Actors are professionals and will play the PR game to publicise their work, including tolerating beaky journalists asking questions because it’s part of the job. And of course these days there’s always a minder to interject in case the conversation veers off message into controversial territory (how much cash DID they get in that phone tapping settlement, how do they REALLY feel about their co-star, what are their views on Brexit and independence and would they like to spill the details of their own #Me Too moment? So if they’re up-and-coming they’ll talk about their breakout roles and if they’re a veteran they’ll be reeling off the answers and anecdotes before you’ve even asked the questions.
Which is why it’s so refreshing to speak to Synnøve Karlsen (“pronounced Sin-er-va ..well kind of” she says, her name a link to her Norwegian roots). The Glasgow-born, Helensburgh-raised actor was very happy to talk and very keen to do so with The Scotsman.
“Yeah, when I found out that The Scotsman wanted to do this interview, I was just like ‘oh, my god! I’m just really happy,’” she says.
Why’s that? Not that we’re not delighted too, but we are intrigued...
“Well I did the Fringe with a school play when I was 16 or 17 and I remember being like, ‘we’ve just GOT to get The Scotsman to do a review,’” she says.
And did we, shall I look it up?
“Noooooooo! Oh god, I really don’t want you to look it up, it wasn’t...”
Never mind, we’ve got a couple of the actor’s much more recent and acclaimed performances to focus on, both on TV, namely her starring role as the lead in Skins creator Jess Brittain’s BBC3 Edinburgh-set student drama Clique. And this week sees the release of a second series of Netflix’s Medici: The Magnificent, in which she stars opposite Daniel Sharman and Sean Bean. Set in Florence in 1470, the first series helped fellow Scot Richard Madden of Game of Thrones and The Bodyguard fame on his way to the Golden Globes.
A psychological thriller about university students that became one of the channel’s most watched programmes last year, Clique is now back on our screens for a second series. Karlsen reprises her role as Holly McStay, the student at the heart of the cult drama, which has made a point of shining a light on contemporary dilemmas. Last series it was feminism and #Me Too, this time round it’s ‘meninism’, toxic masculinity, ‘snowflakes’, right wing provocateurs and ‘microaggressions’, all hot topics on the lips of today’s student demographic.
“Clique is always current. All of those conversations around gender and safe spaces at university last season were the conversations that my friends were having – I’d go to a party and those were the debates. And it’s still doing that. To see things articulated in such an interesting way by the writer and the director without being just super, super liberal and edgy is impressive. And Clique doesn’t just lend itself to one type of person; there’s a surprisingly wide demographic from 13 upwards. It’s not just for 20-year-olds living and working in London.”
Aged 22, Karlsen was exactly the right age to play Holly, and like the student, hails from small town Scotland, Holly from Fife, while Karlsen was raised in Helensburgh before her family relocated to London when she was 12 years old.
Growing up and maturing on a similar timeline to her character, Karlsen has found her views evolving as the show goes along. She likes to separate herself from Holly, and stresses she is not the same person.
“I always try to find reasons why we’re not like each other. We’ve grown up together and people know me as Holly so I’m always ‘no! I’m not like Holly, I’m like this, I have different aspirations.’”
However, the producers stressed that their similarities were also integral to her nailing the part.
“They said one of the reasons we want you to play her is because you think like she does,” says Karlsen, “so in terms of going out and asking questions and trying to engage in political debate and feel on the right side, yes, I really relate to her.
“Also I was playing this 18-year-old girl who grew up in a small town, goes to uni and is sitting looking in the mirror and feeling confused and lost and overwhelmed and I thought ‘oh wow, that’s how I feel’. Although it was nowhere near as dramatic for me, I had those moments of leaving home when you realise you’re on your own, you’re working out what do I want to be, who do I want to be like?”
Karlsen, however has a much broader social context than her student alter ego, working alongside actors and crew of all ages from all backgrounds with a variety of opinions, on a daily basis, something she values.
“I think it’s opened up my mind because Clique opens up those conversations in the first place, then in the actual making of it I’m going onto set and having complex discussions about the use of certain words, or whether we are creating a safe space on set. Like the context of different swear words, and understanding that people of different races, people of different genders inherently have different contexts that you inherit. You have to try and carve your own way through. We need to have these conversations, talk about things like the use of the word ‘bitch’, and understand our intention, because these things have a big cost and shouldn’t be just flung around. It’s our responsibility if we’re going through this time of change to really understand what this or that word might mean to somebody and it’s an amazing discussion to be part of.
“Most people my age have those discussions among their peers and and it’s trendy to be liberal and very left wing so it’s not fashionable to go against that. But I was doing it in my place of work and that was very different because you realise ‘oh, we don’t actually have the same opinion about what that means,’ it’s so interesting. Navigating my way through it has definitely widened my understanding of different views.
“So Clique this season shows the views of disenfranchised young white men, who are saying ‘we haven’t done anything, why are we struggling with these confrontations?’”
Growing up with three older brothers, Karlsen had been part of those conversations anyway and her parents – a dad who works in shipping and a mother who is a writer – always encouraged them to watch and discuss TV and films, not least because her aunt and uncle are Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley. This dynamic duo, who have delivered a decades long string of hit independent films, including The Crying Game, Made in Dagenham, Carol, Youth, The Limehouse Golem and most recently Collette with Keira Knightley, receive an outstanding British contribution to cinema from BAFTA next month.
“I was lucky because we were always pushed to watch films and discuss them. And since I’ve been an actor my aunt and uncle are great people to ask advice about scripts and work relationships, they’re amazing. Although what I do is totally different.”
After school Karlsen went to Guildhall Drama School to study acting and it was while she was studying that she sang Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You at her brother’s wedding, and was spotted, prompting a Facebook message from casting director Jane Ripley.
“I thought it was spam at first and told my parents who said ‘don’t reply, it’s creepy’.” She laughs. “But I thought, ‘oh, I’m just going to reply anyway.’ So Clique was the first audition I ever had then the first script I ever read, and it was so, so amazing. I was very naive, no idea what I was doing, didn’t know what to expect, so I was just amazed by every single part of it. Everybody kept saying oh, it’s going to really change things for you and I was like, well I don’t really know what that means. But it has changed things for me.”
Although Karlsen had opted for drama school, she suddenly found herself alongside a lot of her friends who had in fact gone to university in Edinburgh.
“I was there pretending to be at uni, walking through the Meadows, going to parties, but wearing costume and not having to do the essays. It was funny,” she says.
Ah yes, the essays. Throughout the entire six episodes of the current series Holly can be seen occasionally peering at her laptop yet making little progress on her essay discussing medieval depictions of romance and chivalry.
“ Every time you see her look at it, it’s just the title. I kept saying ‘come on guys, she’s got to have written something by now!’” she says. To be fair Holly’s been a bit busy with a whole new drama after getting over 2017’s degrees, debt and death scenario, so it’s no wonder she’s a little behind with the coursework.
Karlsen has been busy too, in between series of Clique, playing another woman working out what her place is in the world. It’s a different world, that of the Italian Renaissance, but Clarice Orsini is also initially an outsider. Daughter of a noble Roman family she married into the Florentine Medici powerhouse of the 1470s and started a lifelong political and personal relationship with the heir apparent, Lorenzo.
“It was appealing to do something that threw me out of my comfort zone,” she says, “from something contemporary to the 15th century. I wanted to delve into what it was like to be a woman at that time. And she was a woman who did exist so that was different. Clarice comes from a very traditional wealthy family and wanted to be a nun, but is persuaded to marry Lorenzo, who lives in the very liberal, up-and-coming, artsy Florence. She finds it very liberal at first so it was an interesting character to play. It’s a more international project, bigger too, so the job couldn’t have been more different, although ultimately on set you’re creating a world and a character.”
Karlsen has now made two seasons of Medici: The Magnificent; season two is on our screens now, with the third season, which follows the continued story of Lorenzo and Clarice, out next year.
“She’s only 17 at first, he’s 25, but as it goes on she becomes his main port of call for advice. Along with his mother, she was the driving force behind him.”
Being more of a leap in time and experience, Clarice was harder for Karlsen to get a handle on, but being a young newcomer helped.
“I felt very out of my depth,” she says, “younger and inexperienced compared to the others, and it was much more male heavy in terms of directors, producers and crew so that lent itself to feeling how Clarice would have felt.
Advice and support was forthcoming from veteran actors Sarah Parish and Sean Bean, however, as well as Daniel Sharman playing Lorenzo, and all ensconced in the same B&B, Karlsen benefited from their advice.
“I had packed my bags and left home for Clique, then went to Italy and didn’t really understand that being an actor or working in TV and film, meant you’re on location all the time. It’s really exciting for the first three months, then after that, it’s ‘oh, this is every day…’ And if you’re constantly getting recalls for jobs then not getting them, there’s a lot of pressure you put on yourself. I wasn’t able to understand that I had to call for time off. Medici taught me about preservation and balance.
“If I didn’t get a job they’d say, ‘oh, get over it, it’s fine’ or I’d always be available because it’s an international business, and they’d say ‘wait, what are you doing? Take the weekend off!’ Sarah Parish is just the best. She’s done everything and had an insane career. She’s so full of life and wise and funny and maternal, but also like your best friend. All of the crew became like a family, and you bounce off each other.”
Doing the two shows season about, Karlsen found the experiences began to complement each other.
“It all fed into the next job and with each thing I finished, I felt older and had come to an understanding, that would be questioned again on the next job. Working with different people, producers in different atmospheres, it all changes you.”
Karlsen has also appeared in the short film V, a vampire movie, and also Dead Birds with Tara Fitzgerald, a supernatural black comedy about mothers and daughters, losing your religion and finding out how far you will go.
With these and two hit shows under her belt at only 22, Karlsen has the welcome pressure of thinking about what will she do next, but also the luxury of knowing time is on her side. Future TV and film roles are still up in the air and she can’t tell us about them, so in the meantime she’s enjoying a month off to relax and visit family in the US and Norway.
“In the beginning you’re thinking what’s next, but I’ve been able to just focus on these two things and now I’m having a few months off. I feel lucky at my age to be able to have that time and be able to say ‘oh wow, I have achieved some really great things’, whereas a year ago I would have been like ‘oh god, what am I doing?’ Now I feel it’s set me up nicely and I’ve got a good basis of working and learning with different people, and I feel confident in myself. So I’m just going to relax for a month, hibernate, and spend time with my friends and family.”
And maybe if there’s another season of Clique, having played Clarice for two seasons now, that essay will finally get written.
All 8 episodes of Medici: The Magnificent are available on Netflix now
Clique series 1 and 2 are available as Boxsets on BBC iPlayer