“I’ve always been of the attitude that I would rather be a smaller part in something good, than the lead in something crap. I just don’t have that ego,” says Kelly, talking about the second series of the crime drama which airs this week on ITV and rather than a small part, she’s playing the lead, and can be assured that her new show is far from “something crap”.
Innocent, from writers and co-creators Chris Lang and Matt Arlidge who share executive producer duties with Jeremy Gwilt, produced by TXTV, runs on four consecutive nights this week and ITV will be hoping it’s as popular as the first series, one of ITV’s highest-rated dramas of 2018 with an average of more than seven million viewers per episode.
Kelly plays Sally Wright, a teacher accused and imprisoned for having sex with her 16-year-old pupil, then murdering him. Now cleared and released, she returns to her home town of Keswick in the Lake District, determined to reclaim her life and clear her name. Not as easy as it sounds, especially when the boy’s killer is still out there.
The cast also includes Jamie Bamber (Marcella, Strike Back) as Sally’s ex-husband Sam and Priyanga Burford (Press, Avenue 5) as his new wife, with Shaun Dooley (Gentleman Jack), as DCI Michael Braithwaite.
It’s the latest role for Kelly. Now 41, she has worked continuously in theatre (Royal Shakespeare Company, The National, Donmar Warehouse), on TV (Last of the Summer Wine, Coronation Street, Cheat, Liar II, Happy Valley, Mr Selfridge), film (Dirty God, Official Secrets) and on radio (BBC 3 and 4).
Each of the roles she plays, from Lady Mae in Mr Selfridge to DI Jodie Shackleton (a part written for her by series creator Sally Wainwright) to Maloney in The Field of Blood, based on the novel by Denise Mina, to Detective Karen Renton in last year’s Liar, is informed by Kelly’s love of finding out as much as she can about character and context.
“I do a lot of research,” she says. “I’m always banging on about it whatever character I do.”
With filming on location in the Lake District and Ireland delayed by lockdown, Kelly was able to turn her attention to looking at women in the prison system and how it works for women. In the past she had done a workshop at the National Theatre with Clean Break Theatre Company (set up in 1979 by two female prisoners to bring the stories of imprisoned women to wider audiences), spending time with women who had been incarcerated, but this time round Covid meant the research was book and film-based.
“I had to do it in a more remote way with books and documentaries and, and there’s a lot of stuff on YouTube… current prison diaries and I watched some fantastic documentaries such as Louis Theroux talking to Amy Beck.” [US teacher Amy Beck turned herself into police in 2010 for having a sexual relationship with her former student, a 14-year-old, later sharing her story with Theroux for his BBC documentary on registered sex offenders living in Los Angeles.]
Despite the intense nature of some of her roles, particularly Sally, who has been imprisoned for a crime she didn’t do, Kelly doesn’t find it hard to leave her characters on set.
“I’ve always been like that really. I remember one of my first roles was for the RSC and back then you did them for a year, a year and a half, and it was a tragedy, oh my god, it was set in biblical times so just think what a woman would go through in terms of the First Testament; it was harrowing. And I remember one of the cast members going, god you just don’t even seem to… [be affected].
“I can really leave it, and I think with filming more so than theatre. There’s always the next day, always another scene. On set I’m very focused, I’m there to work and do it to the best of my ability, give it all when I’m there. So there’s no kind of residue afterwards. It’s like an athlete, you know, everything’s in that 100 metres, no point having a good think about it at the end. It’s gone.”
Despite the fact that many of Kelly’s appearances, whether stage or screen, have been serious dramas, thrillers, crime series and tragedies and Innocent sits firmly among those categories, she confesses to a love of comedy, like a lot of us during lockdown.
“This past year I’ve definitely been drawn more to comedies than dramas,” she says. “I mean I’ve not had a lot of time to myself, with having young kids and I’ve been working a lot, but yeah I’ve completely binged Schitt’s Creek. I mean Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy have been my idols since I was a teenager in Christopher Guest films and I just adored that. And I really love Julia Davis, so Sally 4 Ever [Netflix], and I listen to Joan And Jericha, [Sally Davis and Vicki Pepperdine’s comedy agony aunts podcast]. I’m a lot better with podcasts because I can load the dishwasher while listening. And I’ve started watching Call My Agent.
“But there isn’t a particular genre that I love, I just like watching people being on top of their game. I love being surprised by people as well, seeing people in a role you wouldn’t expect to see them in, especially in a comedy and think god, you’re really funny.”
Now Kelly has turned her hand to writing comedy herself in the form of a podcast, due to be released shortly.
“I’ve just done a comedy drama podcast that will be around soon. I’ll make sure on social media people know where it is, just because it’s been a while since I’ve played a comedic role,” she says. “But you know I like it all, audio, theatre, film, telly. I like all of it.”
Given that Kelly does so much research into each character she plays, does she find that she takes something enduring away from each one? I think every character I play enriches me as a person. I always say that you get out what you put in, even if that doesn’t necessarily appear on screen. It’s so lovely to have a spotlight shone on a certain area, in this case prison life. In others it might be a different era or something.
“You know I find all of it really enriching because all I’m interested in doing is work that really examines what it is to be a human being, and every job, you dig further down into that.”
Innocent is on ITV, Monday to Thursday at 9pm (17th to 20th May). Following transmission on ITV, the series will be available on ITV Hub and BritBox UK.