Inspector "Robbie" Lewis may be a man of few words; his partner, Detective Sergeant James Hathaway, even fewer. But as Masterpiece mystery!'s Tina Vaz found out in September, 2009, Lewis stars Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox have plenty to say about their on-screen alter egos, their off-screen relationship and what's next for the popular series.
Select a topic from the list to see Whately's thoughts below, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.
Kevin Whately, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, abandoned a future as an accountant to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. He has been acting since the late '70s and has appeared in numerous television programs as well as films. Whately is well known to Masterpiece audiences for his role in the Inspector Morse series.
Filming in Oxford
Learning from John Thaw and Laurence Fox
On screen vs. off screen relationship with Fox
Evolution of the Lewis character
Revisiting the death of Lewis's wife
Coming full circle from sidekick to star
You've been filming in Oxford for more than 20 years. What's it like filming on location, and what does Oxford bring to the series?
For me, Oxford is what it's all about. There are so many detective series, probably a good dozen in Britain alone, and the thing that makes us a bit different is the Oxford setting. The brains are so huge in Oxford and Cambridge that you can almost believe that these guys could spend weeks concocting some of the more complicated plots. [Laughs.] The background and the light on the Cotswolds in Oxford is just fantastic. That's one of the main reasons I keep coming back for more. I love it up here.
You've had the opportunity to be part of two detective duos. What did you learn from your Inspector Morse co-star, John Thaw, and what have you learned from your current co-star, Laurence Fox?
I had worked a fair bit in television when I began on Inspector Morse, but I learned pretty much everything I know about filmmaking from John. He was brilliant — one of the best British screen actors there's ever been. I've always tried to imitate what he did. Unfortunately, I don't have as good a voice as John had. His voice was fantastic. He could change gear in the middle of a scene in a way that I can't.
Laurence is sparky and young. He's full of ideas and champing at the bit. He's good fun. He keeps us all laughing and he's a very important part of the unit. We're slowly building Laurence's part up in each film, and it's great to watch it come along.
How closely does your on-screen relationship mirror your off-screen relationship?
Very closely. People tend to think that chemistry is something that happens immediately, but with John and me it evolved over the first couple of years and the same is happening with Laurence. He's very irreverent, which is wonderful and refreshing. He'll take a go at me and we'll go back and forth, and the crew will join in. We've always gotten on very well and had a nice atmosphere on the set. There aren't any egos around.
How do you view your character now versus when you first began playing him in 1987?
I guess I've kind of grown up with him. With what he learned from Morse, he's now a much more experienced detective. He's also more of his own man. The writers and producers have tried to push the lonely, middle-aged side of him, but I've fought it. That loneliness was one of Morse's main characteristics, which is one of the reasons I've shied away from it. The same is true when it comes to romance. I don't mind the occasional flirtation, but I wouldn't want Lewis to go off too far in a romantic direction. He's getting awfully near 60 after all!
The death of Lewis's wife comes up this season. What opportunities did bringing that storyline to the forefront offer?
My wife has a saying that the only good wife is a dead wife in television drama over here. [Laughs.] So, I'm wary of that. There are an awful lot of widower detectives around. I didn't want that storyline to go on as a kind of recurring soap opera. In the end [series writer] Alan Plater finished it off with a very good episode.
Twenty-two years after you began Inspector Morse, you're now in the role of the elder. What's it like to come full circle?
For starters, I have a lot more lines, just as John did when we were working together. [Laughs.] Quite apart from the acting, though, I find that there's also a great responsibility around the set when you're the eponymous "hero" of the series. People tend to bring you their problems — work-related and domestic — even if they know you can't solve them. They come and have a moment with you, and you try to help them sort it out. I enjoy all of that. It's something I do quite well, I think.
Select a topic from the list to see Fox's thoughts below, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.
Laurence Fox is part of the distinguished Fox family of actors, many of whom have been seen on Masterpiece. His father is James Fox (who appears this season on Inspector Lewis), his uncle in Edward Fox (Oliver Twist, Daniel Deronda), and his cousin is actress Emilia Fox (The Virgin Queen, Henry VIII). Fox is married to Billie Piper (Mansfield Park, Sally Lockhart mysteries), and together the couple have a son, Winston.
Approaching the cryptic character of Hathaway
Revealing Hathaway's personal side
Working with Kevin Whately
Off screen relationship with Whately
Acting with James Fox
Becoming a father
Next season on Inspector Lewis
Wife Billie Piper making a cameo
Advice for David Tennant
DS Hathaway has been a mostly cryptic character. As an actor, how have you approached him?
I've tried to be cryptic myself and not think too much about it. [Laughs.] In general, I just try to make him a bit hard to know.
A few of this season's storylines do, however, reveal a more personal side of Hathaway. How did you feel about pulling back the curtain on him?
In some ways I would have preferred not to, because I think it's better when characters are more mysterious. I would have been happy to reveal only tiny snippets about him as we went along. That said, the stories offered quite a lot of fun acting to do.
What have you learned from working with your co-star, Kevin Whately?
I've definitely learned what faces not to pull when acting! [Laughs.] Kevin's been working for so long and he's very adept at dealing with his energy. He's got a really good screen presence. When not to do anything in a scene is one thing that I've learned from him. Mainly he's just a really good, fun, lovely man to hang out with. I enjoy being around him.
Does your off-screen relationship mirror that of Hathaway and Lewis?
I'm not quite as serious as Hathaway is, so I tend to annoy Kevin by being boisterous. He tells me to shut up quite a lot and then I accuse him of being a bad actor, and we go back and forth like that. [Laughs.] So, in some ways, I suppose the two relationships are pretty similar.
This season, you appear on-screen with your father [the actor James Fox] for the first time. Was it daunting to bring him into Lewis?
Yes — it was frightening! I was nervous and forgot my lines, and had to dub them in later. But we had a lot of fun.
You also became a father while you were filming this series. What was it like to go through such a major life change while shooting?
Yes, I was working for six weeks after my son, Winston, was born. I didn't really want to go to work at times, because I wanted to stay at home and just absorb how amazing he was.
You're filming the next season of Inspector Lewis as we speak. Any hints about what we can expect?
I really like the new season we're working on now. One of the benefits of the global economic disaster is that so many great actors are looking for work, so we've got a lot of really brilliant people on board. Without giving too much away, I can say that Lewis might have someone who is romantically interested in him. Hathaway doesn't get much action in that department, I'm afraid.
Your wife, Billie Piper, has appeared on Masterpiece. Any chance she and Winston might make a cameo appearance?
[Laughs.] I think that might be pushing it a bit!
Our new Masterpiece contemporary host, David Tennant, is a friend of yours. Any advice for him or for us as he starts his new role?
I can't give him any advice, because he's a much better actor than I am. He's a great person to have involved with Masterpiece. You're lucky to have him — he's fab!