London-based and Oxford-educated thesp Alice Eve has graced the screen in an impressive range of roles from critically-acclaimed dramas like Bombshell to rom-coms She’s Out of My League and Before We Go to action thrillers Star Trek Into Darkness and Netflix’s Iron Fist. Eve speaks to us about her newest project, Belgravia, which can be seen on epix, and is a complete joy to watch, coming from none other than Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes.
Julian Fellowes is known for writing historical dramas that take place in the past that mirror our current socioeconomic landscape. What do you think makes Belgravia unique and what message do you think he’s trying to convey?
Belgravia is Darwinian. The Victorian society was ruthless in similar ways to ours – there was a lot to gain if you persevere and a lot to lose if you don’t. The rise of industrialism was as lucrative as the internet and so caused major disruption to the status quo. When there is disruption, there is opportunity. Victorian London had a lot of growth, like we have seen in the 21st century, so maybe that is why he chose it. You would have to ask him though!
What drew you to the world of 19th century England and what did you find interesting about this time period?
19th century England saw the birth of the civilization we live in today. Much of London still uses the plumbing set up by the Victorians. However women still weren’t afforded a place, they couldn’t work or vote. So exploring women navigating men in order to build a world that would work for them is fascinating, and Julian leaves no stone unturned when it comes to how capable women were, even when that wasn’t acknowledged by the larger society at the time.
Why do you think that over 200 years later, the challenges that women still went through still feels relatable to today’s audience?
Women still have to have babies. For that, they need to be with men, although science is looking to change that. So, essentially the basic life of many women contains the same elements.
Additionally, there was a Queen on the throne 180 years ago, which meant in England women had a role model in the highest position in the land, which considering there still hasn’t been a female president in the USA, must have given them an internal feeling of power. I think we have seen a lot of development recently in women fighting for our rights, so maybe we identify with the empowered Victorians.
Tell us about some of your conversations with Julian Fellowes and his vision for the series.
Julian came to set to visit me on the day I had the scene where I find out I am pregnant. He explained with great empathy that this for Susan was a major crossroads. If she didn’t handle the situation with great skill she could end up a ‘fallen woman’ which was ultimately someone not just cast out of society, but also of her marriage and biological family. Fallen women often ended up homeless, so this was a real moment where her survival mode kicked in, and something primal emerged in her. I really enjoyed my conversations with Julian about Susan, he had a deep sympathy for her.
Your character, ‘Susan Trenchard,’ comes off a bit divisive at the start of the series. She is incredibly intelligent and self-enterprising, but at the same token is confined by society. What was your approach in portraying her in a way that is still empathetic and relatable?
I like Susan. I respect her and see her conundrum. I think the fact she is presented in a certain way at the beginning only goes to show you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, and that we very much like to. She does not pity herself but takes action, she will not be the victim. Sometimes it takes a little longer to understand a person or character who will not compromise their needs, but eventually it can generate deep respect, as we are all working towards respecting ourselves enough to live according to our own doctrine.
The costumes and hairstyles are another distinctive part of the show. What was it like moving back to in time and what was it like to get into character? Was there a particular piece of the costume that helped you get there?
I loved the jewelry the Victorians used, it was so tender, with little shadow portraits engraved on pieces, or detailed gem placements. It reflected their reverence for the subtle, which extended to their behavior, even a rogue look meant something to them. They did not live by broad strokes, but by care to every item and every moment, and I long for that in our world.
One thing that really stands out from the series are the moments of conflict among the women who seem to be struggling with the social constructs that defined them. How do think Susan managed to overcome her limitations?
I think Susan had to, often when we have no choice we tend to do better than when we have options available to us. She was very contained by her circumstances, and so displays a deeply rebellious nature, but at the same time one that understands her duty. Susan is very complex, but also brave, which are qualities I really admired in her.
What I love most about your career is your versatility with the characters you’ve played. What is the key to that versatility and what has your favorite role been thus far?
My favorite is always who I last played I think, I was deeply in love with Susan. But I suppose I see everyone as equal in the world, even people who have hurt me, so there isn’t anyone I wouldn’t want to play. We all have a reason.
BY MUI-HAI CHU