Saskia Reeves interview: why the star of BBC One's Us feels lucky despite lockdown
Saskia Reeves says 2020 is tricky as she stars in the BBC’s Us, a dark comedy of European travel and a relationship crisis. Interview by Janet Christie
Ever found yourself on holiday with someone you don’t want to be with? Connie has, and unfortunately told her husband Douglas as much on the eve of the trip with their son, but suggested they press ahead anyway. What could possibly go wrong?
In BBC1’s comedy drama Us, the four part TV miniseries giving us the European summer holiday we never had, Saskia Reeves and Tom Hollander play a couple who maybe should never have got together but did, and now 25 years on are deciding whether they should stay married. Or at least Connie is. A stunned Douglas is determined to win her back, along with their alienated son, Albie, as they make their way around pre-Covid Paris, Amsterdam, Venice and Barcelona.
Filmed when coronavirus was just a smudge on a heat-hazed horizon, but viewed this side of restrictions, the settings are a tantalising glimpse of a world of travel we all took for granted and the Petersons are in the privileged position of being able to go where they please. Who doesn’t dream of a sunny European break, especially now, and Us obliges with a ‘gramable Grand Tour for lockdown laptop travellers.
“It was great fun to make,” says Reeves. “Paris and Amsterdam are my favourite cities so to get to film in the art galleries on closed days and in the evening was fantastic. We were very privileged.
“I’m hoping people will enjoy the vicarious element of it now that we can’t go to Paris or Holland without quarantine. It would be impossible to make this programme now, so it’s brilliant we filmed it last summer and didn’t have to stop.”
Adapted by David Nicholls, who gave us One Day, the book then the 2011 film that starred Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess and Edinburgh, Us works on a much snappier timescale than the 20-year journey of one day, but explores the same theme of messy relationships: the ones with awkward and easy, fun and frustration, humour and heartbreak.
“It’s about how complicated relationships are, and people are, and that you can have the breakdown of a marriage without it being the end of the world,” says Reeves.
Four decades of film, TV and theatre
Best known on TV for Belgravia, Luther and Shetland, Reeves stars opposite Tom Hollander (Baptiste, The Night Manager), and Tom Taylor (Doctor Foster) as their son. Glaswegian actor Iain De Caestecker (Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D), plays young Douglas in flashbacks, alongside Gina Bramhill as young Connie.An extensive career in theatre, TV and film spanning four decades, sees Reeves still at the top of her game.
On stage she has performed at the National, RSC and numerous London theatres in everything from King Lear at the Globe to Separation at the Hampstead theatre but it was in film and TV she reached a wider audience with 1991’s Close My Eyes (Stephen Poliakoff) and Butterfly Kiss (Michael Winterbottom), more recently Our Kind Of Traitor (Susannah White) and in the forthcoming Shadows (Carlo Lavagna.)
On TV her calling card includes Belgravia, Luther, Shetland, Wolf Hall and Wallander, and in the autumn she teams up again with Us co-star, Iain De Caesteker in Roadkill, opposite Hugh Laurie and Helen McCrory in the BBC1 political-thriller.
It’s Us she’s Zooming about today, in her quiet but softly sweary London accent, laughing as she remembers scenes from the filming.
“At one point the son Albie asks his dad if they are going to do anything spontaneous at all this holiday and he says, no, he hadn’t planned to, which sums it up,” she says.
For Reeves, the fact that it was Nicholls who turned his own book into the script is key.
“With work that comes from books or films or theatre, each thing stands on its own, or should do.”While the book is written from Douglas’s point of view, in the TV version Connie comes to life thanks to Reeves, and the actor enjoyed the potential to play with viewer’s sympathies.
“It’s more of a 360 degree look at the story. It’s still Douglas’s view and you’re on a journey of self-discovery with him, but Connie is more alive. The book is through Douglas’s eyes and he’s put her on a pedestal. With the script I felt that she was much more complicated, as all people are, and she is as guilty as Douglas in the breakdown of their marriage.
“It also gave space for me to fill in which was lovely. It was important that she was an artist and one of her frustrations is she never had the confidence to go with it, so David did tweak a conversation she and Douglas had to show that, but I didn’t stray too far away from what he had written ever. And I think in the book though she has dark hair but they were quite happy to use my own hair colour, so great...”
Hair colour and superficialities don’t matter as what keeps viewers watching is the complexities of the relationships and switching of sympathies. One minute you’re feeling sorry for a seemingly nice enough husband being dumped overnight, the next thinking that actually, decades of itineraries might be unbearable, and that they’re both controlling and ridiculous to tragi-comic effect.
“These people probably shouldn’t have got together in the first place and Douglas has spent most of their life fearful she’d leave. So she was spoiled by him, didn’t have to work that hard because he was so into her, and she loved him for his kindness, wit and love. Then they had a child, that brought them together, and life throws you all sorts of curveballs that bind you together, so you stay. Then she comes to a decision because of her age and confidence Douglas’ love has given her... So there are lots of dichotomies and contradictions and that’s what makes it interesting. David has tried to say look, these people are likeable and unlikeable. They’re both selfish. They can both be controlling in their different ways. And I saw Connie as flawed even though Douglas obviously thinks she’s amazing. She has her demons and her complications.”
Reeves has been with her partner for a similar time to the Petersons, but hasn’t drawn on her own experience to inform the relationship in Us.
“We’ve been together 22 years, yeah, quite good going for a director and writer and an actor. My relationship isn’t anything like Douglas and Connie’s, but I do recognise some things about families. Like the way Douglas walks into his son’s room and starts fiddling with the window and the ashtray and the boy is just lying there having to tolerate this invasion of privacy. I thought, ‘I’m guilty of that.’
“It’s just very difficult knowing how to handle teenagers, how to be with them, talk to them, connect with them,” she says. Being the mother of an 18-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter has given her the inside track on family dynamics which has come in handy on Us.
“I do worry about my son. He’s completely capable of looking after himself, but it’s hard to stop worrying isn’t it? And I think he’s finding living under the same roof as us in lockdown quite challenging. It was great to begin with and it’s slowly unravelled.” She laughs.
“But I really do worry about his generation, how the hell… I think I have to remind myself that this is a blip. This year, on one level, is small in their young lives, and even in my work life, and it’s very important not to over-dramatise, to catastrophise. You have to think ‘OK, this is a very unique situation, it’s not going to last and last and last’. And for my son, this is a blip in his life and if he wants to spend six months playing Rainbow Six Siege then I’m just gonna have to go with it!”
Reeves and Scotland
It’s not just the Europe of Us, that Reeves has a passion for, which will comfort viewers whose holidays are more staycation than Grand Tour at the moment, as Saskia bigs up her time filming and visiting Scotland, recently for Belgravia and ten years ago for the BBC Scotland crime series, Shetland.
“Shetland was amazing. I’ve never been to such an extraordinary place. There are very few trees and I found that almost prehistoric. I thought it was beautiful. My character’s house was right on a peninsula and the sun came out one afternoon and it was the most beautiful thing…
“I love Scotland. I drove round with a friend of mine years ago. Up in Ullapool we went to a hotel set up by an actor called The Ceilidh Place, that was a great place. Is it still there?”
It certainly is. Shout out for www.theceilidhplace.com, since we’re talking about staycations.
“And Belgravia was shot in the Border country, not too far from the coast, and we were in Edinburgh as well, using some of the squares and fronts of houses, and the interiors were in a beautiful old house further inland.”
Since March, however, Reeves has not been on the road but at home in London with her family, writer and director husband and their two teenagers. With a profession that’s only as successful as your last job, she’s grateful that last year was an exceptionally busy one for her.
“When lockdown happened I thought I was so lucky and blessed because last year I was at the Almeida, then did Belgravia, then did Us, then did a film called Shadows in Ireland, then political thriller Roadkill that David Hare has written with Hugh Laurie for the BBC. I went from Tom Hollander to Hugh Laurie, that was exciting.”
Roadkill with Hugh Laurie
Reeves plays the wife of Laurie’s Conservative MP, a woman who has avoided the limelight until her husband and daughter’s actions mean this is no longer possible, a role that provided the actor with the stretch she likes.
“I remember I was preparing for the role around the time Boris Johnston got into parliament and I was very angry about it and thought why am I playing this Conservative? I don’t like her at all! But there’s something about playing someone you don’t like or admire. Then I felt compassion for her and David Hare is very good at writing people too. So people you don’t like and understand, and are confused by, can be very interesting. So I did feel for her, but I wasn’t very impressed by her as a person.”
The film, Shadows is very different, with Italian director Carlo Lavagna describing it as an “elevated genre film.” Shot in Ireland it stars Reeves and young British rising stars Mia Threapleton (A Little Chaos) and Lola Petticrew (A Bump Along the Way) and it explores family dynamics in a post-apocalyptic world where a mother and her two daughters must shun daylight to survive.
“I remember reading that script and initially thinking I don’t like this, I don’t know about this, an apocalyptic horror type of film… But the script so cleverly twists you around at the end and I loved that about it, and the psychological drama of it. There were only three of us in it and I thought, how are you going to make this?”Intrigued, she took the part and is glad she did.
“It was done brilliantly, and they managed to find the most extraordinary location in Wicklow, an old almost abandoned hotel and purloined it for the shoot. All the sets were in there and it was brilliant.”
Joining the set straight from Us, her two co-stars, in their late teens and early twenties, had already started filming on set.
“Both of them, fantastic young actresses, smart and so grown up. The director let it slip one evening how everyone was a bit nervous about me turning up, but there were no issues. I think they thought I might turn up as the older actress and they’d all got into a nice rhythm and relationships and were a bit anxious I might come along and be a diva, I don’t know what they imagined,” she laughs. “But it was absolutely brilliant.”
Keeping a career on track
Reeves seems to have the knack of keeping a career in TV, film and theatre all running along nicely. How does she manage it?
“With a lot of luck really. I was really lucky to have theatre then television and to have a film – I haven’t done feature film for a long time – with a part that substantial. As I got older I thought I’m probably not going to get such a nice bite of the cherry any more, and last year proved me wrong. And that was just amazing. I don’t take that for granted and I don’t assume it will happen.
“You just sort of go with the flow really, do your best work and hope that that puts you in good stead, ‘cos you can’t really control these things. I don’t have a say in what I get to do. I keep as open and positive as I can about whatever comes my way and see where it takes me. I remember a film director saying ‘there’s no such a thing as a career. ‘Career’ means to fall uncontrollably from one point to another.’” She laughs.
“So I try to release my grasp on the idea that there’s something linear about my life, that if I did a really good job more work would come then more work. It doesn’t work like that.”
Not only has she managed to juggle the various strands of her career, but she also sees the roles keep coming at a time in her life when she had feared they might be thinner on the ground.
“It’s getting better for women. It’s certainly better than it was anyway. I certainly wouldn’t have predicted reaching a peak last year and I can’t explain that. So yeah, things are definitely getting better and I would like to see it more, more women in jobs of production, directing and designing. But we’re trying, we’re having lots of conversations these days about trying to change the white middle class male position of our industry.”
Looking ahead, Reeves has work that is due for release in the autumn, albeit made last year, and is used to the stop-start nature of her employment.
“That gives a sense that you’re busy and is helpful to try and generate more interest or work next year. I sort of think the whole of 2020 will get cancelled and we’ll start again in 2021 and I’m just glad I have some financial support from this year to get me to next.
“As an actor I’ve got very used to big periods of unemployment and you get used to that roller coaster feeling of suddenly not knowing what’s going to happen next so maybe actors are more primed for that sort of experience than other jobs, I don’t know.
“But I do know a lot of actors who are in terrible situations; they haven’t been able to register for benefits and are in terrible positions. They can’t find ANY work or are having to admit that they’re going to have to find a completely different kind of work. And that’s crushing. So I’m lucky. I’m one of the lucky ones. But maybe interview me in six months time and I might be pulling my hair out and on anti-depressants. I just don’t know...”
Us is on BBC1 on Sunday at 9pm. All four episodes are available now on iPlayer, www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer
WATCH TRAILER HERE https://trib.al/sg1fd3Z