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The critically acclaimed series is set in warring brothels in 1763, when London is booming and one in five women makes a living selling sex. Margaret Wells (two-time Oscar nominee Samantha Morton) struggles to reconcile her roles as brothel owner and mother to daughters Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Lucy (Eloise Smyth) – while fighting off Lydia Quigley (Oscar-nominee Lesley Manville), a rival madam with a ruthless streak.
Liv plays Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam, a lonely heiress who is being blackmailed by Lydia and is drawn to Margaret’s daughter Charlotte, who has a sense of freedom she envies. We caught up with Liv during the shoot to find out more.
Tell us about Lady Fitz.
She’s an English aristocratic woman. She’s very fancy; very wealthy; very elegant. Very different from the world of the harlots.
How would you compare Lady Fitz to other roles you have had?
This character is funny. It’s probably one of the most exciting and challenging and varied characters that I have played.
What was the biggest appeal to joining Harlots?
I have known Sam [Samantha Morton, who plays the brothel owner Margaret Wells] for a long time. I am such a big fan of her acting. I find her to be one of the most talented, sincere, and brave talents.
We did a scene the other day where my character didn’t even know how to cut a loaf of bread! She is very intelligent and she can communicate with anyone and can handle herself in any situation but women like her really couldn’t do anything.
What did you find most interesting or most shocking about the Georgian era?
Hygiene, probably! Being an American, there were so many things I didn’t know about. It’s another side of history that we haven’t seen. I did a lot of research and tried to pay attention and understand because Lady Fitz is very well mannered and well educated and poised and I wanted to know what it would feel like to be a woman of her stature. But I was less interested in her world and more interested in the harlots’ world because I suppose, in a way, I can relate more to their freedom in my own life. We did a scene the other day where my character didn’t even know how to cut a loaf of bread! She is very intelligent and she can communicate with anyone and can handle herself in any situation but women like her really couldn’t do anything. They were told what to do; she is very oppressed by her brother. And that is so tricky for me to relate to as a modern woman.
Harlots is written, produced and directed by women, and stars predominantly women. How did this impact the series?
Harlots could go in a totally different direction, I think, if it was written by a man. It’s nice to be inside the female head, especially, I think, in the characters of the harlots and what they are thinking. I like how matter of fact it is. All of the women are so talented.
How do you find working in the UK rather than Hollywood?
It’s different. Lesley Manville, for instance, was recently nominated for an Oscar for Phantom Thread and has been in LA and she’s doing theatre right now with Jeremy Irons and she just comes to work in the morning like everybody else. She works all morning and then goes to the theatre and does her thing. There’s a nice thing that happens in England with actors. They just kind of get on with it. There isn’t that same sense of Hollywood or stardom. I love it.
Lady Fitzwilliam wears beautifully ornate dresses but they look unwieldy. Is it difficult to move around in them?
It’s much more difficult to move around in than modern-day clothes. At night when I get home, I take everything off and put a tracksuit on and I am very grateful for the freedoms of modern dressing.
What’s Lady Fitz’s relationship to Lydia Quigley?
Lydia Quigley is a formidable opponent. I don’t think that Lady Fitz wants to harm many people but I think she might want to harm Lydia Quigley – which is really hard because I love Lesley Manville and I love acting with her.
If you could choose, which of the other characters would you like to play?
Lucy Wells [Eloise Smyth] is having fun this season. And I really like Margaret Wells [Samantha Morton] as well. Any time I’ve had a scene with Sam [Morton], I find it very grounding. I’m in a world where everything is very showy but the moment you’re with Margaret Wells, it gets right to the point and is super real. She’s very strong and very powerful but very compassionate.
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