Secrets & Lies: Interview with Zoe Boyle from Breathless

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ITV Studios for MASTERPIECE

Zoe Boyle as Jean Truscott (nee Meecher) in Breathless

In their early years of school, most children are taught the basics that will hopefully one day help them down the road, especially when it comes to their chosen profession. That was very true for actress Zoe Boyle, who picked up one particular skill set that has definitely served her well as an adult. “I went to an all-girls school and when I was, I think, eight years old, my drama teacher, who was rather ambitious, made me play Macbeth in a very truncated version of Shakespeare’s play,” recalls Boyle with a chuckle.

“At the time, I remember saying to myself, ‘Oh, I think I might want to do this [act] one day.’ My mother was a ballet dancer as well as taught at drama school, and she was the one who warned me off it something chronic. She told me that acting was a terribly insecure profession and that I didn’t want to become involved in something like that. Why didn’t I become an accountant, a lawyer or something else more ‘sensible,’ but I never really considered any other profession. I always knew I wanted to act, and, thankfully, it has worked out for me so far.”

Currently, Boyle can be seen on American TV as one of the stars in the British ITV medical drama Breathless, which premiered last Sunday night on PBS’ MASTERPIECE Mystery! The actress plays Jean Truscott (nee Meecher), who, when she was younger and her mother died, promised herself, “she would never be left behind.” Jean later trained as a nurse and eventually got a job working at a prestigious London hospital with the brilliant surgeon/gynecologist Otto Powell (Jack Davenport). When we meet Jean it is 1961 and she is getting ready to begin a brand new chapter in her life, only she quickly discovers it is not that easy to leave the past behind. Boyle immediately recognized Jean’s story as one that she wanted to help tell to TV audiences.

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“I was in Los Angeles when I received the script for Breathless,” she says. “It was during pilot season and I was wading through piles and piles of material. When I read Breathless, it jumped out at me as something truly special because the story was so nuanced and subtle. Not everything was explained; you could see there were lots of undercurrents to it and it treated the viewer, or in my case the reader, with a great deal of respect. The story was so sophisticated and I loved the role of Jean.

“I had the option of trying out for that part or that of her sister Angela, both of which were fantastic, but there was just something about Jean I was drawn to. She’s funny, brazen and over the top, but there’s a vulnerability and an insecurity to her as well, all of which really appealed to me. So I put together an audition tape and sent it off. Luckily, they [the show’s producers] really responded to what I did and, after sending me some notes about my audition, asked me to do a second tape that included a couple of extra scenes, which I did. Then I had a phone chat with Paul Unwin, the show’s co-creator as well as one of its executive producers/directors/writers, and he pretty much offered me the job right there on the phone. It was the most bizarre experience, having never met him in person, but I think it was one of those times where we kind of tuned into what the other person wanted.”

In the Breathless opener, Jean is preparing to marry Dr. Richard Truscott (Oliver Chris), one of Otto’s equally well-off and even more egotistical surgical colleagues. Days prior to the wedding, Jean leaves her job at the hospital, while at the same time her sister Angela Wilson (Catherine Steadman) begins working there as a nurse. Unbeknownst to anyone, Jean was helping Otto and another colleague, Dr. Charlie Enderbury (Shaun Dingwall), with secret abortions or “specials.” Otto hopes Angela will agree to take Jean’s place as his and Charlie’s assistant, but she wants no part of their extracurricular activities. The night of Jean’s and Richard’s engagement party, she confides in Angela how desperate she is for this marriage to take place. It was an emotional exchange between the two sisters and a wonderful, albeit delayed, introduction for Boyle to her character.

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“My first day of work on Breathless actually got off to a false start,” notes the actress. “I arrived at work and was scheduled to shoot the last scene of the day. So I got all ‘dolled up’ as Jean, and the hair and make-up took hours to do because we were using hot rollers, backcombing [of the hair] and plenty of false eyelashes.

“I’m always really nervous on the first day—I don’t think there’s any way of avoiding that—and the very first scene that I shot for the first episode was where Jean and Angela are sitting on the staircase of their house. They’re both smoking and it’s quite an emotional scene, so I was really trying to rev myself up for it. When we got to set, though, they had run out of shooting time for the day. Oddly enough, it was rather a good thing in a way, because I was then able to get all the nervousness out of my system, but it didn’t actually affect what I had to do in the scene. The following morning we did a little rehearsal and then shot it. Coincidentally, that’s the scene that a lot of people who have seen the series comment on to me and say that they really liked it. I wonder if it’s because there is a natural vulnerability in you as an actor anyway, so it’s somewhat easy to also access the vulnerability of your character in a scene like that.”

Having focused for so long on “never being left behind,” Jean is thrilled when Richard proposes. She sees this as her chance to move up and enjoy life in very different and far wealthier social circles. Unfortunately, in order for Jean to achieve her goals, she has to fabricate all manner of stories and keep those closest to her a secret from outsiders. No one, especially Richard, must know that Angela is her sister or that their father is ill and slowly losing his grip on reality. Although she very much lives in the real world, Jean is extremely careful to wrap herself in protective cocoon of fibs.

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“Jean is a real social climber and in order to enable her to do that, she lies quite a lot about her life,” says Boyle. “She’s sort of a fantasist, but one with a huge amount of pragmatism, because Jean knows precisely what she needs to get ahead. Acting-wise, you have to be careful to strike a fine balance with someone who is that pragmatic and that much of a social climber and ambitious because it can make her quite unlikable. Those aren’t especially desirable or loveable traits in an individual, so it’s a matter of balancing that ambition with her vulnerability and also figuring out how good of a liar she is.

“So you’re doing scenes where she’s completely fabricating stuff, but you need to know in yourself that it’s all a fabrication, and that sort of gives the work that extra bit of tension as well. You’re constantly asking yourself, ‘How much do or don’t I show? How good am I, or is she, at this [lying]?’That took me a while to wrap my head around in the beginning with Jean, but as I went along, it kind of became second nature. I felt like I got to know her extremely well and came to understand how she would respond in different situations, so I didn’t then have to think about it so actively any more.

“All the characters in Breathless have a huge [story] arc of learning, and Jean maybe more than most, because I think that ultimately in all of her lying, she doesn’t really accept who she is. Jean always feels like she needs to put on an act, but as the series unfolds, you see her coming to grips with who she is as well as gaining respect for and empowering herself, which is also really appropriate for the time frame. This was at a point in history where women’s lib was just about to occur and it rather feels like Jean is thriving off that whole burgeoning atmosphere.”

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As Boyle has already pointed out, almost all the characters in Breathless are keeping secrets from each other. Along with concealing her family, Jean is also hiding the fact she is pregnant. That is the motivation for her and Richard to move up their wedding day. Only a handful of people, including Otto and his wife Elizabeth (Natasha Little) are privy to this knowledge, but on her wedding morning, Jean loses the baby. With Otto’s and Elizabeth’s help, she is still able to walk down the aisle, but decides to wait to tell Richard. All these machinations cannot help but fan the dramatic flames and affect everyone’s onscreen relationships.

“Jean and Otto are colleagues and friends,” says the actress. “I don’t want to spoil things because there is quite a lot of subtlety to their relationship, but it’s safe to say that they share a closeness. We don’t know exactly how far that goes, and I don’t want to put ideas in peoples’ heads about it. Again, the two of them have a working relationship, and, obviously, are performing these illegal abortions as well. I think if you’re doing something so clandestine, it binds you together very strongly. Otto becomes a sort of father figure to Jean, too, because her own father is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

“As far as my character’s relationship with her sister Angela, it’s a really interesting one. I have a sister in real life, and, naturally, we grew up together and share a real closeness like Angela and Jean. However, my sister and I are also very different people with very different approaches to life, again, like Angela and Jean. I don’t think Angela particularly approves of Jean’s choices, so there’s a bit of tension between them as well, which is nice as it makes for a genuine sisterly relationship and one that I enjoyed playing.

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“When it comes to Richard and Jean, it’s very complex. He doesn’t really know who Jean is because she does so much playacting around him. However, I think the playacting comes from a natural protective sense. Jean is, by nature, an evasive type of person, and she will not let her veneer drop in front of Richard until things with them progress throughout the series. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but events occur and Jean is forced to gradually get real with Richard. Ultimately, when she starts to do that, that’s when their relationship truly begins to solidify.”

Did the actress find that her 60s hairstyle, make-up and wardrobe as well as the sets and locations helped motivate her Breathless performance? “Yes, very much so,” enthuses Boyle. “I always feel that as soon as you get hair and make-up done, it’s like almost 80% of your performance is done for you. Also, in period drama there is a way of behaving that is different from today, and even in the 60s, which wasn’t that long ago, there was still a sense of propriety. People dressed up; they wore gloves and hats and were always immaculate. There was a sense of manners as well as etiquette, too, which I think we’ve lost a little bit of nowadays.

“Just with the hair and make-up, though, it’s almost as if you’re wearing this impenetrable armor because it’s so thick. We all thought we were going to get asthma attacks at any moment from all the hairspray flying around, and Jean smokes all the way through the series, so I figured I was going to set myself alight every time I lit a cigarette,” she jokes.  “Seriously, all that does help a great deal to get you into that mindset because the transformation is so big.”

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Having set her sights on an acting career at a young age, Boyle went on to study drama at university and, after graduating, pursued a Masters in classical acting at drama school in London. This helped pave the way for her professional stage debut and the opportunity to further hone her craft in an amazing setting.

“I was quite lucky in that the classical acting course I took was predominately Shakespeare and some Greek theatre,” says the actress. “The casting director at the Royal Shakespeare Company came to see my showcase, and from there I was offered a job in the Royal Shakespeare Company for a year. It was a world tour of King Lear with Ian McKellen as King Lear. Talk about a learning experience and a real apprenticeship. I was playing small, lady-in-waiting-type roles, but I was also understudying the part of Cordelia, and I actually got to go on a couple of times opposite Ian McKellen. I had the opportunity to work with an incredible cast of proper, stalwart English actors who were so fantastic. I soaked it all up like a sponge and loved every minute of it.”

Agatha Christie: Poirot, Inspector Lewis, Grey’s Anatomy, Ghost Whisperer and Blandings are among the actress’ other small screen credits. She also made quite an impression on TV audiences playing Trinity Ashby in Sons of Anarchy and Lavinia Swire, Matthew Crawley’s (Dan Stevens) first fiancée in Downton Abbey.

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Sons of Anarchy was an insane experience,” she says. “I never thought in a million years I would end up in a show like that. I’m a posh girl from London in a TV show about a biker gang in California. I couldn’t quite believe that I got this job, especially the way I booked it. I put myself on tape again, this time from London, and two days later I got a call offering me the job. Two days after that I had to be on set, so once I got there, I had to hit the ground running, and I had such an incredible time. Paula Malcomson, who played my mother [Maureen Ashby] in the series, is, I think, a phenomenal actress and she’s since become a good friend of mine. I’m so grateful I had the chance to work with her and the rest of the Sons cast.

“As for Downton Abbey, I was already addicted to it like so many other people. When I got this audition for the show’s second season, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Then I thought, ‘Don’t even hold your breath, because everyone will be after this part.’ So when I booked the role I'd never felt a sense of euphoria like it, and then the actual shooting of it was amazing because the cast is incredibly talented. I mean, sitting across from Maggie Smith [Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham] at that dining room table was a dream come true for me. The material that I was given to work with, especially in Lavinia’s last couple of episodes, was lovely, and I thought the things she says to Matthew on her deathbed were very moving.”

From California biker gangs to the English aristocracy and, most recently, the doctors and nurses of London’s Swinging Sixties, as an actress, Boyle enjoys nothing more than pitching in with those around her and working as a team to tell the best possible story.

“I like connecting with people and forging relationships,” she says. “I find this job especially rewarding when you feel like you’re engaging with someone and working together in order to create something special. I don’t think it happens with every job, and sometimes it only happens in flashes, but when it does, it’s very satisfying and quite beautiful.”

Breathless is currently airing Sunday nights on PBS' MASTERPIECE Mystery! (check local listings for time). Please note, all photos from the series and from Downton Abbey are copyright of ITV Studios for 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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