Gangs of London Q&A — Michelle Fairley On Unleashing Marian's Suppressed Rage
In Gangs of London, Michelle Fairley plays Marian Wallace, the steely Wallace family matriarch who's trying to keep her fractured family together. In this interview with amc.com, Fairley talks about what happens when Marian's life starts to unravel, her street fighter instincts, and the meaning behind her torture of Tove.
Q: What initially drew you to Gangs of London?
A: I was approached about the role. I had a great meeting with Gareth [Evans] and Matt [Flannery], and we had a discussion about the whole series and the nature of the beast. Matt is so wonderful and generous with his time and work. Not only did he give me a very specific talk through the episodes in Marian's personal journey through the series, but they had also compiled biographies for each character as well. They'd gone into such detail about their backgrounds, how they'd met, how she'd met Finn, how she'd met Ed and her background — so, the bones. I was able to start putting flesh onto really strong bones. And they were passionate about their piece. They were really passionate about what they wanted to create, who they wanted to work with, and what they felt was always at the heart of these characters.
Q: And what was it about Marian that attracted you?
A: The thing about Marian is she's never really what you think she is. She appears to be a very settled woman from the outside. She has a house, her children have grown up, they've gone away, her husband is very successful. She could be just shopping, going for lunch, and doing all of those things, and she did do those things, but she also started fighting her way up. That's what they did. She helped. It was the trio: Finn, Ed, and Marian—they were the three who started this together and they were equal in that group. When Ed and Marian married, and she started to have children, they were still struggling at that point. They were successful, but they were small-time gangsters. Then Matt and Gareth told us Finn was insistent that she take a back foot on the business side of things before they went legit, or legit-ish, [because] she had brought one of her children in a pram to a gangster who was threatening them. He felt that she was endangering his children. So basically, she was forced to take a back seat and had remained in that position until Finn's death.
A man telling her what to do, and having her work, her passion taken away from her didn't sit well with her. She was also worried about what she was going to do once her children were grown, because once you're out of that world, it's very hard to get back in. Then of course over the years Finn got legit, the business got legit on the outside, and she also became more removed from what was actually going on. Marian is a pressure cooker. She basically sits on a lot of past grievances and has held them in for the sake of her children.
Q: How did you work with the team to bring Marian to life? How much wiggle room were you given to make specific choices in your portrayal of her?
A: Marian holds a lot back. She knows if she plays her cards up front, she's screwed. So she's always held back, and it's given her time to figure out how to react, how to behave. But the fact is, at the beginning of the series, she's a grieving widow who is trying to piece things together, and once these pieces of the jigsaw start to come together and her family starts to unravel, then you start to see the old Marian, the person that met Finn, the knuckle fighter. That has been suppressed for many, many years and suddenly she's starting to rework these muscles again and gets them going but in a very different way, because she's faced with possibly losing everything, including her children.
Q: Although Finn has some monumental secrets, Marian knows much more about her husband’s lifestyle than many spouses in his line of work. Do you think she truly accepts the darkness or does she compartmentalize it to survive?
A: Oh totally, she compartmentalizes, absolutely she does. She's had to in order to be the wife and the mother for so many years. There's anger and resentment there. She grew up fighting, so that's part of her DNA. That was part of her family's DNA. So to suppress that is denying a massive part of her personality, and when that is alight, it's like letting the lion roar again. When it comes out, because it's been repressed for so long, there's a lot of ground to make up.
Marian is the sort of woman that knows her husband has been unfaithful, but never actually expected him to leave her. When she employs the private detective, the shock of finding out that actually he was planning not only to leave her, but that the girl was pregnant and he was going to leave her practically broke... That is infuriating for her. It's also humiliating.
Q: Marian exudes what can only be described as Lady Macbeth energy in early episodes — she manages to be quite involved and yet keep her hands clean. That definitely changes this episode. How did it feel to literally get your hands dirty this episode?
A: It was absolutely freeing because she's been so reined in in other episodes. She's using other people to do her work for her in that respect, and when she does have a sort of psychotic episode of breaking down — her son tells her to pull herself together — it's so freeing. This scream coming from her gut shows she hasn't lost her touch. It's a duck back to water again. She's opened a Pandora's box and she's got the smell of blood again and the taste of it, so she's off basically. Xavier [Gens, the director] and I, we worked through the script really tightly and tried to make it as not just a torture, bloodbath thing, but to show how this woman gets there, what's driving her, and what she's actually capable of doing. The children see that, and they've never seen that before.
Q: It was striking how stylishly Marian was dressed while torturing Tove.
A: That was a deliberate choice so that you could see that she's not afraid of blood. Marian isn't a woman who's going to run away from blood. She's a very well-dressed woman, but it doesn't matter. She's not going to put on a boiler suit to torture somebody. That was a design thing as well from Xavier, the costume [department], and from my perspective as well, because it's easier to see how mucky this has become.
Q: What were your initial reactions when you read the script for this episode?
A: My initial reaction was good, I've got something wonderful to get my teeth into. It was important to all of us that this wasn't just torture for the sake of torture. This mattered. There's a reason for it, and it's to do with family, who sent that woman [Tove], and who's behind this. She's ultimately protecting her family. That's the reason for doing this, to find out who is going after her family.
Q: Marian’s relationships with her children are all quite different. She dotes on Billy, bolsters Sean, and is quite vulnerable with Jacqueline. Can you talk a bit about what it was like to create that intimacy with your co-stars?
A: Well, we did a bit of rehearsal as a family. Because of the nature of filming, you can't always get everybody together all the time, so we all started together at the funeral scenes which were some of the first scenes that we actually shot. I don't think they'd cast the role of Jacqueline yet, but the two sons had been cast. We had a meeting with Gareth and Matt, and we chatted about family and where they'd been educated and what they were like. I sat and listened to what the boys were finding out about their backstories and their histories, and what was going on and what had happened to them as children.
Working with the actors in the scenes, we rehearse it, we discuss it, and we talk about it, and then ultimately shoot it. It depends on the nature of the scene indeed, but those sorts of relationships take time to become established on screen as well. You think this is a mother who loves her two boys, but she knows one son is a heroin junkie and yet she enables it, she doesn't really stop it and she refuses to accept it. She's basically trying to push Sean in the direction of taking over, even though they've given him an education to get him away from that.
So these things, these subtleties in terms of working with the actors and the characters, they take time to settle in, but they do, they settle in quite quickly and that's the nature of families. There are resentments, there are angers, there are loves, and there is sadness, but those things can all find their way into the portrayal of a relationship with each child.
Q: Marian is deeply motivated to keep her family together, especially in the wake of Finn’s death, but she also has some selfish intentions as well. How much do you think her husband’s betrayal of her factors into her actions?
A: There's a very interesting dichotomy here, because Marian knows he has been unfaithful throughout their marriage. I think she's challenged him once or twice on this, but the boat has never been so badly rocked as she has now found out about Floriana, and she's found it out retrospectively as well. She has nobody to go to and have an argument with, and to go get lawyers and all of that, to battle with or try and reason with because he's dead. So she goes on a spree then. She has to find a way to reconcile this within her, and her way of doing that is not to go to therapy and get grief management. It's revenge. Marian's motivation now is revenge.
Gangs of London airs Sundays at 10/9c AMC. Check out the full schedule here. Full episodes are available to stream now on amc.com, the AMC apps for mobile and devices, and on AMC+. The entire first season is available to watch now with AMC+, which is available through a variety of providers, including AppleTV, Prime Video Channels, DirectTV, Dish, Roku Channel, Sling, and Xfinity. Sign up for AMC+ to stream Gangs of London now on amc.com, on mobile for iOS and Android devices, and on your TV streaming device with the AMC app, available for Roku, Apple TV, FireTV, Xbox One, Android TV, and Chromecast.
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