Denise Gough isn’t afraid to put herself through the wringer for a part. Her breakout role came in 2015 play People, Places and Things, winning an Olivier for her visceral performance as a recovering drug addict; she won another, and picked up a Tony nomination, playing agoraphobic housewife Harper in Angels in America. In her new TV series Too Close, she plays Connie, a woman branded “the yummy mummy killer” in the tabloids after she drives a car containing her two young children and their friend off a bridge. Connie claims not to remember a thing – and it’s up to her forensic psychologist Emma, played by Emily Watson, to work out whether she is telling the truth.
“I feel sorry for the method actors,” Gough says brightly, speaking over Zoom from her home in Hackney (now 41, she moved to London from County Clare when she was 16). “Especially if you play the kind of parts I play.” She’s done “too much stage work now,” she explains, “to buy into the idea that I have to stay in character all the time. I don’t find it helpful to stay with it. As soon as you say cut, I’m out. That way I’m not carrying it around all the time.” Instead of brooding on a role between takes, she’s “a bit of a messer. I’m laughing a lot, I talk a lot to the crew.”
Too Close plays out like a tense cat-and-mouse game between Emma and Connie, who needles her interrogator with a series of painfully perceptive observations about her middle aged, middle class existence. These scenes are interwoven with flashbacks to Connie’s apparently charmed previous life, all picnics on the Heath and nicely renovated townhouses. Our sympathies shift around constantly – sometimes it’s worryingly easy to side with her, until we get a glimpse of something horrific, like in one scene where the sight of her severely injured daughter prompts her to burst into hysterics (laughter, not tears).
Gough plays Connie, a mother accused of a horrific crime, in Too Close
Despite the three hour make-up sessions required to transform her into the character, who is bruised and battered from the car accident in these two-hander scenes, playing Connie was refreshing, in a way. “I didn’t have you make you like me,” she says, noting the ever-present double standard in male and female roles. “Some of our favourite male characters are horrible people,” she adds. “Yet they’re lauded and they go through the annals of history as being these amazing parts. But when a woman plays a similar part, people find it a little less palatable.”
In the show, that “yummy mummy killer’ tag turns Connie’s case into a media cause célèbre that soon becomes fodder for dinner party conversations among Emma’s friends. Their shocked response is merited, of course, but it’s also tinged with smugness; the show captures, too, that weird salaciousness with which female suspects are often treated. “There’s a huge pressure we put on women, and it often comes from other women,” Gough says. “I’m not a mother – hopefully we’re not yet in a place where actors can only play the thing that they are – but I am around mothers, and I see what happens, the expectation on women to do things a certain way. And when they don’t, they’re not as easily forgiven as a man would be, I think.” Like many of us, Gough has spent the most recent lockdown watching a spate of documentaries – about Caroline Flack, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Mia Farrow – that explore “the power of the media to cast women in these roles of ‘she was mad, she was crazy.’ Media representation of women – I mean, it’s still not great, is it?” she says. “No pressure… But we’re all complicit in many ways, those of us who read it, who consume it.”
With co-star Thalissa Teixeira, who plays Connie’s best friend
It’s still rare to see a primetime TV drama headlined by women behind and in front of the camera, but Too Close is an exception, written by actress and author Clara Salaman and directed by Sue Tully. While “it’s great to celebrate and say ‘this is brilliant, it’s written, directed, produced by women’,” though, Gough doesn’t want to get complacent. “We now have to really continue the push with representation of everyone,” she says. “I certainly don’t want to be in all white everything because that’s tedious – we need to be making sure that there are black women and women of colour and every kind of woman at the table.”
So, while she’s “very proud” of the show, “our industry is still predominantly white so we need to always be doing better. If we don’t highlight it, we don’t get to keep the conversation going further.” She cites the use of colour conscious casting in Netflix’s mega-hit Bridgerton. Period drama is “not [her] thing” typically, so “seeing some of those women that I’ve only ever seen be queens on stage in a massive [TV] drama” was “so brilliant, but” – here’s her caveat – “I also want to know, what happened behind the camera? Who was represented behind the camera? Because we’re still quite white back there. It’s good to congratulate ourselves, and say we’re doing better, but we must press on.” She’s hopeful, though, that “all this time” in lockdown has forced the industry to confront the fact that “we still had a long way to go, so maybe coming back out, there’s going to be more space for more people.”
The show plays out like a cat and mouse chase between Emma (Watson) and Connie
Gough’s next move will take her to a galaxy far, far away: she’s been cast in the upcoming Star Wars TV series Andor, a spin-off from 2016’s Rogue One, and is, of course, sworn to secrecy. After filming the pilot for a Game of Thrones prequel which was then scrapped by HBO, “I was saying to myself, ‘Oh yeah, it’s probably for the best, I’m not meant to be in a franchise…’” she grins. “And then Star Wars… If I’m gonna be in a franchise I might as well be in the biggest one in the f**king galaxy.” Before that, she’ll star opposite The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s Sebastian Stan in Monday, an anti-romcom that explores what happens when reality kicks in after the initial mad rush of love at first sight.
It’s very clear, though, that despite this turn for the stratosphere, her heart remains on the stage. The past year of stop-start theatre closures has been “absolutely devastating to witness” both as a performer and “just on a personal note. I miss my community – I would see so many people every week because I’d always be at something, so that’s my whole kind of social thing wiped out,” she says. “I have so many friends who had just started a play, and then it shut down – who knows if it’ll open again. It’s really important that when we get back to it, we are helped. It’s going to need rehabilitation, it’s not just going to be a quick resurgence. We’re going to need a lot of financial physio to get us back to where we were.”
She’s concerned, though, that venues might only be able to get back on their feet by cranking up prices, further entrenching theatre as an exclusively upper class concern. “The worry that I have with that is that [the aftermath of the pandemic] will make theatre even more elitist, because tickets will have to be really expensive,” she notes. “We’re going to have to stay on the ball when it does come back to ensure that we don’t lose all that great stuff that we had started doing, opening theatre out, providing subsidised tickets. If that goes, then we’re going to continue to be in trouble.”
Theatre closures during the pandemic have been “devastating” for Gough, as a performer and as a fan
When Gough moved to London from County Clare as a teenager, she had no family pals conveniently working in theatre; she won a full grant to Wandsworth’s ALRA drama school then balanced theatre roles with odd jobs for the best part of a decade. Does she fear that the pandemic might force aspiring actors who lack a financial safety net to abandon hopes of a career on stage? “I think this industry is precarious, but then again, it always has been,” she muses. “The worry has always been that acting is becoming an elitist sport, that if you have the money you are able to do it. But there will always be those of us who will speak up about those things. I don’t come from money, nor do I come from anything connected. And I still did it. If you really want to do it, just do it. And when you’re not born in West London, with a family that’s really well connected to people, when you have those moments [of success], you can really own them, because it’s like ‘this is happening to me, I can’t f**king believe I made this happen.’ It’s like a Billy Elliot moment.”
There will surely be plenty more of those moments in the near future. “I think this whole period of time has shown how important the arts are, even when we don’t realise it,” she says. “They are the lifeblood, you know. So hopefully, it will come back and be stronger than ever. I plan on doing some massive acting on some massive stage whenever I’m allowed.”