant Alison McIntosh or ‘Tosh’, “particularly because we actually go to Norway this time. It was amazing. Bergen is beautiful... different to Shetland in that there are lots of trees, but it feels like it’s from the same palette and has a similar climate – we do have lots in common.

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“And because we were working with Scandinavian actors, it allowed me to pretend I was in The Bridge while we were filming.”

Douglas Henshall (DI Jimmy Perez), Anne Kidd (Cora McLean (Anne Kidd), Alison O'Donnell (DS Alison ÃœTosh" McIntosh) and Steven Robertson (Sandy Wilson) Picture: Mark Mainz

Was she wearing a long leather coat like Malmö County Police’s Saga Norén?

“In my mind I was!”

O’Donnell had arrived at our rendezvous of the Vic cafe at The Glasgow School of Art on a sparklingly cold Glasgow day, unmistakably Tosh, yet more poised and polished and with a surprise worthy of a Shetland plot twist. There’s been a…. birth. O’Donnell and her partner, the Ayrshire playwright DC Jackson, became parents after filming for this series ended and brought their three-month-old baby along. O’Donnell unwraps the bundle, all downy dark hair and plump cheeks. “Yes,” she quips, “in fact her head is 80 per cent cheek.”

It’s a relief to see Tosh return to the Scottish Bafta-winning crime series, based on the Ann Cleeves novels, after last season ended with her requesting a transfer, shattered by a storyline that saw her raped and struggling to come to terms with the aftermath. However, she is back on the case with Douglas Henshall, Steven Robertson, Mark Bonnar and Julie Graham and some new faces like Stephen Walters (The Accused), Doctor Who’s Neve McIntosh and Gangs of New York’s Sean McGinley. In the latest six-part series Shetlander Thomas Malone has his murder conviction overturned after 23 years in jail and returns to fall under suspicion again when there’s a similar murder.

Douglas Henshall (DI Jimmy Perez), Anne Kidd (Cora McLean (Anne Kidd), Alison O'Donnell (DS Alison ÃœTosh" McIntosh) and Steven Robertson (Sandy Wilson) Picture: Mark Mainz

“This is the best series yet!” she says, relishing the one story over several episodes format that allows more space for character and plot development. As for the show’s popularity, “It’s also a lot to do with how beautiful it is,” she says.

“Filming this time we were very aware of how many people were there as a result of the show. I was in the hotel breakfast room one morning and there was a Swedish couple and an Australian couple talking about it and I was sitting there with my glasses on and no make-up, thinking they’re never going to spot me, thank goodness. So, it’s the scenery definitely, but also good stories and characters.”

She pauses then sums up Henshall’s central role. “And Perez has such integrity, he just wants people to do the right thing, He Just. Wants. People. To. Be. Honest. He’s a sort of guiding light and I think people respond to that.”

So why does Tosh turn down a transfer and stay in Shetland after all?

“Because they needed me to do another series!” she laughs, something O’Donnell does a lot.

“No, she’s just not ready to leave. It’s that saying ‘wherever you go, there you are’. She wanted to run away, but is smart enough to realise the pain will still be there, so she might as well stay and work through it in a place she knows, where she’s loved and she’s got support.”

One of the authentic touches that makes Shetland such a success is that Tosh dresses as if she actually were a Shetland police officer, with biting wind, horizontal rain and grisly finds to deal with. Her uniform of denim and flannel, topped off with a parka, flat boots and bobble hat is just the job for the job. Not that we’re watching Shetland with one eye on the fashion (although nobody rocks a peacoat with collar upturned against the gale like Henshall), but you may detect that Tosh’s checky shirts are no longer tucked in and she keeps her parka on a lot as the series and her pregnancy progresses.

“Yeah, the costume designer is brilliant… shirts with pleats at the back and things in three sizes, so they fit as I grow. But by the end of filming I was six months pregnant and pretty big so I start sitting down a lot, or I’m holding a folder. Classic stuff,” she laughs.

Funny and upfront, O’Donnell is more eloquent than the rookie cop Tosh, possibly because she’s 35, although she could pass for a decade younger with her bright blue eyes and delicate features, and comes across as more confident.

“I am a mouth,” she says. “I’ve never been shy,” yet she’s in awe of her character’s organisational skills.

“She’s way more organised than me! And Tosh is really tenacious, ambitious, very career focused. At first I didn’t have a lot of TV experience and she was a rookie, so I feel we’ve gone on a journey of confidence together. I don’t think she takes any nonsense, and I think she’s a good laugh, the sort of person you could imagine having a pint with. People think of Tosh as the funny one, but I think Perez is funny. Dougie has impeccable comic timing and has lots of dry lines, so the two of us ping off each other quite well.“

O’Donnell has great comic timing too, and though she didn’t set out to play comedy, the roles with a lighter side kept coming.

“I think sometimes you have to pay attention to what parts people give you and after I’d been doing it for a few years I started to notice I’m quite often the turn, or like light relief. You can lean into that or resist it, but I think it makes more sense to get into the current and let it take you. That’s what was so nice about my storyline last series, that I got to do something much more emotional.”

O’Donnell is referring to the rape of Tosh in a storyline that handled the effects and aftermath on the victim and the wider community.

“I thought how lovely that they trust me with this, and oh no, they trust me with this! I’m just gonna have to rise to the occasion.

“For good drama you need things to happen to people, but this felt almost like activism, in that it had something to say about how those things are represented on screen, the way they are portrayed. This was about wanting to do it properly, in a responsible, sensitive, considered way, with a character people care about. People are tired of a woman’s pain being used just to further the male protagonist’s storyline, for convenience, where you never go on the journey of the aftermath, so it feels disposable. But this showed the whole journey. And now the story’s moved on and Tosh is getting herself back on track and trying not to allow it to derail her life, but it’s there pulsing away.”

We shift gear and start talking about O’Donnell’s own life. Has having a baby changed her as a person, and an actor, at all?

“I have never, ever been this happy,” she says. “I didn’t know it was possible to be this happy. And I’m not somebody who’s always had this ambition to be a mother, but I knew I wanted to give it a wee go, so I’ve surprised myself by how…

And right on cue, on the other side of the room with her dad, the baby lets out a tentative wail.

O’Donnell laughs. “... by how much I love it. Maybe she’s hungry. I can feed her while we talk.”

With the baby in position and a gentle “there you go”, we continue. “It’s complete bliss,” she says.

So that’s her personal life covered, but will motherhood change her acting?

“Well, it’s interesting, it actually already has. Because of the storyline last time, you have to really throw yourself into something like that, and spend a lot of days in a really dark place, and do a lot of self-care, which involved drinking a lot of white wine, which I wouldn’t have wanted to do when I was pregnant. In this series there are a couple of moments where Tosh does find herself in a dodgy situation and it was strange to film those because I didn’t want to take on that sort of scared nervous energy – your body doesn’t know the difference – because there was a wee person living inside me who was vulnerable to that. So it was strange to try and give a truthful performance and also keep a wee bit back for us. So already it was different. Going forward, I think that all life experience is useful for actors, you know, everything adds to your toolbox. I’ve not tested it out yet though, so we’ll see.”

Motherwell native O’Donnell loved acting at school – “I did anything going. I loved the teamwork and performance. Also I’m very emotionally expressive and in acting you get to really go to extremes. In normal life everything is kept to an agreed level, whereas with acting you get to really express anger, sadness, joy and laughter, and you can turn the volume up. I always feel if society was different and allowed people to be like that all the time...”

What would happen?

“It would be Spain.” She laughs. “I should go and live there – they love drama, good for them.”

Despite her love of acting O’Donnell followed her two older sisters to university, and studied international law, until three months in when she had a lightbulb moment and realised it was acting she wanted to do. She left and never went back.

Before Shetland, which she joined in 2013, O’Donnell had parts in Holby City and Feel The Force, but made

her name on stage with Boys, The Hard Man, The Other Bridge Project and Lorca’s Yerma, as well as Jackson’s 2011 Fringe First Winning play My Romantic History. She also starred in his Radio 4 play, Synonymous, with Amelia Bullmore and Jaime Winstone in September last year.

“I think there should be two different words for acting, because theatre acting and television acting couldn’t be more different. For theatre, you’re trying to make sure the person in the back row is getting your inner emotional journey, whereas on TV the camera is so close. The fashion at the moment is the less you’re doing, the better you are. “‘He’s doing nothing’ is such a big compliment. The challenge is to think the thought and the camera will pick it up. Dougie is an absolute master of that. He barely moves his face, but my god you can feel what he’s thinking, and that’s what I’m aiming for.” She laughs. “Alison O’Donnell did nothing in this, that’s what I want to hear. But for Tosh, it wouldn’t work all the time, for the wee zingers and funny lines.”

O’Donnell is more confident now, but candid enough to admit that she wasn’t always so sure where she was going in her career.

“So… it’s common for young actors to imagine that in order to be good, you should be able to transform, to be other people, do accents and put yourself in their shoes. And that is absolutely part of the job, but another part is you have to be able to be yourself. If you want to bring authenticity and truth, you have to find a way to be comfortable with who you are and allow yourself to meet the character half way. And I was not very comfortable with myself for a very long time.”

Why was that? At this O’Donnell is uncharacteristically quiet.

“My twenties were a hot mess. Put that... makes me sound mysterious.” She laughs. Then because she’s an obliging interviewee, she elucidates.

“Well, I sort of bounced about, constantly trying to reinvent myself. I didn’t feel I was enough somehow and I always wanted to be something more interesting – left-handed, anything.”

But all that changed when she met Jackson. They worked together when she starred in his play, My Romantic History, at the Traverse in Edinburgh but only became an item later.

“He sort of loves me in a way I didn’t know was possible,” she says. “His love for me is very, very selfless and undemanding. He doesn’t ask anything of me, he just loves me for who I am. When we first got together, in the honeymoon period, I remember looking at his face and saw something I hadn’t really seen ever before, and it was that he found me… delightful. I went ‘Oh! I’m not doing anything, not trying to be anything, I’m just being me’ and this guy was reflecting something back at me so lovely, that all my walls came down. And it was then I started to get more interesting roles. And I know I wouldn’t have got the part in Shetland...” At this point the down to earth woman from Lanarkshire smiles and says, “I’m not saying he’s the power behind me or the wind beneath my... or anything, but our relationship made a difference, yeah.”

Another huge influence on O’Donnell has been the Shetland cast, in particular Henshall.

“I often talk about how lucky we are that he never came into this show as the sort of star. He was so available and so much part of the team. In the early days, because I hadn’t done much TV, he would always say there are no stupid questions, if you need to ask anybody anything, just ask me.”

Filming in Shetland is not like filming anywhere else, with the cast and crew all holed up in a hotel in Scalloway there’s a team atmosphere and it’s an ensemble show. And then there’s the Shetland landscape, with the location integral to the plot and characters.

“You’re very close to nature in Shetland. Last season at the end of filming we had been having a wee party and got a taxi back over to the hotel and it was midsummer, the 21st and the summer solstice, and it was a bit like dawn, as dark as it was going to get and there was something really atmospheric. I remember being in the taxi, being a little bit squiffy and looking out and going wow, isn’t this place amazing? And at the same time feeling proud of what we’d made and hoping when people saw it they would feel what we’d given to it.

“And for all we make it look like there’s lots of crime, we’ve done wonders for the tourist industry, so I think it’s a trade off!”


Shetland is on BBC1, Tuesday, 9pm