Backstage With… Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston on leaps of faith and sisterhood while making their new series

Entertainment

Claire Danes has told Sky News’ Backstage podcast that it’s “mercifully” becoming less of a novelty to be part of a production led by an all-female team.

The star’s new TV drama series, The Essex Serpent, is based on the award-winning 2016 novel by Sarah Perry.

It tells the story of a 19th century woman who heads to the east coast to investigate reports of a mythical creature there and was written for the screen by Bafta-nominated writer Anna Symon and directed by the acclaimed Clio Barnard.

Danes says she’s pleased to see the industry is improving when it comes to female-led productions.

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“It’s wonderful to be in a kind of, in a sisterhood, to use a slightly corny term I guess,” she says.

“But yeah, it was great, it was just incredibly collaborative and it’s just a wonderfully rich environment to play in.”

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Danes was drawn to the project by her character – a widow whose love of natural sciences sees her leaving her city home to stay in a small village in Essex.

“It’s just not very often that you find female protagonists this surprising and dynamic and full of wonderful contradiction,” she says.

“I just loved her spirit, her curiosity, her hunger for adventure and life, and I happened to have read the book – which I adored.

“I thought it was kind of deceptively radical and subversive and quite feminist, really.”

Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes in The Essex Serpent. Pic: Apple TV+
Claire Danes in The Essex Serpent. Pic: Apple TV+
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Danes’s character heads to Essex to investigate reports of a mythical creature. Pics: Apple TV+

When Danes’s character arrives in Essex she finds herself forming a surprising bond with the local pastor, played by Tom Hiddleston.

The story explores themes of faith, science and belief, and Hiddleston told Backstage the story definitely challenged his own views.

“I [think about] the central question in the story, which is: where do we derive meaning from in our lives? How do we make sense of our lives in the space between birth and death? And we need it to mean something,” he says.

“And so we turn to faith, to natural sciences, to reason, to try to understand where we fit in it.

“We live on an extraordinary planet, in an extraordinary universe and we all still ask those big questions.”

Tom Hiddleston stars on The Essex Serpent. Pic: Apple TV+
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Hiddleston says the show has ‘such texture and depth and complexity’. Pic: Apple TV+

The actor says his character is open to new ideas and in no way a fanatical believer in religion.

“At this particular time my character, Will Ransome, an educated man and a reverend in a parish on the edge of the east coast of England, is at the centre of the conflict within himself and within the sort of intellectual community at the time,” he adds.

“The late 19th century was a time when the world was changing and people’s sense of their understanding of how their lives made sense was changing, and I think he’s very progressive in his faith.

“I think he’s open to science and reason, but he knows – and I hope the story demonstrates that – there’s a link between them, that you can never have all the answers.

“At some point, you have to make a leap of faith and I found that very optimistic actually.”

Hiddleston is probably best known for playing the villainous Loki from the Marvel films – and was last on TV screens in a spin-off series about the character.

This show is entirely different and the star says it was the scripts that drew him to it.

Clemence Poesy in The Essex Serpent. Pic: Apple TV+
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Clemence Poesy also appears in the series. Pic: Apple TV+

“They were so complete and they had such texture and depth and complexity,” he says.

“It seemed to be about very complex ideas and emotions and feelings – the idea of the serpent as a metaphor or a symbol for things deep beneath the surface – ideas and feelings we may not yet understand, and folded into a presentation of the landscape that was wild and passionate.

“The story of passion between the characters was going to be met by this extraordinary landscape, and it seemed like a very exciting opportunity and I loved Clio Barnard.

“I’ve followed her work for a long time and met her 10 years ago at the London Film Festival and this seemed like just perfect. It was a very, very quick yes.”

The Essex Serpent is streaming on Apple TV+ now.

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