Fiona Shaw Is Utterly Unstoppable

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Related to: Baptiste, Season 2

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The brilliant Fiona Shaw is already a regular guest on MASTERPIECE programs, but this is her first interview on MASTERPIECE Studio — a format that she takes to with ease, like so much else in her storied career. In the challenging second season of Baptiste, Shaw plays Emma Chambers, the no-nonsense British Ambassador to Hungary, who more than holds her own with inspector Julien Baptiste.

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Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

We’ll pause here briefly to warn you of spoilers for the second season of Baptiste — and encourage you to turn to PBS Passport to watch the entire series before listening forward.

Freelance investigator Julien Baptiste is not having a good go of things on his latest central European jaunt. The British Ambassador to Hungary’s two children go missing after her husband is murdered — and Baptiste, whose specialty is finding the unfindable, still doesn’t know where they are.


Reporter Police in Hungary are searching for the family of British Ambassador Emma Chambers after she reported her husband and two teenage sons missing. The family were holidaying in the Hungarian mountains northeast of Budapest. And the search is focussed on their hotel and the surrounding woods.

Jace Emma Chambers, a stern and no-nonsense British civil servant, isn’t one who suffers fools — and as Baptiste struggles to crack the case, it increasingly feels like this might be the first missing persons case the remarkable Frenchman cannot solve.


Julien I believe the timing is deliberate. I believe she is a distraction. There are messages between Alex Chambers and someone concealing their identity. The last communication mentions a location, and a time – four o‘clock. In Jozsefvaros. That’s in twenty minutes!

Zsofia And what do you want me to do?

Julien I need resources. Squad cars, if I’m right, if Kamilla Agoston’s is nothing but distraction…

Zsofia We’ve been preparing for this day for weeks.

Julien Zsofia. I know I have no power here. But every bone in my body tells me something is going to happen.

Jace Baptiste the series is centered on Tchéky Karyo’s titular detective, but Ambassador Chambers — played with compelling grit this season by Fiona Shaw — is just as captivating.


Nadeem Emma, you don’t smoke.

Emma No. I don’t. I’m about to, though. Last time I smoked a cigarette, I’d just been dumped… Alan Crawley. Christ…I remember thinking, looking at the cigarette, Alan Crawley isn’t worth this. My lungs deserve better. And I put it out immediately. A week later I met Richard. That was thirty years ago. Can’t quite find the reason to put it out though, this time.

Jace The incomparable Shaw joins to talk Hungary, Tchéky, and decoding complex character motivations from clues found in moments of personal grief.

Jace And we are joined this week by Baptiste star Fiona Shaw, welcome.

Fiona Shaw Hello Jace, thank you for having me.

Jace Take me back to the earliest discussions about the role of Emma Chambers. There is a shift in the series from Emma being a largely reactive character in those opening scenes when she discovers her husband and sons are missing to being a very active agent in the narrative. What did you make of that change? And was that an attraction to signing on that she’d be a driving force within the narrative?

Fiona I don’t think I had any such profound thoughts about about why I was signing on. I had a huge respect for those two brothers who I think are the best plotters in, you know, in the world. They could bring down a government,  they’re so clever. And I also believed in the integrity of them. I also know Tom Hollander, who I had spoken to and who had had a very hard time with the previous Baptiste. And I also had just been playing in a series called Killing Eve, which was both lighthearted and full of wit. And something about the the the dry sincerity of this attracted me. So, you know, I was partially attracted by its complication in its plot, by its political ramifications and by the ordinariness of Emma, which is quite a weird thing to want. But I didn’t want her to be extraordinary. And she really isn’t. She’s very much a cog in the wheel of the of the diplomatic world. And I quite like that. It was a good change from playing a rather high blown character in the previous series, you know.

Jace Yeah, I mean, she definitely is not Carolyn Martens, we’ll say that.

Fiona No.

Jace And I mean, there is still quite a lot to be resolved within Emma’s story, I love that you sort of called her ordinary. Her story goes to some very dark places, sort of Greek tragedy level darkness places, in fact. And what was your perception of the character of Emma going into production?

Fiona I didn’t always like her, and that’s quite a hard thing because, you know, when you act somebody, you should really love them. I didn’t find her lovable. And in a way, she had some of the drawbacks of the English educated classes, which is that they tend to be repressed, slightly unemotional. And in her case, which I really liked when you mentioned Greek tragedy, is that she was not perfect. She wasn’t a particularly good mother. You know, she was definitely too absent, which becomes more evident as the series goes on, because she, like a lot of people in families, didn’t quite know her children. I don’t think she knew them. And, you know, I think there’s many people who, you know, which was the the broad side of that of that feminist revolution, which meant that women were working as hard as men and and having it all. You know, the woman who has it all has two children and a fantastic career and internationalism and everything is going to be fine once her husband concedes and just follows her around the planet, when, of course, that’s been long since superseded now, I think, by people thinking that we want to work less and we want to be more at home. But she’s very much of that generation. And I, I didn’t always find attractive and always and rather dry. And, you know, she’s she’s also attempting, which I really liked at the beginning of the story, that she’s trying to have a holiday because the family deserve a holiday and because they’ve had a terrible time with a death of her daughter in the family. So it’s a very broken, backed beginning. And I liked all that. I thought it was very interesting.

Jace How did you prepare for the emotional and physical, even crucible that is put through over the course of this series?

Fiona Well, I suppose I’ve had 30 years of playing in various tragedies, Elektra, Madea, Hedda Gabber. So I’ve always been interested in and excavating the language of what’s written by what someone says. So rather than approaching a thing saying, you know, what is the character? Because I always saw the character is sadly, me, Fiona, in that situation with these with these words, the rhythm of the words tells you the subconscious of that person. So she doesn’t speak like me, Fiona does. So insofar as she doesn’t, she becomes somebody different. But she you know, your imagination is only your imagination informed by either your imaginative past, as in the stories that have been in that had such terrible tragedy and the people were new. And in this case, on a practical level, I went to visit the British ambassador to Hungary, which was a fantastic experience. He’s actually he was a Scottishman and his wife was Irish, which was not at all like Emma Chambers. And he was utterly delightful, like a lot of the British diplomatic corps, which is unusual. He spoke fluent Hungarian, having come from Japan, which was his previous incumbency, where he spoke fluent Japanese. I mean, it is a really old traditional aspect of British diplomacy that they take their ambassadors, give them a year of intensive training in the language. So when they go, they really do fit in with the community, which I think is laudable. So in some I did not learn entirely Hungarian for this, but I did speak some Hungarian. So I was it was very good. I also knew the Danish ambassador to Hungary, who happens to be a friend of a friend. So I also had tea with her. So the ambassador’s world in in Budapest, I enjoyed exploring very much.

Jace I mean, there is a sense of randomness or chaos at play here. It is a very sort of crazy arc to chart of what happens to Emma. We jump back and forth between two timelines. We see two versions of Emma Chambers as she descends deeper and deeper into loss and an awakening drive for the truth, for vengeance, for something. How did you distinguish between the two Emmas that you were playing? Did you chart out her development at all?

Fiona I literally did that, Jace. I had a big board and so had Tchéky, we had these boards. I mean, he had different ones. He had them on his computer, rather beautifully printed out. I had mine entirely done with you know sharpies on on big walls of paper. And I had, you know, so weird. You know, it reminds me of high school. You know, I just had these things of Monday, Tuesday, where we’re year one this year and next year and 14 months later to 14 months earlier. And not just that, but what had happened, you know, why had we cut from 14 months later to this 14 months earlier? What is the connection between the two seasons, in fact, in the event, as is the case with all of these creations, I was incredibly surprised to see the first episode and to see Emma trying to get out of bed and not able to walk because the wheelchair aspect of of the event that happened 14 months earlier, but not at the very beginning of the story, of course, some months after the beginning of the story. And I was very surprised they started with that because that wasn’t what was in the script. We were going to get to the wheelchair. But in fact, I think they obviously decided that it was better to put the ace of spades out first and that the audience know the situation as well. So I’m not sure I could tell you fluently now what was there, but certainly we didn’t start with a wheelchair. But I on my two charts on the wall, I did know what was happening when. And I didn’t have the luxury of growing a beard, like Tchéky, but I was very clear that my hair was very hard because there wasn’t so much time to grow there between Killing Eve and it. But I for a while hd a bit of gray, that she had got a bit gray as the time went on, you know, that she just got grayer, as people do in grief often.

Jace No, I mean, they do front load a lot of information in that first episode, not only the wheelchair, you’ve got a man in a cage. You suddenly see that this is more of a Fiona Shaw spine of steel character than it initially appeared from the sort of familial scenes. Julien Baptiste is having his own dark night of the soul over the course of the series as well. The sort of solidity and calmness that have typically marked this character here and in the missing are still there in some respects, but we see the life ebbing from him. Do you feel that there’s a sense that these two are somehow mirrors of each other in that respect, connected, bonded by loss and grief?

Fiona Yes. I mean, I think what what I like very much about the series is how grown up it is in relation to those relationships. You know, there is nothing romantic between Emma and Jean Baptiste. And I think that’s very unusual on television to see two people who spend six episodes together and they’re pursuing something, but they’re both carrying huge baggage. And there’s no sense in which Emma knows all of his baggage. She doesn’t. She doesn’t know his relationship with his wife. Not really. She knows about the story about his daughter and, of course, about his son. So he is seeped in tragedy. And there is a sense in which rather brilliantly, I think these two writers don’t allow that become mawkish. It isn’t, they’re not both wallowing in grief, but they’re both living on that wavelength that if anybody watching it or in the world who has experienced grief, they you do find yourself on that wavelength, which is quite different to the wavelength of ordinary people who haven’t yet had any substantial grief.

Jace It it is interesting to me as well. Julien is the detective here. You know, he is searching for your missing sons, but there’s no sense of dependency on the part of Emma. For Julian, they hold equal power within their dynamic, which to me was very, very surprising to watch because you sort of go in and. Even though there’s nothing romantic between the two of them, there is you expect an unequal power dynamic at play, but they are equals in this and equals in the narrative as well. But do you see Emma’s being able to go toe to toe with Julian as offering a sort of transformative dynamic for for a crime series?

Fiona Oh, gosh. Well, yeah. I mean, at the end, they do say I think she hopes to never see him again. But I I think that may have been I don’t know whether the brothers wrote to the actors, having seen some of it, did they develop it? And I mean, I was very happy not to be in it as much as I was I was going to a lot. And I think they did get they got quite involved with Emma. You know, in one way, she just the victim of this crime. But I think the writers got interested in her. And I’m very glad they did in a way, because, you know, there’s much more chance to develop a pendulum swing of experience rather than just one note. But it was very hard to carry that…she is toe to toe with it. I mean, she she’s a very educated woman. And actually, Julian Baptiste is kind of an autodidact. You feel he’s been self educated. He has groped his way to his both his instinctive knowledge, his message to the sensitivity and empathy and the sort of prejudices. And she’s not like that at all. She’s just very analytical and very thorough. She’s quite banal. And as I say, I really enjoyed that, that she’s she might be rather pedantic person to meet at a dinner table. I mean, she wouldn’t be she’d be rather interesting, too, because she’s lived abroad. And and she she has enjoyed her work, which is, you know, most of the deals that somebody in her position would be, is making trade deals, you know, and increasing the amount of butter or metal or iron ore that gets sent from one country to another. I mean, that’s what they do, and do it with some grace. You know, you have to do that all over a dinner, a much better job. But I think she is toe to toe with him. And maybe certainly I think Tchéky enjoyed it. I think he enjoyed having this partner in crime with him. And we had a very nice time together, actually, in that he and I were often in cars together, you know, sitting waiting, a night shoot, for some for some moments to occur that we were to suddenly get out of our car and we would talk a lot about life. So I think some of our off-camera life actually bled on to the camera, which I’m very glad about.

Jace Oh, I love that. The third member of that triumvirate is Zsófia, played by Hungarian actor Dorka Gryllus. How does Zsófia perspective help to inform Emma’s or to underscore that the violence embraced by the far right within Hungary?

Fiona Well, I just first want to say how impressed I was with Dorka’s performance, I just think she is a real find, and she can act in German, in English and in Hungarian and probably in French, but certainly those three languages. And I think she should be absolutely taken up by America and by Britain. I mean, she’s a very, very good actress and has an ease, a stillness and an irony in English that is is rare in an English speaker, let alone in a Hungarian-English speaker. but she is I love the way in which it’s written that she has this other story that is is like another instrument in the orchestra, isn’t it? You’ve got, you know, Emma, you know, as the violin and maybe Tchéky, as the, Baptiste as the cello or something. But she is the sort of oboe sound of her pure thinking. And like many people you meet, of course, in Hungary is very interesting background, very honest, open desire for a modern Hungary. And she’s part of that, you know, that generation. And her story is, of course, tragic beyond because of the casual cruelty of the boys in relation to her father. And, you know, thankfully in the world, you know, many people soon will always have a parent from one country and another parent from another as the human race develops in some ways to better itself. And I think her story is is is a huge thing because, of course, she’s trapped, caught between Emma, who seems cold, but actually has suffered more than anybody. And Baptiste who is putting huge demands on her and her abilities while she’s being sort of nailed to the ground by an all but corrupt, well, corrupt police force or or politically interfered with police force. And I think probably, as in all fiction, this is just a mild exaggeration of what goes on, not just in Hungary but anywhere.

Jace You mentioned trade deals about ore and things of the like. Emma’s political position in Hungary is tenuous, particularly as we see the sort of xenophobia that the far right in Hungary is embracing as an outsider, particularly given Brexit, what sort of power does Emma wield, if any, within this country?

Fiona Well, it was a very interesting year, of course, to be there. And we were in Budapest from from January to March. We had to leave in March because of the lockdown, we got the last plane out. So it was all very high blown. So it’s a very strange time for anybody to write drama about a non-Brexit, non-pandemic time. So we are in a very peculiar time now and I suppose things will be written about that in the future. But I think it was the rise of the far right preceded that. And I suppose Hungary was a good country under Orbán to to see how much that has happened and to be there as an actor. One was not unaware of it either. The taxi drivers would sometimes praise or and for his ability to keep foreigners out. So you knew that the television was was in some ways proffering that position, that that the any faults with Hungary are being blamed on outsiders, which is a well-known method of keeping a country quite insular and removing it from the openness that has been the big move of liberalism since the war to now. And so it is definitely quite a border closing attitude. And we met many people who are like that. We were also you also feel sometimes not that welcoming shops and stores. And I think that’s because the people are biased against outsiders. So it’s not that the outsiders I mean, they’re biased due to the television. I don’t think the people themselves are. But of course, we then mixed with the acting fraternity who couldn’t be more welcoming, couldn’t be more sophisticated, couldn’t be more full of understanding. So in that way, there was a slight mirror. I think the problem with all fiction is that it is a fictionalized right wing that that has taken these boys into its wing. It’s not it’s not the right wing that’s there. Otherwise, I think I think Hungary wouldn’t have allowed the the series to be made there.

Jace No, I think you’re right.

Fiona They must have thought it was completely fiction because they they allowed it. I was amazed they allowed it.

Jace Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…

Jace In episode three, we learn the truth of how Emma was paralyzed and what happened to her son, Alex. Two situations that come together with abject horror as Emma is shot in a sniper attack at Jozsefvaros and Julian unknowingly kills Alex in front of Emma. What was your reaction when you got to this sequence in the script?

Fiona I couldn’t believe it. I mean, that was definitely not in the first scripts that I read and I couldn’t believe it. In fact, you know, I say this with all humility, my performance had to be built slowly and carefully. And maybe this is this piece of writing almost goes beyond the capability of anyone, because, you see, I think actually it worried me. I think there’s a point of silence. I’m not sure one could do anything. But because of a story, you do keep going forward because the nature of stories is to go on going forward. But I’m not sure. So I think sometimes, you know, I’m very glad if people believed the responses that I was able to invent, conjure and some may not and think, oh, gosh, that would never happen. But maybe that’s true, too. I’m not sure that would ever happen in that way. And to watch your son lying parallel to, well, the person who’s help you find him is the reason why he’s shot is is sort of would make you faint, probably, I’m not sure and probably end up in a psychiatric ward within days. So there is a sort of stretching. It is like being near that way, isn’t it? It is almost beyond physical mental endurance to have to witness the things that Emma witnesses and then to have to speak something coherent in order to make the story go forward.


Julien Emma, where are you hurt…

Emma No.

Julien It will be okay. We will find you help, we will…

Emma No. No. No. No. NOOO!! My boy!

Jace I mean, I cannot imagine shooting it and being amid the horror of this, your character has been shot. You’re lying underneath a body, you’re watching as your son gets killed by the man you’ve hired to find him. You touched on this. But how challenging was this to shoot emotionally, physically, psychologically?

Fiona Well, I’ll add another thing, which is that we did, I think, as I mentioned, we all had to, you know, halfway through our shoot, we had to stop because of the pandemic. And actually, in some ways, I was relieved because I was already terribly tired, really tired, because carrying the weight of that premise every day. And, you know, I found it not not a subject I wanted to be in all day, every day. It was in that way hard as I keep saying. It’s nothing to what people who’ve really been through an experience like that feel, but it’s still hard to perform. And when we waited six months or so, we took this up again in September when we when we began to try to take up the shoot again. And so by then, I had been with the subject for, you know, seven or eight months. I mean, I had I’d had the summer, as it were, off. But to go back to it, I found terribly heavy. So I must say I’m very proud to have done it. I’m very, very honored to have been asked to do it. And I hope I acquitted it in some way that allows people ideally a chance to to think on the dangers of these subjects. But I, I, I can’t say I enjoyed being in those moments. Not at all. There’s no there’s no there’s nothing but but but the despair of how inadequate you could be to the moment in it. In that way it was very hard to do.

Jace I mean there is, as I alluded to earlier, sort of Greek tragedy level of pathos here. You deliver this almost Madea level sense of anguish to Emma in that scene, that that horrifying, guttural scream that you deliver. I mean, you had a bit of a break. You came back. But how do you compartmentalize? How do you distance yourself from this character in these moments when you wrap at the end of the day,

Fiona when you do, you know, it is it is in the end fiction, but it is. And you are very glad to be at the end of the day, back in a car and going home. But you’re sort of dreading the following morning where you’re going to pick up on the same scene from another angle or, you know, whatever. So you just have to know. I don’t think it does you that much good. I mean, I’m really not going to play a violin for actors who are just acting these scenes. But I do think that it is wearing. It’s physically very tiring, there’s no doubt. I felt worn out every evening and many times wished that this cup could be taken from me. But the the the thing about filming as you’re doing it in bite size chunks, but sequences like that, you know, when it came to the end of a sequence and they were shooting somewhere else, I was quite relieved if I had a day off or two to to turn round and get ready for the next for the next bit. But it is like a series. It’s a very unusual series. And I watched it recently and of course, watched this new edit, which was both entertaining and terrifying. And what they’ve done is they’ve made a sort of series of plays, have television plays, haven’t they? Because the the quality I mean, when you talk about Jozsefvaros, that’s by far the biggest event n many events that occur in the series. But then it becomes kind of contemplative on the much more slower burn pain of discovering that your child is not a child who recognizes you with any natural feeling, and that that’s another sort of suffering. So it it has you know, they have managed to try and expose, you know, a Greek tragedy does end usually in an hour and a half after a lot of back story that ends in a crisis which they and a catharsis. But this has a much slower sequence of story because it can’t just be about a shooting at Jozsefvaros. It’s about how do people go on after such events where their child, a second child is killed and a third child has disappeared?

Jace I don’t know. I look at Emma and I don’t know how she even wakes up in the morning. I assumed that this would be six episodes of Emma and Julien trying to find her missing sons. We get halfway — not only do we find one of those sons, but Julien kills him and he is himself a killer. He is killing people in Jozsefvaros And we don’t know why we get an answer, but it only sparks more questions. And that is one of the things I love about this series in particular, is that there is no easy answer to any of this, not in a mystery sense, but even in a sort of existential sense that it asks these deep questions of us, of why. And that radiates, that sense of rawness radiates in the show just as much as the sort of brutality of the sequence. You are no stranger to grief in your own life. Do you draw upon it to play a character like this? Do you invent it out of whole cloth? Do you distance yourself? What is your sort of methodology for constructing a character like this?

Fiona No, I think, you know, most sorrows, you know, are like dreams, you know, they belong to each of us, but we all share the fact of them and we all lose people. And I lost my brother when he was young, but I can’t, I honestly, I was 25, so I would be weird, I think, if I was able to map my own you know, ‘I felt like this then.’ I mean, I just obviously, like the whole family fekt devastated, but I don’t think you need to have lived that to understand what it might be. You only have to have an imagination to understand what it is to lose people in your family. The consequences of loss in each family are different, I think. When people are lost in a family untimely, it explodes the family in a way that nobody can ever quite understand, you know, because you don’t know it until you get to it. So all the fissures in a family are exposed, but so I don’t think one consciously, you know, gouges, I would feel that that was almost pornographic or also not respectful to the people who die in your family. They’re not there to be used, as you know, for television. But there’s no doubt that life, you know, I’ve seen, of course, a lot of people who have suffered. And I don’t go making notes about them, but we all, you know, we just share the human experience. But as you speak, you know, had I known that it was going to be as as awful and as hard as this, I’m not sure I would have accepted it. But once in it, like Emma, I had to go to each phase as it came. To have a son that I mean, you’re dead right, that the writing is clever because it doesn’t investigate really the, you know, ‘We must talk about Kevin,’ aspect of a child who kills, you know, these young teenagers who dare to kill. But it does point or, you know, rather loosely, but to a real fact, which is that there is a radicalization of teenagers and their capacity in their energy, their huge energy of being an 18 year old, 17, 18 year old to marry their very simple minds to a very dogged dogma. And they sometimes turn to religion or to fundamental religion at that age, or they sometimes turn to to violence. But a strict order is usually some reaction against the lack of order in their previous lives, in their lives. But it doesn’t justify that is just it is a phenomenon and it doesn’t particularly explore that in relation to that boy who killed those people. I mean, it’s but she does say, you know, ‘He killed, he killed people. I produced him, and he killed people. That is the way of the world. You know, I am responsible for him coming into the world of this boy who kills people.’ That must be a terrible thing for people to feel to be the parent of a of a killer.

Jace I mean, that’s the weight of causality, I think.

Fiona Yes. I think. Response back to your original question. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And that is a terrible thing. But, you know, the thing about high drama and this is written for drama and Masterpiece Theater is a wonderful thing for taking, for producing such highly responsible pieces of drama. I, many years ago did Hedda Gabler for your great Masterpiece Theater and it’s that they allow us through fiction to maybe look at some fractured versions of that in our lives or in the lives around us. And certainly at the moment, I think a piece of very serious drama on television, even though it is only drama, does allow us a little vicarious feeling of what it is that some of the suffering is in a world when we who live in wherever we live in, in our safety, become slightly inured to to that kind of suffering. A lot of the world is suffering a lot.

Jace They are I mean, you have said in the past ‘There is great relief in experiencing the worst vicariously.

Fiona Yes. Yes.

Jace Yeah. And I think it’s true. There is a sense of my you know, my problems do not amount when I look at what is going on in Kabul right now or when I look around me in the city I am living in. But we do become inured to the fact that there is suffering in the world. But capital A Art, I do think, can shine a light on that can get us to question the very foundations of our lives and what we assume.

Fiona Yes, and I think, you know, if you worry tonight, as I might, that there isn’t any milk in the fridge, that is a little worry. It is also interesting to put it in perspective and maybe say it’s not such a worry. And and also, I think if fiction does anything and I keep repeating this is only fiction because, you know, it is something that’s been shown on television for nobody’s asking the audience to take responsibility for what happens in Baptist. But however, there are things happening in the world that we should be taking responsibility for. And if Baptist or Homeland or any of those theories open up, I the homeland is much more politically on the button of what’s actually happening than Baptist, which is a construction and what they do or point to where it is. Where does your responsibility lie? Where does my responsibility lie? And if it puts puts us in touch with that, then it’s it’s doing good in the world. You know, it’s not just for if it’s just for titillation, then it’s pornographic. But I hope it isn’t.

Jace I don’t think it is, not in this case. Emma is paralyzed after being shot in the back. Julien grows an enormous beard and drinks heavily. Zsófia loses her job. The future time line shows us the outcome of this singular moment at Jozsefvaros. Is Emma’s motivation from this point on as simple as finding well, is that the one motivating force in her life?


Emma My son is dead. And you want to sit around and tell me it was some grand far-right conspiracy? I am done. I have one son left. Find him.

Fiona Yes, she says she has one remaining son and she’d like to find him. But I think by then her life has changed structurallly. I mean, what just thought was interesting about playing with the wheelchair as I auditioned a lot of wheelchairs and I ended up with, you know, due to the huge interest in the Paralympics and in Paris, bought a wheelchair. So, they’re quite high to allow you to be as tall as you possibly can be in the room, which is nice so that you can join other conversations. And secondly, they they and they’re light, of course, they’re likely also that they’re very, very small now. So they don’t you’re not sitting in a big, huge armchair that someone’s wheeling you’re just almost going around on wheeled legs. And I found that quite moving, just about the fact in which so many people who are in wheelchairs have become such, you know, really life members of the community and how technology is helping that. So, you know, that was an education for me, the life in a wheelchair. And but she she of course, by by this terrible thing happening, she’s had to give up being an ambassador. I mean, I think probably against all odds, she has to give that up and she has to give up the value system of, you know, trade trade deals between one country or another. All of that falls away because in the end, I mean, she would be happily, happily die, I think. And I think there are many people in that position. They would prefer to die than to go on. But if they must go on, they do the one thing they can do, which is to find this son and see if she can save him, save him, even meet him. I mean, she she doesn’t know where he is or what he is. And and I like the series for not being in any way sentimental about that. Maybe. I mean, he doesn’t go well, ‘Mom, you know, you always know how to get me.’ She really doesn’t know how to get him and she doesn’t know how to speak to him. And he he seems to look at her with such a with such a with such a mask or a wall or a a curtain of his new ideology between him and her, that he he can’t see her as his mother or is on the same side and he can’t see the evil that is being done in the name of good as evil. It’s really it is very, very interesting being with both those actors. They were wonderful, those boys, and it was quite, quite challenging to think that, that it can happen.

Jace You are closely associated with stage productions for the National and the RNC. You’ve played quite a few members of the U.K. security services in Killing Eve, Mrs. Wilson, or British diplomats such as here. They’re quintessentially English characters. Do you have a complex relationship with the Englishness of the characters you play, being Irish?

Fiona That’s a very interesting question. I probably do, yes, Well, you know, Ireland has a history of having a very, very oppressed history in relation to England. And the Irish know about their history in relation to England, where the English do not know their history in relation to what they’ve did to Ireland. It’s amazing how all winning countries do disguise their history. And so they sort of ignore on it or that seems to be the big feeling. When I first came to London to go to drama school, you know, nobody knew anything about Irish history when I was at RADA, they just didn’t know anything about it, whereas we knew everything about English history. Because, of course, you’re always worried about the bigger brother. You’re always punching him. Whereas the big brother has no interest at all in the lesser country. So but but I but I also know that this country, you know, because of its Empire, which is now being revised massively and rightly, was a place which had become a center of knowledge and learning. So I was very, very glad to come to this fantastic school of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and be trained by many people and teachers so that, you know, the hub, the or you’re like ancient Rome or like New York or like any of these places that gather a fantastic high voltage group of people, you are exposing yourself. So I’m very grateful to England. And then I went to the Royal Shakespeare Company and I was very, very and helped there. I wasn’t hindered at all. I was given great parts and rose to the ranks there to to play those leading ladies, which was really the making of me. Because when you play a big part like Catherine the Shrew or Portia or Beatrice or you know, or Rosalind, you become you become very practiced at the at the way in which language works, the speed of thought, the the nature of of thinking on a line. And so all of that was done over three or four years that I spent at the Royal Shakespeare Company. So I’m very grateful to this country as well. But there’s no doubt that as an outsider, you always have a view of the English, whereas perhaps the English or the British with within themselves the English do would not have that. You know, the same could be true of Ireland or Americans that somebody outside can see can see the the slight mannerisms where the culture isn’t just a cross-section of humanity, but has has peculiarities built into it. But the parts I play are usually people of a certain education and the education, the private education in this country has has yet to be really investigated. It does seem to have had a huge effect.

Jace Is it true you were initially frightened to play Carolyn Martens in Killing Eve?

Fiona Yes.

Jace Why?

Fiona But because I was sent the script and, you know, I normally do these big plays that take about two years of my life and I certainly didn’t want to make any mistake in what I chose to do on the television. If I mean by mistake, I just thought, well, if I don’t understand it, maybe I just don’t understand. And I read it and I laughed on every page. But not not in the way you laugh at a comedy. I just thought, this is hilarious. I can’t believe this person just said that. And what did they mean by that? My goodness. Maybe they and I really took it very seriously because those terrible deaths and it murders it. And I you know, it you know, I, I was reading it as if it was baptized. Then I thought, oh, God, this is so strange. They speak like this. And so I asked to have lunch with Phoebe Waller-Bridge. And of course, you know, there I met this swan with with Einstein’s brain. I mean, she’s an absolutely amazing person because she has a huge energy. And I said, ‘Just tell me, are these people witty?’ She said, ‘Oh, yes.’ I said, ‘Do they know they’re witty?’ She said, ‘Oh, yes.’ And I thought that was really helpful because once I knew that Carolyn was witty, it does not mean that she has to flash a smile on every witty joke. She just knows she’s witty. She just is witty. And I did something I had never done before, which is that I thought I going to change my acting for this completely. I’m not going to be the, you know, surefire, wisecracking laugh a minute person. I’m going to do the opposite and be very slow and not necessarily apply as all spies, they tend to apparently pause before they speak in order to to sculpt what they’re going to say. And that affected my acting, too. And so I’m very grateful to Phoebe and very grateful to not knowing what the hell this part was, because I’ve I’ve enjoyed it very much over the last few years of doing it now, actually, we’re still doing it tomorrow. I’m doing it.

Jace Yeah. The fourth and final season. Yeah. I mean, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has said that you were her muse, she also said that every time she writes a line, she hopes that one day when she puts them all together, she might convince you to utter it, which I think is amazing praise. You did Fleabag for her as well as Killing Eve. I mean, what, how would you describe you’ve described her a little bit a second ago. But what is your relationship like with Phoebe Waller-Bridge now, having having done both of these productions with her?

Fiona Well, I mean, Phoebe is, you know, unstoppable. I mean, I don’t see Phoebe. I actually I had dinner with her in June and it was an absolutely lovely evening and had before that I had not seen her for two years. So we don’t see each other very often. But she’s out in the world doing Phoebe things and making her mark. She’s has a fantastic energy. I mean, I’m very flattered by that. I think what happened is I do think she recognizes something in me and I certainly recognize something n her. She has some of I think I had some of that energy. I’m not sure I quite like it when I was when I started out at the end of the RSC, when I did a ton of these giant plays, which was just my particular bag, I did, you know, Elektra and the Good Parts of Sichuan and Hedda Gabler, which is the second and the wizard, and they all followed massively on each other. So there’s a very creative period, I think, between 28 and 35. And I met her in that time, you know, when somebody is absolutely firing on all cylinders. So we have a great relationship. I mean, she’s full of fun. We had dinner recently, and I, I said that when I died, I thought I would be the color green. And she found this really entertaining, because I love the color green. And she said she thought when she died she wanted to be wit. I thought that was wonderful.

Jace Wow.

Fiona I think she is. Wherever after in the world, whenever a witty thing is said somewhere, the spirit of Phoebe will be in it.

Jace And I will think of you anytime I see anything green.

Fiona Yes, right, yes, do. Well, actually, I was thinking of Vaughn Williams who said, you know, he said I write music now in this life, but in my next, when I die, I would be music. I thought that was a beautiful thing to say about it.

Jace Fiona Shaw, thank you so very much.

Fiona A pleasure. A pleasure.

Jace Next on the podcast, we head back across the English Channel and back in time for a conversation with the sassy, confident Grantchester police secretary, Miss Scott.


Miss Scott Did she say where the money was?

Geordie Course she didn’t.

Miss Scott If it’s a woman running the show, it’s bound to be somewhere clever.

Jace Actor and disability activist Melissa Johns joins us November 7.

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. The executive producer of MASTEPIECE is Susanne Simpson.



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