Low life, high drama
- from 27 March on BBC ONE
Elaine Cassidy plays Maud Lilly
"I would not want to hang around with Maud – she's an evil, twisted little..."
Elaine Cassidy stops herself just in time, her Irish eyes smiling to belie the force of her words.
"I couldn't wait to get rid of her," laughs the actor who had to play the scheming heiress, stressing: "I love her but I can't – bloody – stand – her!"
It's not surprising that this friendly, chatty young Dubliner didn't warm to the cold, clinical Maud, but more unexpected that she leapt at the challenge to play her.
"I've never played a character like her so it was interesting to go to the places that she is in her head.
"I wanted her to be the colder the better and I loved that about her, that's what attracted me to her – her meanness, her coldness," explains Elaine, saying that she understands why Maud is this way.
"She's had a very bizarre upbringing, raised in a mental asylum – not as a patient, that was her mother – and that really fascinated me.
"That must have some effect on the way you are as a person as you grow up. She's not very emotional.
"Then her uncle comes because he is losing his sight and he wants to train her as his secretary to copy his books.
"His house is old and cold with no luxuries – she never indulged in anything.
"So when Sue comes into the house it's a new experience for Maud and just a complete eye-opener because she brings dancing and laughing and games and music into the house.
"You can feel sorry for Maud because she's the person she is from the life she's lived; it just really intrigues me.
"I was really excited to get into that frame of mind but I didn't realise what affect it would have on me in playing her – for example in between scenes when you'd normally be laughing and joking, I wasn't – I think I was kind of staying in character subconsciously.
"She was always there in my head – it was a bit intense, but it was a great experience."
Rather less enjoyable, Cassidy reveals, was Maud's attire.
"In the first two weeks I swore to myself I would never do a costume drama again!" she laughs.
"It was tough at the beginning because it was summer and we had all these layers on.
"Corset, fine – I could live in a corset, it's the petticoats. It's like having a feather duvet wrapped around you, with the weight and the heat.
"It makes sense to me now why women in that era fainted all the time and why they were quite submissive, because I just wanted to sit down all the time!
"Imagine just wanting to nip to the shops and having to put all that rigmarole on," she continues, shaking her head at the thought. "I couldn't even dress myself in the morning!"
Ironically, it was the costumes that were a part of the initial attraction of being an actor for Cassidy, who admits she had the acting bug from the minute she knew what the word meant.
"I suppose I was attracted to it for the superficial element of it – I thought, that looks like a nice job, nice and glamorous, and you get to play dress up," she smiles.
"But this job is escapism – you get to do things that you'd never have the balls to do normally; you go exploring."
Her first starring role was as Pinocchio in the school play when she was five, and she had regular jobs from the age of 13, but her big break came at 18 in Felicia's Journey where she starred in the title role opposite Bob Hoskins.
"That went around internationally and so that was a good one for me to get, to get seen and stuff," she says.
"I was so lucky getting that – not to sound snobby, but it kind of set a standard because it was a quality script, genius director, amazing cast, lovely crew, so I suppose it was at such a high level that that's just what I naturally expected.
"And because I loved playing the part so much I wasn't prepared to take anything, I was waiting for a part that I loved.
"And that's the way I've kind of based my career – just the parts that really interest me and get my juices going, because then you can deliver the performance that you should be delivering and be true to the character and be fair to the project and give it the energy that it needs.
"I suppose I'm just very fussy!"
Her exacting criteria have led to the role of Runt in Disco Pigs, which netted her the award of Ireland's Best Actress in 2003; a mute servant in The Others with Nicole Kidman; with Bob Hoskins again in The Lost World; Hitler's young niece and lover Geli in Uncle Adolf; and now Fingersmith.
"The scripts were absolutely brilliant, and it isn't often that you get to read really good scripts. I got the book when I heard about the project," says London-based Cassidy of Sarah Waters' novel.
"I'm no expert on English literature but it's beautifully written, just absolutely gorgeous, I loved being in that world reading the book.
"At one point I had to stop reading because I was getting off the tube and I was really agitated, I really wanted to keep on – and I thought, that's a bloody good sign!"