Sarah Parish leaves behind home comforts for the chance to work with Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner and Sarah Parish. Picture: Channel 5
Kevin Costner and Sarah Parish. Picture: Channel 5
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Award-winning US TV drama Hatfields & McCoys, now set for its British debut, tells of feuding families just after the American Civil War. Sarah Parish’s role sees her act alongside Kevin Costner. Lee Randall meets the actress, who now refuses to leave home for anything other than parts she loves.

OCTOBER is a banner month for Sarah Parish fans. The second series of Monroe has just begun on ITV, and on Channel Five she’s part of the all-star cast of Hatfields & McCoys, the mini-series commissioned from Kevin Costner by America’s History channel. When it aired in America it smashed viewing records – pulling in an average of 14 million people per episode – and garnered 16 Emmy nominations, with wins for Costner (best actor) and Tom Berenger (best supporting actor).

The last time I met Parish she’d just accepted the role of heart surgeon Jenny Bremner in Monroe. She enthused about how keen she was to work with James Nesbitt for the first time, and to reunite with writer Peter Bowker, with whom she made Blackpool. When that shoot wrapped in Leeds, she and her wee girl, Nell, were off to join her husband James Murray, who was filming a television series in the US.

Two years on, we’re tucked into a corner of the café at London’s Young Vic theatre, giggling about life’s unpredictability. “We didn’t go to LA!” she says. “Instead they shipped us to Vancouver for five months. It rained every single day. We were living in a penthouse right over the harbour, which could have been very beautiful, but you couldn’t really see out of the glass. It was the complete opposite of what I thought it would be.

“The only thing I did to stop myself from going completely insane was go to a barre-based exercise class every day. I became totally addicted and came back with fantastic pecs and a six pack. I loved it so much I’ve started my own company, But oh my god, the worst five months of my life! We were never so happy for a show to be cancelled in our lives. I’m definitely not a wait-around wife. I thought maybe I’d quite like being a “set bitch”, but I don’t.”

Which brings us back to the work. Monroe’s premise is that Gabriel Monroe is a brain surgeon who’s all heart, and Jenny Bremner is a heart surgeon who’s all brain – and that made her tough to play. Because she lacks the warmth and joviality that are so integral to Parish’s off-screen allure?

“A bit. She can be a real bitch. In the first series I found that quite difficult. Just when you think she’s going to crack and show a soft side, she goes and says something really cutting and nasty.”

In the first series, Bremner embarked upon a relationship with Monroe’s best friend, anaesthetist Lawrence Shepherd, played by the adorable Tom Riley. “The second series opens with them still together – 18 months – and they have a baby. Jenny finds this a real challenge. She is quite male and very black and white, so juggling and multi-tasking is something she doesn’t do very well. She likes to do one thing brilliantly or nothing at all.

“So having to juggle a relationship – because she is emotionally quite crippled, and then you throw a baby into the equation, and going back to work after a year, into a very competitive profession, where everything has suddenly changed. She finds change very difficult.”

Playing Kevin Costner’s wife in Hatfields & McCoys was hard work of another variety, though Costner, she assures me, is absolutely fantastic. “He really suits this kind of epic drama. He is really nice, and a gentleman. Very professional. I loved watching him, and all the Americans, actually. They are very dedicated and professional, and very different from English actors.”

Being American, I’ve always known about the two legendary southern families – West Virginia for the Hatfields, Kentucky for the McCoys – with an epic and deadly enmity, but I didn’t really know why. It turns out that Anse “Devil” Hatfield (Costner) and his close friend Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton) fell out near the end of the Civil War. Once back in their respective homes, tensions between the clans escalated over everything from a stolen pig, to the Hatfield’s logging business, and one McCoy’s choice to fight for the Union side.

The home fires are stoked by Mare Winningham as Sally McCoy, and Parish as Levicy Hatfield. During the series, they were required to go from 21 to middle age. Laughing ever so hard, Parish says: “It’s a big stretch. I don’t know how old Mare is, I think we’re around the same age, 44. There’s no way. They tried so hard!

“We were wearing wigs. These amazing Italian wig people would put skull caps on you with hair grips all around, then they would grab the back of the stocking and twist it, hard, to pull your face back.” She demonstrates. “For most of the scene it doesn’t look like my face can move. At the end of the day we’d have these terrible migraines. And then you take the thing off and you look like one of those Shar Pei dogs, all the wrinkles cascading back.

“And it was quite funny when I had to run into Kevin’s arms, because he would always put his hands around me and hold on to the back of my hair. I was like, ‘Don’t! It could come off.’ It’s so unsexy and unglamorous filming those kind of things.” She took the job not just for the chance to work with Costner, but also Kevin Reynolds, who directed a powerhouse cast that also includes Powers Boothe, Tom Berenger, and some devilishly handsome young heartthrobs playing Parish’s grown sons.

“I’ll never forget the day when they introduced me. One was an ex supermodel called Boyd Holbrook, who is beautiful, tall, and blond, and the other was Matt Barr, who had just come out of an American teenage programme called Hellcats. He was just – again – beautiful. And I thought, ‘Did Kevin and I really produce that?’ ”

They filmed in deepest, darkest Romania, up a mountain. “It’s a lot of dirty men in beards shooting each other and then me, kissing Kevin Costner or scrubbing a table. Mare and I used to laugh a lot – four women and 75 men in the cast. It’s most women’s dream, but you’re stuck in Romania.”

She credits Costner with keeping everyone’s spirits up. “He said he’d always wanted to play that part. It’s quite a macabre story about small-minded horror. Those two personalities, Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy – McCoy being a God-fearing Christian and Hatfield quite a forward thinking businessman. The two didn’t mix at all.

“And how Kevin Reynolds managed so well – we had so little time and so little money. I say little: for an English budget it would be loads, but for America it wasn’t. But every shot is beautiful and it looks and feels like a movie. Still, we really needed Kevin Costner’s enthusiasm, because it was cold and it snowed and rained, and sometimes the horses were badly behaved and people hurt themselves. It was a dirty job.”

What does she mean about British versus American actors? After all, Americans always gaze upon British thespians with awe. “Along with that comes our reputation as big drinkers and that whole, ‘Hello darling,’ very theatrical behaviour, where it’s all a bit of a laugh. Whereas in America it’s not. It’s business, and they are very serious. The thing I found different is the pressure on you – it’s huge. They need it to be brilliant; they want it more. You have got to bring your A-game every single day. I quite liked that.”

Nevertheless, she insists her ambition has lost its edge. She enjoys having summers off, and says a job needs to be really amazing to wrestle her away from her Hampshire home. “Money’s tight, but I would rather that than do something I don’t want to do. But you know, that urge will come. Last year I got to about the middle of September and thought, ‘If I don’t work I’m going to kill myself’.

“I want to do maybe two jobs a year that I really love. Also, it’s not like I have the choice that I used to. As you get older there’s not that many parts, which really confuses me. I don’t think you can ever be bitter about it; there’s nothing you can do about it. But people are getting older, and they sit and watch the telly more, so our demographic is 40 upwards. I don’t know how long it’s going to take commissioning editors to catch on that there’s definitely a gap in the market for older TV. I don’t want to watch Skins: they’re teenagers! But showbusiness is not fair. If they don’t want use you for three years, they don’t want to use you for three years. You’ve just got to like it and lump it. And wait for a bit.”

• Hatfields & McCoys begins on Channel 5 on Thursday 25 October at 9pm