TV.com: U Be Dead launched to over 5 million people on Sunday. How does that feel?
Monica Dolan: Well, that’s amazing. It’s very exciting to get those sort of viewing figures. I suppose we rung a few bells with people because they remember the real story from the papers, but perhaps people will have forgotten a lot of the details meaning the drama still had that degree of suspense. That’s really good, I think.
What was dramatising the real-life case of Maria Marchese like for you?
Monica: It was quite interesting for me because all of the other actors could meet the people that they were portraying; David Morrissey met Dr. Falkowski and Tara FitzGerald met Debra Pemberton. So, even though David and Tara are sophisticated actors--and far too skillful to do impersonations--I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel at a bit of a disadvantage, not being able to meet [Maria]. I got the job quite late as well so I immediately thought what sort of what research can I do without that.
I was very lucky because I sat next to the writer, Gwyneth Hughes, at the read-through. She tried to get lots and lots of information herself, including the police tapes, so I had five hours of recordings to listen to. And of course, as well as being really good for the situation, that was great for the creation of my “Maria” accent as well. I had to do the work on the accent and do psychological work differently at different times and then just hope that they came together, really.
How does playing the part of a reality-based character differ from that of an entirely fictional one?
Monica: If the situation’s real, people can make up all sorts of different events, and sometimes you have difficulty with the character, thinking: “Oh, why do I do this and do that? What sort of person would do both of these things--they’re very inconsistent.” But although what Maria does is very extreme, it’s not... there’s none of it that you look at and think, “Well, that’s inconsistent with something that she did before,” she’s a real person. Also, lots of what she says in the script she actually did say because they’ve had to be very careful for legal reasons not to make lots of things up.
I did feel a lot of responsibility--I feel a responsibility to any character I play--but Maria’s still alive, she’s in prison, she’s doing her time, and I don’t think it would be helpful at all for me to judge her. My job as an actor was to fight her corner, really, and it’s up to the director to decide how far that goes. I needed to present her position fairly so that the audience can judge the situation rather than me judging the situation for them.
I was also really aware that although she was sending violent messages and behaving in this threatening way she must have been in some distress while doing that. I tried really hard to be sensitive and look into why somebody would do that. During the show there was a moment where some of the other people are watching Maria on TV being interviewed and she talks about how her parents used to leave her with nuns from Monday to Friday and she used to cry. The nun said: “It doesn’t matter how hard you cry, no one will hear you.” And I think that was key, I kept hanging on to that and thinking; well, I think that she’s associating love with feelings of longing all the time. That’s what she learnt to do as a child in order to survive, and so that could have distorted her relationships when she’s older. I tried to look at it like that, from a position of understanding her, in order to get some kind of depth.
What responses have you had so far?
Monica: Really amazing ones! Though they’ve mostly been from my friends, so they’re bound to be supportive. A friend of my mums actually couldn’t watch the whole thing because she was watching it on her own--she was too scared. She had to stop it and wait until her son came home so she could watch it with him.
What’s been surprising for me is how people have said “we were really frightened”. Obviously I don’t find myself scary but, also, when you take part in making a drama you get used to all the facts and the extreme things characters like Maria do. What’s really striking me with people’s responses is that they’ve found it quite compelling because they really didn’t know what she was going to do next. Also, David Morrisey’s character is very compelling. David’s so skillful with the moments he decides to let the audience have sympathy with his character, and when he doesn’t. He’s quite meticulous.
Are you worried that when Maria leaves prison she’ll come looking for you?
Monica: I wasn’t! A few people have said this actually; when we were filming a few of the guys playing policemen were saying: “oh, she’ll be after you when she comes out”. I don’t know. The thing is, I really, really love my job and whatever walk of life you’re in you want to pursue and do what you love. I certainly couldn’t let something like that stop me from what I’m doing.
I don’t think in terms of stalking behaviour I actually fit her profile as a “stalkee”. Her stalking of Jan Falkowski and Debra Pemberton started when they got engaged. It started then, though she could have been in love with him sometime before that. I think that’s the kind of thing that will trigger it, but who knows! She’s a fascinating person and I certainly never got to the bottom of her so I wouldn’t like to predict her behaviour.
Would you have liked U Be Dead to have been a series if there was scope for it?
Monica: I think she would have been exhausting to play in a series! I wouldn’t like to hang on to her feelings every day. It was really good that it was a one off, in my opinion. Sometimes particularly good stories can be strung out and it can end up seeming quite thin--I think this worked really well as a one-off.
Well, you’ve got quite a few things lined up anyway, haven’t you?
Monica: Yes. Well, there’s The Arbor which is a documentary film made by an artist called Clio Barnard. It’s all about the playwright Andrea Dunbar, who wrote Rita, Sue and Bob Too. It’s about her and her daughter and it was very interesting to make. I’m playing Anne Hamilton, who’s the foster carer, and there’s loads of vocal footage of Anne so I have to lip sync to her words. That was incredibly difficult to learn because every time she sniffs or sighs you have to get it exactly right. Also, Anne’s an incredibly bright woman so she speaks really fast and always changes her mind about what she’s saying. That was very difficult. I think that’s out in the film festivals in October.
There’s another thing I’ve done, called Excluded, coming out too. That’s part of the education season for BBC2. I play Amanda, the headteacher, in that.
Quite a mixture of roles when you think about it!
Monica: Yeah, they’ve been really different. It’s very different playing a headteacher who’s so controlled and responsible--you couldn’t get more opposite to Maria actually.
You’ve also got Aftermath coming out too?
Monica: That’s right! There’s DCI Banks: Aftermath with Stephen Tompkinson. That was with James Hawes, and he’s a brilliant director. We did that up in Leeds.
How did you get involved with that?
Monica: That was through my agent and I think some of the producers had seen U Be Dead. Also, James Hawes had auditioned me for another piece a few months before and I got down to the last two but didn’t get the role. I think maybe he was trying to give me another chance.
That’s a very different role again. I’m playing an Irish woman called Maggie Forest--though my family’s Irish so I got a bit of a head start there--but she’s a children’s illustrator and quite a sensitive character. That’s in two-parts and is out at the end of September/beginning of October I think.