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I TALK TO Lisa McGrillis

"This part is quite exposing. It's definitely the closest role I've ever played to myself."

With a decade on our screens, first in BBC Two's 2012 sitcom Hebburn as Vicki alongside Chris Ramsey and then most notably in 2016 as Kelly alongside Lesley Manville in BBC Two comedy Mum, Lisa McGrillis is fast becoming one of the most recognisable and respected actors on British television.

With a rich comedy CV that also includes King Gary and Avoidance, Lisa is proving herself to be a really versatile character actors, most notably as Sue in Channel 4's stunning drama from 2022, Somewhere Boy.

Known best, perhaps, for her comedy roles, Lisa has also starred in a number of dramas including Deadwater Fell, Death in Paradise, Inspector George Gently and No Offence and her latest is in ITV1's first medical drama in a decade, Maternal alongside Lara Pulver and Parminder Nagra.

The six-part drama from Jacqui Honess-Martin is about three female doctors returning to post-pandemic frontline medicine after maternity leave and having to heroically balance the intense demands of the NHS and motherhood.

Lisa plays Dr Helen Cavendish, a Registrar in Acute Medicine and mum to three children with her husband Guy who is a Consultant and also her boss in the same Acute Medical Unit.

Their disintegrating work-life balance has put a strain on their marriage, exacerbated by Guy’s recent affair with a 24-year-old colleague. A mother to all, Helen has always put herself second to the needs of her family and friends.

Over the series, she’ll come face-to-face with the sacrifices she’s made, as well as those made by all who worked in the NHS through the pandemi

Lisa McGrillis is one of the nicest actors I've met over the years running I Talk Telly and it's been so wonderful to see her career continue from strength to strength. Every opportunity to sit down with Lisa for a chat is an absolute pleasure and that's exactly what I did ahead of the launch of Maternal.

Lisa spoke to me about why she considers Helen in Maternal to be the closest character to her that she's ever played, she shares a very personal story about her experience as a mother with the NHS and we discuss her future roles in Sex Education and upcoming BBC One drama Best Interests.

Who is Helen?

I play Dr Helen Cavendish who is an acute medic, and a registrar, so she's not quite made it to consultant level. She has three young children and comes from a very working-class background so has worked really hard to get to where she is.

She has married Guy Cavendish (played by Oliver Chris) who is as posh as his name sounds, to be honest! They're from completely different worlds, but they met, maybe, at medical school, had three children and very much worked their way up through the ranks.

But Helen has taken time off to raise the kids and he has now made consultant, which means that he is actually her superior. He's her boss. He has had an affair with one of the junior doctors who's very young, got gorgeous hair, she's clever, she's very different to Helen.

So Helen is not only coming back to work post-kids, but she's also having to work on the ward, doing the ward rounds, with the woman that her husband had an affair with. She's dealing with quite a lot!

But what she does so beautifully, which I wouldn't be able to do, is manage it very well. She very much puts her professional head on and gets on with her job, does her job very well and buries this absolute humiliation, heartache and disappointment really well.

Out of the three leads in Maternal, I feel like she handles her troubles better than the other two.

Oh, she absolutely does. I aspire to have as much control as Helen. She seems to just take on everyone else's problems and also manages the work/life balance really well. She's an incredible woman. She's really intelligent.

Acute medicine is almost a bit like miscellaneous. It's not a heart attack. It's not cardiology. It's not a paediatric doctor. So Covid patients would have gone through acute medicine. That would have been their first port of call before they were sent off to the different departments.

She's a brilliant problem solver and reads the room very well. Often she doesn't take a medical approach, she takes more of a human approach and asks all the right questions. She's a wonder!

Maternal isn't about Covid, but it does have significance in the show, doesn't it?

Yeah. I don't know about you, but I personally feel like I couldn't watch a show about Covid and I need to reiterate that this isn't a show about Covid, it's just set today. It's set in the present day. So Covid is talked about in the show and you get a glimpse of how the NHS' day to day has been affected by it.

You meet these women on the first day back and they're being taken through Covid protocols. All of this new shit that doctors have to deal with on top of the daily grind of life and death.

So yes, it's very relevant, because they've all been affected in different ways. Helen has been on maternity leave in Covid. During the first wave, doctors and nurses had to live separately from their partners and their families and Helen is a slight casualty of that. Especially because her husband had an affair whilst she was at home with a newborn baby and two young children, having to fly solo.

Did you have to do much research for Maternal?

Because I wasn't a paediatric doctor, I didn't have all the medical jargon that Parminder (Nagra, who plays Dr Maryam Afridi) certainly has. Honestly, Parminder has so much medical stuff to say that when I read it, I thought "Thank fuck I don't have to say that" because it would have taken me a month to learn.

Weirdly, because obviously, Parminder did ER for years, I don't know if she found it easier, but it's there. She's learnt a way of saying it. Whenever I had any kind of medical jargon or medication to talk about, I always got it wrong.

It's funny, Jacqui Honess-Martin (writer, Maternal) said that if there happened to be a second series, she'd make sure she didn't give me any of that to say. "I'm getting the impression that it doesn't sit well with you" she said.

So I didn't have to do much. Lara (Pulver, who plays Miss Catherine MacDiarmid) did with all the surgery stuff. All of the prep and all of the intricate keyhole surgery that they did show, Lara needed it to look like she knew what she was doing. I feel like they both had more of that than me.

I had little stupid things. There were always medical advisors on set, which was really really useful. And I know it sounds really stupid, but if you're paging someone I had to ask "How do you page someone?" - "What number do you dial?" - little stupid things to make it feel really real.

Obviously, they have to put on gloves every time but there are certain techniques for taking a glove off. I was trying to take it off by the fingers and making a really big deal of it, whereas if you pull it from that part (points to just above the wrist) it comes off really quickly in a very clean and precise way.

All the little things that needed to look like second nature, were super important to make it feel real. The things that would really stick out to a medical professional. But Jacqui's attention to detail as a writer is incredible. I feel like she could be a fully qualified doctor now because she's read so many medical books and had so many discussions with so many different doctors.

When you first read the script, as a mother yourself, were there parts of the script that especially resonated with you?

Yeah. I have to say, this part is quite exposing. It's definitely the closest role I've ever played to myself. It's very much a version of myself.

I am a mother who is juggling two young children, trying to keep my career going, and dealing with the work-life balance. Trying to be a good mother but at the same time trying to do well in my job.

I'm a character actor. I like to disappear behind a character who is a million miles away from me. Find a way to disappear behind.

It's taken me a long time to get where I am and I feel like I can't just let it all go. I am doing the juggle. Honestly, some of the days I was working on Maternal, my husband was working away in America and I had volunteered to have my own baby, Cleo, playing my baby in the show. I just thought that made sense because she's got a fifteen-month-old baby and I have one of those.

Cleo is comfortable with me, it'll make it feel really authentic - but at the same time, my childminder got a really bad sickness bug and therefore I had Cleo at work with me, my six-year-old son with me, sat behind the monitors, watching whilst also trying to do my job. It hard trying to switch off the mum part of my brain when I'd be doing a scene that was running into 6/7pm at night, I was like "Cleo should be in bed now" - but there's something about that, that just makes it feel really real.

This is a show about women juggling motherhood and their careers. They just happen to be doctors.

Tonally, how would you describe Maternal?

What Jacqui does really beautifully, is she punctuates things with a bit of comedy. There's a beautiful moment when Parminder is saving a baby's life and at the same time is having a panic attack, but she does her job really well and goes into the toilet and is so elated that she ends up punching the toilet roll holder off the wall - and it's just so funny. There are those lovely little beats throughout which just let an audience in.

It's not a comedy, but there's comedy in the situations sometimes. The stuff that they have to deal with can be really heavy. How they don't then take that home with them, is beyond.

It's interesting you say that. At the end of the first episode, I had that exact same thought about Parminder's character in particular. And often it's asked of actors how they don't take their work home with them, but it's very different, isn't it?

It is. That's what I mean. It's kind of like a wake-up call. I personally felt that I was juggling a family with going to work. Obviously, I've got a lot to do and a lot to remember and think about and it's long hours, but at the end of the day, in my job, if I forget my line or I fuck up a scene, it's fine because no one's going to die.

These people who are sleep-deprived and overworked suddenly at the end of a 12-hour night shift, something terrible happens and they're having to deal with it. It's extraordinary.

When I had my little girl, Cleo, born on the 28th December (2020), she was in intensive care for a week at Homerton Hospital. (During that time) I was exposed to an intensive care unit in a hospital, in peak Covid for a week as I sat there next to Cleo. I was watching these doctors coming in and out giving 24 hours, around-the-clock care and it honestly blew my mind. I wanted to go over and hug them.

They were dealing with these babies that were so unwell, so premature. I've never seen anything like it. Just watching them, save these babies' lives - I watched them save my daughter's life, in front of me. It was honestly, extraordinary.

I chatted to one of them and said "Why is it so busy here?" and they said "Oh, because the other intensive care unit for newborn babies - NICU it's called, neonatal intensive care unit - had had to close, because they didn't have any staff, so they merged it all at Homerton Hospital. It was so busy! There were so many babies there. The doctors were all from different hospitals because there was such a shortage of staff.

As traumatic as it was, in so many ways, and obviously Cleo is absolutely fine and home and very much healthy - in the show as you can see - I had that week of seeing these people deal with so much. Can you imagine those intensive care units? Actually, Guy, my husband in the show played by Oliver Chris, has a line in the show where he talks about Covid and says "We'll be working with Covid for the next decade" and it really stuck with me.

The world has opened up again and there's a new normal now, isn't there? But the waiting lists for people that need operations are mad. There's an episode of Maternal where there's not enough staff to cover their surgery, so Catherine has to go and let down all of these people. It's awful because there's a woman who's dying. And her daughter wants to take her away.

This drama is so relevant. And going back to what I was saying earlier, this drama is not about Covid, but it's really important that Covid is there and being acknowledged.

Maternal is being described as “a love letter to women on the NHS frontline who are holding it together" - is that how you see it?

Yeah. It is a love letter to the NHS. I hope the show shows it in a light that puts all these doctors on a pedestal where they belong because they're all heroes. I hope the show does it justice. I hope it's a true reflection of the NHS without it being a rolling of the eyes of the NHS. Hopefully, it gives a positive reflection of how incredible these people are that are saving lives every day.

How great to have Parminder Nagra back on British television, as well. First in DI Ray, which I loved, and now Maternal.

She's so great. An amazing woman! And probably, like many people, she had a child so there are reasons why she can't come over to the UK and film all the time because she has a kid that's in school in LA. But she's brilliant and I was so excited to work with her. And Lara (Pulver) because I think they're both so brilliant.

I was chuffed to be part of this show. Part of this little trio, because it feels exciting. We were all excited about the show, which is really nice.

Any memorable moments on set that stick out to you?

Oh my god, there are so many! I'm such a bad corpser. I'm so terrible if someone's got a twinkle in their eye. Oliver Chris is a nightmare in so many ways because he makes me laugh so much that I questioned how I was going to get through my scenes with him. How can I take you seriously?

We had so much fun working together. We properly like to slag each other off - in the best possible way - that's our sort of humour, so I loved all my scenes with him because I'm so passive-aggressive with him all the time.

What was memorable, was that I was living in an apartment in Liverpool with my two kids - my husband was working away in America - and my dad completely ruptured his Achilles tendon! My mum and dad were my childcare for the summer, bless their hearts, plus a childminder to help. So I got him a mobility scooter, which he was flying about on with a 1-year-old on one knee and a five-year-old sort of driving him around!

Lara and Raza (Jaffrey) were in the apartment next door and they've got kids the same age, so it was just really joyous. We just had a great time. My dad's mobility scooter broke down in this path that you couldn't access via a car, so I remember being on the phone to Raza saying "You have to go and rescue my dad!" - it was joyous.

The crew as well! We were so lucky to work with such an incredible crew in Liverpool. They were so brilliant and funny. There was so much humour and love and everyone just really loved being part of the show.

So yes it was joyous, but the mental struggle has definitely aged me by about five years in three months!

I also wanted to touch on Helen's half-sister Debbie, played by Nicola Stephenson, who we first meet in episode two. What's their relationship like?

Nicola Stephenson is amazing. I was like as if she is coming in just to do a couple of episodes, but she just loved the script as well and wanted to be a part of this.

They are half-sisters. Debbie is 10 years older than Helen and she has some addiction problems. There's a closeness there, but also a real absence because they are estranged. They haven't seen each other for six years when we meet them.

They were some really brilliant, tender and quite sad scenes with her. Again, Helen just trying to do the right thing. But doing the right thing is actually not having Debbie in her life and she's done that to protect her family.

It's heartbreaking because that's the only family she has left, really.

Maternal is ITV's first medical drama in 10 years, but medical shows have been around forever and will probably be, why do you think we enjoy watching these particular shows so much?

There's a morbid fascination, right? With illness and hospitals and everybody knows what it's like to be in a hospital. Most people have had an experience in a hospital.

But yeah, ITV haven't had a medical drama on for 10 years so this is what they're coming back in with. I really hope it captures an audience. And I'm really glad that you enjoyed it, because I don't how you feel about the way men are portrayed in it, but my husband said to me "This is a show for women, isn't it?" so I'm glad you were able to relate to it and engage with it.

When I had kids, I knew I wanted to have a child, but I questioned if it was the right time because I think the first series of Mum had come out and I was starting to get offered some good roles. And if I have a child, it means I can't go back to work. I wondered how that would affect my work.

Obviously, you work really hard to get to where you are in your career and keep your momentum going and having a baby not only physically does it change you, but it emotionally changes you. I feel like for any parent really that is trying to do both, this show is for them, particularly.

You've certainly picked some fantastic roles to date, and one of my favourite dramas of 2022 was Somewhere Boy, in which you played Danny's aunt, Sue. Would you say you're ready to play more dramatic roles now?

A balance is good. I really love shows that do both comedy and drama. That's the kind of show that I love watching. I love shows that make me cry and then laugh within the space of a minute, that's a perfect balance. It lets an audience in. There's nothing better than crying and then smiling straight after. That feeling as an audience member is really special.

Somewhere Boy. Oh my god. When I read that, I was like "This is phenomenal! This is like nothing else I've ever read. Like nothing else I'd ever seen." As for the part, I'm ready to play these roles and I feel like I haven't necessarily been cast in them before.

I've been cast in very different parts, which has been great, but actually, I haven't been cast as the everyday woman much yet. Somewhere Boy is that and Maternal, hopefully is that. It's nice because the shows that I seem to be doing are doing both comedy and drama.

One of your next roles is in a show that does exactly that, Sex Education. It's one of my favourite shows on television and you'll be joining season 4 as Jean's sister. What are you allowed to say?

Like you, I'm such a huge fan. Oh my god! I'm obsessed with Sex Education. I have seen every single episode, so when the call came in about this role, I was like "Oh god. Oh no! I can't do that." I'm too much of a fan to be in that show.

Then when they offered me the part, I thought "fucking hell, I've actually got to go and do it now." I was filming Maternal at the time - this is another example of the juggle - so I was travelling from Liverpool to Cardiff to film Sex Education and then coming back to film Maternal. I was like a yo-yo going back and forth.

My first day on set (for Sex Education) is the most nervous I have ever been on set. I went in there and felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. My first day was at that iconic house and Ncuti and Asa - Otis and Eric - were standing outside the house doing a scene and I was just walking down and the next thing, Gillian Anderson comes down and says "Hi sis!" - it was really crazy. I felt like I was in some sort of weird dream.

It took me a couple of days to warm up. She is called Joanna and she's a force of nature. She's a whirlwind of chaotic energy. Her energy in Jean Milburn's really tranquil, calm, space is quite jarring!

Another drama we'll be seeing you in soon is Jack Thorne's Best Interests on BBC One, with Michael Sheen and Sharon Horgan. What can you say about that?

That was a show that I really wanted to do because I'm such a fan of Jack Thorne. Of his theatre, and all of his television work. I wanted to do it no matter what. I play Brenda and all my scenes are really with Sharon. She's amazing.

It's mad when you're a fan of people and then suddenly have to do scenes opposite them. Even though I've been doing this for ages and I've worked with lots of incredible people, it never really goes away. Sharon Horgan is somebody that I admire so much. She's brilliant. She is so brilliant in the show and it's amazing to watch her work.

Actually, I was talking to her about how she manages the work-life balance and she said "There's no special formula. There's no handbook." when it comes to being an actor and also having a kid. She was in the post-production for Bad Sisters when we were filming.

I'm not sure I'll be able to watch Best Interests because it is heartbreaking. It's going to be an incredibly difficult watch, but the scripts were phenomenal. I'm very much a supporting part in that, so I really was watching it an enjoy it. It was a lovely show to be a part of. I dip in and out of it really. It's not my vehicle, but I certainly wanted to be a cog in it.

Maternal starts Monday at 9pm on ITV1 with all episodes available on ITVX afterwards


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