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7 Questions with… The Secret Garden’s Isis Davis: 'I feel beyond proud to be the first non-white actress to play Martha on screen'
Isis Davis talks exclusively to BT.com about playing Martha and working with Julie Walters and Colin Firth in the new adaptation of The Secret Garden on Sky Cinema.
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Isis Davis has appeared in TV shows including Casualty, EastEnders and Silent Witness, but the actress and writer is set for her biggest and most exciting role yet in the 2020 remake of The Secret Garden film.
Based on the beloved novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden tells the story of orphan Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx), who’s sent to live with her uncle Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), under the watchful eye of Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters).
Set in 1940s England at Misselthwaite Manor, a remote country estate deep in the Yorkshire moors, Davis plays Craven's household maid, Martha, pictured above.
Speaking exclusively to BT.com ahead of the release of the movie on Sky Cinema, Davis answers seven burning questions about the film - including how she got cast in the role of Martha, how it feels to be the first non-white actress to play the character, and what it was like working with British acting legends, Colin Firth and Julie Walters…
1. What can we expect from this new adaptation of The Secret Garden?
Isis Davis: You can expect a stellar cast, all the magic of the book, but with a new, fresh twist and spin on it. I think this version is more Mary’s version [played by Dixie Egerickx], so we follow her through the garden. I think it’s just beautiful and there’s nothing quite like it at the moment.
For children who haven’t read the book or haven’t seen the older films, it’s a new magic for them and it should inspire them to go outside and be at one with nature.
It’s not copying the old versions. It’s a new adaptation in its own right and I just feel really proud to be a part of it.
2. How would you describe your character of Martha - is she similar to what we've seen in previous adaptations of The Secret Garden?
Isis: Martha is friendly, kind, and caring. She’s slightly different from what we’ve seen before, because we see her through Mary’s eyes. She’s the only adult that Mary has to talk to really because none of the other adults will talk to her, or they’re just very strict and lay down the law.
Martha is still very no-nonsense, but she stays in her lane, she doesn’t step over the mark. She knows what her job is and how authoritative she can be with Mary. She won’t have it when Mary tries to be rude to her.
It’s a really subtle but beautiful relationship because Martha’s really excited that a child’s going to be in the house, [but] she doesn’t expect to be greeted with Mary who’s so unlikeable in the beginning. She finds it funny, how Mary acts towards her. But she still tells her that she can’t act like that.
Martha cares about Mary, but she also worries about her brother Dickon [played by Amir Wilson, below] and she doesn’t want him getting involved with the likes of Mary as they have a lot more to lose than Mary does.
3. Is it the first time a black actress has played the role of Martha on film?
Isis: Yes. I think it’s about time. I feel beyond proud that I am the first black, mixed-race Martha. Martha is such an amazing character that so many millions of people know around the world from the old books and films. For there now to be a non-white Martha for children who are black, mixed-race, they might have seen the films or read the story and not been able to relate to any of the characters, they see people that look like them with Martha and Dickon on screen [in this adaptation], and I think that’s really important.
4. How were you cast in the role of Martha?
Isis: About a year before we started filming, I worked with [The Secret Garden director] Marc Munden on a Channel 4 anthology series called Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, and we got along really well on that. I got a call from my agent saying "They’re doing a remake of The Secret Garden and Marc’s directing it and they would really love you to do a self-tape" and I was just like "What? OK, yeah of course I will!" So then I did the tape, and then a few days later they were like "Right, we want you to come in" so I did.
Two days later, I got a call from my agent and she said "Isis, you got the role" and I think I was in Tesco’s or something and I was just like "No way!" She said they wanted to pick me up in about an hour to take me to Pinewood [Studios] to get fitted for costumes.
It was just unbelievable. It was a dream come true really. I didn’t know [who was going to be in the cast] at that point. I knew Jack [Thorne] had written the adaptation and Marc was directing, so I was like "OK this is gonna be big". But I didn’t know who I was playing against or anything. When it was confirmed, I was just blown away.
5. What was it like to work with Julie Walters and Colin Firth on set?
Isis: Gosh, it was a pleasure. They’re everything you can imagine. It was daunting at first when I knew [they'd been cast], because they’re British screen icons, they’re household names. I was really nervous but excited to meet them.
I met Julie [Walters] first. I walked into rehearsals and Julie was rehearsing with Dixie, and I was just sat in awe of her. She’s incredible. Julie and Colin both are.
It was like an acting masterclass. They’re just incredibly professional. When you watch them, it’s as if you’re watching them on screen. You can just see why they’re successful, they just become the characters.
They’re incredible to work with and really inspiring, but so down-to-earth. Once you get over the fact that you’re working with these legends, when it's a normal day or you're in make-up, they’re just so engaging and generous with their time and conversation.
6. What’s your favourite memory from filming with them, or a personal highlight?
Isis: I don’t want to give away the ending of the film, but the big, final scene was filmed on location, and that was my first day on set! The other guys had already been on set but because Martha stays in the house, most of my scenes were filmed in Pinewood. But this day, I rocked up and there were so many people buzzing around. But the weather was horrendous. During one of the scenes, I have to run, and the camera was running, and we all just stacked it.
Between scenes, we were going into this incredible manor house with cups of tea and chatting normally with Julie and Colin, and I was just thinking "Oh my God, I’m living my dream right now". It just felt so surreal. You know when you have those moments and you think "This is what I’ve been working for all these years".
7. It’s billed as a family film but some of the reviews I’ve read describe it as quite dark and haunting. Would you agree with that?
Isis: The original book is very dark for children I think, but it is a children’s book and children love it. I think Marc’s way of directing, he’s known for filming things quite dark and having that suspense feel, and it definitely has that.
It is a family film, because adults will love it, and it’s for kids because the garden is just magical.
But it is dark, and it’s not for young, young children I’d say. I started reading the book to my daughters, and one of them is only four, and I started changing it as I was reading it. I was like "I don’t want to read that to her because she’s going to bed and it might give her nightmares".
It’s for a suitable age, probably children aged eight and above. It doesn’t shy away from themes like loss and grief, which I think is great.
The Secret Garden is available to watch on Sky Cinema with NOW Cinema Membership.
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