The story of Miss July is ultimately a story of strength and perseverance following years of trauma and pain. Lead actor Tamara Lawrance brings strength to her portrayal of July, who goes from slave to memoirist in colonial British Jamaica. Lawrance reflects on the role, and the hope of The Long Song, in a new interview.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
In Episode Three of The Long Song, it’s 1839 on the Carribean island of Jamaica. Despite the British government’s unexpected abolition of slavery, most of the island’s residents struggle in abject poverty as their white former owners continue to hold power over the former slaves on the lush green island.
Miss July, a former house slave, taken as a child to be trained as a lady’s maid, has risen up in the plantation’s social hierarchy to become the mistress of the owner. But despite her elevated status, betrayal and anguish await July.
Caroline Would you come up and sit with me?
July Me must look after me pickney — Emily, me little girl. She mus’ be fed.
Caroline You may, you may bring the child.
July Me no have to serve you no more.
Jace Based on Andrea Levy’s heartbreaking 2010 novel of the same name, The Long Song stars Tamara Lawrance as Miss July, whose narrative takes us through the tumultuous days of the Christmas Rebellion and beyond in Jamaica as Miss July experiences moments of profound joy and beauty and bitter sorrow.Tamara Lawrance joins us to discuss her stunning performance as Miss July and meeting the late Andrea Levy, her recent turn in the psychological thriller Kindred, and her undying love for iambic pentameter.
Jace And this week, we are joined by The Long Song star Tamara Lawrance. Welcome.
Tamara Hey, thank you for having me.
Jace The Long Song is such a powerful, almost incendiary novel about slavery and freedom. What did you make of July’s story when you read the script?
Tamara I thought July was really formidable because I guess when you get sent a script and it’s like, oh, the character is an enslaved person, there’s a lot of history and trauma that come to that and my initial reactions were like, ‘Oh, OK, is this a story I want to tell? Is this a story that I think should be told right now?’ and all of this, all of that? But when I read it, I realized that, oh yeah, a slave is not a, or the way Andrea writes is like a quote, ‘slave’ is not a character. A character is an individual with their own personality, idiosyncrasies, sense of humor, you know, wit and flaws. And I think that’s what really struck me. That July is a very fully fleshed human being that you meet as just sort of a young teenager within the context obviously who she is, becomes a very different objective observation and we can perceive who she is in a different way. But she seemed very liberating weirdly, she was so subversive to what I would have expected an enslaved woman to be at the time.
Jace Sarah Williams’ script is, of course, based on the novel by Andrea Levy, who passed away in 2019. How did you meet Andrea and what sort of conversations did you have with her before shooting The Long Song?
Tamara I met Andrea because I when I got the role, I was very excited and I just emailed her agent and said, ‘Thank you so much, please pass on my thanks to Andrea, I can’t wait to tell her story, etc.. And if Andrea has any kind of notes or anything that she’d love to pass along, I’d willingly, happily, take them.’ And then I was I got a response saying, ‘Oh, yeah, Andrea would love to invite you round to her house for lunch.’ And so I was actually invited to meet with her and her husband, and they made me some food. She was warm, she was witty, she wasn’t meek. She had a frankness to her, which made her very funny and strong, and she spoke about the research that she’d done. She spoke about what inspired her to write the story in the first place and. And spoke about a kind of a weird parallel between one of her own ancestors back in her family tree and July and things like that, and we just had a nice chat, really lovely afternoon and kept in touch by email up until she was no longer well enough to reply.
Jace Your family’s from Jamaica, your mum emigrated to Britain when she was 17. Does The Long Song feel deeply personal to you in that way?
Tamara I wouldn’t say it was personal to me because of my mum being an immigrant, but I think I definitely feel privileged to be able to tell that story because we as actors, we pay people from all around the world. And it’s not often you get to a platform your own heritage. And I don’t know anything about kind of before my grandparents, really, I didn’t know much about times before then. And so I can’t really I don’t know exactly what I would trace my ancestry to. But obviously somewhere in there, what I would have descended from some form of enslaved person probably, but yeah, it just felt like a real privilege to be able to play an actual Jamaican. It was really, like, fun.
Jace July is often an unreliable narrator, never more so than when she concocts a story in episode three about her success as a boarding house owner, seemingly borrowing Miss Clara’s story. What do you make of the narrative she constructs for the audience, one that’s rooted in fantasy rather than reality?
Tamara I think. Is very cleverly and humorously done by Andrea, obviously, but I think the resonances of that are very striking into today in terms of how people cope with trauma in general. You have to find some form of escapism. Usually you have to create a narrative in which you are the victor and not the victim. You have to find joy and you have to create a context in which it’s possible for you to heal. And so it makes sense that she would create that story because within that story, she can win, despite how much she’s lost. But in the reality of the situation, there’s so much that would have been impossible to heal from. For your child to be stolen from you, somewhere that you can’t even envisage, her child was taken to somewhere she’s never even seen. You know, like the pain — I can’t imagine that pain. I can’t imagine healing from that pain except to literally astral project out of your body and go somewhere else. So I think it actually makes complete sense as a device, but also as a reality.
Jace I mean, along those lines, The Long Song feels in some ways to be a fairy tale and I mean that not in the Disney version of the word, but it sort of Grimm fairy tale. There are clear villains. There’s darkness and doom. There’s loss and betrayal of the worst kind. Do you see it as an inverted fairy tale in that respect, that the outcome isn’t about a happy ending, but ultimately one of just survival?
Tamara Hmmm, I hadn’t seen it as an inverted fairy tale but I like that interpretation. Yeah, I think definitely the freedom or the happy ending came not in writing. Not for three, not like leaning into the fantasy of having this husband and this baby but I think for July it was having a reckoning with her own identity. I think for me in episode three, that’s when she’s sort of like realized who she was, before that she was a bit deluded and was existing in the land of a sort of superiority complex, but by the time the fallout happens and it descended into chaos. Yeah, July has to pick a side almost and the side that she wants to pick ultimately betrays her, and the side that she’s rejected for the three episodes are the people that save her and care for her and bring her back. Yeah.
Jace The story pictures big events — rebellions, kidnappings, murders, but also these really small, beautifully profound moments — the green bird on the railing that’s free to fly away, the way that July relishes in the drops of rain on the umbrella as she twirls around, Nimrod and the orange. What do you make of these moments of beauty within the peace?
Tamara They were a lot of fun to film, but I think that they’re profoundly moving because obviously from all this, so much that we take for granted the ceremonies, there’s so much to be grateful for and there ceremony, there’s so much beauty and joy and the simple things that when you existing in that amount of daily trauma, they are so delighted to have a moment to hold No one, to be gifted an umbrella in the first place, to to have that luxury of not being soaking wet is one thing as well as to see, you know, to enjoy the contraption and to see, you know, I never think about an umbrella when I put it up. But moments like that highlight the profundity of present momentness, I guess.
Jace The Long Song weaves a fictional narrative of July with real life events like the Christmas Rebellion in Jamaica. While this year in 2018 in Britain, it’s airing in 2021, one in America, a country that had to grapple with the murders of George Floyd, Breona Taylor and many other black citizens. I’m talking to you just a few minutes after the inauguration of the first black female Vice President, Kamala Harris, who’s the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant. Does The Long Song feel all the more relevant today?
Tamara The Long Song is a timeless story, I think, because of all the things I mentioned about it’s fiction and its wit giving characters a sort of multiplicity which is which makes them very relatable, but also that we’re still very much living in the ramifications of all of this stuff. I was very aware of that every single day of filming. But, you know, Mahalia would yell ‘Cut,’ and I would finish work and being a dark skinned black woman in the Dominican Republic, which is a country colonized by Spain, and I’m seeing the way people treated me when I wasn’t operating with a level of English privilege by being with a film crew is still very, very relevant. It’s very pertinent. It’s very pertinent and yeah, the you know, the the way that black and brown bodies can be murdered with video evidence with impunity over the years gone by, but ultimately because of the access to media and the access to to sharing video that we have now, that’s why it seems so much more obvious. But, yeah, that the only reason people can die like this with no justice is because of the time that The Long Song is set in. And I think is also what I love about this story in particular, is that it shines a light on British colonial history rather than solely American, which I know sometimes is the American is the salient narrative I think is important that Britain is held accountable and that the black British diaspora is platformed as well and that legacy is is brought to light. So I think it’s definitely relevant and I’m very intrigued to see how the American audience will respond to it.
Jace Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…
Jace Caroline Mortimer is a truly monstrous character. She’s a racist, abusive bully who’s going mad very slowly in the heat. But there are still oddly glimmers of humanity within her as well. What is your take on Caroline as a character and the fact that we do get moments of sympathy for her?
Tamara I think it’s too easy to say that she’s just monstrous, and racism is the system, is the landscape, so everyone was existing within racism, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be humane and have a heart, that was what was nuanced about the story as well, that July was antagonized not just by white people, you know. And she was she was antagonized by Molly, you know, but she had friends and foes in kind of all in different walks of life. And I think Caroline has an element of care for her, even if it is that is just this her property. She obviously needs her. She tried to get rid of her and then brought her back. And, yeah, when in episode three, when she sees Robert losing his mind, some humanity somewhere kicks in to stop him from, you know, almost killing her. And I think we as an audience can empathize with her I think we can all empathize with heartbreak or being betrayed or, you know, nobody wants to hit the idea of hearing the man that you think you’re in love with sleeping with someone else in another room in the house, I think like, that’s painful. And it would be, I would hope, as a society that we can extend, yeah, that we can extend empathy to villains. I think one of the issues in the zeitgeist that we have to work on is like extending it is kind of debunking a black and white thinking and learning to extend empathy and humanity where we historically haven’t before, and I know it’s interesting because it’s kind of like, you know, she’s the symbol of the of the monster, I’m glad that people can find something to like about Caroline. But I think that was also part of how Haley played her as well. There’s something kind of ridiculous about her which makes you almost feel sorry for her, like she’s not doing something on purpose. It’s like we feel as an audience, you always feel you feel smarter than Caroline.
Jace I want to talk about Robert Goodwin, played by Jack Lowden, who arrives at the end of a third one. The middle installment portrays July and Robert’s unequal, if blissful, union. There’s a beauty to their scenes together, but it’s also a very uneven power dynamic. How would you categorize their romance from its earlier stages to its later ruin?
Tamara So I think at first, in my mind, she was using him. She was like, OK, you’re the means to an end. This is my key to social mobility. It wasn’t love. I don’t think it was love from July’s perspective at all. And I think Robert would have thought it was love, but it was it was lust. It was lust and arguably fetishization. Then it kind of goes into a toxic love because it’s rooted in possession and then both wanting to own each other to an extent. And I think July is rejecting a part of her identity in order to increase her proximity to him and he obviously is on some level is hiding, he’s ashamed of her and is hiding her. But for me, I was trying to play as though if they had they been born in a different time, this would have been it. You know, they get each other completely. And it’s only because of the context why this couldn’t or wouldn’t work.
Jace The scene where July goes to see Robert to get the book on Scotland and they touch for the first time is such a stunning, complex scene. What did Director Mahalia Bello bring to the scene and what sort of direction did she give you and Jack?
Tamara So Mahalia said to me, that ‘You’re going in there to get a husband and the way to get a husband is to put yourself on a plate,’ essentially. And so that was I think July’s mission was to, you know, give him the goods. She’s never in this kind of situation, she can’t read. Mahalia is a stunning director that gives a lot of abstract notes, she’s like a poet, I feel sometimes, which what I like because it allows me to ingest and interpret. And the type of actor that Jack is as well. He’s very generous and very intelligent and very responsive in the moment. And so we were doing the scene as read and then the moment where a kind of the heat started to build was just us responding to each other’s touch and sort of pushing the boundaries a bit, and Mahalia sort of saw that happen and like added fuel to the fire allowed us to to coax and tease that out of each other until it kind of felt like, OK, we have to, now’s the moment where we kind of like, we’ve got to do this, but. Yeah, it was it was really fun. At the start of the day I don’t think I thought that it was going to be like that, but it was fun.
Jace The household is arranged as a menage à trois, captured perfectly in the portrait that the three of them pose for July’s, even raised up onto the same level as Caroline within the portrait. What did you make of this unusual portrait in the fact that it gets left behind when Caroline and Robert return to England?
Tamara Yeah, I thought the portrait was stunning. I thought it was absolutely stunning. I thought that was an important moment for July because it established her, for her it consolidated the validation that she needed and her self-esteem and her status within the home. And it also made it very clear to Caroline as well, I think that portrait established the dynamic quite clearly, which is which is so important for the story, because there’s a big thing is a big thing to do what he did, you know, to bring her in the same level. So is it makes sense as to how they get to a point where there’s a baby that comes about but also makes it all more painful that he doesn’t bring that with her because he’s taken a part of her by taking her child, but he’s but otherwise there’s no memory of who she is and which I think is the beginning of that of that downfall, of that erasure of July comes when he calls her Marguerite, I think.
Jace I mean, he says, ‘You heard your mistress, Marguerite, bring some water,’ and he’s just destroyed the workers’ crops and their homes and you can see the moment where her heart breaks. It’s just sort of written on her face the fact that he has called her by her slave name and it sort of put her back into that status again. And he then threatens her in the field. We talked about this earlier, and he grabs her by the throat and brandishes a machete at her. And he means to kill her and likely would have, had Caroline not interceded. How challenging a scene was that one to shoot?
Tamara It was really hard for all of us. I think. Well, for July, because she doesn’t she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know what’s happening. She’s never seen anyone go mad before. And obviously she’s convinced that this man is the love of her life. So for him to then have his hands around her neck…But, yeah, it was very it was very distressing. And it also, teah, but their relationship was so tricky because obviously we had to play it as though though there was love, but ultimately within that context, this power dynamic is always going to create a very dangerous imbalance whereby like even if women who worked in the fields and kind of slave owners did have a romance of sorts in this period, you know, that would have happened all the time, at a whim, he can turn around and abuse her in any way, kill her, kill her. So he owns her in his mind. So anything can happen and anything did happen. Heinous things did happen for centuries and say that it was a very, very, very tricky scene.
Jace Why do you think July does what she does having Elias bring Robert that dish of cockroaches?
Tamara Because July has on some level an instinctive sense of self-worth. What I love about her is there was a rebellious streak in her from the day you meet her and so she doesn’t care too much about how things should happen in the society she’s in and she’s just going to do what she wants to do and say that even though she’d had a period of being quite submissive and maternal and, you know, just being very like a good wife and mother and stuff like that, when she feels wronged, that sense of who she is comes back. It’s like for me, it was like, I’m July and you’ve messed with me now. So this is what you get, you know, using his fear, his weakness against him. She’s very, very smart, very sharp. And I think she will. But I think she hoped that she would get more pleasure out of that than she did. But I don’t think in that scene, it was enough. It wasn’t satisfying. It wasn’t an equal, you know, I mean, it wasn’t it wasn’t tit for tat, but it kind of did the job to see him suffer, yeah.
Jace July is an old woman when she’s found by her now adult son, Thomas, and told to write her story. She says, ‘It is important. He say, I still think of my baby girl grown up now in England. Does she know her true momma was born a slave? Maybe my book let her one day.’ What are your thoughts about ending? And you feel there is a sense of hope embedded within it?
Tamara Yes, yes, I think there is a sense of hope because and maybe that’s because we’re watching from the future, but we know that things change. But God! I don’t know how they did it. I don’t know how they did that. The things that I still struggle with now, really basic, myopic pain, but the strength, the fortitude it must have taken to believe that life could be any different, is insane. To learn, to read and to learn, to write and say, I hope that maybe this book will, I think that’s the reason why black people are here today, because there were people like that that despite everything that was happening around them, just thought no one day, some one day life could change. And that’s what makes me especially proud to be Jamaican, because it’s like that’s a rebel island. That’s a rebel island! How did they do that? That’s mad. That’s mad what they did. But I owe them my life. I owe them my life. And I think also the final shot, when we were all sort of that montage of us all in the cane and the camera sort of pans to different characters, faces in the story. When we were that that was a very emotional scene. And we all had to sort of calm down and to be able to do it. And then in the end, we, like, held each other and. And comforted each other, but Mahalia’s note was, you know, ‘I want you to look down the lens and. And tell the viewer that it’s going to be OK.’ That was her note for that scene in that final montage. So I think ultimately that, yeah, the story does end with an element of hope that life can continue. Which is also really pertinent that it’s called The Long Song as well. You know, this is aria is still going, but hopefully one day and probably not in our lifetime. But I think two things will be better. You know, they already are, but we still got a way to go. And hopefully, like some of the stuff that we’re still battling with today, like our posterity won’t have to worry about it.
Jace You were reunited with your The Long Song co-star and friend Jack Loudon in the thriller Kindred. What was it like making this film with Jack who clearly wanted you to play Charlotte?
Tamara Yeah, I love Jack, I love Jack. It was great. It was great. It was a very, very different dynamic. Yeah, we always joke about doing the hat trick and maybe doing a play together at some point as so just to, like, top it all off. But no, I love working with Jack, I think he is an incredible actor. And it was a very different dynamic in a very different story, a lot more mistrust, rather than love with Kindred, much more intimate with the cast. And I think Charlotte has a lot more fight than July was able to have because of the context. But it’s a similar kind of being deprived of agency, though, as well, which an interesting thread between the two jobs, another great director and obviously working with people that I really rate and had rated for a while between like Fiona and Jack even Chloe Pirrie and Anton Lesser and people I’ve seen from afar.
Jace In 2017 you played Jess in King Charles III which aired on MASTERPIECE and starred as Viola in Twelfth Night at the National. You’ve also played Puck in Macbeth. What do you love most about performing in iambic pentameter?
Tamara Oh, I love Shakespeare. What I love most about it? The way that when you figure it out, it sounds like it makes sense and it might be quite a strange thing to say, but I think sometimes Shakespeare or pentameter is seen as a very highfalutin art form. But what I love about it is that Shakespeare was sort of the everyman and that actually, if you were around if you were a contemporary, he would be the equivalent of for me, he would be the equivalent of like drill or something like that, like just people who are speaking in a very codified way to a certain rhythm and putting in poetry as well as social commentary. And obviously drill has it’s the things that are bad about it, whatever. But I think as a lyrical form, it’s very impressive. And a lot of people don’t understand it and people look down on it. And that’s what was happening to Shakespeare as well. So that’s what I love about it. I really resonate with it. I also think he wrote some incredible characters that have a lot of mantras, like words to live by, is essentially say, oh, yeah, OK, ‘Above all else, to thine own self be true. And then then it can follow as the night, the day that you can be false to no man.’ Like it’s like what if that’s not scripture, I don’t know. Well, it is for me. I’m not saying that, you know, I’m not saying The Complete Works is my Bible, but I’m saying that there is a lot of juice in there! I just think Shakespeare’s got so much juice. It’s made to be so inaccessible. But when people are able to get it, it’s like amazing. I love it.
Jace Tamara Lawrance, thank you so very much.
Tamara No, thank you. It’s been fun.
Jace Next, we shift back a century forward in time to Christmastime in the Yorkshire Dales, and wrap up the first season of All Creatures Great and Small with farmer’s daughter Helen Alderson.
Helen You been called out?
James Going up to the Chapmans. Suzie’s having trouble with her pups.
Helen I love Bert and Anne. Do you mind if I came with you?
James I think you should probably stay and enjoy the party.
Helen Please, James. Anything to take my mind off it all.
Jace Academy Award-winner Rachel Shenton, who stars as the strong-willed potential love interest Helen in the charming All Creatures, joins us here on the podcast February 21.
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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