Ruth Wilson: ‘You have power being an outsider because you’ve got nothing left to lose’

Undated BBC Handout Photo from The Woman In The Wall. Pictured: Ruth Wilson as Lorna Brady. PA Feature SHOWBIZ TV The Woman In The Wall. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature SHOWBIZ TV The Woman In The Wall.
Undated BBC Handout Photo from The Woman In The Wall. Pictured: Ruth Wilson as Lorna Brady. PA Feature SHOWBIZ TV The Woman In The Wall. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature SHOWBIZ TV The Woman In The Wall.

Lorna Brady wakes with a start, disorientated. Three cows stand over her, peering down inquisitively at this apparition lying in the middle of the wet road. Clad in just her white nightie, her feet bare, she stands up, shudders, and begins to trudge home. She’s been sleepwalking again. She returns to find a kitchen knife protruding from a painting of Jesus. Her next bout of nightwalking returns something worse: there’s a dead woman in her house and she has no idea if she’s the murderer.

So begins BBC’s new six-part drama, The Woman In The Wall. Set in Ireland in 2015, it is part murder-mystery, part dark comedy, part harrowing recreation of what thousands of women endured in Ireland’s Christian workhouses, the Magdalene Laundries.

Ruth Wilson plays Lorna, an Irish woman tormented by her past: as a pregnant teenager she was dragged to one of these religious homes for “fallen women” and had her baby taken from her. The narrative pivots around her discovery of the body as she struggles to piece together what’s happened – and not let herself fall asleep. Dublin-based Detective Colman Akande, played by Daryl McCormack, is also on the hunt and their paths increasingly intertwine.

“They’re fictional characters but it digs deep into the truth of it and how the tentacles reached throughout the whole community and the whole country,” explains Wilson. “It asks a lot of questions.”

“I know that art can have the power to create discussion,” says Peaky Blinders’ McCormack, “and discussion can have movement to do something even more fundamental. Our heart was always to be sensitive and to honour the people from these events as much as we possibly could.”

From the 18th century up until the late 1990s, tens of thousands of women were sent against their will to the state-funded, church-run Magdalene Laundries. Ostensibly a place of refuge for marginalised young girls, neglected children and women who became pregnant out of wedlock, in reality they were prisons and workhouses. Babies were snatched from mothers and put up for adoption. Nuns profited while women toiled unpaid. Draconian and abusive punishments were rife. Unhygienic conditions resulted in high mortality rates.

Writer and director Joe Murtagh’s impetus for creating the series – after watching Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters – was “the fact that I didn’t know about this, and that no-one else I spoke to outside of Ireland knew about this”.

Still, it took him another ten years to put pen to paper and the weight of the legacy hasn’t dissipated. “It was absolutely paramount that we were not being exploitative or insensitive or inauthentic,” he says. After studying what was out there on the Laundries – testimonies, books, newspapers, films, speaking to organisations – he reached out to survivors. “What completely surprised me, happily surprised me, was just how open and willing they were to talk about this, and were actually happy that we wanted to hear from them, and even happier that we were planning to make a TV series.”

As the series plays with genre, storytelling with authenticity and sensitivity was vital. But the genre-bending was also deliberate. Murtagh, 33, reckoned that combining the harrowing history with murder mystery elements and humour was the best way to spread it far and wide: “It seemed like the perfect way to smuggle a story like this under the radar and get someone to sit down in some random corner of the world to watch this and engage with it emotionally,” he says.

“I’m looking for material that feels unique, but also has something to say and has a great character at the heart of it,” says 41-year-old Wilson, whose standout performances include Jane Eyre, Luther and His Dark Materials. “When I read the script I thought, ‘wow, this is swimming on something fascinating’, not only revealing a subject matter that needs to be told but Joe is doing it through a really interesting guise.”

Lorna is funny, quirky, an outsider: “You have power being an outsider because you’ve got nothing left to lose. That gives me a bit of freedom in how I can approach these scenes and make them really idiosyncratic to her. What I always thought was key with her and getting inside her was like, is this woman a killer? Who is someone who puts someone in a wall?

“And that was quite hard because I had to straddle those different genres and make sure that this character could flow in all of those places, could sit with those women, but also sit in a psychological horror and also put someone in a wall.”

Wilson is no stranger to playing complex, independent-minded women. Her most recent endeavour saw her perform a 24-hour play, The Second Woman, where she acted variations of the same scene with 100 different partners, many non-actors.

“It felt a little risky, to be honest,” says McCormack of the series’ premise, “but I’m at a point in my career where if I’m not taking risks it feels a little pointless.”

He was drawn to Colman’s complexity: “He spoke to that temptation men have to really look strong and together all the time, and gets taken on a journey where he has no choice but to fall apart and deal with his trauma.”

“Lorna and Colman are both victims of the same system, just on opposite ends,” 30-year-old McCormack continues. “Lorna is a woman who had her child taken from her at the laundry, whilst Colman is a child born through the mother and baby home, and as a result doesn’t know who his biological mother is. So, they share a similar wound and they have this almost spiritual magnet towards each other.”

As well as reading books on adoptees, McCormack dug into his own past, born to a single mother in Ireland 30 years ago. “I often find what’s really interesting about playing roles, particularly having to go somewhere challenging or emotional, is that it brings out your own,” he observes, as he chats at a junket. “It brings out where you sit with those topics in your own life… I can never make a clean cut. If it’s something that carries a bit of weight, I often find that at least the zeitgeist of the piece stays with me. It takes some time to take it off.”

For her part, Wilson says it’s only the accent that’s hung around. “I still come out with the accent now and again… But no, no. Maybe I’m becoming all my characters just generally,” she laughs. “I don’t know. I’m a bit worried.”

The Woman In The Wall airs on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday, August 27.