As The Split returns actor Annabel Scholey tells us why we love a messy divorce

With the return of hit family lawyer drama, the actor tells Janet Christie about the final season

Annabel Scholey stars in season three of BBC divorce lawyer drama The Split. Pic: Joseph Sinclair

With divorce law changes in England in the headlines, the timing is ideal for the third and final season of addictive family lawyer drama The Split to return to BBC One. Starring Annabel Scholey as Nina, one of three sisters who work for fictional London law firm Noble, Hale and Defoe, alongside Nicola Walker as Hannah and Fiona Button as Rose, the series focuses on difficult divorces prior to the arrival of no-fault legislation. With plenty of legal drama to keep the high-flying family lawyers busy, there is more Defoe family turmoil.

“I think people really enjoy watching these women because they are flawed and make hideous mistakes. They're three dimensional and a bit selfish and fight like cat and dog in the family and everyone can relate to that,” says Scholey.

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No dull courtroom drama, Abi Morgan’s The Split is stylish and slick with relationship dilemmas: affairs, betrayals, and lawyers who can’t keep it in their briefs, not to mention some of the most covetable wardrobes and office suites on TV for escapists who need an antidote to gritty realism. Whether the legal changes will spell the end of corner offices overlooking The City and high-end clothing allowances is something viewers of the hugely popular series need not trouble themselves about as they lap up the car crash spectacle of lawyers failing to take their own advice.

“It is a completely different world,” says Scholey. “This year, we had an office in The City - I had a corner office looking at St Paul’s, a properly swanky, beautiful office I slightly fell in love with and wished I’d become a divorce lawyer instead of an actor. I think that's why people have enjoyed watching it - because there isn’t anything like it on TV. I don’t think there’s another series about divorce law. We do brilliantly at the police dramas and crime and the edgy, but this has got a bit more of an American glamour thing to it. And now viewers have got to know these flawed women, they love them.”

Scholey comes on the phone from Wales where she’s making a film set in a chicken factory, Chuck Chuck Baby, a role that couldn’t be further from the lovable but addictive Nina, who has managed to stay employed (well, it’s a family firm) despite affairs with clients and colleagues, drunken shoplifting, indifference to office hours and somehow manages to appear polished if not always professional.

While Scholey is loving filming a musical drama, and the quirky part she’s playing, she's also missing her three-year-old daughter Marnie back in London. “It's my tenth day away from her and it’s like being stabbed in the heart now. I can do about five days and then it just becomes upsetting,” she says.

With an acting career that started at school in Wakefield, 38-year-old Scholey embarked on an extensive theatre career including roles at the Almeida, National and Old Vic, then broke into TV starring in Jane Eyre, followed by Being Human, Personal Affairs, Medici: Masters of Florence, The Salisbury Poisonings and more recently the Amazon US/Sky co-production Britannia and Doctor Who, with the last five years also filming The Split.

Annabel Scholey as Nina in Season Three of The Split. Pic: Tereza Cervenova

Season three starts with Nina now a mother, engaged in an affair with her boss’s bisexual husband, elder sister Hannah facing her own divorce from husband of 20-years, Nathan (Stephen Mangan) and younger sister Rose considering adoption.

“We left Nina pregnant and kissing her boss's new husband. Not ideal,” says Scholey. “But I genuinely think she didn't see that coming. They connected through the recovery program they’re both on and are really good mates. She's always soul searching and I think she genuinely wants to be loved and find a way of being happy but just doesn't seem to have the tools to get there. Which is great for me to play obviously,” says Scholey.

“Nina is a do-er. And she doesn't have a mute button. She doesn't filter. She just powers on and I think that's why she continuously has these car crash moments. She is very chaotic. A whirlwind emotionally. She feels things deeply and does things and says things before she thinks. I think she's very funny, very kind hearted and can be very selfish. But I do genuinely think she's a good person and is trying to work out how to get herself together.. Becoming a mother, it's an anchor. You have to get your shit together. That's why it’s interesting, because suddenly she's responsible for this little person.”

With Nina determined to stay clean of drink, drugs and designer shoplifting now that she has a three month old daughter, she returns to a work environment where appearing professional is vital, yet under the surface there are enough tensions and temptations to give the HR department nightmares.

The Defoe women, a family of family lawyers, are back in Season Three of The Split. Ruth (Deborah Findlay), Nina (Annabel Scholey, Hannah (Nicola Walker), Rose (Fiona Button). Pic: Tereza Cervenova/BBC / BBC Studios / Sister

“She’s trying to fit back into life as a lawyer with the baby and it's interesting to watch her realise she really loves this child and isn't as bad as she thinks at being a mother, but she struggles to negotiate the changes.”

Scholey knows what it’s like to return to work with a very young child as her daughter was also three months old when she started filming series two.

“It's been very helpful for me working with actresses who are mothers. Fiona had a little girl who was four months old when we started series one and Nicola’s got a child, so it was really useful for me to go through that with them and they were so supportive. Obviously becoming a dad is a massive deal, but it's not the same. Having to deal with breastfeeding or feeling where you've been pulled apart from your new baby, that you should be at home with them, but also want to be working, that is a very exclusive female experience.”

“You carry on and pretend everything's absolutely the same and it's not, you're a little bit crazy. Slightly unhinged. But there’s a pressure to keep going, and I think Nina wants to work and still be Nina. And her love life, well I can't talk about that, but there's a lot of trouble and passion and it's a big old mess basically.”

Annabel Scholey and co-star Fiona Button from BBC One's The Split. Pic: S Meddle/ITV/Shutterstock

“She's an addict so she's very unpredictable in every series. It's just her addiction changes - shopping, theft, alcohol, men. She's still recovering in series three, you see her go back to AA.”

Does Nina have a new addiction to battle this time round?

She does but I can't tell you what it is,” says Scholey. “The shopping one was great. So random. ‘You’ve got all that money. What are you doing?’ But that’s not the point is it? She's an adrenaline junkie, feels everything to the max. She's an action woman. And that's really fun to play.”

Are there any parallels to Scholey’s own character that she draws on in playing Nina?

“I can be a whirlwind. I definitely emotionally react sometimes before I think rationally, so I would say that is a comparison we could make. And I like to get things done - I've thrown a few grenades at my life,” she laughs. And no, she wouldn’t like to share what those might be.

Another reason Scholey has enjoyed The Split is because of the ensemble cast and the chance to work closely with Nicola Walker and Fiona Button, as the middle sister in a family of three.

With The Split co-star, Stephen Mangan. Pic: Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock

“Funnily enough we sort of took on our roles in the family while filming. We're all really close. I'd had some great roles before but this was a big deal for me. To have Fiona and Nicola there… she’d hate it if I said this but Nicola has been kind of a mentor in lots of ways. So I'm really desperately sad it’s over, but at the same time I understand why Abi doesn't want it to become a long running kind of soap thing. Better to go out on a high than a dribble. And I think I am ready artistically to move on but I will miss Nina.”

“Professionally and personally it’s been my happiest job by far, because I love the cast so much, and the producers and Abi, but professionally as well I've learned so much on this job. I did a lot of theatre for a long time so I was still mastering the art of doing a lot less on camera for the first year. and I really can see the difference in my acting throughout the three. And also working with Nicola, she is so brilliant at doing very little but so much at the same time and making it sound so off-the-cuff. I’ve learnt a lot from her, just watching her and stealing her ideas basically,” she says and laughs.

Not only will Scholey take away a bonding experience with the cast, she has also walked away with Nina’s trademark trainers and some posh coats and powerblock office wear.

“We went to visit the lawyers in their offices and they have a wardrobe in there - shoes splayed across the floor and different outfits, because they have to transform into different versions of themselves and the office is their dressing room.”

“I've got so many nice clothes from this job,” she says. “It will never happen again. Literally everything I get to wear I'm like, ‘Oh my God, I love this. I have some beautiful coats and suits. Not that I’ll ever wear them right now,” she says.

And did she ever regret being the lawyer in trainers, always late and on the run?

“Well, I regret now not having the swanky shoes, but I didn’t because oh god it was so painful. Life is too short. I saw how much pain Nicola was in in her Jimmy Choos. But I did say, ‘I think Nina probably wears the Nike Air Force Ones’ so I’ve got those at home now.”

All the better to be running around after a three-year-old which is what Scholey is looking forward to doing after filming ends on Chuck Chuck Baby.

Whether she will be doing more of Britannia, the historical fantasy drama from Sky and Amazon Prime Video set in Roman Britain, season three of which screened at the end of last year, Scholey can’t say.

“I’ve loved doing that and it’s been a brilliant character to play. I love working with David Morrisey and Mackenzie Crook, who directed and wrote some of this last series. It was brilliant to have him there but very odd, because quite often he was in scenes as well so he was dressed as Veran and directing. It was terrifying.”

Also recently screened, last Halloween, was Scholey’s appearance in Doctor Who as Claire Brown.

“It was quite scary with the weeping angel and great fun to do. I know Jodie [Whittaker] from the National - we were in Antigone together - so I got to hang out with her.

“I wasn’t really big on sci-fi but when Jodie became the Doctor I watched it, and I had tested before for the assistant. We had a brilliant time, her and I and Kevin McNally, laughing all the time. And it was a great storyline - we went back to the Sixties. Although it was freezing filming during lockdown in January.”

Wales in springtime, filming for Chuck Chuck Baby, is less punishing and Scholey is enjoying her time in Flintshire. Despite being set in a chicken factory, the film hasn’t put Scholey off chicken as her character doesn’t work there, but spring lambs gamboling about have given her pause for thought.

“I’m having trouble eating roast lamb at the moment. I might have to become vegetarian. It is beautiful here. We’ve another month to go and it’s a brilliant script. I am playing completely against type, a kind of Marlon Brando-type character.” She laughs.

“It’s a massive curve ball for me. I was ‘Ok, really? They cast me as this? Fantastic.”

Which era of Brando is she channeling? Brooding Steetcar or whispering unhinged Apocalypse Now?

“Very early, black and white era. His brooding stillness is tricky for me, because I’m more quick and like Nina so it’s been good for me to slow down. It’s just really nice that a director sees you in a different way, sees you have potential to do something completely different and I feel very lucky about that. I haven’t been typecast.

“I’ve been driving a vintage car and there’s some singing. It’s all set in Flint because the director and writer Janis Pugh is a Flint girl. It’s based around a girl who works in the chicken factory and is a female love story. My character left years ago and I come back and it really is a beautiful, very original script. So I’m enjoying it. Louise Brealey is playing Helen, the other half of the duo, and she’s brilliant. It’s got a good team behind it and I’ve got a lot of faith in it because it’s so original.

It’s being advertised as a musical and while this officially makes it Scholey’s second musical after she played the lead role of Maddie in the 2014 musical film Walking on Sunshine with Hannah Arterton, Scholey says this is a very different beast.

“We are singing very well known songs and the soundtrack is important but it’s not a musical. I can’t explain it really but it’s a comedy, and also really quite moving. You’ll recognise the songs but it’s much more integrated than Walking on Sunshine which was a full-on cheesy musical. It’s much more a drama with a musical score.

After filming wraps it’s back to London and Marnie, but after that Scholey isn’t sure what’s next.

“I definitely need to go back on stage at some point because I haven’t since 2016. I’d like to do - I think every actress says this - Tenessee Williams, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, something like that and some more Shakespeare - Isabella in Measure for Measure and Portia in Merchant of Venice are on my list. But in terms of TV I’d absolutely love to do something in the Twenties, Thirties or Forties. I haven't really covered that so that’s something I would like to do.”

“But I’m not sure. There was a hiatus at the end of last year because of Covid so it’s very busy now which is great.

I definitely need to go back and see my daughter and then hopefully some more filming, preferably in London. That would make my life easy!”

Annabel Scholey plays Nina in The Split which continues on Mondays on BBC One at 9pm. The entire boxset of series three is available on BBC iPlayer now.

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Nina (Annabel Scholey), Hannah (Nicola Walker), Rose (Fiona Button), Ruth (Deborah Findlay) in The Split. Pic: Tereza Cervenova/BBC