The sun-dappled European exploits of Douglas and Connie Petersen and their son, Albie, in Us mask a shifting truth at the heart of their gradually crumbling marriage. As Connie, MASTERPIECE favorite Saskia Reeves is a joy to behold, and she brings that spark to a new interview.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
Connie and Douglas Petersen seem a perfect case of “opposites attract.” Connie’s a free-thinking artist, Douglas a persnickety scientist — and their approach to marriage feels careful, and modern. So, too, then is their approach to divorce.
Douglas Ok, well what can I do?
Connie What do you mean?
Douglas Well, this is obviously a catalyst thing, a what d’you call it, wake-up call. So what can I change about myself –
Connie I don’t want you to be someone else –
Douglas Because I’m quite capable of change –
Connie You’re great. I just don’t think I can spend my whole life with you.
Jace While Connie feels ready to separate, Douglas insists on soldiering forward through their long-planned Grand Tour of Europe — and Connie, surprisingly, agrees.
Douglas I always thought; Albie leaves home, we have time together, travel, go for long walks. And then eventually – slow down, get old, look after each other and die; short illness or a fall. I realise as a vision of our future, I’m not necessarily selling the idea.
Connie Let’s not think too much about it. Let’s make it a rule. Live in the moment!
Jace Of course, everything falls apart — their teenage son Albie runs away to Venice with a new friend, Connie heads back to England alone, and Douglas desperately pursues their son in hopes of catching up to him and reconciling.
Douglas Let’s keep going. We’ll worry just as well in Munich as at home. Maybe he’ll come back and we’ll finish the tour.
Connie No. It was a mistake. Let’s get back and get on with it.
Douglas Going home … I don’t think I could bear it.
Connie Well what’s your plan then? Will the two of us just keep getting on trains, roaming round Europe avoiding the truth for the rest of our lives?
Douglas I think I’d prefer that.
Connie And when the money runs out?
Douglas I don’t know.
Jace As the long-suffering Connie, Saskia Reeves is wry, probing, and tragic, but her interview with us is anything but sad. The all-too-familiar lead — known to MASTERPIECE viewers from her scene-stealing roles in Roadkill and Wolf Hall — joins us here.
This week, we are joined by Us star, Saskia Reeves. Welcome.
Saskia Reeves Hello, nice to e-talk to you.
Jace With Us, David Nichols adapted his own book for the screen. The novel is told through Douglas’s perspective, and not Connie’s, but the adaptation gives Connie her own agency and viewpoint. What was your initial take on Connie, and how did you help to flesh out that perspective that was perhaps missing in the novel?
Saskia I loved the book, but as you quite rightly say, it’s all from Douglass’s point of view as the series is as well. However, because you’re seeing her and you’re getting the odd private moment with her, you become privy to her thoughts, perhaps what she’s going through a bit. I talked a lot to David about this, and there were a few things that I felt very strongly about for her. One of them was that she was an artist, that that element of her was still very, very strong deep inside her. I felt it was really important that she had this tension in her and she Through her relationship with Douglass and getting pregnant, she gave up a lot, and when they moved out of London, she gave up a lot and the four episodes really are about her trying to leave the relationship and how best to leave the relationship and how to tolerate Douglas so that he has a chance to accept that the relationship is over and to help the relationship between the father and the son. Douglas was sort of like a. Safe harbor, you know, all the storms of the seas, suddenly she’s with Douglas and she feels safe and calm. And the irony is that the more safe and loved she feels, the stronger she gets and the more confident she gets to the point where she feels perhaps she could actually leave him. So in a way, the more Douglas loved her to keep her, as it were, the opposite happens, but I always thought he was always so afraid of losing her that you sort of live out, you know, you live out your fears, don’t you?
Jace One of the things I do love most about this is that, rather ironically, as you say, he’s the one that gives her the strength and courage she needs to leave him, which is something you don’t really usually see depicted in a television series or film, that that sense of security that he offered is the thing that ends up ending their relationship. He says at one point, was that what the marriage was for you? Just 20 years of waiting to jump. But to me, it is, as you say, more along the lines that the more secure she felt, the more she finally then found her voice.
Saskia Yeah, but I believe that if Jane hadn’t happened, she probably would have jumped before she even got pregnant with Albie and she got pregnant quite quickly with their first child, and I think because of that experience, you have such a massive shared experience that it brings you together, and also they’re both very likable people, and they both have their massive faults, and I remember having a conversation really, really early on in the preparation about Connie, and the director was talking about her in a way that I felt was putting her on a pedestal and I said, ‘Hang on a minute. I think Connie’s pretty selfish and she doesn’t handle this particularly well, if I’m honest. But she’s such a likable, lovable person. And she really tries, she tries really hard to let Douglas down easily because he’s never done anything horrible to her. There’s no reason on paper to say the marriage is over.’
Jace You mentioned likability. You when you came onto the project, were you aware of how some readers of the novel had reacted to Connie as a character?
Saskia I hadn’t at all, actually, you know, when I read the book, I thought she was under-described. I didn’t really know who she was. I could tell she had certain features and she was a bit hip and artistic, but. And then I kept thinking of her as being French because, I don’t know, she had a son, but I just saw her as somebody who was lost, really. And I like the way sometimes David talked about her family in the book and her backstory and her where she came from. And she had a very chaotic childhood, so she was used to chaotic relationships and Douglas was very secure, and I think if she hadn’t got pregnant, I think she might have left much, much sooner.
Jace She’s pretty much coded as an artist from the start, the leather jacket that you wear being one very early indicator, especially when contrasted against Douglass’s will say, rather staid wardrobe, given that Connie has largely given up art at this point other than in a teaching context. How do you feel she’s expressing herself when we first meet her? What is the split ultimately symbolic of us?
Saskia Well, I think I think the split is between well, she tries to hold on something by wearing certain clothes and also by investing in her son. The idea that he can be and do whatever he wants, especially if it’s artistic. And there’s a lot of tension between the mom and dad about Albie while she wants to do. And there’s a particularly painful scene to remember when Douglas when it’s quite early on and Douglas says, ‘Just don’t think you’re anything special, all your sort of daubing and painting,’ and that’s a terrible thing to say to a teensager and Connie, I think, says the opposite to her son, and that isn’t very good parenting and that’s probably very confusing for Albie and it causes a rift, I think, between them as a family, you know, and always has done.
Jace She is coming to this crossroads now with Albie preparing to leave for university. It is, as she says, you know, a vision of an empty nest. But it is also this perfect springboard to begin a new life outside of what her expectations are as a wife and a mom. Is this sort of the perfect timing for this to happen, so that she can, as you say, sort of spread her wings?
Saskia Yeah, I mean, not you know, I think, It’s something I mean, I’ve been an actress a really long time, and sometimes I watch stuff that I’m doing and other people doing, I get I always sometimes I think I make the mistake of thinking my character is telling the truth and I don’t always tell the truth. So, you know, when when he says, ‘Have you’ve been waiting all this time to jump?’ and she goes, ‘No, no, no.’ I was thinking well, maybe she maybe there was an element of her that’s just too ashamed to admit something like that. But I don’t think she knows. She’s not like she’s consciously decided. But the idea of Albie not being in the house anymore means that she’s got space and being around Douglas isn’t going to help her and certainly not in that house, in that in that suburb or wherever they’re living. And I think she wants to move back to London and she wants to maybe start painting, drawing again, you know, having freedom. A bit like a child. I do think she’s a bit immature. I do love her, though.
Jace Connie speaks the first line of Us. We often talk about writers jumping into a story at the latest possible moment, and this feels like one of those.
Connie Douglas, I need to say something. Douglas, I’ve been thinking about leaving. I think our marriage might be over.
Douglas When you say leaving?
Connie Starting again: A new life, but not together.
Douglas So, divorce?
Connie No, that’s not the most important thing at the moment.
Douglas Ah, so a trial separation?
Connie Except not a trial. I mean breaking up.
Jace What is your take on this first scene between Connie and Douglas and how very matter of fact Connie is here with the sort of late night revelation?
Saskia Yeah. It’s tough one. I think the main thing is how to tell Douglas without him freaking out because he is such a worry person. And I think. She’s taken a particular line of communication. ‘I’ve been thinking about leaving,’ is not very clear, is it? And she’s often when she’s completely caught, when she’s completely put in a corner, she’ll say, ‘I don’t know, let’s talk about it tomorrow,’ or Shall we wait and see?’ So she she’s she’s scared to she doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but she’s certainly trying to communicate with him that it’s not working for her and hasn’t been for a while. That scene was changed and reshot and cut and all sorts, and it was a difficult thing to get right if you see what I mean?
Jace And it just it works. It throws you as the viewer off your balance immediately, because that’s not how you thought this was going to start. So it puts you sort of on the defensive immediately, which is a rare accomplishment in the opening minutes of a TV series. it becomes so unbalancing, which is amazing. It’s a rare feat to be able to pull that off at all, much less in sort of the opening moment of a TV series. And then it creates this sense of tension and mystery that, you know, you’re going to have to sort of follow to see how it plays out. It is, to me, refreshing to see a portrayal of a marriage falling apart on television that isn’t drama, high scandal type situations. There’s no specific inciting incident here. There’s no affair. Does that make Us in some ways more complicated, more nuanced than your stereotypical separation plot?
Saskia Yes, I think so. And I think David certainly was trying to say that not all breakups have to be strum and drang and drama, that people can finish a relationship and be OK. And she. Her culminating journey really is saying to Douglas, ‘It wasn’t a mistake. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done marrying you,’ and that’s difficult for an audience, and it does make it a very unique piece, I think it’s trying to have a very different discussion about relationships and why they stay together, why they don’t, and what does it mean, what can it also be when you want to do something else in your life with somebody?
Jace Before this next question, let’s take a quick break to hear a word from our sponsors…
Jace You’re paired on screen here with Tom Hollander. What is it like having Tom as a scene partner for a project that manages to be as both sort of intimate and intense, but also humorous as this one is?
Saskia Well, he’s the master of humor and truth all at once, he’s I don’t know how he does it. He’s incredible. And it was also a privilege and joy to be working with him. I think he’s fantastic. I’ve known Tom for a very long time that we’ve never worked together until this. And now it was a dream job for me. I was. Very, very. Excited and. Grateful. It was just very brilliant to have him as my screen husband, as they say,
Jace I have to ask for the story because it’s almost too good to be true, but how and when did you first meet Tom and what role did Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville play in your connecting?
Saskia I was going to be part of the RSC, 89-90 season, and Hugh and I were in the same season, in the same plays and. Hugh said, ‘I’ll help you drive up to Stratford with your stuff. Let’s go together.’ And then we realized we had too much stuff, so we had to hire a van and Tom who’s a very good friend of Hugh’s, he drove the van. So he followed us behind in the van. And he and I were in the car with suitcases, duvets and pots and pans and stuff. It was very funny.
Jace Douglas, of course, hopes to use this trip as a way to convince Connie to stay, to prove that he’s capable of change, that he can even change her mind. What are Connie’s objectives here with this grand tour? Does she see it as one last hurrah together before they go their separate ways? What’s her motivation with this trip?
Saskia Well, when I think that she realizes that it can’t just get canceled. And also, I think she’s thinking about Douglas and Albie, and Albie’s about to leave to go to college. And I think she’s thinking this would be good for them. So she’s trying to push them together. She’s trying to encourage Douglas to do that, to be more interested in what his son is doing. And I think she feels guilty, there’s all this planning and everything and then not do it? It’s all been paid for and everything, so why not go? And I think she’s being unrealistic. And selfish. I mean, to be able to go to all these organs, I mean, it’s a wonderful chance, you know, to see art, which is her main love, And also, I think she doesn’t think enough about it. This is the thing I was trying to explain. I think you often think, characters don’t always tell the truth. They don’t always know what they’re talking about. They don’t always understand why they’re saying what they’re saying. they haven’t planned the story out. They haven’t decided what’s going to happen. Do you know what I mean? It’s not like I can answer these questions with all the insight of what my character would have done, because I don’t think she knew entirely, I think she thought it, ‘Going, not going, going’ — there’s all these tics. Not going is horribly real and is brutal. And we waste money and the reality of what she’s saying to Douglas would sort of smack them in the face, I think if they didn’t go. Going, sort of puts it off. This could be fun, maybe, could be great. Great for Albie, great for Douglas. Guess what? I get to see all these paintings as well. So you know, being Connie, as she’s, weighing it up, she goes, yeah, I think we should go! If you see what I mean?
Douglas You see, this is why we got up early, to beat the crowds.
Albie This holiday, are we going to do anything spontaneous?
Douglas Er, I hadn’t planned to. Now, Albie, if you’re serious about art, this is the place. We’re doing this for your sake.
Connie All our sakes; let’s start?
Jace You filmed Us in Paris, Amsterdam, Venice and Barcelona. Watching this now during a global pandemic, when travel, particularly to Europe, feels so far away and almost alien and otherworldly, is there a sense of escapism to Us, or even if something tragic, something lost to the travelog aspect of the series?
Saskia Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean, yeah, we didn’t know that while we were making it. We didn’t have a clue that the world would suddenly become inaccessible. And, yes, it’s turned into something else, I mean, it was always going to be gorgeous, and one of the ideas, I think of the adaptation was to be able to go to these places and take off. And as an audience, we have to sit at home and go to France and Paris, Barcelona, youknow, it’s so great. But I don’t think I mean, yes, it has become incredibly, deliciously yes, like looking at things you can’t afford, isn’t it? You go, ‘Oh, I love that.’
Jace Deliciously fraught.
Saskia Yes, exactly.
Jace Us isn’t ultimately just about and Connie, but also about the familial bonds between them and Albie, which we we also see play out in flashback as well. The tension between Douglas and Albie comes to a head in the breakfast scene at the hotel with Kat, where Douglas doesn’t stand up for Albie, but instead apologizes for his son to the businessmen and calls him an idiot.
Douglas Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Let’s all calm down –
Albie Dad, I am calm. He’s the one who started it. You’re not listening! Why don’t you listen!?
Douglas Because you’re behaving like an idiot! Er, I’m sorry, everyone, I’d like to apologise for my son. Er, I have no idea why he’s being so stupid. Erm, I’m sorry. We, er, can we er …sorry…
Jace What did you make of this very emotional scene in the way it plays out here, which is really distressing to watch?
Saskia It was a license to let rip at him as well. She’s kept that bottled up, I think, from when we first meet this couple and then everything about Douglas and what he represents and what she can’t stand comes to a head. And he has pushed their child away so completely, now.
Jace I mean, you offer up such a withering look of complete disdain for this man in this scene, Connie says, ‘Maybe I thought he can change. Clearly he wants to, maybe we can find some spark, some flicker of life or fun or empathy or imagination or passion. Maybe I’ll recognize some tiny trace element of the man I fell in love with.’ But if this trip is a litmus test for their marriage, is this the moment where she realizes that there is absolutely no possible future in which they can remain together?
Saskia Yeah, I think so. I mean, she’s sort of avoided that. And as I said this, the argument sort of allows that out of the bag because it’s always been there. And he you know, he he displays such a. The lack of loyalty, when you’re when you stick up for your family? Now you stand by them regardless of what the outside world is saying, and that’s Connie’s point of view. And that he was sticking up for his girlfriend and he was sticking it to the man, you know. And Douglas can see.
Jace Just the suit and ties that they’re wearing…
Saskia That sort of thing, that they represent the authority, they represent conventionality. And they represent proper society and the way things should be done and not the way Kat wants to live and not the way Albie wants to live and not the way Connie. So conservative, and the opposite conservative. You know, I mean, they’re cutting. The government in this country at the moment want to cut the arts grants to schools, advanced educational schools by 50 percent, which is horrendous for me. It’s a horrendous view of what the future of what they’re trying to do to the future of our children. And we need we need drama. We need music. We need to be able to express and learn and to have healthy minds. And in a way, Connie and Douglas sort of represent the split in society as well.
Jace We touched upon young Saskia Reeves earlier, but given that so much of us is about looking at the disconnect between the present in the past, what does Saskia Reeves make of her own younger self — One captured on film in projects like Stephen Poliakoff’s Close My Eyes?
Saskia Well, I see I would like to have been able to whisper in my young self’s ear and say, ‘Do you realize how brilliant this is? Enjoy it everything. Don’t worry about anything,’ because, you know, there was much more funding for movies then, we made more films then, there was much more. It’s difficult, isn’t it? I think I would have just reassured myself. So don’t worry, it’s going to be okay, you’re going to be doing Us in 20-odd years’ time. So it’s going to good.
Jace Was there a single formative moment in your life that made you want to become a professional actor?
Saskia Not really, I’d love to be able to tell you a story that there was. My dad was an actor and but he never encouraged me. My mom was really supportive and would find lots of clubs to go to drama workshops or dance. So she was really supportive. And I remember I wasn’t doing very well in my college years, I went from a fantastic independent school to a state college and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I always knew, though, from all the drama workshops I’d done through my teens, the drama for me represented complete utter joy and fun. I loved it whenever I was doing it. And then. A friend of my dad’s was there one day and he was talking about LAMDA, which is the London Academy of Music and Dance, and he was told about his son to just go in and I was sort of earwigging this conversation and when he left, I said, ‘Dad, what’s this LAMDA?’ And he said, ‘It’s a drama school,’ and I said ‘What’s a drama school?’ ‘Well, you go and study three years,’ and ;What, like a university?’ And he said, ‘Yes,’ ‘Do you need A-levels? And he said, ‘No, you have to audition.’ I said, ‘So you don’t need A-levels?’ He said, no, and I went ‘I want to audition for drama school, because I’m not going to do very well at my college and I might have to go back a year.’ And then he went, Yeah, sure.’ But he said to me, then, ‘There are twice as many actresses as actors and there’s half as much work for women as men. So you do the math.’ And I said, ‘OK, but I’m still going to try.’ And luckily, I got into Guild Hall School of Drama and Music and I was quite young, 17 when I got in, and my dad years and years and years ago went to Guild Hall. But then it was a very different time. It was in a different building. It was more of a teacher training drama class. And I thought maybe he told them to let me in. That’s how I got in. And I remember phoning him from the phone box when I found out I got the place and I said, ‘Dad, did you say something?’ He said, ‘No, of course I didn’t, they don’t even know who I am!, Well done, well done.’ I mean, my dad was at drama school with Eileen Atkins, who’s the most wonderful actress, and they told Eileen to give up acting and stick to tap dancing so that when you’re young and you’re setting out, you know, there’s so many different reasons why we stick to it and why we want to do it or what happens to us. And I secretly I was thinking, well, I’ll just do three years here and then I’ll do something else, because I knew how difficult it was to get work. I had no expectation whatsoever of becoming a successful working actor. And I thought if I could stay off the dole, that would be my idea of success as an actor, if I could earn an income other than from waitressing or what we used to call then the dole. Then that’s success, you know, I could pay my bills and as it turned out, I had some amazing jobs right at the beginning and that was it. I was like, ‘Oh, great. I’ll do this, I’ll do that,’ and I felt for a while like I was just falling from one job to another. And over the years, it’s just. It’s just become so much part of me, and as I grow as a person, I grow as an actor and very much so.
Jace I mean, looking at your CV, it is vast. Things like Wolf Hall, Spooks, Shetland, Belgravia, Collateral, Luther, which role that you’ve played do you think is the closest to you and why?
Saskia Well, they’re all quite close to me because I always use something of myself or I always approach characters it as if it was me or. One of my favorite books to read when I was a young young actress starting out was Uta Hagen’s, Respect for Acting, and she always said, you know, I love the way she she maps out how you can focus on your acting or your characters or how you prepare, or ideas for really digging in and getting into these people, you’re going to pretend to be. And sometimes you have to sort of take something of yourself and then times it by a hundred or something is so close to you don’t have to do anything. But there’s another element to that character that isn’t quite like you. But you have a feeling that, ‘You know, I understand that.’ And you can substitute. So it’s as if. you know, losing in the story it’s as if it was happening to you, and if you can’t relate to it immediately, there are ways in or of using your experiences and your life experiences, but having said all that, I do try and keep a healthy distance between me and my characters. That’s where I get the most fun out of it and the easiest way for me to really touch the genuine emotion of what the characters are going through is if it isn’t too close to me because I don’t want to bring up my own stuff. I want to lead an audience into how it might feel if you in this position or also that thing is when you’re watching an actor. You, go, ‘Oh, my God, they’re so they’re just pretending, but I really know what they’re feeling.’ Does that make sense to you?
Jace It does.
Saskia That’s why we love actors because we know they’re pretending, but ‘Oh my God, they’re pretending so well, I actually believe that they really are in that story!’ and it helps us emotionally and helps us to feel things and to watch the feeling of something or by that we watch things and we go, that’s way too close for my own life. It’s almost too painful to watch. Or if it’s further away, it’s satisfying because it helps us maybe locate an emotion that we can’t reach yet. I mean, there’s so many, so many levels to it.
Jace Saskia Reeves, thank you so very much.
Saskia Thank you Jace.
Jace To truly examine the Grand Tour Gone Wrong, we of course have to hear from Douglas Petersen himself.
Douglas I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.
Freja Okay. Er, should I come with you?
Douglas Oh Christ, no! I don’t know what I was thinking, I’m so sorry.
Freja Why do British people always apologise for things that aren’t their fault?
Douglas Well because it is, it is my fault, that’s the whole point!
Jace We’ll speak with series lead Tom Hollander here on the podcast June 27.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.
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