The original Prime Suspect brought powerhouse Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison to our screens for seven seasons. But Tennison didn’t start at the top. Actor Stefanie Martini—who plays a younger version of the iconic character in the new prequel series, Prime Suspect: Tennison—reveals how she found her own unique angle on Tennison.
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JACE: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
For seven seasons, MASTERPIECE fans enjoyed watching Helen Mirren play the hard-drinking, hard-driving Jane Tennison in the Emmy and Golden-Globe winning series, Prime Suspect. When Tennison left the Metropolitan police force in 2006, we weren’t sure we’d ever see her again. But this month, in a special 10/9C broadcast time, Tennison is back with a brand new case from the very beginning of her career.
SGT HARRIS: Tennison, get your backside into comms and help Morgan out. Now.
Decades removed from her career at the top of the Metropolitan Police Force, the young Jane in Prime Suspect: Tennison is still working her way through the beginnings of life on the beat.
BRADFIELD: I need a uniform presence at a next of kin visit.
TENNISON: I haven’t done one of those yet.
BRADFIELD: Well, can you find me another PLONK then?
TENNISON: No, I didn’t mean that…I’ll do it.
This Tennison is still a PLONK—that’s a “person of little or no knowledge,” for our American listeners, a rather offensive British term for female police constables. But soon, Tennison shows her detective instincts by picking up on wayward clues: a phone number and a hidden red Jaguar.
TENNISON: Sorry, sir.
BRADFIELD: You had the phone number.
TENNISON: I didn’t think it was enough.
BRADFIELD: Well it’s enough to question him and get a warrant. I trust I won’t find your fingerprints all over those door handles.
Back in January, we sat down with Stefanie Martini , the busy new actor who takes on the considerable burden of playing Jane Tennison.
JACE: We are joined by Stefanie Martini. Welcome.
JACE: Going into this project, how familiar were you with the original Prime Suspect?
STEFANIE: I think sometimes you can over-saturate yourself and then you end trying to play about a million different things that aren’t really relevant to your own performance, so I think, using just the script that I had in front of me and just kind of really, really going into that and kind of, you know, watching the other Prime Suspects, which was really useful. Also to kind of have, like, a tone of the whole, like business. I got like, a police handbook, I started, like, reading this ’70s police handbook.
STEFANIE: I, um, like, kind of went on, like, character walks, and, like –
JACE: So method-y.
STEFANIE: – I did all sorts of funny, yeah. Well, just ’cause I didn’t have a huge amount of time really, before I … From when I found out I was doing it until we started, so I felt like I just needed to kind of jump in and try and, try everything and see what would make me feel like her. It was quite difficult in a way because she’s so kind of responsive and she’s not necessarily pushing the scene, she’s not always talking all the time. She’s just kind of there, and, like, absorbing everything. So I think her focus and, like, the feel of her focus is what helped me feel like her, really.
JACE: Did you set out to sort of convey any of Helen Mirren’s specific mannerisms as Jane Tennison?
STEFANIE: You know, I, I didn’t. I didn’t. I thought that would be quite a dangerous path for me to go down. I think the last thing that I wanted to do, because it’s such an iconic performance, is to do a kind of watered down rubbish impression of Helen Mirren. I thought it’s just to, just kind of keep it completely fresh. But it is so useful to know where she ends up. So no specific physical mannerisms, but I think kind of knowing what drives her is still similar, you know? She still has that, kind of, intelligence to kind of get herself involved in the investigation even though it’s not necessarily really her place to do so.
JACE: Well she has that intensity –
JACE: – that is, she’s sort of always present …
JACE: – always looking, always searching.
STEFANIE: Exactly. And that’s what I meant by kind of the focus of her is that she’s incredibly work-focused and, and, and thinking outside the box and, and thinking in ways that maybe that people around her who are more experienced aren’t. So really, though, even though it’s her job, really, just to kind of make up some tea and answer the phone, at this point.
STEFANIE: She’s just like, “Is it this?” “Is it this?” She gets really involved. It’s really, really fun to play actually, just kind of that no filter when she has an idea and then she just blurts something out and then everyone just turns around and looks at her and is like, “That is not your place.” [laughs]
JACE: [laughs] Not in 1973.
JACE: Why do you think she has remained such a touchstone for viewers as a character, Jane Tennison?
STEFANIE: I just think it was, um, such a big thing in that time, as well, to have such a kind of strong, female lead. And she’s very different and also, kind in the other series, kind of like, not completely likable, as well all the time, you know. She did some kind of, quite like morally …
JACE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
STEFANIE: Ambiguous stuff. So I think, I think it was just very different, and, yeah, she’s just kind of very powerful and very strong, which, at that time to have a woman on television as that character was really kind of bold I think. And really good.
JACE: Well then I think to have her goals be not the expected goals that we typically saw at the time from female charac –
JACE: – ters. Her goals are not partnerhood, motherhood …
STEFANIE: Marriage and babies, yeah.
JACE: Yeah. I mean she wants to catch the bad guy and she’s married to her job. What was the audition process like?
STEFANIE: The audition process was, uh, I had three rounds. Um, the second round was a self-tape, so I was filming in Budapest at the time and it was kind of quite specific notes, and traits that I had to kind of try and find. But it was quite difficult scenes because they’re all kind of investigation scenes and they were scenes that were written purely for the purpose of the audition, so there’s not really any context to it went over quite a long amount of time, like, five months I think.
STEFANIE: Yeah. And I found out I was doing it and then we were shooting it in two weeks.
JACE: So long process and then –
STEFANIE: – Yeah.
JACE: – short time to prepare.
JACE: Did you have any trepidation about stepping into Jane’s shoes?
STEFANIE: No, because I think, I mean obviously it’s, it’s, it is quite scary, but then at the same time she’s such a completely different character. And she’s written completely different, she’s fresh-faced, she’s naïve, she’s kind of clumsy, she makes sort of mistakes, it’s not at all the same. Like I couldn’t, if I tried, to take Helen’s performance and put it on that script, right, there’s not a chance it could have worked. Like I had to see it as a completely separate thing.
JACE: Now we first meet Jane when she jumps off the bus –
JACE: – to come to the aid of Renee Bentley, played by the great Ruth Sheen –
JACE: – who she sees being mugged on the street.
JANE: Stop the bus!
JANE: Stop! Stop!
RENEE: Let go of my bag!
JANE: Stop! I’m a police officer!
JACE: What does this moment say about Jane? That she’s ready to sort of leap into action.
STEFANIE: Yeah. She’s impulsive, and even though it’s probably really dangerous for her to, like, jump off of a moving bus in the rain and then go try to stop a man from attacking a woman, she just jumps straight into things and just wants to help. She just wants to help people and just wants to kind of stop all of this injustice and help this poor woman, with absolutely no regard for her own safety. But yeah.
JACE: Does it matter that she’s unsuccessful? Is it enough that she simply tried to help in that moment?
STEFANIE: I think it’s, yeah, I mean, it kind of shows this, her spirit. And it’s that, that is kind of, she does quite a lot of things like that where she does something because she thinks it’s the right thing. She does something because she thinks it will help the case, or it will help the investigation, or because she thinks it’s what needs to be done, even if it’s not necessarily the, the cleverer, like, or, you know, on like an objective view of it, thing to do, like, without planning so much, just kind of very impulsive..
JACE: She’s quite impulsive.
STEFANIE: Very impulsive. [laughs]
JACE: To her detriment at times.
JACE: What was daily life like for a plonk in 1973?
STEFANIE: A plonk, yeah. Person of Little or No Knowledge. It was, yeah, you just kind of have to do quite a lot of like, admin, and kind of, receive calls and send calls out and make tea, and um, you know, chase up car registration plate numbers, you know,1973 was the year that the women in the police, the women police and the male police kind of integrated into, like, one force because before the women’s police force was like a kind of completely separate thing. That dealt with you know, anything that would involve with like, women that are at the scene, like sexual assault, that sort of thing. And that was their area. So this is the first time that they’re actually seen as the same and doing the same jobs.
JACE: And what surprised you the most about what you learned about a WPC in the 1970s? Was there something that surprised you?
STEFANIE: I mean, this is nothing to do with the series really at all, but I found out that when women police officers made it through, and they got onto the, like, onto the police teams and they kind of went through their training and then they were working at a station, the men at the station would like, brand their, like, bare bumcheek? With this station stamp?
STEFANIE: As if, that was like, a thing? That would happen? And that was just kind of fine? And like a tradition?
JACE: It was just normal.
STEFANIE: Yeah, I found that so, like, I was like, “How is that acceptable? How at all is that something that was, that would happen? But we had police advisors on the show who were just making sure that everything was being done correctly and who would talk to me about like, where the, when I have my hat on or have my hat off, or bag on, bag off, that sort of thing. They told me about it. I was like, “That’s insane!”
STEFANIE: So insane.
JACE: That’s bizarre.
STEFANIE: I know! So bizarre.
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JACE: Now, I love the morgue scene with Jane –
STEFANIE: Oh, yeah.
JACE: She remains completely sort of unflinching –
STEFANIE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
JACE: – unblinking-
STEFANIE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
JACE: – until the reveal of the fetus.
MARTIN: WPC Tennison, would you mind crouching down. Side on, fetal position, facing me, and raise your right hand, palm upwards as if you were trying to protect your head. Perfect, she was struck repeatedly on the lower arm and then beaten repeatedly on the buttocks and the back as she fell and lay prostrate on the floor
BRADFIELD: He didn’t mean for you to actually do that bit, Tennison.
JACE: What was it like shooting that scene with the corpse and, and are you at all squeamish in real life?
STEFANIE: [laughs] I’m not at all squeamish. I felt sorry for the girl who’s playing Julianne because it’s a real morgue [laughs]. She’s there lying on this real morgue table and then she’s in the fridge [laughs].
STEFANIE: I was really happy actually when I saw that scene and I saw how they did it, because it just makes you feel a bit sick, I think, isn’t it, like kind of the sounds of the instruments that they use and everything. It was quite weird.
JACE: And the police surgeon is chomping on a sandwich.
STEFANIE: Yeah! Oh God, gross.
JACE: It’s so gross.
STEFANIE: It’s so gross. But it is, it was weird because we were in an actual morgue yeah.
JACE: No, not for me.
STEFANIE: No, not for me.
JACE: Not for me.
JACE: What is her initial relationship like with, with Leonard Bradfield and why are they so drawn to one another in his first episode?
STEFANIE: I think she really respects him. I think he shows compassion, and he’s intelligent, and I think, I think, she thinks he’s so high up and he’s kind of the DCI, I think she just, she just is kind of fascinated by him. And I think he kind of sees in her like a real passion for the work in the same kind of, I think maybe their brains work in a similar kind of way. You know when you kind of see someone who has the same passion as you? I think she just really, really respects him. But yeah, they are kind of drawn to each other and that’s awkward. [laughs]
JACE: Quite awkward, quite awkward. We see the sort of impassioned side of Jane in her interaction with Susie. Aggressively sort of needling her about her friend.
TENNISON: It makes me sick to my stomach that that bastard is out there somewhere breathing, eating living while Julie-Ann is in the mortuary being prodded and poked and sliced open.
SUSIE: Makes me sick, too.
JACE: Why is Jane so invested in this case?
STEFANIE: Because Bradfield brings her to go and see the parents, and she sees the parents and she sees the home that this girl kind of grew up in which is like this kind of middle-class, you know, quite like well-to-do neighborhood which is, actually quite similar to her and where she’s from, so I think she’s probably identifies with the family and sees how upset the family are and then also kind of relates to this girl and I think she just really cares about this girl and genuinely wants to find out what happened to her.
JACE: I mean, she’s there, too, for more than just sort of tea and sympathy.
STEFANIE: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. And I think to witness that sort of stuff when you’re kind of just starting out must be really, really intense, so yeah, I guess she just would have kind of hooked on to it and wanted to be involved and wanted … and thought about it a lot.
JACE: How would you describe her relationship with WPC Kath Morgan? Does she see Kath as someone to emulate or a cautionary tale or as a rival?
STEFANIE: I think there’s, there’s like moments where she sees Kath getting something right and she’s like, “God, I wish that was me. I wish that was me.” Kath’s been there a lot longer than she has, and, she looks up to her I think. She really looks up to her but they’ve also got a really lovely kind of friendship and like banter going on there in a way, which I guess you kind of have to, there aren’t too many women that you see.
JACE: I love that. Did you always want to be an actor?
STEFANIE: Yes I did. Yeah. But I think, uh, it took me a while to kind of realize that and also kind of get the guts to go for it and try to do it. I had three gap years before I went to RADA so, and two of those were auditioning to get in, I didn’t get in one year. I was actually on my way to kind of going and becoming an illustrator, I was doing an art foundation, so it was something creative. If you’re an illustrator you’re drawing something and it’s separate from yourself and you’re putting that forward and that’s separate from yourself, whereas if you’re an actor, you’re going, “This is me, and this is myself,” I mean do you, you know? It’s … scarier. I find it scarier. Which is probably why I love it so much.
JACE: If it makes you scared, you’re doing something right.
JACE: Your first on-screen role was in a 2016 episode of Endeavor –
JACE:– which is one of my favorite episodes, “Pray” –
JACE: – which is itself a period prequel to another MASTERPIECE favorite, Inspector Morse. What was that experience like on Endeavor?
STEFANIE: Oh, amazing. They were so supportive. Like, all the boys were just like, the detective team, were great. And it was actually really useful having that as my first job when I was approaching this because I can remember seeing Shaun and what Shaun was doing and how you do all of those kind of those tricky interrogation scenes where it feels like you’re saying the same thing over and over and again, or you know, seeing how he works and the focus and the intensity that he had was actually really inspirational for me. But yeah, it was a great first job because it was very new for me. I’d just done three years of theater training so I wasn’t used to the idea of doing something 25 times, crying 25 times.
JACE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
STEFANIE: All day. Every day.
JACE: The role of Jane Tennison is leagues away from Mary Thorne in Doctor Thorne.
STEFANIE: [laughs] Yeah. Very different.
JACE: And, and Lady Ev in Emerald City. Which is more challenging, playing a character in a costume drama, a fantasy, or a gritty crime drama?
STEFANIE: It’s so great, I mean they all have their challenges. I mean all of them, like, Emerald City I’m wearing a mask the whole time. I have no idea what I’m doing. I, I don’t know whether what I’m doing is reading, I don’t know whether what I’m, you can’t see my face, so I’m like, I just need to be really physically there and try to make my voice really expressive. And Mary Thorne was so difficult because she’s like the most virtuous person ever. It’s impossible to play someone who doesn’t have any flaws, you know. And then Jane Tennison was difficult because she’s quite … I feel like she’s quite close to myself. Mary Thorne is very far away from me, and obviously Lady Ev is as well, but Jane Tennison is like, I just had to like, strip back and be very honest and be very, just open and just react, because she’s hardly ever on the front foot, she’s hardly ever kind of pushing the scenes and driving the scenes, she’s just responding and taking everything in. And that’s even harder because you don’t feel like you’re doing anything. I didn’t, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything a lot of the time, and I was like, “Is this enough? Is it boring? Is it ‘ugh’?” So yeah, they all have their challenges. They’re all really, really different, but that’s what’s been so great for me is I feel like I’ve learned so much in quite a short space of time.
JACE: Whose career would you most like to have?
STEFANIE: I mean, if I had to, Cate Blanchett’s.
STEFANIE: She’s amazing. I think people like her, Susan Sarandon, just beautiful, women who have kind of worked past their like, early 20s, 30s, you know, that sort of thing, and kind of have transcended and gone on and it’s still working, like women that are still working in their like 60s and 70s, I think that’s incredible, because it’s so difficult for a woman. So, yeah. People who have kind of really diverse, strong bodies of work, I think. That’s where.
JACE: So Cate Blanchett, Maggie Smith.
STEFANIE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. You get my vibe.
JACE: Dame Judy Dench.
STEFANIE: I mean, amazing, yeah.
JACE: What’s next for you then?
STEFANIE: I have no idea. It’s quite a nice place to be in, I think…like a year and a half ago, and I’ve just been so lucky, and it’s just been like, job, job, job, job, job, which I know is not the case for loads of people, so it’s actually quite nice in a way to kind of not know what I’m going onto next. It’s new for me. I’m getting used to it. But it’s, it’s cool. I’m excited. I don’t know.
JACE: So you’re cooking instead in the meantime?
STEFANIE: Cooking, yeah. Baking. I went on a yoga retreat, that was amazing.
STEFANIE: Yeah. Just kind of trying to get my life back for a little bit before I end up going off and being someone else again.
JACE: Before you become the next Maggie Smith … the next …
STEFANIE: I mean, yeah. It might take a while.
JACE: Sixty years.
JACE: What can you tease about this next episode?
STEFANIE: Julianne’s parents aren’t telling the complete truth and all of this is happening at the wake so it’s an incredibly awkward time for them to find all of this out. So as well with that you kind of take them to the station and sees what happens there and then you also kind of hopefully see what happens with Jane and Bradfield, with their kind of really awkward situation which they’re in at that point. You just kind of see a bit more of their relationship, and how they’re dealing with working after having a drunk kiss together, and then also you know what happens with the parents. It’s dark. It’s dark.
JACE: It’s dark, we’ll have to see.
JACE: Stephanie Martini, thank you so much.
STEFANIE: Thank you.
JACE: From a hidden jaguar to a forbidden curbside kiss with a superior, rookie Jane Tennison still has much to learn in the dark upcoming episodes of Prime Suspect: Tennison, airing at a special 10/9C broadcast time.
In two weeks’ time here on the MASTERPIECE STUDIO podcast, we’ll speak toPrime Suspect: Tennison co-star, Sam Reid, about the explosive conclusion to the murder case, and the close of this season.
If you find yourself on iTunes or Stitcher, be sure to subscribe to MASTERPIECE Studio so that you don’t miss any upcoming interviews that’ll take you behind-the-scenes of Grantchester, Season 3 andPrime Suspect: Tennison.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen and Rachel Aronoff. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Special thanks to Barrett Brountas and Susanne Simpson. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.
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