My Mother And Other Strangers actress Hattie 'had no idea how beautiful Northern Ireland is'
Hattie Morahan has a starring role in new Second World War drama My Mother And Other Strangers, which is set in Northern Ireland. The actress tells Susan Griffin about playing an Englishwoman who supports the war effort to the dismay of some of her Catholic neighbours - and how she fell in love with the countryside here.
Hattie Morahan is mystified by the fact she was cast as a parish school teacher in a new Second World War drama My Mother And Other Strangers, as a result of her role in Outnumbered.
"I pop up as this really awful character Jane," says Morahan (38) of her part in the hit BBC comedy. "I mean, a lovely character, but the most annoying woman in the world, always has a crisis and has no self-awareness. I could not put the two together."
And yet Barry Devlin wrote the new six-part series with Morahan in mind for the lead role, Rose Coyne.
"This has never happened to me before," reveals the star, whose father is TV and film director Christopher Morahan, and her mother, Anna Carteret, is also an actress.
"They sent the scripts over with an accompanying letter from Barry. He'd seen me as Rose, and that was incredibly flattering. It's so rare."
Fortunately for Devlin, who also penned The Darling Buds Of May and Ballykissangel, Morahan was "thrilled" when she read the scripts.
"It's such a rich piece of writing and has so much to explore, in terms of the complexity of the character and the relationships, and the world felt so new to me. It felt like stepping into a part of history."
Set in a rural parish in Northern Ireland, the series follows the fortunes of the Coyne family and their neighbours, as they struggle to maintain a normal life after the United States Army Air Force sets up camp close by.
"There are thousands of people being plonked in a farm community like a spaceship, and (the story looks at) what tensions that throws up and how one reacts to them," explains Morahan, who studied English at Cambridge University.
"And then also the tensions in Northern Ireland, and my character being English and living there and being an outsider. She feels very aligned with what's happening in the rest of the UK and the war in Europe, and yet lives in a Catholic village and many of her neighbours are anti-ally, pro-German. It's very provocative."
Devlin, grew up in Northern Ireland, and many of the stories are based on events of the time.
"A lot of it is seen through (the eyes of) Rose's 10-year-old son, and Barry sees himself in him," notes Morahan. "And the older sister was inspired by his sister, so there was a great deal drawn from his own family. But he did say my character is a complete invention, not his mother at all!"
Rose is a mother of three and someone the actress describes as "a real coper".
"She's a schoolmistress. They're the middle class bastion of the village. They own the pub, they own the shop. Essentially her marriage is functioning and happy, but there are little running factions."
Then, along comes handsome American airman, Captain Dreyfuss. "She isn't looking to stray but finds her heart captured," says Morahan. "There's probably an element to her which has lain dormant for years. A romantic schoolgirl who had these notions of meeting a soulmate - and when she met her husband, had ideas (about her soulmate) that are different to what he actually is. So she finds herself conflicted and behaving in a way which is juvenile at times."
My Mother And Other Strangers is far from a rose-tinted romance, and Morahan, who starred alongside Sir Ian McKellen in the 2015 film Mr Holmes, and Martin Clunes in TV show Arthur & George, credits Devlin with creating complex characters.
"They're pretty flawed and not always sympathetic, and you've got a situation with a family and a marriage that one becomes invested in - then my character ends up falling in love with someone else. She doesn't jump into bed with him by any means, this is the Forties, but just to entertain that as an idea is not the most sympathetic of behaviour."
The airman who beguiles Rose is played by Mad Men's Aaron Staton. Morahan was a huge fan of the US TV series and admits she was "very excited" to have him on board. "He was a real joy to work with and we could quiz him on all the gossip."
Staton was apparently fascinated by the difference between UK and US TV sets. "There were lots of moments where he was like, 'Oh I see, you guys don't have stand-ins'," recalls the actress. "And we were like, 'No, that's the BBC budget, you won't get a stand-in!'"
The period drama was filmed on location in Northern Ireland, and Morahan admits she had no idea how beautiful the countryside is outside Belfast. "And it's so accessible," she says.
It might have been wonderful to look at, but filming in February proved more than a little chilly, even for interior scenes, which were shot in a large, cavernous hangar.
"The Coyne's house had no ceilings because it was in a studio, so any time we did a scene in bed, we'd have an electric blanket and you'd snuggle up and never get out," recalls Morahan, who discovered she was pregnant shortly before the shoot.
"I got quite worried in the lead-up to it and told the producer and costume designer. I thought I needed it out in the open," says the actress, who's been with partner Blake Ritson since their Cambridge days.
"The wardrobe department had to be most creative, but it wasn't as bad as we thought it was going to be."
Morahan recently appeared in the small-screen adaptation of Sadie Jones' novel The Outcast and political satire Ballot Monkeys, and earlier this year was seen on the big screen as Queen Elsmere in James Bobin's Alice Through The Looking Glass.
She'll feature in another Disney classic next March, the much anticipated Beauty And The Beast, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens.
"It was extraordinary," she says of the shoot. "The scale of it was just enormous."
Morahan's aware some people are cynical of remakes, but observes: "It happens all the time in theatre, people keep putting Hamlet on again and again."
"What was really inspiring was everyone involved is at the top of their game, and the creativity and attention to detail is unbelievable," Morahan enthuses. "People give their lives for years to something like this."
- My Mother And Other Strangers, BBC1, Sunday, 9pm