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Interview: The Serpent’s Jenna Coleman

by Leora Heilbronn

Jenna Coleman is utterly mesmerizing in the wild and twisted limited series The Serpent, which sees her playing a character on top of another one. In fact, the series made us a little bit uneasy, as her Marie-Andrée Leclerc makes for wonderful company alongside Tahar Rahim’s Charles Sobhraj, and we had to stop and step back for a bit to not be too engaged by the serpent’s grasp. Who else but Jenna Coleman could take what is usually such an open and friendly demeanour and sort of turn it backward into the icy and elusive French Canadian (yes, really) enigma of a historical person.

When Brief Take was granted the opportunity to speak with the talented Jenna Coleman on the phone recently, she was more than pleased to humanize the role in a way that demonstrated that she was the perfect actress to play this part and helped to solidify our feelings that The Serpent is going to captivate viewers in a way that very few series have done previously.

The following is a condensed and edited version of our interview with the compelling Jenna Coleman.

Brief Take: Hi, Jenna! How are you?

Jenna Coleman: I’m well. How are you doing?

BT: I’m good, thanks for asking. So I found you so immersive in the role of Marie-Andrée Leclerc on The Serpent, which is even more astonishing because you went from playing Anne in All my Sons to embodying Marie-Andrée within a few weeks time, which really speaks to your skills as an actress.

JC: Thank you!

BT: So The Serpent is being released soon on Netflix but it’s already played on BBC One very successfully a few months ago. I’m curious what sort of reactions you’ve received.

JC: Yeah, I have to say that it’s been really thrilling and rewarding. People seem to really engage with the story and there’s been a lot of binge watching, with people being very invested. There’s been a lot of really interesting reactions, to my character in particular. There doesn’t seem to be a decisive view on victim versus accomplice; it seems to be very divided opinions, which is great. People just seem to be very invested. Apparently it’s very anxiety inducing. [laughs] Also very uncomfortable, edge-of-your-seat watching where you don’t want to look but you can’t help but look. That’s the kind of experience that I’ve been hearing from people.

BT: Have you seen the show?

JC: Yeah. For ADR and things like that, you see a lot, and then I watched the first few episodes go out.

BT: What did you think of it?

JC: Oh it’s very hard for me to be objective. I really thought that Tom Shankland did a really amazing job with the photography and capturing the world of the 1970’s. It feels like you really exist in that space. It feels really authentic and unstructured in a really fun way, and that has so much to do with the way that he shoots because everybody’s free, it’s very collaborative, it just really helped us create that hedonistic vibe.

BT: I know as an actor you have to have empathy and no judgement for the characters that you play, but that being said, how do you feel about Marie-Andrée?

JC: I feel really conflicted. I feel lots of things because I’ve sat in her skin for so long and I feel like I understand how she arrived at where she arrived at because I feel like I’ve explored and examined her mentality for so long. The morality, just understanding it, is a very different question because it’s so different from your own moral judgement. Playing that character and dissecting it, I didn’t really bring my own judgement into it. It was more about trying to make sense and try to understand what made her tick and how she operated. I explored her mental state by reading her real life diaries and her voice tapes that I was given, and then you also put that aside and, dramatically, you work from the script in looking at her arc and shaping her dramatically, too.

BT: So based on all of that research and your conversations with Richard Warlow and Tom Shankland, do you see her as an accomplice or as a victim?

JC: I see her as both. I think that’s where it gets so complicated. I’m a massive geek and I always write things down in a book, and I received and wrote two quotes. One of them was that she was a victim of love, and I think it was Ajay (Chowdhury) that said “she’s steely”, she’s no willow in the wind. She isn’t just this innocent girl who was brainwashed. She actively went after Charles and actively didn’t want to leave either. I feel like there’s a constant push and pull between her choosing to be there and not being able to leave. It’s really muddy and complicated, and I think what makes the storytelling distinctive is that it sits in both spheres.

BT: And you had the real life Herman Knippenberg and Nadine Gires on set, which must have been so fascinating.

JC: Yeah!

BT: What did you learn from them about Marie-Andrée?

JC: I mean I think Nadine was quite weirded out [laughs] seeing us all in costume and full character. She said I looked very much like her. I asked her if Marie-Andrée and Charles were really in love, like was it true love. She said she thinks so, obviously more with Marie-Andrée, but she thinks that Charles was at the beginning. But also, the question is, is that man capable of love? He was very unfaithful. At the time, Nadine had asked Marie-Andrée if she wanted children with him, and apparently Marie-Andrée said “no, I couldn’t. They would be a monster”. So I think that, in terms of victim or accomplice, that’s somebody who knew that by having his children…that something runs dark and evil within him. Those aren’t the words of an unconscionable person.

BT: You have a lot of moments in this show where you express so much without any dialogue, with your body language and face, which makes your two final confrontations with Charles that much more explosive.

JC: Yeah, I mean just dramatically, I loved those scenes so much. I feel like in that story and in our arc of it, that’s somebody who is completely undone and unravelled, and has been pushed past the point of no return, and has been emptied out as a person and ripped apart. That was what happens when somebody has really hit rock bottom and wonders ‘what’s next?’. So dramatically, to explore that complete undoing of her was so fun. It’s where she finally accepts the truth and sees Charles for what he is. I think someone becomes dangerous when there’s nothing left to lose. She’s already been through the worst, she’s already lost everything, there’s something so depraved about it. And then obviously the end scene where she’s truly arrived in a very different space and has found God again…her mentality is so fascinating. When I listen to her tapes from when she was in prison, it’s like she’s lived with a new form of delusion to live with her actions. I think she convinced herself….it’s all about survival, and she convinced herself that she was good, I think. It was her coping mechanism.

BT: I read that you had been an admirer of Tahar’s work since A Prophet, so what was it like collaborating with him?

JC: There’s always the fear of working with someone who you’ve really admired from afar, but he exceeded every expectation as a scene partner and as an actor. Working with him was so easy because I feel like our instincts are the same. It was just so easy, and challenging in a way and surprising. He’s a really dynamic actor. Also, their relationship is so complicated, so the two of us went on a real journey of exploring that. He’s just the nicest and has got the most beautiful soul. He’s such a graceful man and made me feel very safe at work, which meant that the two of us could really play with Tom and Hans (Herbots), our directors, and explore the dense material.

BT: It is very dense material, so what did you do at the end of the work days to dissociate from it temporarily?

JC: I think there’s enough distraction in Bangkok [laughs] that I feel like we could work hard during the week and there’s enough fun distractions on the weekends.

BT: Including Tahar, you’ve had some incredible and very giving scene partners over the years in your illustrious career. Michelle Gomez and Matt Smith from Doctor Who, Sally Field from All My Sons, and of course the rest of the tremendous cast on The Serpent. Who have been some of your favourite scene partners over the years that you’d like to collaborate with again?

JC: I feel really spoiled in that way. Obviously I’d work again with Tahar in a heartbeat, time and time again. I really enjoyed working with Rufus Sewell on Victoria. We had a lot of fun together, he’s a really generous actor. Matt and Peter (Capaldi) taught me so much on Doctor Who. That was kind of one of my first lead roles in terms of being on set all the time and the nature of Doctor Who is all about spontaneity and options for the edit. They’re both such adept actors so I feel like I learned so much from them. And Michelle Gomez is hilarious! She’s just so bonkers. She was a lot of fun to work with! Oh and Sally Field, yes! I adore her. Sally was incredible to work with, an absolute powerhouse of an actress. I’d watch her in rehearsal and then every night on stage, and she was an amazing support to me as well.

BT: Looking back on the roles and characters that you’ve portrayed, which performances of yours are you particularly proud of yourself for having achieved? 

JC: Oh my goodness. It’s very hard to be objective in terms of my performances because I don’t really tend to go back and watch them and analyze them. In terms of the processes and in terms of the jobs, I tend to love my last one the best. [laughs] So The Serpent is definitely a favourite. I also feel like it’s so rare for you to get that kind of material, to play a character so far away from yourself and go on such a journey with it. Victoria, obviously, for different reasons. The Cry was very emotionally challenging, it was a bit of an emotional marathon. I tend to love the characters that are further away from me. I mean Annie in All my Sons, there was a lot for me to grasp hold of there. It’s very different from me culturally, accent-wise, as well as the period, too. And, to be honest, I’ve just finished on a film two days ago and I play a very, very different character to me on that one. [laughs] It’s quite a swear-y character, let’s say.

BT: So people all around the world are going to be binge watching The Serpent very soon. What have you been watching lately?

JC: I watched The Undoing quite recently. Oh gosh, I feel like I haven’t watched TV in ages! I mean I loved The Queen’s Gambit, obviously. Everyone adored that one. I’m probably forgetting all the brilliant things. Oh, Call My Agent! Ah, so good. And the series My Brilliant Friend as well, just because I love Elena Ferrante’s books.

BT: Thank you so much for your time, Jenna!

JC: It was great to speak to you.

The Serpent begins streaming on Netflix tomorrow

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