‘It’s A Love Story, Really’: Ruby Ashbourne Serkis On Shardlake

By Olivia Emily

2 months ago

We sat down with Ruby Ashbourne Serkis to talk all about starring as Alice in Disney+'s new series, Shardlake

Streaming now on Disney+, Shardlake is an eerie whodunnit set in the Tudor era, centring on Matthew Shardlake (Arthur Hughes), who is sent by Thomas Cromwell (Sean Bean) to investigate the death of a commissioner at a monastery in the remote town of Scarnsea. At the centre of this masculine world is Alice, played by Ruby Ashbourne Serkis. We sat down with Ruby to hear all about filming.

Interview: Ruby Ashbourne Serkis On Shardlake

Hi Ruby, how’s life going at the moment?

Good! The sun is shining today which is a nice change. Yeah, life’s very good. I’m currently filming a series called I, Jack Wright, which has been written by Chris Lang who did Unforgotten. I’m coming to the end of that, which is a shame – it’s flown by. But that’s what I’ve been spending my time doing recently. And then apart from that, life’s good, man!

You’re can currently be seen in Shardlake on Disney+ – can you give us an elevator pitch for the show?

A lot of people have been pitching it as a Tudor Morse vibe. I think that’s quite spot on. I would say it feels like quite a modern story in terms of the characters and their narratives, but placed back in Tudor times. There are some really clever things about it. And as much as it’s a murder mystery, it’s also a love story. And it’s a story about the battle between good and evil, injustice and injustice.

You play Alice – how would you describe her?

I would describe Alice as someone who’s quite enigmatic. She’s earthy and strong and empowered, but has been through a lot of loss. She’s lost her mother and her fiancé. And I think, because of that, she’s been alone and she’s been forced to find another way to live and keep going. So this opportunity to work in this monastery has presented itself, and it is a perfect option. She’s been able to physically and emotionally barricade herself up in this monastery where she’s surrounded by men. She’s locked herself up in every way possible, and resorted to nature and healing as a way to find purpose in life, under the mentorship of Brother Guy who also acts as a protector in this monastery where she is constantly being advanced on by all these creepy monks.

I think for Alice, it’s a love story, really. When Shardlake and Barrett come in, she initially feels threatened by these people who are emissaries of the King, threatening to close the monastery down. They’re massively threatening her way of earning a living and her lifestyle and everything. But I think it’s a love story in more ways than one. And I think that she sees the good that they bring and the light that they bring.

She’s definitely a woman surrounded by men. How does it feel to be the female lead?

It was awful! [laughs] No, it was great. I was surrounded, actually, by a really gorgeous, lovely group of men. I remember before I went out there, I was slightly worried. Often when a big group of men, especially actors, come together and they’re all away in a foreign country, there can be a lot of testosterone flying about. But I couldn’t have felt more included. I couldn’t have felt more comfy and happy and safe. They were just all such gents, and so respectful and just really nice. I felt like one of the lads, which is great. I can happily say life did not imitate art.

How did you prepare for the role ahead of filming?

Luckily, we had rehearsal time with Justin, the director, which I think is really rare on TV; we got a nice amount time to really collaboratively talk about about our characters and go into depth about where they come from and what they’ve been doing, and their journey in the show. We were so lucky to have that. Aside from that, myself and Irfan Shamji, who plays Brother Guy, spent quite a lot of time looking at old apothecary books and all these recipes, playing around with all these old, weird cures. That was really fun.

For me preparing for Alice, or any character, I really like laying out as much of the backstory as possible – imagining exactly where she was born, where she has come from… I also do this thing where I choose certain life events that have shaped the character’s life if you go back in time. And then basically, on my own, I improvise the character at that age and the scene going on around them. As weird as it sounds, it means that your body has a memory of that as your character, like muscle memory. So when it comes to doing scenes that are written and are in the show, it feels like there’s more depth because you have something to physically draw on.

Any standout moments from rehearsals or filming?

There were so many! A lot of people complained about the cold in the old castles. We predominantly filmed in Austria, in a castle called Kreuzenstein, which was just amazing. That was what we used mainly for the monastery, and I’m a massive fan of getting all dolled up in big corsets and dresses and running around old places. So that was fun, but it was absolutely freezing. A lot of people are remembering that as the dominating factor, but I actually don’t remember being that cold because, after each take, they’d chuck loads of blankets on us.

I also remember having to chase Joe Barber through three different locations that were then pieced together, and having to do three separate chasing scenes. It felt like all I did was chase Joe Barber. We did so much running.

There are also these refectory hall scenes where everyone’s sat around the big long table having dinner or breakfast. It was great having everyone together. There was this one day and I really don’t know what it was, I think it was the fumes from the candles, but no one could keep their eyes open. It was ridiculous. I had to stand in the corner with a water jug for pretty much the whole day, and I was literally nodding off. When I looked over at the table, Brian Vernel and David Pearse were in shot, and they just could not keep their eyes open. Everyone got really giddy, just about managing to finish the scene because we were off our heads with these bloody candle fumes.

Ruby in Shardlake

© Disney

You’ve also starred in the likes of The Greatest Beer Run Ever and Becoming Elizabeth. What has been your favourite project to date?

My favourite was actually a really lesser known one that was made on a shoestring budget. It was a film called La Cha Cha. It was made by director Kevin Allen, who directed Twin Town, and it was made during lockdown on a farm in Wales. It was made on a whim, but Kevin gathered all of these people who worked in festivals and in film to do it. No one was paid for it, but it was the most creative and collaborative thing I’ve ever done. We all lived in caravans and tents on this farm. We had campfires every night and my actual brother played my brother in the film. It was such a special experience because we were all in it together. And it was great fun – until the rain came and blew all of the tents away.

Any roles in the pipeline that you’re excited about? (If you’re allowed to tell us!)

I’ve got one, but I’m not allowed to tell you. Aside from that, I’m writing some of my own bits. When I finish I, Jack Wright, I’m excited to have a bit of time so I can go off and do some proper writing.

Who’s someone you’ve worked with in the past that you learned a lot from?

The people that I’m working with now on I, Jack Wright. I’m learning loads from them. I’m working with Nikki Amuka-Bird, John Simm, Daniel Rigby, Zoe Tapper, and they’re all just brilliant. Each day, I go in and I’m watching them, and they’re just so natural and varied in their performances – they give something different each time. So this project in particular has been a real learning curve. I’ve loved watching all of them.

Do you have a dream role?

Oh my god, I’ve got so many. I’d love to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret. One of the films that I wish I could have been in was Thelma and Louise. Or True Romance. In terms of plays, I’d love to do A Streetcar Named Desire. But there are so many more I’d love to do.

What’s a genre you’ve never tried that you’d love to try?

I’ve never really done horror, but I don’t know whether I’d like to do horror. I get really scared. I’ve kind of done comedy. Comedies are always so fun. I think sometimes, often, the making of comedies is funnier than the watching of a comedy. I’d like to do more comedy, I think.

When you’re on set and you’re not filming, what are you getting up to?

I always think I’m going to go and get loads of stuff done, like reading and life admin. But then you get there and you have Danny Rigby just sitting there, shooting the shit with you. So more often than not, I spend the whole time chatting. Unless I really need to concentrate on something else. But even then I struggle.

Did you always want to be an actor? 

I did, from when I was very little. I grew up around it, visiting my mum and dad on set. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. There was one point I was like, ‘I’m going to be a lawyer’, after I watched Legally Blonde. But then I realised I’m not that academic, so I ditched the idea. I’d love to play a lawyer, though.

How can we all live a little bit better?

We’re living in a time where we are very wrapped up and stuck to our phones. We’re all kind of isolated and on our own tracks. So I think just taking life a little less seriously. Finding the balance between achieving your goals and taking things seriously in that respect, but then having fun while you’re doing it, and not thinking things are the be all and end all. And also just listening to each other and loving each other, I guess.

Ruby Ashbourne Serkis Recommends…

I’m currently watching… Big Mood

What I’m reading… The Overstory by Richard Powers

The last thing I watched (and loved) was… Renegade Nell, and Such Brave Girls

What I’m most looking forward to seeing… Nye at the National Theatre, Severance, Fallout. There’s so much content out there at the moment!

Favourite film of all time… Thelma & Louise, Moonrise Kingdom, Fargo

Band/singer I always have on repeat… Joni Mitchell

My ultimate cultural recommendation… Glastonbury

Cultural guilty pleasure… Bingeing Gossip Girl


Ruby Ashbourne Serkis stars as Alice in Shardlake, streaming now on Disney+.