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The Rook's Joely Richardson on playing The King of a secret organization
The Rook (based on Daniel O'Malley's novel of the same name), Starz's upcoming thriller-mystery-crime show about humans with special abilities, is one big chess game — but the game is full of questions. Who is on which side? Who will win the match? What exactly is the match to be won in the first place? Yes, there are many unknowns to consider, but one thing we know for sure from the very beginning is that Linda Farrier is the King. Played by Joely Richardson, Farrier is basically the HBIC of the Chequey, a secret service organization filled with people who have special abilities.
According to Richardson, Farrier "gives away very little,” a trait that's "almost become second nature.”
"I think that when you have the top job, that when you're the boss, you have to dare to be unpopular — because if you're a really good boss, you never let your ego win,” says Richardson. "But what you are doing is you're always looking out for what's best for the whole. Like the whole of the agency, the whole of the country. So she's got a lot on her mind in terms of loyalties, but I do think work comes first for her because she's in such a responsible position. But she has some fault lines, and Myfanwy for her is a fault line. So I'm not going to say [if] you can trust her, because then that gives away some of the story. I think you'll have to wait episode by episode and trust your instinct as a viewer if you think she's a goodie or a baddie.”
One way Richardson researched the role was watching YouTube videos of Stella Rimington, the former Director General of MI5, the British Secret Service. But Richardson says she mostly "wanted to see how you marry a job like that with being a woman, in her case a mom.” It’s not a direct representation by any means.
“It was just to get a key into that world. Linda Farrier is actually very, very different,” Richardson says. “So I didn't model her mannerisms or her look on a specific woman. It was, as I said, to understand the mentality and the obstacles you come across."But the real mystery of The Rook is Myfanwy Thomas (Emma Greenwell), a "Rook" with special abilities who wakes up in the middle of a crime scene with no memories and a note telling her to run.
"For me, when I was reading it, my empathy went to Myfanwy, because I wanted to know how she lost her memory,” says Richardson. "Imagine if you watched a tape of yourself where you're saying, 'If you're watching this, it's already too late. It's happened.' That's what gripped me, reading it as an actor before I had signed on."
Myfanwy and Linda have a complicated relationship — especially since Myfanwy can't remember most of it and relies on Linda to fill in the many gaps in her memory.
"It's not mother/daughter, it is more mentor/protégé,” explains Richardson. "I think I can best describe it by saying that when [Linda] looks at Myfanwy, she sees who Myfanwy could be, and she realizes that sometimes Myfanwy's making decisions for herself that are gonna make it so much harder for her. And she knows that Myfanwy has a great talent, and she wants her to use it to the best, constructively rather than destructively."
The world of The Rook isn’t much different than ours, really. Sure, the characters have "special abilities,” but they might not be the type you're expecting. They’re subtle and, Richardson says, very grounded in science.
"It's very different,” she explains. "In a way, it's more real and gritty. When you've watched Olympic athletes and they jump over things the size of a wall, to most human beings that's completely not possible, but after 15 years of training since you're a kid, it becomes possible.”
As a production, The Rook managed a feat that is still, unfortunately, all too rare in 2019: The majority of the episodes are directed by women. In addition, the two showrunners are women and the main character is a woman.
"I was very happy to be part of a show that had moved into very much using female directors, showrunners, producers, writers,” Richardson says. "It was very exciting. I felt it was modern and a new wave, and the way forward. But there should be, obviously, representation for all. That's what all stories are about, you know? Take away whatever the setting: They're about us, the people, and everyone needs a voice."
The Rook airs Sundays on Starz.