It’s not easy being an alpha female
Partly driven by her insecurities, actress Sarah Parish reveals to Ben Lawrence why she was drawn to her latest role.
During the past year, we have seen Sarah Parish has played a small-town queen bee in Broadchurch, a terrifyingly taciturn TV executive in W1A and now a hard-bitten senior detective in Bancroft.
Parish specialises in alpha females and she wonders if that’s all down to the way she looks. ‘‘I think I have quite a hard look that can be frightening,’’ she laughs, before clarifying that such characters are ‘‘far removed from who I really am’’.
Despite the aura of steely authority she radiates on screen, she says she is not an especially confident person – ‘‘though I hope I am friendly and warm’’.
Looks, of course, are a necessary part of being an actor, and Parish plays the part, with her cut-glass cheekbones and dark, slightly feline eyes. Easy, you would think, for vanity to creep in – but for the tough love doled out by Parish’s mother when she was smaller.
‘‘She said to me once: ‘Sarah, on some days you can look quite pretty and on other days you really look quite plain’.’’ She insists that, ‘‘that stood me in very good stead as an actor’’ – but admits to having had non-invasive surgery before filming the third series of W1A ,to keep her skin looking taut.
Parish was born in 1968 and grew up in Yeovil. She had a very happy childhood and originally intended to be a dancer but failed her audition for the Royal Ballet School. She says that was a blessing in disguise and that a family trip to see Angela Lansbury and Denis Quilley in Sweeney Todd in the West End was the moment she knew she had to act.
She left home at 17 and went to London, working in a variety of jobs, including cleaning flats in the Barbican before attending drama school.
She first became known for her role in one of the famous Boddingtons beer ads in the 1990s (in which she appears in a skimpy bikini, curves being lovingly massaged with chip fat by a young hunk), before making her mark with such meaty creations as the acerbic MP’s aide Amanda in romcom Hearts and Bones, and the super-competent Allie in hairdressing saga Cutting It.
‘‘I look at it now and think ‘Crikey!’,’’ she says, of her Boddingtons audition. ‘‘My agent said it was an advertisement casting and asked me whether I could wear a bikini. Nowadays I would say ‘No’,’’
Parish has clearly toughened up since her early days – perhaps because of her experiences in America, in the late noughties, where she used to audition for the pilot seasons. ‘‘I always got furious when pilot season came around,’’ she says. ‘‘You’d read the first page and it would say: ‘[Insert character name]. She is 24, gorgeous, has a figure to die for’. And then in comes the guy. He is ‘45, brilliant and intelligent’ or whatever. Nothing about how he looks, of course. I said I would never go up for anything where it said that the character was hot or sexy.
‘‘Firstly, because I don’t want to sit in a room with a bunch of models and feel terrible about myself, but also because it’s horribly sexist.’’
Sexism is, of course, an allconsuming topic. ‘‘There is less sexism than when I started. I have seen more female directors, writers, female crew. We are definitely making a difference.’’
Parish is looking towards more creative control and is starting to take on executive behind-thescenes roles in several drama projects that are currently at a nascent stage.
She believes that an empowerment of women will also help combat the awful allegations of sexual harassment which she says, ‘‘were bound to come to light sooner or later’’, yet also feels strongly that the industry shouldn’t be divided along gender lines.
‘‘I don’t think that we should be saying that things should be more female-led because you are pitting the sexes against each other. It can’t become a question of men versus women.’’
Elizabeth Bancroft, Parish’s latest character, has had to work hard to succeed in a man’s world. A talented detective chief inspector with no smooth edges, she has had to be considerably better than the men who surround her. In researching the part, Parish spoke to several senior female police officers in Bolton, where the series was filmed.
‘‘They all had a similar air about them – they were tough people. When you look at the tragic things they have to deal with every day, as well as the fact that they are surrounded by loads of blokes, they have to build an armour. The way to deal with it is to be either incredibly feminine or incredibly masculine, and I think it’s a shame that you have to be so extreme.’’
Over four episodes, Bancroft‘s past catches up with her and her titanium core is severely shaken.
As an actress, Parish is drawn to this sort of emotional unravelling. ‘‘It’s fascinating – when you watch a control freak break down, things get pretty ugly.’’
Of course, there is a link here with Anna Rampton, the almost monosyllabic ‘‘Director of Better’’ in John Morton’s sublime BBC mockumentary W1A. Parish’s pitch-perfect ‘‘Yes. No. Exactly’’ has now slipped into the national consciousness. The fact is (to coin one of Rampton’s catchphrases), this steely executive was mentally fragile and unsuitable to deal with such a demanding world. I ask Parish whether it is flippant to deal with such serious issues in comedy.
‘‘Absolutely not,’’ she says. ‘‘I think comedy is actually a better place to explore dark issues than drama. I know that as a viewer I invest far more in a character that I have laughed at and the effect can be incredibly powerful.’’
Parish is good fun and plainspeaking, and I remember her mother’s no-nonsense approach to her looks. Parish seems to have passed this pragmatism down to her 8-year-old daughter, Nell, who, she says is ‘‘not remotely interested in what I do’’.
‘‘We did a fundraiser at Winchester Cathedral last night and Hugh [W1A co-star Hugh Bonneville] was there and I was saying: ‘Look, there’s Paddington’s dad! And she was like: ‘Whatever’. She just wanted some cake.’’
That fundraiser was for #2Million Steps, a campaign aiming to raise £2 million for a Paediatric Emergency and Trauma Unit in Southampton. It was started by Parish and her actor husband James Murray (the couple live nearby in Hampshire), after their first daughter, EllaJayne died in 2009, aged eight months, having suffered from a congenital heart defect.
The project has galvanised Parish, and she has had to throw herself into public speaking. ‘‘I am getting slightly better at it but I still shake with nerves. I can barely speak.’’
Parish says she is driven, in part, by a typical actorly insecurity, and I wonder if that has begun to subside now that she is more successful. ‘‘Every year, I say this will be the year when I fail. And then, at the end of every year, I say ‘I think I have got away with it again’. Brilliant.’’ – The Daily Telegraph
❚ Bancroft debuts on TVNZ1 at 9pm on Sunday.
Sarah Parish (in front) is joined by Faye Marsay in the four-part series Bancroft.