If you want to get into the mind of a possible murderer who creepily appears to have gone on to marry the sister of his victim, then sinking into a river of mud in the depths of a dark and rain-lashed forest at 3am ought to do it. Or at least that helped Years and Years star Russell Tovey inhabit his latest role in the new crime thriller from the dastardly mind of Luther creator Neil Cross, The Sister.
“You could really feel the cold, and the long night, so it was really good to channel that into the acting,” he recalls, wryly. “We had these little buggies and we’d go up and down through the woods, do your scene and get back into the buggy freezing cold and soaking wet, then go back up to the trailer and dry off.”
It wasn’t just the elements that made this an exhausting gig for Tovey. We’re so used to seeing him play exactly what he appears to be: a lovely man with an adorable smile to match his goofy sense of humour. Which is why The Sister’s twisted set-up, and his against-type casting, is so disconcerting. He plays Nathan, a seemingly ordinary bloke living a relatively charmed life with wife Holly (Amrita Acharia) in the sort of impeccably put together home we’re used to seeing appear, after a great kerfuffle, on Grand Designs.
But as with all the best murder mysteries, scratch the surface and something fetid’s festering underneath the floorboards. Or, in this case, buried in those muddy woods. Whatever happened to the young woman (Simone Ashley) Nathan met at a New Year’s party years before? And what happens when Holly finds out that she was her sister, the one who went missing before she got together with Nathan? Is he a monstrous cuckoo hiding in Holly’s nest?
“I don’t take work home that much,” reveals Tovey, listing his time in the National Theatre production of Angels in America as one exception, and the confounding Nathan as another. “The thing about this role was that you exist in this contained tension. Whatever you’re saying is not what’s being said. And there is anxiety and absolute fear and panic the whole time. It’s been suppressed. And I really wanted to serve Nathan, to create something that people hadn’t seen me do.”
It came at a price. “As an actor on set, I’m normally quite jovial and cheeky and I think on this one people probably think I’m a right moody git.”
While at first it seems he’s playing the good guy role in which he’s supremely comfortable, in fact Nathan is a tightly wound coil straining to spring. And spring Nathan does, to protect this perfect little life he’s assembled when it’s disturbed by the late-night arrival of creepy paranormal investigator Bob (Bertie Carvel). The hulking man with a grave digger’s attire knows more about what Nathan may or may not have done than the audience, threatening everything.
“You’ve got the Grim Reaper, which is Bob just kind of hanging out, like, filing his nails on his scythe waiting to step in,” Tovey says of the rapidly unravelling first episode. “This is fundamentally a love story for Nathan, though it feels like something has happened, and he’s put Pandora in the box. And suddenly we start the show, and Pandora’s let out and she’s running around crazy, and he’s trying desperately to get her back in.”
A ghost story of sorts, it’s not initially clear if Holly’s buried sister is truly gone, with a spectral voice caught on tape by Bob unnerving Nathan with nightmares of unearthly vengeance, creeping in around the creaking edges of his home. And there are pressing concerns of a more mortal nature too. Local detective Jacki (Nina Toussaint-White) uncovers a new lead that pulls on the rapidly fraying threads of Nathan’s carefully constructed domestic bliss.
“What’s interesting about Jacki is that, as an audience, you sort of follow her because part of you wants Jacki to catch the truth. And then the other part of you doesn’t want her to find out and reveal it to everyone. So it’s a conflict. You really are with her because you want to know what’s going on. But then you don’t want her to tell anyone when she finds out.”
It’s exhilarating to watch this cat and mouse (and possible ghost) game play out across three fractured timelines, each leaving shards of the story scattered like glinting clues. Tovey salutes Cross for writing a complex and compelling part, one that has us continually second-guessing our loyalties, and for casting him against his nice-guy type to further toy with viewers. “You want Nathan to be happy. But then also you’re like, ‘but you shouldn’t be, you don’t deserve that really, mate’.”
It’s a wicked fix to watch, Tovey suggests. “It’s an incredible balance in the scripts, that you are completely friends with the enemy.”
The Sister airs weekly on SBS from 9.30pm Wednesday 2 December. Episodes arrive at SBS On Demand the same day they go to air. Here is episode 1:
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