Riviera star Julia Styles: It's been rewarding to play someone so surprising and reckless

Originally created – and since disowned – by Irish film-maker Neil Jordan, south-of-France-set Sky Atlantic drama Riviera returns for a third series later this month. Georgia Humphreys talks stars Julia Stiles and Rupert Graves

Julia Stiles on location in Venice in a scene from the upcoming third series of Riviera

It's 4am in Venice, and Rupert Graves is flying through the canals on a water taxi. He’s on his way back to the hotel after a night shoot and there are no other boats – and certainly no tourists – around.

That’s the memory the 57-year-old Sherlock star recalls vividly when asked for his favourite moment from shooting Sky Atlantic series Riviera, the first two episodes of which were written by Oscar winner Neil Jordan and his fellow Dubliner, Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville.

“It was jaw-droppingly beautiful,” gushes the English actor, also known for his roles in A Room With A View and The Madness of King George. “Sitting on set in Venice – which was lit beautifully – in the best clothes I’ve ever worn in my life, was a real personal highlight.”

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Graves joins the cast of the drama – from which Jordan pulled out during series one after elements of his and Banville's dialogue were changed – for its third season, playing the charismatic and charming Gabriel Hirsch, who starts working with the lead character, Georgina, played by US star Julia Stiles.

A year has passed since the explosive finale of the second series and, now known as Georgina Ryland, she has abandoned the cursed Riviera and has started her life over again.

“Gabriel offers her a job that proves to be more of an adventure and she can’t resist it, so they go off to Venice to recover a stolen Picasso and that’s quickly wrapped up into an international conspiracy that takes them to Argentina,” teases New Yorker Stiles (39), best known for her role opposite Matt Damon in the Jason Bourne films.

“But first they find themselves back in St Tropez, and Georgina runs headfirst into Nico Eltham and then Daphne Eltham.

“And because that is a very interwoven community of wealthy families that know everything about each other, her plan to get away from her past is going to prove very challenging.”

So, what made movie star Graves – who also starred in Maurice and V For Vendetta – want to take on this telly role?

“I’d never seen a show about the super-wealthy that was done in this way, which I found interesting because I found it dreamy and quite hallucinogenic and… not aspirational, but if you aspire to be like these people, good luck to you!

“I found it dysfunctional and interesting. And I found the mystery of who Georgina is, and why she does what she does, really, really involving. So yeah, it was that really – and getting to work with Julia too.”

Stiles notes there are certainly a lot more shows on our screens now that are “female-driven, or at least with female main characters”, compared to when she started out acting, aged 12.

Rupert Graves in Riviera

“I remember when I signed on for the first season of Riviera, I thought, ‘Hmmm this is interesting’ because there was Irina, who was the matriarch, and then there was Adriana, the younger ingenue, and I felt I fell sort of in the middle,” continues the actress, who starred in teen favourite films, 10 Things I Hate About You and Save The Last Dance.

“I thought ‘OK, as the lead, they’re not going to know what to do with me, because I’m in between the sex object and the maternal character’, which are previously normal tropes for a female character. And I’ve been so pleasantly surprised at how rich and intriguing Georgina has become as a character.

“And so, I’m pleasantly surprised that I’ve had the opportunity to work on a show where I play a character that is really surprising and reckless and doesn’t make the right decisions all the time. It’s been very rewarding.”

Stiles also worked as executive producer on this latest series. She says she “never really had had aspirations to be a producer, or have a credit as such”.

“But because Riviera is very collaborative and there’s a very specific way that we film, and oftentimes, rewrites were coming in at the last minute, I feel a responsibility to this show and the other actors and the audience to make it as good as we can,” she reasons.

“So I wanted to be an executive producer in order to just see the scripts earlier.”

She agrees it’s been liberating to have more of an input than she has had with past projects she’s worked on as an actress.

“It’s a responsibility but it’s also very, very stimulating too. There’s an expression ‘hit your mark 'n bark’, which refers to an actor just coming on set and taking direction and saying their lines and doing as they’re told.

“And I feel like I have such an investment in this show… I don’t take for granted that the producers and writers are receptive and open to my input because I think there are some TV shows where even the lead actor is put in their place. So, for me, it’s very creatively satisfying to be able to be involved earlier in the process.”

There are few shows which are more glamorous than Riviera, which revolves around the super-rich and their lavish lifestyles. With such beautiful locations, fashion and people, it makes Riviera the ultimate sort of escapism telly.

It goes without saying 2020 has been a difficult year for everyone, so I ask the chatty pair how they have been trying to escape the real world.

“Hmmm…” muses contemplative Stiles, as she takes a moment to gather her thoughts.

“It’s an interesting learning experience. I think my normal method of escape would be travel, and obviously, travel restrictions are so tight right now that that’s been taken away. And it sort of forces you to find other means of…”

The mother-of-one, who’s married to camera operator Preston J Cook, pauses again, concluding: “I think maybe there is no escape, and that’s not a bad thing either. It’s certainly forced me to appreciate my immediate surroundings.”

“I mean, I’ve got five kids,” adds Graves, who’s married to Australian Susie Graves. “I spent a big chunk of last year away from my kids and my family, and so to go back to into the heart of the family, and not get out of the house, was actually really important for me and my family. It kind of allowed us all to reconnect.”

He continues passionately: “The thing is, when you’re away from a child for nearly a year, each child changes so much. No matter how much you write to them, no matter how much you Skype them, it’s not the same… they get skin hungry for your skin.

“And to spend seven months actually back home was a really brilliant and actually much-needed opportunity for me. So, I didn’t actually want or need an escape. I took full advantage of the necessitated closeness.”

:: Riviera returns to Sky Atlantic on Thursday, October 15.

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