When I received the first series of The Hour on DVD last fall, I did not leave my house for about 48 hours. I consumed all six episodes in one sitting and then immediately started again. Those six hours flew by as if watching the extended cut of a favorite film you’ve just discovered. I was enchanted by the depth and intelligence of the writing, the brilliant command of narrative force, and the ensemble of actors that made this truly something special. Set in 1958 and written by screenwriter and playwright Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady), The Hour is an intimate drama wrapped in a story of political scandal—all centered around England’s first hour-long nightly news program. Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), Lix Storm (Anna Chancellor), and Hector Madden (Dominic West) round out the news team with a supporting cast that features a host of talented actors, including the commanding Oona Chaplin as Hector’s strong-willed and dutiful wife, Marni.
As the granddaughter of filmmaker Charlie Chaplin and the great granddaughter of playwright Eugene O’Neil, Oona transcends her incredible lineage, emerging as one of the most exciting young actresses to come out of 2012. With roles on The Hour, Game of Thrones, and Sherlock, it appears that Oona is new force to behold. And after a year of waiting, tonight marks the much-anticipated premiere for Series 2 of The Hour on BBC America. Featuring a handful of new actors, namely Peter Capaldi (whom you know may already love from his role as Malcolm Tucker on The Thick of It), the new series swallows you whole from the opening moments of Bel nervously working away at her typewriter. We caught up with Oona to chat about her background as an actress, the strength of the 1950s housewife, and playing opposite Jimmy McNulty.
What I love so much about The Hour is how unique it feels. I think because of the short format of the show, each episode was filled with so much intensity and vigor. It was definitely one of my favorite shows to watch of the past year.
It was such fantastic project to work on. It’s rare to get scripts that you read and that you really, really want to read the next one. And then you watch it and say, “Yes, next episode now, now, now!”
You come from such an amazing lineage of performers—a pretty crazy amount—did you always know that you want to follow in the footsteps of your family and do something creative or performing?
Oh, no, no, no. When I was little, I remember somebody asked me what I want to be when I grow up and I like, “I want to be an economist!” My father’s side of the family was very political and I was always very influenced by. All of my cousins and everyone in my family is mostly in the business from one extent to another and I just really wanted to fight against that. But when I was 15 I did a play in school in Scotland—I did Midsummer Night’s Dream and I played Bottom—and on opening night after the show had finished I just collapsed into my teacher’s arms and said, “Oh, no! It’s got me, I love it, damnit!” So then I applied to RADA in London and I applied to university to do international politics and broadcasting. I thought, if I get into RADA, I’ll do it and if not I’ll go to univeristy. So I got in to RADA and thought, well I’ll just give it a go. And it’s a been a real trip since then.
Did you know that you wanted to move on from theater to television and film?
I was trained in theater but I’ve actually only done one play professionally, which was at the Globe—Love’s Labour’s Lost. I grew up watching film, not so much television, but I certainly grew up watching film and that was ultimately what I wanted to do when I decided to get into the business. Films like classics, that would still be relevant 20 years from now. I sort fell into TV and film but I’d love to do some theater now because I think you learn so much throughout the rehearsal process, especially being able to interact with actors that are older than you and have the time and the space to kind of teach you. So you learn a lot about building character and the work you have to put in. But you know, TV and film is so much fun and it’s such a great atmosphere, but it would be great to have a balance of both.
In the past few years, you’ve been in three of the most beloved TV shows that are on at the moment: The Hour, Sherlock, and Game of Thrones.
It’s been amazing! It’s been a really good run, actually!
Was that something that all happened very fast for you? Because it seems like they’re all very close together and intertwined in terms of airing time.
At the beginnings of my career there was a lot of on and off; there was a period where I wasn’t working at all and then there was a period where I was doing some little things. So it was a struggle that all actors encounter in terms of trying to get your face out there and trying to accept jobs not only because you need to work but because you believe in the project. Then when The Hour came along, it was just such a gift from the producers. It was a gift to believe in me and believe that I could do a character that I wasn’t an obvious choice for.
How did you get connected with the show?
I auditioned. It was a cattle call like any other and I auditioned and then I got a recall, which was completely unexpected. I didn’t expect to get any feedback from them at all really and then I got it and it was like the most wonderful thing. I remember sitting the first day at the read through and looking around the table at like Juliet Steveson and Ben Whishaw and these people that I’ve admired a long time and sort of going, “what am I doing here?!” Thank god I only have one line in this episode or I might just stutter my way into oblivion.
What did you think the first time you read the script?
Abi Morgan, we’ve seen her body of work grow and I’d seen a lot of her plays before, but she’s such an outstanding writer. She’s incredibly acute, specific, and makes every character very three-dimensional and I think, as a woman, she doesn’t try to make women something that they’re not. She creates these incredibly three-dimensional and exciting women to play, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. And the same goes for the men. She has such a strong grasp on narrative.
The pilot episode blew me away, I think it was one of my favorite episodes of television ever.
Yeah. Every script was just so good, it immediately jumped off the page, and that’s really rare these days. It’s really, really rare these days to get that.
And how did you go about finding yourself as Marni because she’s sort of a difficult person to read. At first you think she’s very passive but then you realize how strong she really is.
For some reason, even though she’s very far away from me personality-wise, it was a very visceral connection I had with Marni right from the very beginning. I think that was in large part thanks to Abi’s writing. I immediately understood the type of character that she was, the reasons behind her actions, and the core strength that she had. One underestimates housewives in the 50s a lot because they just stayed at home a lot of the time. But the amount of dignity and grace that they had to muster to deal with day to day life is incredible. You read these manual books that exist that are like jokes now but actually existed at time the time about how to be a good wife that say things such as, “if your husband is late from work or he just didn’t come home—don’t ask any questions,” or “you wash yourself, prepare yourself, and have dinner ready and have a martini ready by the time your husband is due to get home and if you have children they must look fresh-faced and bushy tailed and you must ask him about his day because his day was more important than yours.” It doesn’t make that woman weak, it actually makes her really strong because it’s so easy to lose your temper when things aren’t going your way.
Did you look over books like that to prepare to play her?
I saw a lot of footage on when upper-class women would come out to society. I also watched My Fair Lady; I know that’s not the same period of time but in terms of the way that you hold yourself and the way that you have to behave was still very resonant in the 1950s—but that’s when it all began to change. I did research with regards to that but she did come quite naturally to me. I also spent time reading my grandmother’s letters (on my mom’s side of the family), who was in a strange way similar to Marni, living in the shadow of this man. Obviously Hector is a cad and my grandfather, I like to believe wasn’t, but she had to deal with a lot of being on his arm. She was an incredibly intelligent woman and so astute and reading her letters made me understand that Marni is like a duck in the water—there’s a lot going on underneath but on top, it’s just floating, going forwards as if nothing is happening.
And Marni has the ability to compose herself in situations where it’s very easy to one’s ground, like when she confronts Bel in the first series.
And she doesn’t make a fuss! It was a widely accepted thing at the time. It was just what happened. But she is desperately in love with Hector. The only thing that she wants to do is to make him look at her in the same way that she looks at him. But she knows that’s not the case but she’s willing to fight for him.
And how was working with someone like Dominic?
I love that man! I love him! I’ve watched The Wire three times. I was like, “Oh my god, Jim McNulty!” But immediately he makes you relax because he’s so unfathomably charming and disarming and funny and fun and skillful. I mean, soon as they say “action,” whatever he’s been doing—whether he’s been doing pirouettes, spinning cups of coffee, or just making a joke with one of the runners—when they call action, the man is all skill and he’s so savvy and he just knows what he’s doing so much. He’s brilliant, a brilliant teacher.
The characters that Abi has crafted are all individually really amazing, especially these three women—you, Anna, and Romola—because they’re all at very different points in their lives and they’re all very strong.
They belong to different stages in the women’s revolution at the time. It’s really interesting because there was such a massive change in the female consciousness in England at the time and I think Bel is kind of like “the new woman,” Lux is like the slightly older woman that initiated that movement so that Bel could exist, and Marni belongs to the kind of old school way of looking at life and behaving. It’s a really beautiful analogy and representation.
So how do we see Marni change in this season?
I think in regards to the three stages of women, Abi has made Marni a vehicle to symbolize how, even the old school women started changing their mentality and started renivating their psyche and their beliefs. She becomes a lot more aware of the possibility that she has of the opportunities that this “new woman” has given her. It becomes more challenging and more victorious in her own experience rather than replying on Hector to come home.
Besides this, are you working on anything else right now?
Well, we just finished filming Game of Thrones season three. I feel like I’ve reached the peak of my career, that everything’s downhill from here. I’m like, what next? But there’s some wonderful scripts coming in and I’ve got a couple of possibilities but I’m working on my own project at the moment with my writing partner. What I’m writing, it’s sort of magical realism; it will be a TV series as well. It’s all based around Cuba and it’s love and it’s struggles and so that’s really exciting; so I’m hoping to get that into motion by next year.