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Ruth Wilson on her new series 'The Woman in the Wall'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A new TV series begins with a woman lying in the middle of an isolated road. She's wearing a nightgown spotted with blood while a hushed voiceover plays.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WOMAN IN THE WALL")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Do not stand at my grave and cry. I am not there. I did not die.

RASCOE: The show's name is as mysterious as that opening scene, "The Woman In The Wall." Set in Ireland in 2015, it follows Lorna Brady. In middle age, she's still haunted by what happened to her as a teen. She got pregnant and was sent to one of the notorious Magdalene laundries run by the Catholic Church. Ruth Wilson stars. And on this side of the Atlantic, she's known for the series "Luther" and "The Affair." For this new show, Wilson was drawn to Lorna partly because of the character's strange habit - she sleepwalks.

RUTH WILSON: In her waking life, she's sort of an oddball. She's an outsider. She keeps herself to herself. But in her sleeping life, she is sort of this violent, kind of rageful, energetic character. I thought it was a really interesting study on sort of how trauma manifests both physically and emotionally.

And also, look. It's quite funny - the show. It has, like, a really sort of black comedy humor to it, as well as this murder mystery plot and this sort of gothic horror. So I was, like, wow, this - I've never read anything like this. But at the heart of it is something really important to get out there.

RASCOE: I want to play a moment from the show. And, you know, full disclosure, you're not in this scene. But it's two policemen, one who's been in the town forever and a big-city cop who's just arrived. It's an example of how in this town, there's a lot of talking about these women rather than listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WOMAN IN THE WALL")

SIMON DELANEY: (As Sergeant Aidan Massey) When those girls were up in that place - Lorna, Clemence - they're probably too young to understand, but back then, the fear people had - honest-to-God, a lot of people would sooner their daughters were murdered than fall pregnant outside of marriage.

RASCOE: I mean, that's a incredible statement. What kind of research did you do for this role? What did you learn about these Magdalene laundries?

WILSON: Yeah, I mean, there's lots of material out there, actually. There's - lots of these women who survived these institutions have given oral testimonies which you can find online, and it's horrifying what was going on in those places. I mean, there's two. There's the Magdalene laundries, which were where girls were sent to do forced labor, and they'd, like, wash the laundry of hospitals and prisons and convents and all for free. And they would go in there for all sorts of misdemeanors. I mean, it could be just that you looked too pretty, and people thought you were a danger. You would attract male attention. You would tempt men.

Then there was the mother-and-baby homes where if you got pregnant out of wedlock, that's where you were put. And in our particular story, the child got taken away straight away. In other places I've read, the mothers would nurse their child for two years, and then the child would be taken away. There was a sort of complicity in society as a whole that these places existed and that it was a given that girls would go there. And no one wanted to really stand up and voice opposition to that.

RASCOE: I read that you were raised Catholic. Did that influence your approach to this project?

WILSON: I've done a few projects which sort of deal with Catholicism, actually, so I obviously am drawn to exploring my own relationship to it. I mean, I don't go to church anymore. I'm a lapsed Catholic, but I grew up and went to church every week, and my dad still goes. And I do understand the need and the desire of having a community of people and a ritual and, you know, a place of meditation and prayer. But I do find it quite hard to reconcile some of the actions of the church alongside what they spread as their belief system.

When you were talking about that scene with Lorna - and she has a scene with a nun later on, and you can see that she is still vulnerable to the idea of being sinful and shameful and her fault. And I think that's how the power of the church works. It makes you feel that you are responsible and guilty. And I think that that's the complexity - is that it can stay with you for life, that sort of messaging. And that's how they have power. So I understood that, I think, from growing up in the church.

RASCOE: Kind of pulling back a bit, you have played some really, truly original characters. Like so many other people, I kind of met you through the character of Alice Morgan, which you played opposite Idris Elba on "Luther." And I know it's a little bit of a cliche, but how do you pick your roles?

WILSON: I mean, "Luther," for example, was such an unusual character. I'd never read anything like it. You know, I thought, wow, you don't see many female psychopaths on screen. And I - and she was - I thought you could have a lot of fun with this character because she doesn't really feel anything, so nothing means anything to her. So in a way, humans are cat and mouse to her, you know? They're just playthings. And I thought, I've never seen that on screen. And I remember, you know, I didn't initially say yes to it - "Luther." I sort of said no for some reason - can't remember why. But it didn't leave my brain. I was like, I've made a mistake. So I went back to them, you know? Like, actually, can I - are you still looking? 'Cause I want to do it.

But I'm always looking for something that's a bit more unusual or strange or challenging or is looking for the complexity of humans - not just women but humans, you know, and how they can be both those things at the same time. They can be fragile but also incredibly strong. And on this one, I was like, wow, she was so surprising, the character Lorna. And at the end of the episode, I thought, oh, my God, I did not see that coming.

RASCOE: You talk about the comedy, the dark comedy in "The Woman In The Wall." Do you think you want to do some more comedies or maybe more...

WILSON: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...Like, straight comedies?

WILSON: Light things? Yeah. I do. I mean, I - actually, this year, I did a show on stage where I was on the stage for 24 hours. I did the same scene a hundred times with a hundred different men, most of which weren't actors. And in that process, comedy became and clowning became my sort of thing that I did. So instinctively, I actually think I'm a bit of a clown, but I have sort of done such dark material. But yeah, I would love to do something lighter and more absurdist and wild, I think, in that way, and humorous. And I'd also love to do, like, a romance. I would love to do a love story 'cause I don't think we have enough of them in the world. They're really hard to make, but I go, we need love and hope in the world, so I'm like, I want to do a love story.

RASCOE: I think that would be great. Now, I don't love love stories. I love more murder. I like people to be showing up dead and killed and stuff like that.

WILSON: (Laughter).

RASCOE: But I would root for you in a love story.

WILSON: Yeah. It'd be - obviously, if I did a love story, it'd be one with a bit of pain, as well.

RASCOE: Yes, yes.

WILSON: You know?

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: I can't have love without pain, you know?

RASCOE: Yes. Yeah, yeah.

WILSON: So don't worry. It won't all be, like, you know, simple.

RASCOE: Yeah (laughter). That's actor Ruth Wilson. Her new series airing on Paramount+ and Showtime is called "The Woman In The Wall." Thank you so much for joining us.

WILSON: Thank you so much for having me. It was lovely chatting to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEN SUICIDE SONG, "COYOTE (2015-2021)" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.