You play the badass character Nellie Davenport in the second season of Warrior, whom is based on a real person? Can you tell us a bit about this character and what attracted you to the role?
Nellie is based on a woman called Donaldina Cameron, who was known as ‘The White Devil of Chinatown’ or ‘The White Angel of Chinatown’ depending on who was talking about her! She was a Christian missionary who rescued young Chinese women and girls from the crib brothels of Chinatown and who put them to work in her vineyards in Sonoma, California. Jonathan Tropper’s version of this woman had the focus of her mission founded on being an independent, trailblazing, anti-suppression feminist rather than on her drive being Christian values. She was a delight to play.
Warrior is based on the writings of martial arts legend Bruce Lee – did you get to do any of your own stunt work for this season? As we are talking about stunt work, did you get to do your own as Isolde in Merlin?
I didn’t have much to do in terms of stunts on this show. I was ‘mildly’ beaten up at one point and got to smash a bottle over somebody’s head but compared to other shows I’ve done, the stunts were very light for me on this one! Playing Isolde the Warrior by contrast, was quite stunt heavy for me and I had to do broad sword training which was a blast. Those things are heavy!
As this was a part of history I had no idea about, could you tell us a little bit about the brutal Tong Wars of San Francisco’s Chinatown?
The Tong wars of the late 1800s were among rival Chinese Tong factions across all the Chinatowns of America but particularly in San Francisco. They were bloody and brutal and often centred around the idea of ‘honour’. Donaldina Cameron was a major figure of the time.
Where did filming take place for this season?
All the filming took place in and around Cape Town. My character’s vineyard was in a stunning piece of countryside in Malmesbury in the shadow of the mountains, which was a rare glimpse of green in the series. The bulk of filming took place on the extraordinary sets that were built in Cape Town Studios.
The show has such ensemble cast, what was the chemistry like with everyone on set?
Most of my scenes involved a love story with Olivia Cheng’s character ‘Ah Toy’. Olivia was a joy to work with and we had a good and natural alchemy which helped us portray the relationship between these two extraordinary women. I had a couple of old friends in the cast too, so the ice had been broken before I had even arrived in Cape Town and I loved every minute of filming.
Are there any specific funny moments from filming you can share with us?
I always find sex scenes hilarious. The director of episode 7, in which our love scene took place, is a brilliant man called Omar Madha whom I had worked with twice before on shows in London. This was a bit of disaster from a giggles point of view because he has the same inappropriate sense of humour as me and we were both incredibly childish about the whole thing. Luckily, Olivia seemed to giggle along with us so they were fun days in the end.
You are also narrating BBC Two’s Hospital which is out this month, tell us some more about this project and why you got involved?
This is the fifth series of Hospital that I have narrated and the show goes from strength to strength each year. This series is focusing on the fallout from Covid-19 for Doctors and patients dealing with other medical issues while resources are so limited. Hospital tells a very important side of the story and it is an honour to be involved.
Why do you think the previous series did so well – being nominated for 6 BAFTA’s if I am not mistaken?
Hospital manages to negotiate the very fine balance between hard hitting journalism and compassion for its subject. It leaves one wanting to know more and feeling all sorts of emotion but the tenacity of patients and doctors alike leaves one feeling uplifted. The human spirit is an unstoppable thing.
You have also been a part of some amazing theatre productions, do you prefer the stage or screen?
My ideal is to keep a balance of both. Theatre helps an actor to feel grounded and reminds us that we are all equal and painting the same picture together. We rely on each other as actors much more. Filming has taken me to faraway places, given me unforgettable memories and helped the bank balance but the narrative can be told in the edit. There is no edit on stage!
Are there any specific things you would like to do during this second lockdown that you weren’t able to get to in the first?
I am continuing to learn Spanish and I am really trying to make time for meditation and exercise every day so that they become unquestionably part of the routine. Honestly, I’m also trying to go with the flow a bit more and to not have the feeling that I should have come out of this having written a masterpiece!
Lastly, if you were stranded on a desert Island and could only take three items with you, what would they be and why?
Assuming that I couldn’t take my husband and daughter and that a puppy doesn’t count either, I would take The Complete Works of Nancy Mitford, the album ‘Grace’ by Jeff Buckley and a snorkel! Nancy because her books always raise a smile and her characterisations are so vivid and faultless. Grace because Jeff Buckley’s voice is the closest I’ve ever had to a religious experience. And a snorkel to find Nemo.
Season two of Warrior is available now on Sky One and NOW TV and Hospital airs on Monday’s at 9pm on BBC Two.
Interview by Lorenza Calamandrei.
Photography by Harry Livingstone.