"When you see my version of Watson, a black man in Victorian London, in high society. He has to be strong. He has to hold his own."
The story of Sherlock Holmes has been well told - but not in the way new Netflix drama The Irregulars, is telling it.
This original take on the well-loved detective novels by Arthur Conan Doyle follows a gang of troubled street teens who are manipulated into solving crimes for the sinister Dr. Watson and his mysterious business partner, the elusive Sherlock Holmes.
As the crimes take on a horrifying supernatural edge and a dark power emerges, it'll be up to the Irregulars; Bea, Jessie, Billy, Spike and Leo, to come together to save not only London but the entire world.
I caught up with Royce Pierreson, who plays Dr. Watson, to find out what it was like to take on such an iconic role, what it was like to film during Covid and why he's decided to set up his own production company.
So, The Irregulars is a Sherlock Holmes story, but not as we know it. Is that right?
Yeah, it's great what Tom Bidwell, the writer, has done. He's said it himself, it's his baby and I think he's been working on it for 10 years! So he's really created something unique.
I've been a fan of the Conan Doyle stories since I was a kid. My mum owns all the classic Penguin editions - the orange and white ones - so I used to read them a lot. But to see what Tom's done, he's flipped it, he's changed it up!
The horror elements are really really scary. There's comedy. He never plays on one element for too long, he blends them really nicely and the through line of the story keeps you just so engaged.
What was your first reaction, when you read the script?
My first reaction was "I did not expect that at all!" I really didn't expect that. I was expecting something more traditional, but once I got into it, I couldn't stop reading it.
He (Tom Bidwell) doesn't do the one episode, mystery solved, let's do the next one. I love that there's a constant through line. And I think it's written so well and played so well that it will keep people guessing.
Why do you think there have been so many Sherlock Holmes adaptations?
I think the relationship between Sherlock and Watson is such a brilliantly imagined relationship and a brilliant dynamic between the two. I'm in some great company - Lucy Liu, Martin Freeman, Jude Law, David Burke - all of these brilliant actors.
So to add my name to that list and to get to play my version of Watson, is something very special. The way they bounce off each other gives you so much to play with, which is why it's had so many brilliant reimaginings.
Knowing all those people have played Dr. Watson before, how did you approach the role?
I didn't expect to get a call from my agent saying "There's a chance for you to play Dr. John Watson here" - Watson has always been, for me, the sidekick, the voice of reason and I thought, I'm going to do my take here.
My feeling was - and this wasn't something in the show or in the script - that this isn't actually John Watson. This is a guy who survives, adapts, has been all over the world and just happens to adapt to whatever situation he's in. So he's taken this identity of John Watson - which really got me into my version of Watson. I wanted him to be harder, I wanted him to be more world-weary but also a fighter.
When you see my version of Watson, a black man in Victorian London, in high society. He has to be strong. He has to hold his own. So that's what I really wanted to focus on. The character came from that.
I wanted him to be very upright, I spoke to Costume about it and wanted his clothes to be almost corset like. He has this manic rage so when he puts his clothes on, it straps him in for the day and makes him stand upright, to allow him to go and take on the world. That was a nice way into the character for me.
Rather than a traditional Holmes and Watson story, The Irregulars is more of a Watson and Beatrice story. Why is she so important to the story?
Beatrice (played by Thaddea Graham) is the catalyst for Watson. She is how Watson used to be, with that youthful energy. So much happens to him in the series that he becomes this uptight, highly strung, world-weary guy and she tries to needle him and pick apart his whole demeanour.
I think that dynamic works really well because they are opposites and we really vibed off each other and created a great dynamic. Throughout the series, they become closer and Watson loves Bea, he just never shows it. As that story develops, I think it's beautifully played and beautifully written.
We see through Bea's eyes and I love the fact that Tom (Bidwell) doesn't give too much away, so when you think you've figured it out, something else happens. I really wanted to get that across in my depiction of Watson. I wanted him to keep his cards extremely close to his chest.
He's dealing with something in the series that, I think for everybody, is a really terrible thing to have to deal with and think about every day. The decisions he made had such an impact on so many people's lives and he's trying to rectify that.
Watson's not all bad is he?
No! People see him as the bad guy, but there is no bad guy. There is no good or bad character. I think as soon as you start playing that, you get 'generic bad guy' or 'generic good guy' and that's boring to me. I hate seeing it and I hate playing it so I always look for that duality.
Watson's not bad, he made a decision that had an impact which he has to live with. He can't tell anyone that, so in trying to rectify that, he is depicted even more as the bad guy or the evil one.
He's also very traditional in the way he speaks and that works really nicely with what Tom (Bidwell) has done modernising certain aspects of the world. Watson is a dinosaur and of his time. He doesn't want to change and is set in his ways because of what happened.
He doesn't want to let go of how him and Sherlock used to be and their relationship. He's stubborn. But I love the way he talks and how eloquent he is. That was such a beautiful thing to keep and for me to play.
My whole training as an actor was based in classical training and Shakespeare was the first thing I read along with the Conan Doyle stories I read as a kid. So to play this on a big stage like Netflix, it's blending these two worlds that I really love. I'm so excited for people to see this depiction.
You filmed pre and post the first Covid lockdown. What was that like?
It literally took a full year to the day to film. We started 6th September 2019 and we finished 6th September 2020. It was a strange one, I think we were one of the first shows to come back after lockdown when all of the new rules and regulations were in place. So it was a weird thing to come back to.
We only had two weeks left when everything stopped in February so I was about to finish that and then go straight onto The Witcher series two - but then everything shut down. So when we picked it up again, it took about five weeks in the end because of all the new regulations.
There were so many new rules that everyone had to adapt to, so it was hard for the actors, but the crew especially. It went from everybody doing their thing on set, knowing the way they work and every department blending in and doing their thing at the same time - to one department in, doing their thing, clear, next department comes in... etc. So the time it took was a lot.
The way of working was really weird and people were looking at us to see how it would work. Everyone did an amazing job. We were still in a really bad phase of this pandemic, people with families and when I watch the show I'm like "We did it!"
What's next for you?
I finished The Irregulars in September and went straight into The Witcher season two which I'm still filming, but almost finished on that.
I've set up my own production company a year or two ago. I can't say too much about our projects, but we're working on something amazing which I think is very relevant, very topical and we have such high hopes about it. It's going to be a game-changer.
What was the motivation for setting up your own production company?
I've always been creative, I've always written and have always had ideas, so it was about having somewhere to channel all this energy. My career, when I look at my CV, is incredible. Everything I see on my CV is something that I absolutely believed in and the people I've worked with are fantastic and a testament to everything that's on there. That's always how I've picked a role.
But there's a flipside to that. Before the Black Lives Matter movement, before the conversation that has been taking place, my frustration - not even missing out on things, but not even being considered - was boiling over, so I thought, what am I going to do about this? Am I going to complain about it? Or am I going to do my thing?
So my company came partly out of that. There's such a freedom when you realise that you don't wait for anybody to give you an opportunity. Your opportunity is there always. I've channelled that into this company and am working with some amazing people and friends of mine who all love films, all love TV and all love creating.
All of these things have come together and I'm so so proud of this company.
You mention your CV, it is hugely impressive, but what's the role you're most recognised for in the street?
It's still Murdered by my Boyfriend actually. It had such an impact on people, especially in the black community. To have two black leads on screen telling this very delicate, heartbreaking story, in a very respectful and honest way - it reached out to a lot of people. And that's the show people still stop me on the street for and want to comment on.
It's surreal actually, because it was so many years ago but it makes you realise the impact it had. Which is brilliant, because one of the reasons I love acting is that I want my work to have an affect. That's why I choose certain roles and want to play certain characters.
When you have an impact on someone and you can do that through art and creativity, it's such a brilliant feeling!
The Irregulars launches Friday 26th March on Netflix