Christopher Eccleston and Kerri Quinn on Co Antrim-filmed drama Come Home
New Northern Ireland-filmed BBC drama Come Home tackles the thorny subject of a mother walking out on her children. English TV star Christopher Eccleston, Belfast actresses Paula Malcolmson and Kerri Quinn and Bafta-winning writer Danny Brocklehurst tell Gail Bell why nothing is clear-cut in this three-part series
CHRISTOPHER Eccleston is leaning over the table when he locks eyes in that intense way he has and opens the conversion with something along the lines of, 'Hiya, how are yez all?'
Whoa... back up there a second, what? This is the impeccably spoken English actor, after all, a former Doctor Who (and current RSC Macbeth) who has most recently been seen as Maurice in critically acclaimed BBC drama The A Word about a family coping with an autistic child.
So, why is he talking like... well, like us?
In fact, the actor, who first came to public attention as Derek Bentley in the film Let Him Have It (1991) and went on to secure major TV roles in hit dramas such as Cracker and Clocking Off, conducts the entire interview in a pitch-perfect Northern Ireland accent, bar a few unnecessary embellishments – there are a lot of 'ayes' thrown into what proves to be warm media encounter with the star of new BBC drama, Come Home.
Whether this is to impress the press pack visiting the Come Home set in Larne or simply because he had to 'learn the lingo' for the script and is now finding it difficult to revert back to his natural Lancashire tongue, is difficult to tell, but he is clearly enjoying the moment.
He worked on the accent with dialect coach Brendan Gunn (Robert de Niro, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are former pupils) and the results are so realistic that, at times, Eccleson now almost sounds more northern Irish than the natives.
It is an example of dedication to his art, but, when asked, he is dismissive of the term 'method acting' and instead says he is genetically disposed to the accent, having family from here and having "fallen in love with the place" ever since filming With or Without You with Dervla Kirwan way back in 1998.
Set and filmed in the modern-day north, Come Home is a three-part series described as a "powerful, absorbing and deeply emotional family drama" from the pen of Bafta and International Emmy award-winning screenwriter Danny Brocklehurst which also stars Belfast-born Paula Malcolmson (Ray Donovan, Broken, The Green Mile) and well-known Belfast theatre stalwart Kerri Quinn in her first major role for television.
The storyline cuts through a great taboo – what happens when a mother walks out on her children, leaving a distraught family to pick up the pieces – and, as actors and crew assembled to film the final scene on a wet and dreary roadside in Larne, there was palpable excitement at a job well done.
Described as a "touching and intriguing drama", it is set to swoop audiences along a rollercoaster of emotions – and allegiances. Multiple time-frames, viewpoints and flashbacks tell Greg and Marie’s story and force viewers to confront their own truths.
How can two people that loved each other become so opposed? Can a child learn to forgive their mother for leaving them? And why would Marie make such a shocking decision to change their lives and divide loyalties forever?
There is, of course, a necessary element of secrecy surrounding details, but Eccleston describes his character (Greg Farrell) and that of screen wife Marie (Malcolmson) as "heroic, but deeply flawed"; his character coping with difficulty as past events feed into the chaos into which he is now plunged, along with the couple's three confused children.
The actor is visibly and audibly hyped from filming the "harrowing" final scene, but despite its intensity and high drama, Eccleston says humour pervades the nuanced Brocklehurst script which set out to peel back the layers of what it really means to be a parent.
But this is not a "misery fest", he insists, but a "story about redemption and hope" with an all too human story at its core.
"When I first read the script on a train in England, I was laughing and laughing and then crying and crying," he says. "I was gripped from the outset and I believe the viewers will be too."
As well as boasting a strong female cast, Come Home is directed by Derry film-maker Andrea Harkin and produced by Nicola Shindler of RED for the BBC, which made the series in partnership with NI Screen.
This is all good news for Eccleston, who says he "sick of watching stories about men" and even better news for his co-star Paula Malcolmson and rising talent Kerri Quinn, who plays Brenna, the 'other woman' in Greg's life.
Malcolmson, who has been based in the US for most of her acting career, says she jumped at the chance to come back to her roots.
"I liked the script and I liked what it was saying about women," she says, "but my first reaction was, 'How do I do that? How do I create this complicated person? How do I make people understand what is she running from and what is she running to?'.
"I certainly struggled with that and there were also deeper issues to explore: is Marie just a mother and wife and how can she reclaim her sense of self? It was a difficult role for me because I can't even leave my dog for a day without getting upset."
Running parallel to the wife-husband mystery is the development of a new 'friendship' when Eccleston's car mechanic character meets the owner of Brenna's Baps (Kerri Quinn) who is struggling in an abusive relationship and is herself a bit "damaged".
"Brenna falls for Greg quite quickly and their relationship is very physical," Quinn explains.
"I haven't done much TV work and I was especially nervous about shooting these type of scenes.
"I kinda knew it would work, though, because Chris put me at my ease straight away. I just laughed a lot when we were shooting those intimate scenes. I think it helped that I used lots of mouthwash before we had to kiss in a test scene and I just went for it."
The kissing conquered, Quinn, who has a six year-old daughter, began to worry that the audience wouldn't warm to her.
"Brenna is warm and she just wants to be loved, but there is huge tension between her and Greg's children," reveals the actress who studied drama at Queen's University, Belfast.
"I have friends who have been in abusive relationships so I could relate to what happened to Brenna, and I also have some experience of broken relationships when children are involved. I have a child and I would say the relationship with her father can be tricky.
"I could tap into all that, but I still worry if the audience will like me."
Unlike her usual milieu of theatre where feedback is instant, Quinn will have wait a little longer to discover the answer to that, but, according to the man who came up with the script, there are "no monsters in this story".
"There are rights and wrongs on both sides," Brocklehurst teases, "but we all are human beings in the end."
:: The first episode of Come Home airs on Tuesday March 27 on BBC1 at 9pm.