Brenda Blethyn has done it all in movies, theater and TV, where she’s starring in Vera, based on the novels by Ann Cleeves. (Season Seven is back exclusively on Acorn TV on August 7.) The two-time Oscar nominee plays workaholic DCI Vera Stanhope in a desolate far corner of Northumberland, alongside the more gentle DS Aiden Healy (Kenny Doughty). After a grueling day of shooting in the mud and driving an hour back from the middle of the moorlands, Blethyn spoke to Paste about the series—and, for fans who want to know, explains why there isn’t more about Vera’s backstory. [Editor’s note: The following has been edited for length and clarity.]
Paste: I assume one of the perks of the show is the beautiful scenery. How much time out of a year are you playing Vera?
Brenda Blethyn: I’m away from home for five months. It takes four weeks per episode just to film. It’s the most beautiful place to be working. The people in the northeast of England are so, so lovely. As you see from the program, the scenery—the seascape, the landscape—is just ravishing.
Paste: What attracted you to the show, what do you like most about it?
Blethyn: When I was first got the call, I thought, “Oh, how nice! Something to get my teeth into.” I just love the character, but I loved the world she lived in, and I just love the fact that there’s no vanity about her. She’s a very, very capable person, independent person. She doesn’t look like she’s come off a catwalk, and she has respect from her team without the use of lipstick.
Paste: One of the reasons I love Vera is there are few shows built around a strong, older female character. Do you think about how it fills a void in TV?
Blethyn: I agree. When you think most of the people home sitting at home watching television are in that category, why not cater to them? It concentrates mostly [on] solving the crime—the program doesn’t go off too much into personalities. The backstory of Vera is drip-fed, and I like that, because if you know everything about somebody, you tend to lose interest. But if you’re intrigued by somebody, you want to know more. Last week, I was at a literary crime convention in Harrogate in Yorkshire, crime writers from all over the world descend, and a Vera contingent went and Ann Cleeves was there and we did a Q&A. There was a young boy who put his hand up, 12 years old. He said how much he loves Vera—it’s his favorite program. I said “Why?” “Because she’s scary in a way, she commands attention. But then she’s funny. All my mates love it.” So it’s thrilling to know that not only the older audience likes it, but the younger generation, too.
Paste: How do you see Vera—easily angry, a curmudgeon and loner? What do you like most about her?
Blethyn: The thing about working on the show, although the cases can be somber, we have a whale of a time making it. We laugh most of the day, but that’s not to say we aren’t utterly professional, and we’re also very, very blessed at having wonderful guest actors. She is a loner; she’s not lonely. She grew up out on the Headlands, to the north of Northumberland. Her mother died when she was quite young, so she grew up with her father, who was a petty criminal, in a way. Although his parents were quite well off, he was a taxidermist and would steal birds’ eggs from their nests, and she always disapproved of that. But he was always in the middle of the night stealing birds’ eggs, and totally disapproved of her being a woman in a man’s world. Didn’t approve of her working for the police at all. So she’s always, really, from childhood, been in a man’s world. And that’s what most women of a certain age like about her, that she’s in command of all these men.
Paste: Ann Cleeves said you are her Vera now. Is there anything about Vera you relate to?
Blethyn: I relate to her no-nonsense-ness. I’m a little more fun than Vera is. I’m a puzzler—I love to work out puzzles or brain teasers. I like solving puzzles, so I’ve got that in common with her. I’m a member of the Times crossword puzzle club and everyday I go online and race my brother, who’s also a member. When we were kids, we didn’t have TV because we couldn’t afford one, and my dad would give my brothers and I puzzles to solve, so we’ve always been puzzlers, working things out… So, I’ve got that in common in her. She’s honest, but she’s not overboard with compliments. If someone’s doing their job, they don’t need to be complimented, necessarily. But she does give it where it’s due. She’s a fair person. She can’t deal with small children very well, but she’s good with teenagers; she’ll talk to them as she would talk to anybody else. Maybe that’s what that boy at the convention thought—that she would have spoken to him as an equal. At the convention, Ann gave me a draft copy of her new book. She said, when she’s writing now, she hears my voice, which is very flattering. I notice that she mentioned “she’s got eyes like conkers,” and I’ve got brown eyes, but I don’t think that’s mentioned in the earlier books.
Paste: Do you have a lot of say in the show?
Blethyn: I have a lot of say, particularly on this, because I’m the only one who’s been there from the get-go. We have new writers come in and they write a wonderful script, but I say, “No, historically, that wouldn’t happen to her. She wouldn’t say that.”
Paste: Season Two, it was revealed Vera’s father had a mistress and she had a half-sister, but the series seemed to leave us hanging after that. I wish for more of a storyline for Vera. We did see glimpses of when she had hard liquor stocked in her desk drawer, and that gave us some idea.
Blethyn: That’s still there [laughs]. If you give too much all at once, you’ve got nowhere else to go, there’s no more intrigue, as in life. When people first met Vera, I don’t think they liked her very much, but they did like [DS] Joe [Ashworth, played by David Leon]. Now, there must be a reason why Joe likes her, so the audience saw her through his eyes and got to like her. In life, you meet people you don’t like and then you get to know them a little bit and you think, “Actually, they’re really nice!” I think that flow getting to like Vera is more valuable than an instant. You see nuances, light and shade. She can go back to being that sharp abrasive character at the drop of a hat. You do learn a little bit in each episode. You know she doesn’t want to socialize much. You know she doesn’t want to go to the pub or sit and chit-chat. She just wants to do her work. She’s happiest when she’s busy, because then you are looking out. When we have nothing to do, no work to do, we start looking in. I don’t think she’s interested in looking inward. She just wants to look outward.
Paste: Each season is four 90-minute episodes. Does each feel like you’re making a movie?
Blethyn: Yeah, except it’s a movie made very quickly because we only have four weeks to actually shoot it. I’m in nearly every scene, so it is very hard work for me. Not only is it a 12-hour day; also, I have to learn what is going to be filmed tomorrow. I do get an outline and rough script a few weeks before we shoot an episode, but I find anomalies in it that have to get changed. I got through it forensically. I’m firing off emails to the script editor, [and] meanwhile, I’m wanting to go to bed, so it’s almost a 24-hour a day job.
Paste: Vera’s a workaholic. What do you do the rest of the time? You already mentioned puzzles.
Blethyn: I, like Vera, like the seashore. I love being by the sea, so I have a house where I grew up in Kent, the bit that’s closest to France, overlooking the channel. I can see France on a clear day. But, the love of my life apart from my husband is my dog. I have a cockapoo who I got on the last day of [Season Six]. He was delivered to me on set. He’ll be two next week. I love that little dog! I’ve never had a dog before. He takes up most of my time if I’m not working. I go play in the park. My husband said, “Brenda, you cannot willy nilly get a dog without some kind of discussion, you cannot do that.” He loves that dog! [laughs] Everyday, I go on FaceTime and he’ll be on the couch and the dog’ll be sitting on his head, on the back of the couch, because he knows when that noise of the phone goes, he’s going to hear mum’s voice and he gets up there so he can see clearly! It’s the cutest little thing.
Paste: When I found Vera, I watched into the next morning. It was a great escape. What shows do you binge?
Blethyn: I love Game of Thrones. I had no interest in anything about dragons, please. I accidentally watched an episode and watched it right through the night. My husband hid my car keys the next morning, “You’ve been up all night. You’re not having the car keys!” The other one I enjoyed was Breaking Bad. Or I’ll read. I’ve just read a wonderful trilogy by Mick Herron about MI5, about these agents who haven’t done very well in their jobs and they’ve been demoted. Do read them.
Season Seven of Vera is now streaming on Acorn TV.