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I TALK TO Reece Shearsmith

I recently caught up with Reece Shearsmith to talk about playing the role of DS Sean Stone in new ITV drama Chasing Shadows.

2014 has been a brilliant year for Reece Shearsmith. First there was Inside No. 9 which he created with Steve Pemberton, and then there was The Widower with Sheridan Smith (Mrs Biggs) which really showed him off as a great dramatic actor.His year is about to get even better with Chasing Shadows, a thrilling four-part drama set in in a missing persons field unit that hunts serial killers who prey on the vulnerable.


I can only go by the first episode which I have watched, but it certainly left me wanting more. There's always an element of getting to know the characters in a first episode, but once we do, and by the end of episode one the drama really gets going and I'm itching to watch episode.


Let's start by talking about your character Sean. What's he like?


He actually starts off working for the police, and he ends up getting moved to Missing Persons because they find him too difficult to work with. Partly because he's very dogged and very singular in the way he deals with situations. And that comes out of the fact that, and it's never openly discussed in the programme, that he's probably on the autistic spectrum, and he's got particular peculiarities in how he operates - i.e. he doesn't really care about anybody else.


He's only interested in getting down to the facts of the matter and cutting through the human nature to look at the patterns that he sees in piecing together the cases that he's trying to solve. And that in the end becomes difficult  as he humiliates the police in the way that he says - "You could've done better." so they boot him off that and side him with Alex Kingston's character (Ruth) who works for  the Missing Persons unit. And from there, he is assigned people to look for that have vanished.


We then get into the dynamic of this piece really, which is about his relationship with this woman that kind of has to negotiate him in the quite tricky and traumatic situations, meeting people who's children have gone missing. And he's not really very interested in their angst, or worry or grief and is actually quite rude in front of them. She starts to realise how to deal with him, he lets her in a little and  there's difficulty in their relationship to start with, but then over time the find that they can work together and they help each other. As a starting out point, that feels like the thing that would hook you in as an interesting TV experience. Not just your usual police procedural.


Did you ever have any reservations of taking the role in the first place? 


That was the danger when I thought about doing it, right from the start, am I just doing another one (police procedural)? I hope it's not that. I'm not a fan of telly that you can accuse of knowing where it's going, as I'm sure you know, the things that I do I try and keep them arresting and different and things that you have to lean into and work out, and are surprised by what's coming. Not the absolute opposite. This instantly feels slightly different because Missing Persons isn't quite the same thing as a Cracker or a police procedural in the normal.


It may still be levelled as familiar. It is familiar. It's just one of those things, it is a police procedural on ITV. There's no getting around it! And if you're doing it, you're doing it.We were careful of having a klaxon of cliches, and the second two were directed by Jim O'Hanlon who directs A Touch Of Cloth so we were hoping he was going to say - "Oh, we did this on Cloth so we won't do it here!"

Because that was all the tropes put into one. I've watched it and I think it's not that, but we'll see. The last part of the equation is whether anyone else watches it.


How would you describe the overall tone of Chasing Shadows?


I think it's quite low-key, it sets its own pace. It is dark in one way but in another way it's quite hopeful. It's quite grim, some of the stories are quite unremittingly horrible but it's got a lightness of touch about their relationship, so I think that's what makes it not like a Borgen, or one of these one that are all familiar to us now, although they were original once. Hopefully it'll be the dynamic between the characters that is the thing that's intriguing, rather than simply the nuts and bolts of the engine of the plot. We seem to hit the ground running and I hope you'll stick with it.


I don't mean to sound like I'm apologising for it, because I'm not, I did enjoy it, but I'm aware of what it's like to watch things and literally consign them after just two minutes, and I'm sure you are. It was good, it was enjoyable for me to play, a very different character for me to play, a very different kind of responsibility to be a detective on ITV.


I think it's come from having done The Widower, which was an ITV piece about that murder (Malcolm Webster), and that was for me about being perceived as an actor, (laughs) because I don't think I'd been thought of as one for 20 years it seems. I think comedy just consigns you to one bucket and that's not acting, there's no skill in it. And actually the truth is the opposite, and it's far harder to do comedy than it is to do a drama.


Are you enjoying doing more drama now?


I am, yeah! I mean most of my things are all really dramatic, they operate on high end drama. They might be funny, but they're all deadly seriously acted and I don't know why that's been such an illusion for people to see it. But some haven't. I'm known for doing what I do and if you know me you do know me, and if you don't... it's a surprise to me how many more people watch ITV! (Laughs)


That's the one thing I learnt from doing The Widower, I've got a following of certain standing from my comedy, but it's pegged at a certain level, because it is quite extreme, or dark, or strong flavour some would say. I don't, but then that's what's odd about me, my threshold of what's weird is very different to everybody else's it seems.


How did you prepare for this role?


They gave me lists of doctors that deal all the time with autistic people and their traits and peculiarities. That was really interesting to look at, a list of things that they can become obsessional about. It seemed at the end that that could be anything. The list was endless, anything from buttons to pencils and some really amazing things. So we weaved that into a bit of Sean's home life.


They were going to do music which I thought I was a bit obvious, it seemed too much of a relief that he'd be at home playing a clarinet, so I said - "Can it be models?", so we've got him in his spare time doing these fix kit things... which is not too far from me! I've seen it back now, and when you watch it you hardly notice it. It's more implied in people's actions than me doing anything. I'm not like Rainman in it.


I'm quite subtle with it, which is quite difficult to act. But it's good. It does feel like he's slightly isolated from everyone and I think that helps define his peculiarity. It doesn't feel like I've done a caricature of someone with autism which is what I was terrified of doing.


And I didn't know that it had already been done anyway with The Bridge! Which I didn't watch but everyone was like - "Oh yeah, like The Bridge?". I was like - "What?!" - I thought it was quite a new thing and then someone was telling me after I'd done it - "Oh yeah, it's like the character from The Bridge."


What's it been like working with Alex Kingston and Noel Clarke?


Yeah, really good. You're never sure when you meet them in the read-through how you're going to get on with someone. I'd never met either of them before, so it was all new to us. ITV I think were initially hopeful that we would get on and it seemed fine. Noel was very good on the cliches and keeping it modern, he was like - "This feels like it's 1997.


We should have iPads, not clipboards!" - so that was good. Alex was great, she's very good. I think I'd met her before. All my scenes are with her so it was vital that I got on with her, so there's elements of wanting it to work out, but it really did, she's very down-to-earth.


What's the relationship like on-screen with Alex's character Ruth and your character Sean? 


I think it's come out well. I mean she's often seen running after me when I've left a room, because Sean will interview someone and he won't say thank you. He'll just walk out the room after he's got what he wants. So there's a lot of her scurrying after this man who's in his own world and gets what he wants. She's the eyes of the audience really, experiencing this apparent weirdo through her really.


And then you see her home life and how what she's taking home from this and these horrible cases to her own teenage son, and projecting onto him these other people that have gone missing, the horror of that, and what that could mean. It's all more personal to her as she things what it'd be like if it was her son. It feels real, it feels like a human story which is good.


Sometimes you watch things and it feels like a computer programmer has written it, it feels so familiar. Some of the horror films I saw the other day I thought - "That genuinely looks like a generic horror movie. It should be called a generic!"


Is there room for a second series do you think?


Yeah, I think it could come back. There are no plans at the minute to, and it finishes and you could think - "That's the end of that." I didn't take it on thinking it could go on and on, it was only ever these four. I'd love it to go on, but I wouldn't be sad if it didn't.


Because it's so fertile, the missing person thing, you could definitely do more stories, because there's always a reason why someone's gone, it's quite interesting really to think why did that person leave? Do they want to be found? So I think there's room for it to blossom, but equally you could just see it a one-off.

As a writer, do you find it difficult to play out something that someone else has written?


Yeah I do. I was speaking to Ben Wheatley, I'm doing his film High Rise, and he was saying that he's had a few things offered and he's said no to a lot of them. Consequently he'd not done anything in ages, but he said it's because you know a good script when you see it. You write good scripts, so you can see others are shit. And it's arrogance to think it, but I do have a level of that, I can't do anything that's not as good as the things that I do. I don't know what that means, but I can only relate that to me and what I think's acceptable.


I get asked to do a lot of comedies, and I think they're not my humour, or they're not as good as what I do. I can't be in someone else's thing if it's not as a good as the things I do. I've got a yard stick of what I think are acceptable things to say yes to. I don't want to look back and think I've done bad things. And I've said sometimes to the writer - "There's a repeat of that line there. Can we just change it?" - but then I think I can't do that! I'm that annoying twit who's a writer and wants to change your script.


I know what it's like having done things and people going - "I'm not going to say that." - and I'm like, "Please say it! We've spent ages toiling over it in a room." The first thing I say when I give people my scripts its that. I always say when I'm writing scripts, if something doesn't sit right in your mouth, or you'd say it the other way around, just say it, it's fine. I know other writers who you absolutely cannot change a single comma!


Were you surprised by the facts and figures surround the issues in the show? Up to 300,000 people go missing in the UK each year...


Absolutely! Yeah I was. And the very thought that there's a starta of people that people are not that worried about going missing that are not looked into is like, if someone should start to prey on those people who fall through the cracks it's a terrible thought. Because they can get away with it. That's how Neilsen got away with killing homeless people in the nineties, because nobody was looking for them. They weren't missing. If suddenly there's someone preying on that strata, that's what Sean kind of starts to see patterns in. It's an interesting world to be in. It's kind of a dark, illusive place that no one has ever been before.


But yeah, shocking. And I've heard that the missing persons unit is really under-manned and under-staffed really. It needs a lot more people working on it. But it was fascinating to see how they categorise the people that go missing. I didn't speak to anyone personally, but all the producers did and they came back and were telling me all about the people there. A lot of volunteers. It's a terrifying thought that you might go missing because of something like Alzheimers, or people that go missing that don't want to found. When they're found it's like you've ruined them crippled them, because they wanted to go away and start again.


It's a fascinating area I think to do a drama in. That statistic comes up at the beginning and you're like - "What?! Really?" - you find that really shocking, and I'm more aware of it now having done this, when you get those retweets of people that have gone missing, you get it everyday somebody. You click on the picture and you see someone smiling back, and you think - "That's a real person." I hope it does raise awareness, even if it is just that stat.


Is it true you're writing a new series of Inside No. 9 and were you pleased with the response the series got?


Yes. We're writing it now. We've written about three new ones which is good. Steve (Pemberton) has been away shooting, so I've written a few without him, but I'm sure he'll come back and corrupt them! But it's good, we can start in earnest now. We've got to film them in November.


For something that's not popular, or deemed to be, it was a hard sell to do single stories. I think commissioners think you're not growing an audience because each week you're starting again. But then if you're writing drama that's a serial, they go - "Oh but what if you want to come in at episode four?" - So you can't win is the answer to it. We try not to think about any of those rules, because there are rules.


But yeah, I'm really pleased with the response. The anthology series hadn't been done for a while. Black Mirror is the nearest you've had to it, but these are hopefully a bit more comedic. But it's good to experiment with things, for example the silent episode that we did. That was really hard to do. It looks alright when you've down it but god it was hard to write 28 pages of stage direction!


You can't rely on dialogue. You have to keep coming up with and then what happens, and then what happens... for half an hour.


Chasing Shadows starts Thursday 4th September at 9pm on ITV

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