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Harlots co-star Liv Tyler calls Samantha Morton “one of the most talented, sincere, and brave talents” in acting. Samantha has two Oscar and one Emmy nominations, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA, but her performance in Harlots may be her best role so far.
If you’re late to the hit show that Variety describes as “Downton Abbey meets Game of Thrones,” Harlots is the story of warring brothels in 1763, when London is booming and one in five women makes a living selling sex.
Samantha plays Margaret Wells, who’s struggling 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.
We chatted to Samantha on the set of Harlots, which now has both seasons first and only on Showmax in Africa.
What parallels do you see between this show and the present day?
Male dominance and power, corruption, greed. It’s a very human story, regardless of the clothes and period. You could put everyone in different clothes and it would feel quite contemporary because the themes are universal and will go on and on forever.
What shocked you the most when you were first learning about the period in which Harlots is set?
How many brothels there were in London. Everywhere was a brothel.
How is it possible to talk about the sex industry from an empowering female point of view?
By looking at it from the perspective of the prostitute and the madam. A business transaction takes place. It’s about trade, not emotion. Back then, prostitution was a driving force of the Georgian economy. And women – even one like Lady Fitzwilliam [Liv Tyler], who is a new character this season and of a very high social standing – didn’t own their property, money or themselves. Their husbands owned everything. It was pretty tough and actually women that sold sex in an organised fashion, working for someone like Margaret Wells, felt they had more power and rights than other women.
Harlots is written, directed and produced by women. Was that deliberate?
Harlots was ahead of the game with the whole general drive of more women directors, producers and actors. We didn’t set out to make a show with only women directors, producers and predominantly cast. It was how it developed and it works brilliantly.
I won a BAFTA for the first film I directed and afterwards I couldn’t get an agent … Had I been a man and I had won that BAFTA my phone wouldn’t have stopped ringing, I promise you.
What is the most difficult part in playing Margaret?
All of it! It’s a great character. She is strong but she is very big and brash and I am used to playing characters in the cinema that are more intimate, with smaller movements and mannerisms. It’s a challenge to play a bawd. You have to ‘drive’ all the scenes when you come into them. You are not on the back foot ever. You come in and you ‘own’ the scene. It’s really hard work.
Are Margaret and Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) still enemies this series?
Completely. It gets worse! There is a lot of personal history and that really bubbles to the surface. It’s proper ‘gangster’, this season. The things they get us to do! There is a lot of physical violence. I’m like, ‘Yes! Bring it on!’ Because you normally see that in male-dominated shows like The Sopranos.
How does the role of Margaret Wells compare with other roles you have had?
She is amazing and that is why I feel so lucky and privileged to be playing her. I am forty years old and I have three children. I think I get better with age but there are fewer parts available and more brilliant actresses wanting those roles. So if something amazing comes your way and you get to spend all day working with brilliant people, brilliant directors, brilliant actors, really testing your brain and your skill, it’s fab.
Did you get better roles after your first Oscar nomination in 1999?
No. I’ve been lucky. I have always had good roles come my way and I think it’s because I have always gone for good roles. I never promoted myself by going to parties or wearing the latest fashion. It’s always been about the acting. I didn’t want to be an overnight success. I wanted to keep working. But I am interested in fashion.
Talking fashion, which elements would you like to see from the 18th Century make a comeback?
I think how the men dressed. I love it. I really do. I think if you are a man in society today and you want to be flamboyant, it is really suppressed. Back then it didn’t affect your masculinity at all if you had a nice jacket or a bit of a heel on the shoe. That’s why I loved Prince because he did all that. Pop musicians get away with it but for men in today’s society, they go to the shops and what is there for them?
Is it challenging wearing a corset?
Yes. They are long days, so you will be in a corset for a good nine hours, ten hours a day. They loosen me so I can have my lunch!
Do you think the #MeToo movement is perceived as a Hollywood thing? Is it relevant in Britain?
Gender equality is tough in the film business. I won a BAFTA for the first film I directed and afterwards I couldn’t get an agent. I was unable to get the money to make another film. Nobody was banging my door down. I was phoning agencies to try to get commercials or music videos or art projects – which I did – but had I been a man and I had won that BAFTA my phone wouldn’t have stopped ringing, I promise you.
What makes this second series as appealing as the first?
It’s better. We got better. It’s like being a musician in an orchestra and performing a concert and then doing it again a while later. You have all played together before so you all know each other’s rhythms. I thought the first season was great. I think this second season is brave and bold. The storylines are incredible. When I was reading the scripts, I was crying and then laughing.
You can now binge-watch both seasons of Harlots, which has a 96% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, first and only on Showmax in South Africa.
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