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Interview with actress Mali Harries star of Hinterland – words Paul Risker
With the curtain drawn on the first act of Welsh crime drama Hinterland, the stage is now consumed with the drama of its second series. The Hinterland landscape is a character in itself, but one which is tainted by the darkest of deeds – murder – and Welsh actress Mali Harries is right there.
There remains a unique sense of feeling that derives from the rural spatial setting for crime dramas, but one in which the rural and the town intertwine to give the Hinterland drama a broader spatial scope. Inevitably the quietness of the countryside and the intimacy of Aberystwyth compliments the archetypal loneliness of the two lead detectives: DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) and DI Mared Rhys (actress Mali Harries).
In conversation with Flux, Harries reflected on her evolving perspective of her craft, hostility towards the Welsh language, the truthful aspirations of Hinterland and the parallels between the detective and the actor.
FLUX – Why a career as an actress? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Mali Harries – Yeah, definitely. My mum is a professional artist and music teacher. She got a place at The Royal Academy when she was fifteen, but was told by her own mother that she couldn’t be a musician, she had to be a teacher. When I was eleven she remarried, and the gentleman that she remarried was an actor. It was at that point I was introduced to the world of being an actor. I did a bit of telly and drama workshop as a kid and when I was eighteen I was meant to study law in Exeter. But at the last minute I said to my mum: “You know what, I think I’ll try to get into drama college, just to see.” And I got into the Bristol Old Vic where they chose four girls and nine boys. I thought: you know what, I’ll just give it a go. She was so supportive, probably because she wasn’t encouraged to go to The Royal Academy when she was growing up. So I think it was my mums past and her remarrying an actor that drove me towards my chosen career.
FLUX – How has your perspective of acting changed over the years?
Mali Harries – For me a lot of it is cutting and training when you go to drama college. I was taught by a fantastic teacher called Rudi Shelly and he used to say: “Acting is the art of reacting.” I remember puzzling over that for years and not quite understanding. But I’ve been an actor for nineteen years now and I kind of know what he means. It is not a performance, it’s about revealing and stripping layers away from characters. It’s not about putting on and pretending. So it’s a joy to go from project to project and to create new characters, and to be given new scenarios. It is way more exciting than life.
FLUX – While you can learn your lines, the moment of reacting to how another actor has chosen to play the scene must invariably lend an uncertainty to the process. Regardless of the preparation, does there remain that raw aspect that is ingrained within the art of performance?
Mali Harries – It’s more exciting to be with actors that you don’t quite know what’s going to come out. Of course they know their lines, but I was taught to learn your lines and then forget them – to see what comes out. And often when we are filming on Hinterland, when I hear “action” I don’t know what’s coming out. You just have to trust you know the lines and trust the actors you are with to create something quite organic, and especially working bilingually. You’ll do the English first, but I want to learn the lines in Welsh because I want to see what will come out or vice versa. And I think that creates a certain energy that is quite exciting and unique.
Speaking with Gareth Bryn for The Passing he touched upon the hostility to the Welsh language. In spite of the broadcast of Scandinavian and other European foreign language dramas, there still seems to be an hostility towards the Welsh language, despite it being closer to home.
Mali Harries – I think there is maybe a slight hostility because it is a bit less exotic – less far away. Obviously England and Wales are next to each other and they have an historic competitive toing and froing. So maybe it is more accepted in the Welsh language further afield than closer to home. But I often think if I couldn’t speak Welsh what would it actually sound like? When you live a language, and I had a Welsh speaking family upbringing, junior and comprehensive schools, and so the first time I really acted in English was when I went to drama college. For me Welsh is a living breathing language that sustains a lot of people within the Welsh telly and film industry. It is the most normal thing for me and hopefully it can be accepted all over, but maybe there is an easier acceptance of it further afield.
On the subject of language I often argue that there is an attempt to brand the English speaking language as the official language of storytelling. When you look to the Academy Awards and how a foreign language film and its filmmaker is not eligible to vie for Best Picture and Best Director, it is in essence an affront to the ideology of art.
MH – That is is very interesting because for me language is irrelevant. If it’s good drama, it’s good drama. If it’s a good film, it’s a good film. If you’re good at your job that should be all that’s important, and I think Hinterland gives a window into Wales that is very refreshing. In lots of the territories that get the programme, there are maybe those people that have relatives and ancestors that lived in Wales at one point, and I think it is a good window into refreshing people’s memories of their own history. I’ve family in America – we share the same father – and for them it’s very interesting to A) hear the Welsh language and B) to see their half sister on telly. They live in New Orleans and New York so it is a refreshing window onto a very real place for us to live and to work.
What was the appeal of the character and the story when you first read the script for Hinterland?
MH – I worked with Ed Thomas years ago on another project called Pen Tala and after that project Ed took me aside and said: “Look, we’ve got this idea for a detective programme that we’d love you to be a part of.” And that was five or six years before Hinterland was even anything. It was just an idea and it was a real privilege to be asked at that early stage to be a part of it. The minute that I saw the first draft of the first script I thought: this is definitely something I want to be involved with. It’s the kind of thing that I would want to watch – the sparse dialogue and the landscape being a massive part of our story. And working with Richard [Harrington] which I had done previously is never boring. Regardless of the story there is always a chemistry between us that we can rely on, without words to support us. We know each other through and through, and I think it was the team initially that made me definitely want to do this. I am still so proud to be a part of it and today we are filming episode twelve, which is a rather exciting one [laughs].
Speaking with Richard for series one he discussed how there is a story arc in place that forms a three series plan. Do you have the same sense that it is being written with a finish in mind?
MH – Yeah definitely. Every episode is if you like a brick in the wall and we kind of have an idea where it is going. There is a definite feeling, and especially in this penultimate episode that we are filming at the minute. You know it is going somewhere and you feel it moving and gaining momentum. As actors we get the scripts quite late, which is exciting because you then have to fight your corner. It is a very organic process working for fiction factory because if you feel very strongly about the storyline or dialogue, and you can validate your point and get it across, then they are very open to changing scenes and lines.
Something very exciting happens in episode twelve and there is a feeling that the momentum is gaining. Richard and I had a chat about episode thirteen, about how we need it to be something people feel that they are really glad they watched. But also to have seen every episode and to have been moved by it. So I get tingly feelings just thinking about the end [laughs].
You mention how in TV you receive the scripts quite late, almost discovering as you go along. Unlike in film where you know what will happen from beginning to end, this creates in television a greater synergy between you as actors and your audience.
MH – I think that having an idea of where it is going, but not absolutely knowing that certain things are going to happen gives it an energy. And as an actor that is an exciting thing to play. I try not to play where I am going – you always play where you have been and then you land somewhere. The way I work is to write everything down and I’ll have a breakdown of the scenes. We obviously film things out of sequence and so I’ll write on the top of my slides where I’ve been. I never write where I am going because within the scene things and your direction can change. As in life you don’t know really where it’s going. You have an idea of where you’d like to go, but you don’t know which direction you are going to go in specifically, and I think that definitely gives it a certain energy. Hopefully that energy comes across to the viewers and especially in this current episode [twelve] the way it is being filmed. The director said he wants to feel like the camera is nearly falling over with the characters, but that it’s not planned and solidly staged. I suppose there is a feeling of movement, uncertainty and exposure, and that is a very interesting place to play.
One of the challenging aspects of performance is knowing the next few steps, which in a way removes you from the present. So in part it is trying to create that lifelike impression by disavowing the knowledge of where you are going and the immediate outcome.
MH –As an actor you just have to know your character and the back story is very important. At the very beginning Richard was strong about the back story and how solid it should be. They do change as the project goes along, but as long as you know the foundations of your character then you can be in any situation and you’ll instinctively know how to react. Character wise they are very different, but what joins Mared and Mathias [Richard Harrington] is they are both extremely lonely people that are trying their best to stick together. They care for one another, but it’s not a friendship. You would never see them sat down having a drink together. They just function and work well together. And I think it is very interesting to be put in situations of jeopardy or uncomfortableness because to play someone who is always in control is boring. If you play someone that is trying their best to be in control, but who sometimes falls apart, then that is far more interesting. Within the scripts, and definitely those of the third series, the characters are allowed to fall apart, which is really exciting.
Why do you think the detective has become associated with loneliness and the outsider status?
MH –I am doing a documentary series about real detectives for S4C. I’ve met a lot of real detectives and what I’ve found to be a fascinating common thread running through all of them is that you have to be work obsessed – you have to be live and breathe it. Before we started filming series one Richard and I followed some detectives. I met a lady called Carol and I asked her: “What do you do in your down time?” She said: “I read.” “Great, what do you read?” She said: “Crime.” I thought how you can’t get away from it and that’s brilliant, and that’s how I want Mared to be. I don’t want her to be able to read romance novels or watch romantic films. You have to live and breath it, and I think that is true to real detectives – they are like a dog with a bone. They want to get to the truth and it is hard for them then to set it aside or to even talk about their work when they get home. But then they can’t talk about their cases with their friends or their family, and so they have to keep it all in their head as they try to solve it and to get to the truth. So maybe certain detectives do come across as lone wolves because they have to keep a lot in their heads and are not allowed to share. If we have a bad day we can go home and say: ‘Oh, you’ll never guess what happened to me today… I’m so tired of it.” They can’t and so maybe the most successful detectives are the most secretive ones.
Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, where the person you are before a project is different to the person you are after?
MH –I think that is actually very true. I know that when we started doing Hinterland we didn’t know what we were making. We had an idea of what we wanted it to be and everybody just had an energy. It was kind of a shock when it aired and people liked it because we just tried to make something that was truthful. As an actor it definitely changes you as a person because you have committed three years of your life to it, and it takes over completely. It is slightly parallel to what we were talking about with the job taking over the life of the detective, and this job takes over your life because you are away from family, you are stuck on a mountain with no reception and committed to making this program together. So I think there is a transformative kind of feeling and you do end up being a different person, but in a good way. Along the way you’ve had good laughs and you’ve made some lifelong friends, and because of the length of time you are working together you go through a lot of emotions. Peoples lives change and so it definitely morphs you as a person, but hopefully into a person that has had better experiences than if you had not committed to it. So it’s definitely been a huge part of my life and I have no doubt that when we finish episode thirteen it will be a very emotional day – there will be lots of tears. And hopefully it will be a project that we can pick up at some point, because if you come down on set you’ll feel there is a definite feeling of family, friendship and commitment through every department.
HINTERLAND Series 2 is released on DVD & Blu-Ray Monday 30th May by Nordic Noir & Beyond.
Interview with actress Mali Harries star of Hinterland – words Paul Risker