Little Birds: 'This show is all about people fighting for their own agency'

Sensual, moving, daring; Little Birds, set in 1950s Tangier's hedonistic international zone feels different from other TV dramas. Georgia Humphreys hears more from some of the cast

Yumna Marwan and Juno Temple in Little Birds

JUNO Temple was 17 when she read Little Birds, a collection of erotic short stories by Anais Nin.

“They really affected me, and woke a sexual sort of fire that I didn’t know I had”,” notes the London-born star, who has been acting since she was a young teenager.

Now, 14 years later, the quirky actress is playing the lead role – New York heiress Lucy Savage – in Sky Atlantic’s adaptation of Nin’s book.

“I made a lot of notes of little things that I wanted to add into the script, trying to get actual one-liner direct quotes from Little Birds, and I got a couple of them in there, which was really exciting,” reflects Temple, star of films such as Atonement, St Trinian's and Maleficent, plus Netflix series Dirty John. “That was cool that everyone was open to me doing that.”

Little Birds is a six-part series, written by Sophia Al-Maria – an American-Qatari film-maker and artist – and directed by Detroit-born Stacie Passon, whose previous projects include House Of Cards.

Set in Tangier International Zone in 1955, the contemporary and daring tale follows Lucy as she heads to exotic climes for love and marriage.

When her husband Hugo does not greet her in the way she expected, she finds herself on a journey to freedom and independence.

We see Lucy discovering the surprising, diverse and degenerate world of Tangier, in Morocco, a country quivering on the cusp of independence. Along the way, she meets a myriad of characters including a scandalous dominatrix, Cherifa Lamor (Yumna Marwan) who particularly captures Lucy’s imagination.

Seeing as the show is based on a volume of erotica, you can expect to see some bold sex scenes on screen, which look they could be quite awkward to film.

Was there anything the cast drew a line under when it came to depicting characters in intimate situations?

“I was very clear from the very beginning of what is allowed and what is not allowed,” declares Marwan, who was born in Lebanon, but grew up in Beirut and then Iowa.

“I’m still scared to this day, to right this second, for when Little Birds comes out, how many family members I’m going to lose.”

It sounds like Marwan is being jokey at first, but then she stresses: “It’s funny, but it’s not funny; even though I made sure that I would never show my breasts or my ass or I would never be in a scene where I’m having sex, it’s still like I did too much for what my family would expect from me.

“The production [team], the director, were very, very understanding… It just felt like any boundary that the actor would set during the scene was accepted immediately, which made me comfortable to be able to do the scene.”

“Stacie has been quite attentive to any conversation we would want to have with her, related to any intimate scenes,” follows Raphael Acloque, who portrays an Egyptian aristocrat named Adham Abaza.

“She was always available, whenever we needed to discuss anything about it.”

Hugh Skinner – known for shows such as Fleabag and W1A – plays Hugo, who is not only trapped in a relationship with Lucy, who he doesn’t love, but we also see trying to become an arms dealer.

“It’s so hard because when you put it like that, he sounds dreadful,” quips 35-year-old Londoner. “But there are a lot of external forces weighing down on him and, in that sense, he’s a bit of an emotionally stunted pinball.

“But despite being gay and deciding to marry a woman, he’s really lucked out with Lucy actually because she proves to be incredible.

“All the characters, they’re all sort of outsiders in a lot of ways, taking ownership of their otherness and transcending the situation, and he’s lucky to be with Lucy as she finds liberation.”

This may be a period drama, but there’s no denying that the themes will resonate with modern audiences.

For example, the idea of people being desperate to shake off the shackles of society still very much exists today, I suggest.

“Yeah, I think power struggles will always exist and I think this show is all about people fighting for their own agency, or struggling for their own independence; whether that’s personally, or politically, that’s always going to be relevant,” 51-year-old Nina Sosanya, who plays eccentric entertainer Lili Von X, nods in agreement.

“It’s going to have a wide audience, because it’s set in a particular period, but it’s a period that’s incredibly attractive to us anyway, just visually,” continues the actress, who starred alongside Skinner in W1A, and is also known for BBC One drama Last Tango In Halifax.

“And you’re going to have people that have lived through those changes – a section of the audience that might sometimes be overlooked, which is the people that are older than us, 70-plus who have actually seen those changes, who have lived through the sexual revolution of the 60s… This is going to be very interesting for them.”

The show was shot in Tarifa in Spain, as well in Manchester. While on location, did the cast have any particularly memorable cast nights out after filming had finished for the day?

“When wasn’t there one?!” Temple quickly replies, grinning. “Lots of dinners, lots of conversations, lots of laughter, lots of tears, lots of screaming, lots of hugging. It was great. It was also just an incredible learning experience.”

“I always say that I am always surprised by how much we liked each other because I’ve done so many projects with people that I absolutely hated,” Marwan adds. “At the end of the day, it’s a job. But something about this felt different… This felt like a very, very special project where, for some reason, most of us felt very connected to each other.

“There was something about just all of us being there together that helped me a lot during the process of filming.”

“Which makes it extra cruel we have to be doing press for this via Zoom, because of a pandemic!” cries Temple. “It really would be nice to be together to do this for real.”

:: Little Birds launches on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday August 4

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