7 Questions with The Sister star Bertie Carvel: 'We are always fascinated when someone mentions ghosts'

We talk to Bertie Carvel about new ITV haunting drama The Sister, which is going to be giving everyone chills this Halloween.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 26 October 2020 - 4.18pm
ITV

From the fantastical Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to playing one of TV’s most despicable villains in Doctor Foster, Bertie Carvel is one Britain’s most talented actors on stage and screen.

His latest role comes as the mysterious Bob Morrow in ITV’s spooky and supernatural drama The Sister.

Starring opposite Russell Tovey, Carvel plays a haunting character who unlocks dark secrets about a mysterious death long ago.

We heard from Carvel about the suspenseful new series, fear of the dark and ghosts...

1. Who is Bob Morrow?

Bob is described as a ‘shabby alley cat’ when he turns up at the door of Nathan Redman (Russell Tovey). I feel like Bob is the past come to call. But it’s the past brought into the present. He looks like someone who has had a story. And even Nathan can see on first glance that Bob’s story has developed quite a few more chapters since he last saw him.

Nathan opens his very smart front door to see a figure from his past. It’s almost as though Bob has carried the weight of all of those years since they last met a lot less successfully than Nathan seems to have done. Bob stands outside the normal adult world.

2. Did you meet the writer Neil Cross? 

Bertie Carvel and Russell Tovey in The Sister ITV

We didn’t meet but we had a wonderful phone call. I read the first couple of scripts and I had some queries and questions. Neil lives in New Zealand so we had this call and a wonderful conversation as he was writing the third and fourth episodes. He said, "It’s like you’re narrating my subconscious, Bertie."

There was one moment I was obsessed with. Wanting to play and interpret in a certain way. It felt like a key to me. We were talking about ghosts and as we did this there was a silence. Both of us shared a silence and I don’t know who was about to speak next. But suddenly there was a noise like a bass drum mixed with a strange spectral machine. And the line went down. It was amazing. It was as if we had been visited by the very ghost we were discussing. So that was a good moment with Neil Cross.

3. Were you afraid of the dark as a child? 

I don’t remember being frightened of the dark. But I had a wardrobe in my bedroom that faced the end of my bed and as a small child it seemed enormous. Very tall. I had a sense it would fall and crush me.  The daylight world puts a lot of reference points in that dissolve when the night comes. Our imaginations are more easily accessed when we close our eyes or are in the dark. 

Bertie Carvel – Where have you seen him before?

Sebastian Wilkes in Sherlock (BBC One)

Simon Foster in Doctor Foster (BBC One)

Nick Clegg in Coalition (Channel 4)

Jonathan Strange in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (BBC One)

Zachariah Osborne in The Pale Horse (BBC One)

Frank Temple in Baghad Central (Channel 4)

Bob is liberated by the dark. I love the production design of his flat. The interior of Bob’s flat is an amazing design in the studio.

Also, in the way it is lit. Using points of light in the darkness as a visual metaphor for what we are talking about.

Bob is a creature of darkness. In as much as darkness is fertile and fecund. It’s where things start to sprout.

In our upright civic space, we associate the darkness with evil.

But actually, in a more pagan way, darkness is a place from which birth is given. It’s actually a richer and more primal place.

4. You worked on lengthy location night shoots. Were they a challenge? 

Bertie Carvel in The Sister ITV

It was pretty gruelling. The most challenging thing about that for me was shooting a whole sequence basically set in a car in the woods. We shot all the exterior stuff around the car in the woods; but all of the interior stuff in the same car in a studio at the other end of the shoot. Including scenes of leaning in and out of the car.

Film making is always disjointed. But to be jumping in and out mid-scene, in and out of two different sets and shooting days was technically challenging. There is also the cold and the fact you are doing stuff which requires you to get quite dirty or wet as it was raining. It was much more like camping than film-making.

5. Do you believe in ghosts?

The cast of ITV's The Sister ITV

I’ve got two sides to me. I go through life with quite a reasoned and rational road map. I think things through and try to be analytical and reasoned. Then I noticed in my work I’m most free when I follow instinct.

Our perennial fascination with ghosts is for exactly the reason we want to find a rational explanation. What are they? Or we want to know they don’t exist which doesn’t accord with the lived experience or the observed reality of some storytellers. We’re fascinated, even though we like to say, "Oh those are just stories".

We are always fascinated when someone mentions ghosts. Everyone has a story. Even if they don’t believe in ghosts they reach for a story.

I think it’s because whatever our rational beliefs, we want to believe Hamlet, that "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy". I wonder why that is? It’s not to test our rationality to absurdity. I think it’s because there’s a deeper place in acknowledging we don’t understand stuff.

6. We see Bob and other characters as their younger selves. How was that achieved? 

This is part of my job that I enjoy among the most. As soon as I am offered a role, probably the first thing I do is phone up and ask lots of inconvenient questions to make sure it is going to be a happy collaboration. Then after that the next people I phone are the makeup and costume designers and get to work.

Make up designer Sophie Slotover was a wonderful partner in crime. I was really keen that Bob should have long hair. The costume designer, Aideen Morgan and I also had huge fun going shopping. With lots of conversations to get it right. Ultimately this is a very visual medium and that’s where a lot of the storytelling happens.

I was also really keen that not only should Bob have long hair but there should be two lots of long hair. There is the younger Bob who has this mane who should feel like somebody for whom hair, like Samson, is his strength and sexuality; growing from him and expressing his energy and vitality. And with the older Bob, the same hair has become lank and longer but straggly. We had lots of fun cooking up what that should look like.

It’s like an amazing jigsaw puzzle. I have so much respect for these incredible brains that can be both creative and take creative, expressive, purely artistic visions and put those through the lens of very practical problems. Like filming in the woods where there's no hairdryer. And needing to repeat things on several takes across different days.

7. Coronavirus has hit work on film and TV productions. Do the arts matter in the scheme of things? 

Bertie Carvel as Bob Morrow in The Sister on ITV ITV

I remember when I went to drama school, carrying around huge enthusiasm and excitement for my new role in life. But also, an element of embarrassment or guilt that I wasn’t, as I thought at the time, doing something that was key and really socially useful. That I was basically just making art.

But as I’ve got older, I’ve become more and more convinced - without wanting to sound worthy - that this stuff is absolutely critical. This is because we make sense of our world through stories. That’s the sort of thing actors say all the time. But I understand more and more what that really means. The importance of story and culture to our sense of humanity and to our common bond.

The veneer of our civilisation is much thinner than we like to think. We have had an opportunity to reflect in this darkened trance and maybe rebuild our society in a slightly better way.

The Sister starts on ITV and the ITV Hub on Monday, October 26. It airs across four nights this week.

The whole series box set comes to BritBox on November 26.

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