A Lady of Wealth & Privilege: Interview with The Paradise's Elaine Cassidy

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Elaine Cassidy as The Paradise's Katherine Glendenning

When customers walk through the front doors of The Paradise, it is as if they are stepping into another world where they can forget their troubles and indulge in their every retail whim. This Victorian-era department store has a wide range of merchandise designed to entice just as diverse a cliental, from the rich to those with more modest incomes. Its owner, John Moray, is a handsome and ambitious widower who likes to keep his cards along with his feelings close to his chest. He is what women would call quite a “catch,” and has caught the eye of the beautiful and wealthy Katherine Glendenning. Stocking not only the loveliest dresses and prettiest hats, but also romance, mystery, and intrigue, it is no surprise that actress Elaine Cassidy, who plays Katherine, wanted to help tell the story of The Paradise.

“I received the script from my agent and it made for an enjoyable read, which isn’t always the case when you’re sent scripts,” says Cassidy. “I only had the script from the first episode, but right from the beginning I liked Katherine as a character and was really attracted to her. She’s very different from me, even just her class and social footing. I’m a girl from a little village in Ireland, and Katherine is this well-to-do rich England kid, but there are so many other layers to the character which I’ve discovered in the glorious journey of playing her.

“So I met with the show’s producers and director and read a couple of scenes. I felt like I’d done a really good read, but then I thought, ‘No, no, no, it’s not going to go any further.’ I didn’t think they responded to what I did, but they did, and they called me back in to read with Emun Elliott, who plays Moray. Again, I came away from that audition thinking they were interested in someone else, even though they didn’t bring anyone else back to read for the role of Katherine. It was like a driving test; you think you passed, but then it turns out that you failed, and when you think you failed, you passed. However, in this case, the day after my second audition, I was offered the job, which I was extremely happy to accept.”

The Paradise opens with Denise Lovett (Joanna Vanderham), a young country girl hoping to make a future for herself, arriving in a burgeoning city in the north of England to work in her Uncle Edmund’s (Peter Wight) drapery shop. Unfortunately, business is slow, but Denise is fortunate enough to secure a sales position across the street in the ladieswear department of The Paradise, a fast-growing department store and the biggest competition to local small businesses. Denise manages to impress Moray with her flair for customer service as well as marketing, especially after she makes her first sales pitch to one of the store’s most discerning customers, Katherine Glendenning.

“I remember my first day of work on The Paradise involved a scene in Lovett’s drapery store, and it was, I think, actually episode two that we were shooting,” recalls Cassidy. “We often shoot in blocks over here in the UK, which means they’ll take two episodes and film them over a four week period. You’ll spend the first two weeks focusing on one episode, and the next two weeks on the second episode. For this first block, though, episodes one and two were meshed together. Sometimes when you do that, things get jumbled up, but in this case it felt like a complete story arc, so it wasn’t confusing for anyone.

“It always feels a bit weird starting a new project. It’s like your first day of school or first day of work. The thing to always bear in mind is that everyone else is in the exact same position as you, and no matter how many times you do it, you always feel the same way. It’s all about getting that first scene laid down. Once that’s done, you can then kind of breathe. Our director, Marc Jobst, was and is a delight to work with. It felt like there was a lot of time and no rush. It was about getting it right, so the experience was quite easy and enjoyable.”

The merchandise sold by The Paradise is not the only thing Katherine is interested in. She has also set her sights on John Moray and is intent on becoming his wife. Although he has strong feelings for her, Moray is not yet ready to make the type of commitment that Katherine is looking for. She uses all her feminine wiles to try to ensnare him, and even her father, Lord Glendenning (Patrick Malahide), whose influence with the city’s banks is important to Moray if he hopes to expand his business. Katherine is quite careful with every move she makes, and it was important for Cassidy to understand why her character does what she does in order to deliver a convincing performance.

“I need to get to know the character. That’s the most important thing for me,” notes the actress. “You have to know how they tick, so that when they’re in a certain situation, you know how they would react. So it’s about the character informing you, rather than you telling them what they’re going to do. I know that sounds a bit schizophrenic, but it seems to work for me. The biggest challenge for me with Katherine, although it isn’t really a big challenge because I’ve done it a few times before, was that I had to change my accent because she’s posh English. That’s where the homework comes in, but if you do your homework well enough, then when you’re on-set it’s all about playing your character.

“With Katherine, I learnt early on that she’s very manipulative, spoilt, quick-witted and clever as well as an opportunist. She’s definitely a character that goes on a journey, and I found more layers to her the longer that filming went on. Up until meeting Moray, she’d always gotten what she wanted. Katherine has her father completely wrapped around her finger, but then for the first time in her life, she comes across someone who isn’t just going to roll over and play ball, and she’s hugely attracted to that. So it brings out her manipulative side, but at the same time she’s used to playing daddy’s little girl and being all sweet. She uses a bit of that on Moray, and when that doesn’t fully work, she tries a bit of seduction, and when that fails, she tries something else. Katherine will try anything to get what she’s after.

“So as an actor, it’s going, again, on a journey with your character and seeing what the writers throw at you. At the beginning of the job they don’t tell you exactly what each episode is going to entail, so much of what you need to do with your character is reactive. It’s not unlike real life. You don’t know ahead of time how you would react in a situation. You might think you’ll react one way, when in actual fact you react another way. There’s a scene with Katherine and some children that kind of touches on a bit of her softer side, and another scene where you learn that her mum died when she was very young, and you see little flecks of vulnerability. The majority of the time, though, Katherine is fighting to get her man, and then towards the end she’s fighting for her public face.

“I think the scene that I remember the most is where she’s talking about the first time she wore a grown-up dress, which was black, and it was because she was in mourning for her mother. It was the scene with Peter Adler after the dinner party. Mark Bonnar, who plays Peter Adler, is an amazing actor to work with. I think when I first read the scene I thought, ‘Oh, wow, it’s exposing too much.’ I get very protective of my characters and don’t want the audience to know anything about them. I want to keep it all under wraps and for me, which is a bit selfish. Obviously that was just my initial reaction and ultimately you have to be true to your character as well as the story.

“The lovely thing about Peter Adler coming into Katherine’s life is that he opened up this whole other side of her that she wasn’t used to exposing. However, she felt comfortable enough to share these bits of private information with him, knowing that he would never use it against her or hurt her. If you stop and think about it, Peter is kind of the safer and better match of who she should be pursuing, but being the ‘helpless’ creature and slightly dysfunctional, she will want to go for the relationship that’s not so right.”

Season one of The Paradise is currently airing Sunday nights in the States on PBS’ MASTERPIECE Classic, while the second season is scheduled to premiere later this month in the UK. Cassidy was delighted to step back into the role and shares a few tidbits about what audiences can look forward to (please beware of spoilers).

“The second series for Katherine has been an absolute joy,” she says. “I love her as a character, and because she’s so complex there’s still so much to explore with her. I had the opportunity to reveal a totally new side of Katherine because her circumstances are very different starting out. It’s a year later and she has unfinished business with Moray. She also has a ready-made family, and when I first heard about the introduction of a stepchild [Flora Weston, played by Edie Whitehead], I thought, ‘Oh, I know what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to soften her up. I’m not having any of that. I want the old Katherine back.’

“That was me, once again, being protective of the character,” says Cassidy. “However, after reading the scenes and getting my head around the new storylines and situations she finds herself in, it just felt so right. The actress who they cast, Edie Whitehead, is terrific, which made doing those scenes so much easier, and Ben Daniels, who plays Tom Weston, is a joy to work with as well. So this new unit that was created opens up yet another whole new world for Katherine, which is wonderful. I never wanted her to be a two-dimensional pantomime villain. As with all the characters I’ve played, I wanted Katherine to be three-dimensional, believable and able to confuse the viewers. One minute they might hate her, but the next minute see something human in her and think, ‘I didn’t expect that.’”

Born in Kilcoole, County Wicklow, Ireland, the congenial and down-to-Earth actress knew from the time she was a child that acting was in her future. Turning that into a dream, however, was a whole other matter. “What I really visualized for my life was a job with a computer and a phone and if I was lucky, my own office, and if I was exceptionally lucky, a company car,” she says. “It was a pretty normal life, but what is a normal life, right?

“I always said how wonderful it would be if I could make a living from my hobby [acting]. Thankfully I’ve been able to do just that, and I am very grateful for that. The ambition, drive and passion is still as strong as it ever was, only now it’s balanced with a family [Cassidy and her husband, actor Stephen Lord, have two children]. So I feel very rich at the moment, getting to do what I love and still have a family and not neglect that. I’ve no idea what other type of job I would have done, but I would have ended up falling into it because acting is all I ever wanted to do.”

The actress was only 12 years old when she made her professional debut in a short film. “The night before I started work, we lost electricity at our house, which happened whenever it got really windy where I lived. It doesn’t happen nowadays, which just shows how times have changed or how old I am, or both,” jokes Cassidy. “We all slept in the sitting room that night, and my mum kept saying to me, ‘You need to go to sleep,’ and I said, ‘I know, I know, but I’m just really excited.’ My sisters asked me if I was nervous and I remember instinctively saying, ‘No,’ but then I began to wonder, ‘Perhaps I should be nervous.’ I never thought of that, and then I told myself, ‘No, don’t take that on board. That’s not going to be helpful.'

“So I held onto the excitement, and I think when you’re younger, especially at the age of 12, you kind of take on the world without even thinking about it. I find as I’ve gotten older, it’s so easy for fear to set in, and that’s the thing that you have to combat and just keep defeating. If you allow it in, then you restrict your life and start putting up barriers and you don’t have as much freedom. Maybe that’s why when you’ve got child actors who are really good at what they do, it’s because there are no inhibitions or consequences. They don’t think about what might go wrong and have no anxieties to hold them back or impede their acting.”

An accomplished theatre performer, Cassidy has appeared in The Lieutenant of Irishmore, The Crucible (with the Royal Shakespeare Company), Scenes From a Big Picture, and There Came a Gypsy Riding. Her big screen credits include The Sun, the Moon and the Stars, Felicia’s Journey, Disco Pigs (for which the actress won an Irish Film and Television Award for Best Actress in a Feature Film), The Bay of Love and Sorrows, and the upcoming The Loft. She is especially complimentary of Spanish-Chilean writer, composer and director Alejandro Amenabar, who she worked with in the 2001 movie The Others.

“He’s brilliant and lovely to work with,” she says. “When I first met him, he couldn’t speak a word of English. I just babbled away using hand gestures and thinking maybe it would help him understand me better. So we had a chat, well, a one-sided chat which was mostly me, and I was offered the job in The Others. About six weeks later, Alejandro phoned to tell me that the film had been put back a few weeks, but it was still going ahead and he was still excited about it. At the end of our conversation I said, ‘Wait a second, when did you learn English?’ He told me, ‘Oh, I’ve been reading books.’ He’s just a genius and one of those people who can pick something up and within a week they’ve perfected it. This was the first film Alejandro directed in English as well as his first time working with children, and it’s storytelling at its best.”

On TV, the actress has appeared in a variety of made-for-TV movies as well as the miniseries Fingersmith and played series regular roles of Abby Mills in Harper’s Island (for which she won a second IFTA for Best Actress in Television) and Detective Amy Harris in The Ghost Squad.

“My character of Amy in The Ghost Squad was in pretty much every scene. We didn’t have any stand-ins, so I became like a crew member. I was never off the set, because when we weren’t filming, I stood there for them to light the next scene,” explains the actress. “We did 11-day fortnight filming, and every four weeks we’d have a break of a week to do rehearsals and things like read-throughs with new cast members for whatever episode it was. So that was a bit of a respite, but towards the end of the job I remember one night being on the phone to my now-husband, who was my boyfriend then, crying from tiredness and probably not making any sense at all. Every now and then I have a think about Amy and how it could be interesting to pick her back up after all this time, because I imagine she would be ravaged from going through the machine of a job that she had.”

In a business where some people look to others in order to validate the work that they do, Cassidy suggests taking a different approach. “You can be at the top of the chain, which I guess is where many of us are fighting to get to, and maybe not be happy. So I think for anything to be truly rewarding, it has to come from within,” she muses. “It’s a battle no matter what level you’re at. The A-listers are battling against one another for good roles and to work with great directors, while people at the amateur level are battling to try to even just get into the industry. If you try to look for rewards from other people, you might be let down. So in the end, you’ve got to be happy with your lot and keep seeing the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, but continue to strive for what you want. It’s about having a healthy ambition, I suppose, rather than an obsession.”

Please note, all photos from The Paradise are copyright of BBC/MASTERPIECE. 

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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