‘I’ve just started rehearsals for Grenfell: In The Words Of Survivors and it already feels like this might be the most important thing I have ever done,’ says Pearl Mackie. The play, created by Gillian Slovo from interviews with survivors of the Grenfell fire, opens at the National Theatre on 13 July 2023. Pearl, who is perhaps most recognisable from Doctor Who, can also currently be seen in The Diplomat on Netflix and Tom Jones on ITVX. We caught up with Pearl to chat through these TV shows, and look ahead to Grenfell.
Interview: Pearl Mackie On Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors, The Diplomat & Tom Jones
Hi Pearl, how’s life going at the moment?
It’s pretty good! Busy; but that’s how I like it!
You can currently be seen in The Diplomat – can you give us an elevator pitch for the show?
Ooh OK. Career Diplomat Kate Wyler (Keri Russell) gets placed in the US Embassy London. She’d rather be in Kabul but, unbeknownst to her, London is full of twists and turns, and everyday she is juggling mounting pressure to solve an international crisis. Expect lots of walking and talking! Manila folders! Top secret documents! And that’s all before we get to Kate’s turbulent marriage to political star, Hal…
You play Alysse – can you describe her for us?
So Alysse is Kate’s attaché, or assistant, and Kate is not what she was expecting! She struggles to find her feet with Kate at first – sometimes with hilarious consequences.
What was it like playing her?
Oh, it was great fun! We had such a wonderful time working together! The cast is great and the writing is so good that we all just felt really happy to be at work everyday. Sounds like a cliché, but we all just got on so well!
How did you get into character/prepare for the role?
Oh my gosh, well Deborah’s scripts were so amazing, a lot of the info was already in there, and anything else we asked she had a wealth of knowledge and information on in order to help inform our roles.
Any funny stories from rehearsals or filming?
So many. Filming the helicopter taking off and landing repeatedly was wild – those things are so powerful! I’m glad it was a wide shot, because all of our faces looked like we were skydiving! It took all the core strength we had not to be blown down!
You’ve also got Grenfell: In The Words Of Survivors coming up – can you tell us about that project?
I have. So this piece is a verbatim play, which means the writer, Gillian Slovo, has worked with survivors of the tragedy and the wider Kensington community and a good deal of the script is their testimony. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike, the play will run at the National Theatre in the Dorfman, from 13 July to 26 August alongside an in-depth community engagement programme, and will share the voices that are part of this important story and keep the tragedy of Grenfell part of the national conversation. I feel incredibly honoured to be part of a company that is amplifying the voices of survivors and bringing the tragedy of Grenfell back to public consciousness. For the survivors and the bereaved, it has never left the conversation, and it shouldn’t have for society, either.
Who do you play?
We all play survivors, as well as playing other people from the inquiry, and will play ourselves as well.
Which do you prefer – TV, film or theatre?
I couldn’t choose. I love them both equally for totally different reasons and for the same reason – all we are is storytellers and these magnificent mediums allow us to tell stories.
And you’ve also got Tom Jones coming up on ITVX – busy time! What is that show about?
Haha, so busy! Tom Jones is a reimagining of the Henry Fielding novel, A History of Tom Jones: A Foundling. What’s different about our version is it is told from the perspective of Sophia Western, (one of!) Tom’s love interests – and she is mixed race. The show addresses her ethnicity early on, detailing that her mother was an enslaved woman and her father was a slave owner. But, aside from these serious origins, the show is really good fun! It’s about true love and how the course of it never runs smooth! It’s got a smashing cast, and everyone is really so funny in it! It was so fun to be a part of. I mean, filming in Belfast in a corset on a horse in the middle of winter was tough, and those cloth shoes do not keep the water out, but it was a really good laugh.
What has been your favourite project to date?
It’s so hard to say, but I’ve just started rehearsals for Grenfell: In The Words Of Survivors and it already feels like this might be the most important thing I have ever done.
Any more roles in the pipeline that you’re excited about? (If you’re allowed to tell us!)
Haha, nothing I can talk about!
Who has been your favourite actor to work with in the past?
Oh no, don’t make me choose! I’ve been so lucky to work with so many incredible actors
Who have you learned the most from in your career?
You know what, our camera operator on Doctor Who, Mark McQuoid. It was my first TV job and he taught me so much about camera lens sizes and what that meant in terms of positioning and performance. It was literally invaluable.
What’s your dream role?
I’d love to play Lady Macbeth one day. But also any kind of villain with a dark origin story would be great fun.
What’s something you’d like to do more of?
Gosh, musicals? And comedy. But I’d also love to do a really good horror or thriller. I am such a scaredy cat and I could probably never watch it, but an actor I worked with once told me that working on a horror film really helps you conquer your fear, so that sounds great!
What’s something you’d like to do less of?
None! I love the balance of doing lots of different types of work – I think it keeps me on my toes.
Do you get to spend much time at home?
Not as of last week! But usually I get a good balance of being home for a bit to chill in between jobs.
Do you live in the town or the country? Which do you prefer?
Ahh, I’m a townie. South London girl through and through.
How do you find balance in your personal and work lives?
How does anyone?! I guess just trying to be as present as you can in the situations you are in and trying not to let one spill over into the other. Taking time to do fun things with my fiancée is important to us too.
What do you do to wind down?
Ugh, I need to get better at winding down. I just watched the season finale of Succession as my evening’s viewing, and that was not relaxing in the slightest!
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I have always wanted to be an actor!
If you could give advice to your 15-year-old self, what would it be?
Wow. Umm, this too shall pass?! No, honestly, the chaos inside you will quiet and you will be able to find a way to channel it and be happy. Trust yourself, keep working hard, trust your friends and family and love yourself. You are amazing!
How can we all live a little bit better?
Be kinder to each other. And ourselves!
Anything fun in the pipeline – professionally or personally?
Yes, I’m getting married next year!
What I’m reading… Show Me the Bodies by Peter Apps. Research.
The last thing I watched was… Masterchef semi final
What I’m most looking forward to seeing… The Barbie movie
Favourite film of all time… I think it’s mad to have one single favourite film – there are so many and they serve different purposes. Why would you limit yourself to just one?
Band/singer I always have on repeat… Beyonce. Just saw the Renaissance Tour live and she is the queen!
My ultimate cultural recommendation… I think the Basquiat King Pleasure exhibition might still be on in NYC. I saw it with my fiancée when we were there last year, and it is one of the most stunning exhibitions I have ever seen. They recreate his childhood home and his studio, and the insight it grants into his life is phenomenal.
Cultural guilty pleasure… Nah, no guilt here. Everything I love, I love proudly.
Grenfell: In The Words of Survivors opens at The National Theatre on 13 July 2023.