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Saskia Reeves Reveals Her Acting Origin Story, Developing Her Character in Apple TV+’s ‘Slow Horses’

If you’re not watching Apple TV’s Slow Horses, you’re missing one of the all-time great spy shows. Starring Gary Oldman and based on the series of novels by British author Mick Herron, Slow Horses follows the denizens of a backwater outpost of England’s MI-5 spy service, a group of rejects exiled to the place derisively known as Slough House.

One of the said misfits is Catherine Standish, a recovering alcoholic who seems like a bit of a dud upon first impression, but you very quickly learn the magnificent mind that is hiding underneath. Played by Saskia Reeves, Catherine is one of the show’s most appealing characters. Reeves has spent four decades working constantly in theater, British TV and film, with appearances in such crossover, hits as Shetland, Midsomer Murders, Wolf Hall, Wallander and Luther, just to name a few. She spoke to us from her home in London.

How did you get into acting?

My father’s an actor a writer and a singer. As a teenager, my mom and my dad never encouraged me. My sister and I used to go to acting workshops for a laugh on the weekend, and I always really enjoyed myself. It was a sort of youth club type of setup, but drama.

I was doing so badly in my A levels. I wasn’t attending school, I was not doing my homework. They nearly expelled me. I was all over the place and didn’t take my final exams, so I didn’t have any qualifications to go to university, which is what most people do. 

So that led you to act?

I remember overhearing a friend of my father’s talking about his son had gone to drama school. When they left, I said to my dad, “What’s a drama school?” And he says, “Oh, it’s like university, but you do drama.” I thought, “Wow, that sounds like brilliant fun.” “Do you need A levels?” He said, “No.”

I thought, “That’s what I’m doing,” because there was no way I was gonna go back and retake my exams. My parents had just divorced, I had no direction and everything was falling apart, but I was determined to do something good there because it meant that I didn’t have to go back and redo things. I often think that it’s the determination and the persistence and the not having anything else to back me up that kept me going in this very difficult business. 

I think it’s not uncommon when you talk to successful creative people, that the reason they made it is because there was no Plan B.

(Laughs) Yeah, a lot of my friends’ parents said, “No, you have to have a backup plan or something.” I had no backup plan. I had no safety net. I had nothing.

My father said to me once, “You know, there are twice as many actresses as actors, and there are half as many jobs for women as men. So you do the math.” I had no serious intention of becoming an actor because I knew how difficult it was because I’d seen how much my father had struggled.

I knew it was a tough thing to do as a profession, so I thought, “No, I’ll just do that for three years in school, and then that gives me time to work out what I will do.” But by the time I left, I’d got an agent, which was another fluke, and I thought I’d give it a go. 

How long did it take you to land serious work?

I was a waiter for a year and a half, then I got a decent job in a theater in Wales. And then I got another job. And then I got another job. And then I started to think, “Oh, actually, I could earn a living at this.” That’s when I dug in and I worked very hard. Whenever I got a job, I worked hard to be as good as I possibly could, so that I’d get another job. (Laughs)

It all sounds pretty easy, but there had to be more than that. Was there a moment when the switch flipped?

I got a job doing Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of Metamorphosis with Tim Roth. I played Greta Samsa. It was the most exciting, wonderful experience. Then I got another amazing job with a theatre company called “Cheek by Jowl” in Midsummer Night’s Dream and we toured the world.

I thought this was magic. Everything about it. The people, the plays, the language, the feeling, that enjoyment that I had when I was a teenager. Some of the experiences I had at drama school, walking on the stage for the first time with adults in the audience, doing a play and this amazing feeling of inhabiting a character as if it was you and how simple it seemed and how it’s like a magic trick. To be able to be somebody else and feel the things that somebody else might feel and communicate a story as if it’s you, I thought that it was magic. 

Let’s talk about Slow Horses. One of the things I enjoy so much about the show is that you all look like you’re having an enormous amount of fun making it, and that translates to the audience.

It’s not just fun. It’s satisfying. The writing is really good muscular and interesting. The storylines are great, and I think Mick Herron is enjoying seeing them turn into this three-dimensional thing. We’ve sort of woven our path through his books. He’s written really interesting characters, and as actors, to be able to dig into these complicated, dysfunctional people is so satisfying. 

Catherine is a fascinating character, because when the series starts, she seems like a bit of a nothing burger. By the end of the first season, as she keeps coming up big, it’s clear that she has a whole lot more going on. Were you aware of the depths that character had when you signed on?

Well, I knew there was a lot to develop. Internally, I knew there was loads of deep space, and that’s what I made a point of working with so that whenever I bring her into a story, or a scene, or an episode or a whole series, I’m working with all sorts of ideas.

Even though we have the books as a sort of map, we still wouldn’t know if that was going to be translated into scripts. It was a leap of faith. All I can do is bring everything I can. She’s funny, she’s witty, she’s dark, she has no confidence and yet she knows so much and has all these wonderful connections that I love about her.

The show is serious, but it’s funny. And this woman who people think of as invisible — because as a woman, if your hair starts to go gray, you become invisible — she knows more about the world and spies and Russians than these little upstarts who need her help. (Laughs) There’s so much there that you can just invent and have fun with and do to keep yourself entertained.

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