Mother of invention

From a bent lawyer in Line of Duty to a scheming member of Bridgerton’s high society, Polly Walker loves playing bold but misinterpreted characters

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There has never been a shortage of fearsome matriarchs in costume drama, a genre often built entirely around wealthy women trying to marry off their daughters to even wealthier men, but few have been as immediately fascinating as Portia Featherington in the hit Netflix series Bridgerton. Attacking the Regency social season with Machiavellian zeal, she’s utterly driven and ruthless in her attempts to find appropriate suitors for her three daughters. What makes Lady Portia so memorable is that we get to see how that relentless focus on matrimony at any cost was not just understandable but essential for women in the 19th century.

“Portia’s pretty superficial but that doesn’t mean to say she doesn’t have a heart.”

It also helps enormously that Portia is brought to life by Polly Walker, one of TV’s most recognisable and reliable actors. She’s played pivotal roles in shows as diverse as twisty cop drama Line of Duty – yet to figure in the current series, as far as we know – groovy Batman spin-off Pennyworth, and US blockbuster swords-and-sandals romp Rome. And it all started in the Padgate suburb of Warrington.

“I’m actually here at the moment,” says Walker, doing this interview from her parents’ home. “I’ve done this third lockdown with them. I was away at school from 11, but yes, basically I’ve been here all my life.”

Originally she had wanted to be a dancer, and at 16 moved to the Rambert School in London but it wasn’t to be and an injury put an end to one childhood dream. “I was at school specifically for training, gearing you up to dance from like, 10. My body just couldn’t take that level of training really.”

She returned to Manchester to do normal A levels instead, and then returned to another childhood passion: acting.

“I’ve always wanted to act from the age of four. That sounds horribly precocious but I’m afraid I would watch those sorts of films that they used to show on a Saturday, those black and white films, which I loved,” says the 54 year old. “I just thought that would be what I would like to do but obviously not coming from that sort of background – my family was bookmakers, teachers, hoteliers. Very far away from theatre. I just didn’t think that was really an option for me but somehow I’ve ended up here.”

And, right now, “here” means one of the plum roles in Bridgerton, Netflix’s first foray into the sort of sumptuous period drama usually tackled by the BBC. It was released on Christmas Day, and based on a series of novels by American author Julia Quinn and produced by US super-producer Shonda Rhimes, whose previous hits include steamy high-stakes drama such as How To Get Away With Murder. The result is a show that is nothing like its genre peers, with colourblind casting and a sexual energy that got the Daily Mail in a froth. Series one was the most popular new drama on the streaming giant. Series two is in production and Netflix has already committed to a third and fourth.

For Walker the appeal was simply the character of Portia. “She’s out there, because she’s bold and colourful and controversial. I quite like playing characters that people could misinterpret or are misinterpreted within the story, and I like to bring the humanity to them. I feel quite protective of Portia. I talked to someone who went ‘Oh, isn’t she awful?’ and I actually thought, no! I was sort of upset. I know she’s not a shy and retiring wallflower, and I know she’s got some dreadful ways of going about getting what she wants, and she’s pretty superficial, but that doesn’t mean to say she doesn’t have a heart. She’s actually just being a good Regency mother. She’s trying to position her daughters into a good marriage, because in those times that was the only way women could own property or have any kind of stature. That was your career.”

Walker as Portia Featherington in Bridgerton
Walker as Portia Featherington in Bridgerton

It was also clear from the scripts that this would be more than just another costume drama. “I knew that the writing was quite different. Even though it was stylised, the scenes were quick. I could see that they weren’t great 10-page scenes, which you can get. I could see that it was going to be quite a fast-paced show, which isn’t usual for a costume drama.”

The show’s deliberately diverse cast also made the show stand out – and attracted sniffy remarks from the usual tabloids as a result – but behind the scenes Polly insists it was never unusual. “It felt very organic. You were in the read-through with a bunch of actors, some are black, some are white, and it felt very normal. It’s nice just to have all sorts of actors playing the parts. There are lots of young actors who haven’t done very much who are amazing. It’s nice to see new faces instead of the same old faces.”

One aspect that did adhere to historical drama conventions was the luxurious costumes, which surprised even an actor with Walker’s experience. “Normally a costume fitting will take, what, an hour and a half? This was four-hour sessions. The attention was on a different level. I did a thing called Restoration years ago, which I think won an Oscar. I don’t know whether it won it for set design or costumes, but it was a big, epic production, lavish – and this one just blew it away. The amount of work and trouble they went to with those costumes, the colour – they really went for it.”

As with so many popular shows these days, Bridgerton became a viral hit within hours of its debut in the early hours of Christmas morning, inspiring animated gif memes and fevered social media commentary. Walker, however, was unaware of the immediate success.

“I don’t have Twitter”, she explains. “I don’t know how to do it. I’m not really plugged into social media, I don’t have Instagram. I don’t care, ultimately. Obviously I’m thrilled with how it’s been received, but it’s kind of out of my control. I’ve done my bit and they’ve paid me. I don’t have any expectations anymore. What will be, will be. I’m quite zen about everything.”

Walker’s Line of Duty character, cop turned lawyer Gill Biggeloe, was revealed to be in league with a criminal gang and ended up nursing a stab wound under a new identity after giving evidence against them. Fans are currently poring over the clues – and the reappearing characters – of the sixth series to work out if she might still hold clues to the identity of H, the mystery fourth bent copper. But Walker is just as drawn to chroniclers of crime and corruption on the other side of the Atlantic.

“Scorsese,” she says when asked about dream collaborations. “But he’s getting old now, isn’t he? If someone said Meryl Streep or De Niro then I’d be like, oh my god. Some of the newer directors, anybody who’s good. I just want to do good work. I’m open to all offers!”

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