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I TALK TO Jill Halfpenny

"I actually didn't see it coming. Some other people might, but I didn't."


All Creatures Great and Small, Blood, Cold Call and The Deceived are just some of the fantastic original dramas Channel 5 have made recently. And now there's The Drowning, a new four-part thriller that will no doubt leave you gripped night after night.


Written by Tim Dynevor, Francesca Brill and Luke Watson, The Drowning stars Jill Halfpenny as Jodie whose son disappeared 9 years ago. After catching sight of teenager Daniel, played by Cody Molko, she is convinced she has found her missing son. Whether she is right or not, in that moment her spark of hope is ignited and she commits to a dangerous and transgressive path that will take her to the edge of reason.


Jonas Armstrong plays Jodie's only sibling Jason, who's the only real support she has had in her life. Always in control, he is a practising lawyer and on the cusp of a huge promotion. And Deborah Findlay plays Jodie's mother Lynn, with whom she has a fractious relationship.


Rupert Penry-Jones plays Daniel's father Mark, an architect that keeps a tight rein on his emotions and on his son's life. Babs Olusanmokun star as Ade and Jade Anouka plays Jodie’s friend Yasmin.


I recently caught up with Jill Halfpenny for a wonderful in-depth chat about taking on the role of Jodie in The Drowning, her spoiler-free thoughts on the show's ending and of course a great discussion about what she enjoys watching on the telly!


What type of drama is The Drowning?


I would say it's a thriller, but it has big emotional content because of the subject matter. Some thrillers, even though I enjoy them, can be quite cold. I think people will be drawn in a bit more with the content of The Drowning because a lot of people will be able to relate.


And how do you see your character, Jodie?


Well, the first time I read the script and I had a chat with Carolina (Giammetta), the director, the first thing I said was "I don't think she's mad at all. And I would never want to play her that way. Is that how you want it played?" And Carolina was like "Absolutely not!" So we were both in agreement about that.


The thing is, as far as I can see, she's a very normal person in extraordinary circumstances. The idea of losing your child has to be one of the worst things that can happen to you. But the idea of losing your child and people having no patience, no time, no respect and not even believing your grief - I think that's outrageous!


She's very much on her own isn't she? What was that like to play?


Yeah. I mean, it was great to play. It was really really great to play because the venom that comes out of Jodie - which actually, in reality I think you could go a lot further with - was great to play.


And not only does no one understand her, but she thinks they're fucking mad. "Are you nuts? What you're saying to me makes no sense at all!" But they're all looking at her like some sort of Stepford family and she's thinking - am I in another universe here? So that was really fun actually!


And also her ex-husband, Ben. Why do you think he's been able to get on with his life, yet Jodie hasn't?


We talked about this a lot. I think some people when they've experienced something like that, close down. I think one of his lines is "I'm done. I have to move on." - I think this is a statistic, so I wouldn't want to offend men, but I think men move on a lot quicker than women do when there's been a loss or a divorce. A loss of any kind.


I actually think Ben carries a lot of guilt and shame. He knows what he was doing that day and he knows where he is now. As much as it pains him - because I don't think he's a cold, calculated man - it's way more painful for him to see me and have me talk about Tom. It would just be easier for him to put Tom in a little box, and for him to privately grieve as and when he wants to.


But Jodie's the disruptor. She comes in and tears his heart open again and he's like "Fuck off Jodie! I just wanna live my life." and I'm like "Well, tough. This is our son we're talking about."


Do you think the way Daniel warms to Jodie makes her believe it's Tom, even more than if he was say, distant with her?


Yeah! It's confirmation bias isn't it? It's like, he knows that his life is strange. He knows that his dad is strange. But he doesn't know why. Why would your dad never talk about your mum? That's really odd.


And then this woman, this maternal figure, comes into his life who is nothing short of 100 per cent attentive to him - which at times must be creepy! But she manages to not put him off.


So he thinks, well this must be what mothers are like. This must be what love is like. Because I've not had this before. The jigsaw finally has its missing piece. I think if you want to believe something enough, you will find that evidence. You will look for it and find it.


It's like conspiracy theorists and cults - if something's missing and somebody tells you that they are the missing piece, you're like "I'm in."



Let's talk about Cody Molko who plays Daniel. What a wonderful actor he is! What was it like to work with him?


He's just a wonderful young man. He's just lush. He's a really curious, enthusiastic young man. He's a talented musician. He's got lovely parents. He's one of those kids where there's no precociousness there at all. He's just brilliant at talking to adults. He's very informed. He's got a lot of opinions. And a great sense of humour. He's just really lovely to be around.


Sometimes, when you're working with children, you can think - oh, I've got seven hours, so today might be a bit of a slog - but I never felt like that with Cody! We'd sit and chat and he was just a delight!


One of the few people there for Jodie, is Yasmin, her best friend. How important is that relationship to the story?


I think when you're writing a story, characters who are isolated and feel lonely or cut off, are usually really interesting characters, because they have a lot of motivation to do what they do. Story wise, you always need an anchor in some way because you need to know what that character's real thoughts are.


Jodie has her guard up with almost everyone, so it's important to have Yas. And it was really important for us that it was a woman as well. That friendship where she had probably been vile to her, she'd been drunk with her and said mean stuff to, but there are boundaries. You're not just going to put up with shit.


I think she's the only one that really can hold the pain for her and tell her that it sucks and that she understands her.



And what was it like working with Jade Anouka who plays Yasmin?


All of my scenes with Jade were in the second part of filming - after lockdown - so that was really bizarre to have not seen her for that long and suddenly we're playing best mates! But she's another one isn't she? She's very good at what she does.


It's very easy to do scenes with her because she knows exactly what she's doing and what she wants from the scene. And I know what I want from the scene. It was really nice to play some scenes where Jodie was staring into the eyes of someone who actually liked her!


Any favourite scenes to look out for?


I haven't seen this yet, but there's a scene where Jodie is invited around to her ex-husband's house and I can't say what happens... that was really fun to film, but because there were five of us round the table it took hours obviously. But I quite liked playing around with that scene.


I don't know how it's come out because I haven't seen it. But that was fun, to be a bit destructive. Also, a lot of women talk about this now, because it's something that's important to us, which is, it's important that women are show in all of their colours.


It's not about being attractive and doing the right thing all the time. And it's not about being "a baddie" or "a goodie". It's about being messy. The bits in-between! The really ugly bits. So it's always nice to play roles like that.


And there's a scene straight after that where she shares a cigarette with her ex-best friend and rather than have a scene where they're having an argument, I quite liked the way that was written - she had such forethought to say "You know, you've lost me. You're looking at me going 'poor Jodie', but you've lost me and I was a fucking good friend. Think about that." I like the writing in that scene.


Without giving the ending away, what was your reaction when you first read how it was going to end. Did you see it coming?


I actually didn't! I actually didn't see it coming. Some other people might, but I didn't. Endings are notoriously tricky. You just have to look at Twitter to know that no one's ever satisfied with endings!


But I feel like there's enough tied up and a feeling that the right things have happened, but also without it being too neat and obvious. I was satisfied with it.


What was it like filming in Dublin?


God! That really helps when you're in a place like that. In central Dublin, the architecture is amazing. I was living in Bray for the second half, so I was right beside the sea which was gorgeous. We then filmed at a loch and that was lush.


And actually, that loch is the location for the film Frank. There's a scene in Frank's house! The location manager had asked our director, Carolina, what she was after for this scene and she went "You know that movie, Frank? That's kind of what I want." - and he was like "I can take you exactly there!" Which was brilliant.


You filmed the series pre and post the first lockdown. What was that like?


It was horrible when we got shut down. We were in a really good flow. We really felt like we were flying with it and then we started to worry that we might not be able to pick it back up again. Worried that it would never end up getting made. So that was a real anxiety for me and everybody else. We just wanted to know that it was going to get finished.


So it was such a relief to get back, but then you have that anxiety of - what did I do? We had a direct cut as well where I literally walked out of one room and into another and that was the first scene we did on the first day back. The director was like - What if she looks different? What if she put on lots of weight?! But it was all OK and it was so good to be back.


The Drowning is made by Noel Clarke and Jason Maza's production company, Unstoppable Film & Television. How involved were they?


If I'm right, and I think I am, Noel was at the very same time shooting Bulletproof. Obviously they're a team but I think they assign each other projects sometimes so Jason was on set with us every day. And he's just amazing. He's got a really brilliant attitude to life. I've so much admiration for him. He sees what he wants and he goes for it and he makes it happen.


When I first started in television, a long time ago, it was full of the same type of people. Jason and Noel just bring an energy and a different vibe to it. I just find it really really exciting! They just seem fearless. They're so open as well - "If you've got any ideas Jill, come to me. If I think it's good, I'll tell you. If I don't, I'll tell you." I just love that about him. He's very upfront.


Back when I started (in television) it was very much - We are here. You are here. And we don't mix. Whereas I just didn't find Jason like that at all. He was massively supportive and integrated into the whole thing... oh and obviously he was acting in it as well!



The drama is being stripped across four nights. How do you feel about that? Is that how you enjoy watching television now?


There doesn't seem to be any rules anymore. You binge it. You do it on catch up. You watch it nightly. You watch it all day. All I know is, when I binge something - which I do, a lot - I always have a slight regret at the end that I haven't digested each episode. I just want more!


Obviously it's the sign of a good show that I want more, but I think 24 hours is good. If you do it weekly that can be too long. It's amazing that we're even saying this now! It's changed so much. But for The Drowning, because it's a thriller, I think nightly is good. Keep them coming back!


Channel 5 are still relatively new when it comes to making original drama - but they have had some great successes - do you think there are even more opportunities now for actors to do their craft?


I do. I really do. I mean, look. Every year there's more of us so a lot of actors reading this might think - well I don't feel like there's more content, because I'm not working - and I really get that. I wouldn't want people to think I didn't. I do.


It's also about the amount of money that's being put in. People just seem to have a veracious appetite for television right now. They really do. I never want cinema to go away, I love movies and I love going to the cinema. Please God let that always be the case.


But when you realise when you're writing something that instead of having to push something all into two hours, you can stretch it over seven... a show like Succession where you're writing about a whole family, you need those hours! That's what people have really got on board with. If you want to go there and want to really dig and get messy and really investigate it, you need to have a television show. It just has to span at least 10 hours for a show like that.


A lot more actors now are writing their own material and creating their own shows. Is that something you're interested in?


Yeah! I have. Last year Merman actually optioned one of my scripts which I wrote with my friend, Polly Hudson. It's hard. It's dead exciting when somebody options it but it's really difficult to then get somebody to actually make it. As yet, we haven't had any takers, but the fact that Clelia (Mountford) and Sharon (Horgan) loved our script- honestly, I could have died and gone to heaven!


I was like - "Do you like it?" - and they were like - "Yeah! We think it's great, we think it's really funny." We wrote something that bridges somewhere between a drama and a sitcom. It was going to be a half hour. It was tough. It was really really tough.


But I did enjoy the experience and it's something I'd love to do more. You've got to have a good idea. You've got to have a good story to drive you through those hours.


What TV have you enjoyed recently?


Call My Agent is brilliant because it's funny and it's amazingly well acted. You just don't see many comedies - or anything really - about our industry that work that well. It's often a bit icky. I've watched Bridgerton like everyone else. I thought that was fun and really good. That felt like escapism.


Normal People. I thought that was breathtakingly beautiful. I just loved it. I hadn't read the book and I thought - ooh, am I gonna like this? It was one of those shows that was really hyped up, but I honestly thought those two were brilliant.


Then I am also the person who would want to watch a three-hour film about a character that barely opens their mouth. I hate the word eclectic, because everyone says it, but I don't watch things because of the style. I just watch something because I fancy it.


My son has very recently got into old seasons of The Circle and I was like - "Oh really? You're going to watch this?" - and then by episode two I was like - "What's happening next?" I love all that. I've loved Big Brother since the day it started.


There are certain reality shows that are done really well and they are always going to be in my wheelhouse, I'm always going to watch them, but when they're not done so well, it can start to feel a bit like groundhog day. I think that's the same with a drama, a comedy. If something is done well, I'll watch it! I love the variety. I can see The Circle USA on my Netflix... it keeps popping up!


I'll tell you another reality show I watched... Love is Blind. I. Loved. That. Honestly, I wanted so much more than I was given! I just thought that was fascinating.


What's next for you after The Drowning?


I don't know. I've been in the land of Zoom auditions. No one enjoys a Zoom audition! Auditions themselves are hard enough, but over Zoom - the director, the casting director, no one likes them. But look, we're all doing them and adapting and that's what we've got to do.


So I'm waiting to hear from a few things. There is one that I would really really really like so if it works out, I'll be thrilled. And if it doesn't, onwards and upwards. I was going to say I'm used to it - but I don't mean, I'm used to it so it doesn't bother me. It does bother me when I don't get things that I would like.


I'm 45 now and it's got to the point where it used to really really sting when you didn't get the thing you wanted, but now I know that that feeling doesn't help me get over it.


Have you ever chosen to watch someone play a role you missed out on?


Yeah. Sometimes I will watch the show that I didn't get and absolutely understand why that person got it. All of the ones I'm talking about are the ones that are basically between you and someone else. Where you're very close. Because if you're not down to the last two, then it was never really your job.


I really believe this now - when you're down to the last two or three, any one of you could do it. It really is just a decision that has to be made. So if they don't go with you, it really isn't personal. They had to choose someone, you're not it, get on with it.


It does hurt a bit, but the ones that bother me are the ones where you go up for something, you get really close, and they end up casting the exact opposite of what they said they wanted. Why did you say you wanted X, Y and Z and you've gone for...? Obviously they've just decided to go in a different direction, but for some reason those are the ones that bug me the most!


The Drowning airs Monday 1st - Thursday 4th February at 9pm on Channel 5


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