Samantha Morton has built an impressive career in television and film. She is currently starring in Sky Atlantic’s The Last Panthers, a multilingual, multinational drama in which she plays Naomi Franckom, an insurance loss-adjuster on the trail of an organised gang of diamond thieves. We spoke to her about transnational crime, the scars of war and deadlifting sixty kilograms.
I want to talk to you about your character Naomi. Her background is clearly very significant to the whole theme of the show but it’s not really fully explored until later on in the series, so how did you approach the task of sketching in her history?
I think it was about getting her, I found her. That was a combination of discussions with Johan [Renck, who directed all six episodes], Peter [Carlton, producer] and Jack Thorne [writer] and then going away and thinking about that before going back and presenting my instinct on her that seemed to fit with what they’d created because ultimately they created her. I’ve just got to try, like a jigsaw, put all these pieces together in my head and make a clear picture of her.
That’s what I did and that’s what I do with everything, whether I’m lucky enough to play someone over a twenty five year period or I’m playing someone with just a week of their lives on screen, I approach it in the same way, the script is full of clues and indicators and revealing things. Also sometimes it isn’t just kind of revealed by what you do, it’s how other people react to you within the script. Clues can come in many forms.
The training aspect was fantastic. To play a soldier, ultimately you’ve got to train as a soldier. I had to get my head around the mental aspect of a soldier and being in the military kind of doesn’t leave you. The opportunity to get that, to get me, Samantha Morton the actor, up to the level of acceptability physically, it does do something with your mental capacity too. You change within that period of training and in military training. By the time we were shooting I was deadlifting 60 kilos with a company in Derbyshire. They were called Born to Move. You literally go to them and say ‘this is what I need to do’ and rather than it be like personal training, it’s a very different concept. They help you with you character in that way. I did military training with them to get me up to the standard of what would be acceptable.
Is that something you’ve kept up? Can you still deadlift 60 kilos?
[Laughs] I’ve tried to keep it up. I’ve just finished a movie actually, which was a very different character. It didn’t feel appropriate to do the amount of weightlifting I was doing. I’m still keeping fit.
My family are all in the military anyway so a few years ago, in and out of having babies–I’ve had all my babies now I’m not having any more kids–it was something I was very interested in, fitness, but I’m not going to be stressed out as a mother like a lot of actors are to lose that baby weight, I don’t give a monkeys. I’m having the baby, I’m breastfeeding, I’m eating healthily, not worrying. It’s all about my family and my kids. I go into work and I approach those characters that I’m taking on.
You’ve mentioned Naomi’s process of changing and how her military experience was profound for her. At the beginning there’s a sense of idealism about her, she’s freely quoting the Geneva Convention and so on. She sees things as they perhaps ought to be rather than as they actually are. How much of that do you think is left in her by the end?
How it feels to me is like when you’re in love with somebody and you won’t hear anything bad about them. You have an ideal about who they are and they do something that hurts, that really hurts, like have an affair or you see another side to them, some of the choices that that individual might make and you get your heart broken but you can’t lose heart. You’re hurt for a moment, you’re wounded for a moment. Your wing is broken but you’ll fix it and fly off. It’s that kind of character, that spirit. You can have behaviour and you can have opinions and you can have reactionary thoughts but ultimately your spirit and your soul is quite a profound thing and I think whether she’s quoting the Geneva Convention to fight for what’s right or, in her job, trying to do the right thing. It’s her sense of spirit that keeps her strong.
That’s a really interesting analogy because so much of Naomi and the other characters, it all comes down to a personal or emotional response.
It’s not just plot and story. I mean, there is, obviously, it’s fantastic but yeah.
Milan calls her the Angel of Death, which is quite a thing to be called
Do you think that was one of her motivations, particularly when she meets up with him later on, that tries to make good on what’s happened before?
No, not at all. It all happened so quick, everything that’s gone on. It all happens within a very short timeframe. I think that people, when they’re in very heightened situations, whether it’s war… you kind of… I don’t know if in your life you’ve had situations where you have to think on your feet, whether because of a crisis or whatever. Everyone is living on adrenaline in those circumstances. You only have to watch the A&E programme, you know that brilliant documentary 24 Hours In A&E, which is brilliant on television and how they’ve edited it and how they’ve cut it together you get to see how people behave in crisis and what comes out in people. So I think when she’s going through this experience she’s just living in the moment. It’s not premeditated, it’s not ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to sort this out’ prior to meeting up with him again.
You know, before she meets up with him again she thinks ‘who is this person, why did he save me? Why did he do that?’ She doesn’t recognise him, she doesn’t know who the fuck he is, you know ‘why did you save me?’ and ultimately it’s finding the man who saved her. She doesn’t know that, you know?
Imagine someone like is there and you’re about to die and they kill their two colleagues and they save you, what is that? Who are you? Why did you save me?
It’s a very curious moment, isn’t; it? One of those moments in life.
Yeah, but she can’t tell her boss that. She can’t say ‘I need to know who he is because he saved me’, she’s got to go after the diamonds. It’s personal for her.
What about her relationship with Tom [Kendle, Naomi’s boss, played by John Hurt] because that’s quite an interesting one isn’t it?
You’ve seen four episodes yeah?
I’ve seen six.
How come you’ve seen six?
They let me see the previews.
Oh my God, OK. When did you see them?
I saw the last two earlier this week.
Wow, Okay. Well I can’t say too much because I don’t people to know, but her relationship with Tom is one of a major history. He was a friend of her father. She didn’t know that when she was younger but when she’s working for him for many years, you know, they’re family in a funny, odd kind of way.
It is odd. When we first see them meet, she’s trying to weigh him up I think.
In her early twenties, like some upstart.
She says ‘you’re MI6’, those kinds of things. He’s a very strange presence in her life.
Yeah, and I like how a lot of that isn’t totally explained. We know the history, we perform what we perform and there’s the layers of history. We know they know each other, really well and I hope the way that John and I did our homework on that and the rehearsals, and hours and hours of conversation to establish imagined histories. I think that’s what beautiful about it, it’s not. Everything’s not signposted all the time. It’s not given to you on a plate.
I watched a film the other night and I won’t name any names because I don’t want to be rude. Everything, I mean the music was fantastic, it was shot incredibly well, and it was about a subject matter that was really tough but the script was shocking. Everybody were saying what they were feeling all the time, telling the plot all the time. It was bonkers and I was like, thank god I did something like the Panthers because it’s so intelligent.
Obviously Sky Atlantic funded Warp Films to make a quality, quality drama. It’s not about the viewing figures instantly, it’s not about instant gratification, it’s about game-changing drama. Whereas movies have got to get test audiences, they’ve got to get bums on seats, they’ve got to sell it. It’s insane. We have this kind of safety of a company just wanting to do quality.
And there’s more room, isn’t there, when you’ve got several episodes to tell your story. I mean with episode five we have an almost an entire episode length flashback, it’s given room to percolate through…
…which is really brave. Really brave in a drama to go all the way back and find out why this person is the way that she is and linking on all the other characters. And you see you know, the car with the hedgehog in it and it’s just like ‘oh my God’ it all ties in together and it’s… oh my God. Especially with what’s been happening in Paris lately and the guns and we can trace this European history. It’s fascinating.
I thought it was, I don’t mean to be funny, but quite a well-timed drama from that point of view.
Well, they started it four years ago. I mean the guy has been doing research before that. Jérôme [Pierrat, writer] has been doing all this research and then Jack started it four years ago. It’s heartbreaking that there’s a coincidence there but it’s because it’s happening. It’s holding a mirror up to society and you know a lot of people might not want to see that because it’s really truthful and yet there’s the drama aspect.
It’s what the hell is going on? What are we creating? The ramifications of bombing Syria, what are we going to create? The ramifications of the Gulf War, what are we going to create? What happened in Bosnia, what are we going to create? We instigate it. How is this going to come back, whether it’s ten years, twenty years, thirty years, forty years into the future to come and bite us on the bum. How is it going to happen? Our behaviour and how we operate in the rest of the world I think this drama is really, really intelligent on that level.
I was quite pleased that it did deal with the Balkans in quite a large way because that’s almost been forgotten.
It’s such a recent history though. I can remember being at school and it all kicking off, it was huge. Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome To Sarajevo was an incredible film. But we live in this society where every week there’s a big drama in the news, whether it’s a shooting or a war or a flooding or like a disaster in the Philippines, Afghanistan, I mean like natural disasters. People are getting numbed to it all. And this happened, it’s what we were part of.
What’s interesting is that there’s a shot of Naomi walking around Belgrade and the two guys, Milan and Zlatko are watching her, wanting to kill her because she’s putting cameras up. I walked past a bombed-out building and one of the questions I asked the people in Belgrade was ‘why are these buildings, so many beautiful buildings, bombed out? Why don’t you regenerate?’ They told me they can’t touch them because dirty bombs were dropped and nobody can afford to clean these buildings up. Certainly Serbia, which is dreadfully poor, can’t. And the countries, you know Nato, which were bombed, are we going to clean it up? No. But I thought the fact that Johan was choosing these shots and layers of history in them was really profound. You can’t do that while shooting anywhere else, that’s why we had to go to those places; Montenegro, Belgrade, Marseille…
Yeah, the locations are utterly crucial to it.
And not easy to shoot in.
There’s also the transnational aspect, the networks. It wouldn’t have worked unless it was fully European.
Yeah, and it makes perfect sense, when you realise. Obviously we’re on this island, we’re quite isolated but when you go over to mainland Europe and the borders and what’s happening there, especially now, and how people do know each other across the borders. You can literally walk from one country to another in a day, have a conversation with another gangster, come back and make a decision. It seems bizarre to us but it’s like going from Leeds to Manchester. It’s bonkers, but the criminal underworld are very organised. Maybe even more organised than our politicians.
Well, there’s the criminal underworld and then there’s the criminal overworld. A lot of this is done in plain sight. This isn’t just shadowy people, it’s politicians, it’s business leaders and so forth.
I think it’s all touched upon really subtly, really subtly in Panthers. It’s like The Wire in that way. When I started watching The Wire–I had to watch it again because I loved it so muc–but when I watched it again, it was like ‘Okay, so that makes it that, and that makes it that’.
The Wire changed the way I view the world. I did actually write in my notes as I was watching Panthers. ‘Wire’, so if that was your intention, it definitely came over.
It was The Corner that they did first, then they did The Wire, which was the game changer that everybody… If you allow someone and you support the writers to research and have the time to do things properly rather than rushing things out there. You nurture talent, the Johans of this world. Then if you get someone like me to play the characters, rather than, I don’t mean to be rude, a ‘dolly bird’. A horrible phrase, but you get what I mean by that. There are always actresses that will look good, they really can’t cut the mustard but they’re edited well. And then there’s people like me who are not beautiful but are real, you believe I’m a real person and I put my heart on the line and I put my soul on the line to perform as well. I was really proud to get it and be part of it.
It’s something that television does particularly well. You’ve been involved in previous dramas that tackle these things, such as Band Of Gold and Cracker. Are you pleased to be still engaged in this sort of politicised drama?
Yeah, totally, that was my grounding, that was my training. I cut my teeth as an actor on very high profile, groundbreaking drama, by people like Kay Mellor who wrote Band Of Gold. With Cracker, I was in just one story of the whole thing, but again, looking back, it was a groundbreaking drama like Between The Lines and Prime Suspect. But they were terrestrial. They’re on television. We now have the luxury of understanding the world of how people watch and receive the art, a film, piece of music, an installation, it’s just changing, constantly. It’s not like a thing of going back to television, thinking ‘oh, I’m going back to television’. I don’t look at it like that, it’s six hours of filming with the same director all the way through. It didn’t feel like I was making television. I mean, it is on the telly obviously but it felt exactly the same as doing a Cronenberg film or anything. I approach it the same way, Johan’s a filmmaker, Peter Carlton is a producer and it’s just being aired in a different way.
Samantha Morton, thank you very much!
The Last Panthers continues on Sky Atlantic Thursday 9pm.