Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them about.
The actor: Lucy Davis’ career has always moved between comedy and drama, from Jane Austen to zombie-killing to a career-launching role as Dawn in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office. She’s long been a regular on British television, and will be most familiar to U.S. audiences as the bubbly Etta Candy from last year’s Wonder Woman and as Dianne in 2004’s Shaun Of The Dead. The A.V. Club talked to her during a break from filming The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina, where she’s providing some comic relief as Aunt Hilda. Davis warned us at the beginning of this interview that she “loves a good story,” and was happy to share everything from pranks she’s pulled in table reads to what Aunt Hilda is really cooking in all those cauldrons and pots—plus a role she got because she couldn’t do a good American accent.
The A.V. Club: You looked like you had a lot of fun on Wonder Woman. You’ve said in other interviews that in the scene where you’re helping Diana Prince shop and find proper clothes, you were doing some ad-libbing and making everybody laugh.
Lucy Davis: Chris [Pine] was really good at that as well. He was good at doing comedy and making things up at the time, and sometimes we would have done our [scenes] and then we’d think of other things afterwards—“Aw, damn, I wish we’d done that.” So that was nice, because on the very first day of filming it was me and Chris Pine and Gal Gadot. So it was just the three of us getting these two full days. I hadn’t worked with them before and I’d only even met them briefly. A first day on any set can be a bit nerve-wracking, because everyone’s getting to know each other and everyone’s getting to figure out how everything works in this group dynamic, because everything’s always different. So it was really nice to feel that these two people were so happy to play around. But that was a really fun job, and I got to be in London. I got to see family and friends. When I got days off, I just went to see plays in the West End. It really couldn’t have been more of a lucky gig.
AVC: So those scenes were the first day of filming Wonder Woman? For anybody?
LD: Yes, yes! No pressure! Everything was coming together on that day. So all our wardrobe looks of course have all been finessed and finalized before we got on set. But I hadn’t seen Gal or Chris in theirs. And them with me. And then we saw this beautiful building. I can’t remember where we were, but it was made into 1918 Selfridges, which obviously is a famous store in London. It was huge and beautiful—all these clothes from the 1910s. It was really lovely, and it was just a magical day—even though I was in this thick costume with thick wool and lots of layers, and netting and tights and new boots with a heel, and a mic pack around my thigh, a wig cap, a wig, a hat pinned to my head. So there’s very little movement. And it made me think about how little movement women would have had in those days. But none of [the heavy costuming] mattered. It was just lovely. Lovely.
AVC: Etta Candy was part of the Wonder Woman comics from the ’40s on. How familiar were you with the source material?
LD: I was familiar, but I hadn’t ever read a Wonder Woman comic before getting the job. But when I realized it—because at first I didn’t know it was Wonder Woman that I was going up for, because it was all a secret. The lines of the scenes we had to learn came through in this separate email—so you have to go to this email, then you have to go to another email and set a password, and then log in with the password, and then you’ve got the scenes that come up on the screen. And if your cursor moves off this screen it goes completely blurry, and you can’t take any screenshots or anything. I find it very difficult to learn my lines off the computer screen, so I did just write them all out. And then you had a certain time allotted for you to look at them and then your password ran out. And Etta was called “Fran” in the scenes. I can’t remember what they called Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor. It was all secretive, and the secrecy of it was fun to play with as well.
LD: Such a blast! That was 2003. Bloody hell! That was in the summer of 2003, and I remember—for me, it was a glorious summer. I had the fortune to go to L.A., do pilot season there, but it was cut short because I got Shaun Of The Dead, so I had to go home. So I went home, did Shaun Of The Dead for, like, three months, and then straight after that I was doing The Office Christmas special—all in the same year. I had this new little video camera, which was thought of as this state-of-the-art thing at the time. Now of course you need neck surgery because it’s so heavy in comparison.
But then it was all like, “Wow, a new camera!” And I did a whole video diary of my whole time on Shaun Of The Dead, and I actually just found it recently. The first few days of filming—maybe the first five days, we did—all of us were in a car, not too far near the beginning of the movie. And in the front was Nick Frost, driving. In the passenger seat was Shaun’s mum [Penelope Wilton] and girlfriend, Liz [Kate Ashfield], and Liz sat on Shaun’s mum’s lap. In the back was Dylan Moran, who played my boyfriend, and I was sat on his lap. There was Shaun—Simon Pegg—in the middle, and then Bill Nighy, Shaun’s dad, on the left. Bill Nighy had all [this] blood on him because he’d been bitten by a zombie. And we spent maybe four to five total days sat in this car. And in the breaks we had, I would get out and I’d be like, “Just going to have to give me a minute before I straighten up,” because I couldn’t straighten up my body. I was feeling sorry for Dylan because I was sat on his lap. I remember doing the scene where the car goes into a spin, so they put the call on a low loader on this big rig and they put two cameras, one looking down the front seat and one looking down at the backseat, and then they would just spin us on the low loader.
I had my camera and I can’t remember who I asked, but I said, “Please, just film this.” And so I think it’s on YouTube, it’s something like “Shaun Of The Dead, Lucy cam.” I think they put it on there because they use some of my video for the DVD. I think it’s fascinating. And I will tell you, it doesn’t look like we’re spinning anywhere near as fast as we were, and we were all feeling quite [sick] by the 10th time. And then Edgar Wright, who was directing, he had the nerve, after the 10th take, to come in and go, “Could you all look, like, a bit sick?” And I was like, “SURE, Edgar, SURE. So I’m not pulling that off right now? I’ll do it again.” [Laughs.]
I mean, it was just lovely. I’m lucky to get these jobs, because how many times do you get to go to work and hit a zombie on the head with a cricket bat? And spin around in a car and it be safe? Things like that—it’s a joy, really. And I just love it. We all got on super well as a cast. It was really nice. And we’d always look forward to the in-between setups because we’d always go and play. That’s the best word for it. It was like we’d play games—I can’t even remember lots of them now, but we’d make up songs, or… We were very interactive with each other on the cast, and that’s really nice, rather than just all going off to our separate trailers at the end of the take. Everyone loved to hang out with each other, and that’s really the big thing that I remember about Shaun Of The Dead, is the friendships of it.
AVC: So many of those people have worked together on so many different projects.
LD: Absolutely. I hadn’t worked with the main cast—I knew Kate Ashfield already, though. And there’s that scene, that cool little scene, where we all meet up with the other group headed by Jessica Stevenson—who was also in Spaced with Simon Pegg, and they both wrote Spaced—and then there’s all the team. So there’s Tamsin Greig, and I know her from doing 10 years in radio back at home, and then Martin Freeman—obviously I know Martin from The Office. And I loved it because it’s quite the little community at home and it’s really fun, really enjoyable.
AVC: Speaking of Dylan Moran—I don’t know if you actually have a scene with him in Black Books, though you do have a scene with Olivia Colman.
LD: Oh my goodness, yeah. She’s quite spectacular, isn’t she? I prefer her most when she does comedy because she’s so subtle.
AVC: She’s so good in Peep Show.
LD: Absolutely! And have you seen Fleabag? Go and see it! It really is amazing. Olivia is in that; she plays Fleabag’s stepmum and—just brilliant.
AVC: On Black Books, you’re basically drunk the entire episode.
LD: Yes. I think it was my hen weekend, meaning bachelor/bachelorette, and I’d already done Shaun Of The Dead, and all of us were out one night and Dylan went, “I’ve written you a role in Black Books and you just get to eat cake.” Fabulous! So that was really good fun. It wasn’t in London. We had a gorgeous house somewhere—a very typical old English house. They’re all lovely. I’d met Olivia before, but I hadn’t worked with her—oh! Olivia, of course, has done an episode of The Office! I think it’s in the first season, the end… I don’t watch myself loads, so therefore I’m not going to be—I can tell you all about the U.S. Office. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve not watched the U.K. Office?
LD: No, I’ve watched it for sure, but I don’t love watching me. I’ve done this job for 25 years, and I’m at peace with it, but I tend to find that if I watch myself, sometimes I just get in my own head about things, and my best bet is to just be in the moment on set and enjoy that, see what I do. Assume someone’s going to tell me if I’m doing it wrong, and I just kind of go from there. Because the second I look at something, I come out of it all, and I start thinking along lines that are probably just more shallow for me, you know, like, “Oh, my left side looks better than my right there.” Who cares? So I tend to not watch it but I’ve watched the U.S. Office, seasons one through 10, about 12 times now.
AVC: I just checked IMDB, and Olivia Colman’s episode of The Office aired in 2002.
LD: Oh, probably that would have been season two. And she’s taking photos of Brent? She was so funny, though. And I remember coming in on the day—they didn’t know before that I’m watching [Colman’s character’s] stuff and loving how she did nothing, and consequently did everything. And I was like, that’s genius. Genius! I always like watching people that I love, whether it’s an actor or if you look at someone in life and see that they’re doing this thing they want to do and they’re happy, they’re at peace—then I always try and watch them to see how you manifest things. And it was always fascinating watching her. And I love Broadchurch.
AVC: Dawn and Tim were so much the heart of The Office.
LD: Oh, thank you. It was fun. It was fun to play out. Because of where we filmed—it was a disused office, an empty office. And our art departments made it into the sets that you see. But consequently, other than outside locations, which you might notice there aren’t that many. One of the reasons I believe Ricky [Gervais] and Steve [Merchant] didn’t want to write more—and I believe I’m remembering them saying this, but they would tell you better—is because they wanted to try to keep it about the office. What the U.S. version—hugely successfully—would have to do is take things outside of that one building. To do 10 seasons, you have to do that. And I think [Gervais and Merchant] wanted to keep it in the office and they were like, there’s only so much you can write when you are doing it in the same locations.
So you don’t see us go out of the office environment that often. You see us go to a nightclub. I don’t even remember where—but there was a quiz night [and other] office-related stories. And because we were all in this office, we got to film chronologically way more than any other show I’ve been on, because as you know, you film all your scenes out of order. I’m doing [The Chilling Adventures Of] Sabrina at the moment, and we’ll probably spend the first day doing every kitchen scene in the Spellman house. And on The Office, you could tend to move around and do it chronologically much more. So that was quite fun because it kind of felt like you were playing out the story. It wasn’t like day one of filming Tim and Dawn get together. It happened really almost as it would have happened in the story. So that was quite an interesting experience, because you don’t often get to do that and that was quite fun.
AVC: So what was it like watching this variation of your character in the U.S. Office?
LD: I loved it from the start. Sometimes we’ll have people who—I think they think they’re doing me a favor by saying if they don’t like the U.S. Office. As if I need that, or as if I need the comparison. Which I understand, but also I think sometimes we think there’s this finite pool of resources that we’re all dipping into. And so therefore it’s going to run out and we’ve got to say [that an actor is] worthy and not worthy of something. I don’t think there is a finite pool of resources. I think it’s infinite and, and everyone can have everything that they want—there’s no need for this competition. Does that makes sense? You can like both of us, or dislike both of us, or one of us. I personally don’t need the clarification, and I know that the others don’t—I know Ricky and Steve and everyone, they don’t need you to like or dislike theirs more or less. I think to watch it first was fascinating, just because obviously in the very early days some of their episodes were similar to ours.
AVC: All the way down to the stapler in the yellow Jell-o!
LD: Right? Always kind of fascinating to see how someone else does it and someone else’s own take on things. I would say it’s a bit like if you’ve done a Shakespeare play, and you’re doing King Lear, and then six months later you’ll see someone else is doing King Lear. It’s just kind of the same thing. It’s just more unusual for it to happen for TV, innit.
AVC: The Office helped popularize the mockumentary-style format. Was that style of acting new to you?
LD: I don’t know about the rest of the cast, but for me, certainly when I was auditioning for the role, it felt—I was relieved. I’d been up for maybe five comedy pilots prior to The Office and there’d been a couple of scripts that I really liked and when I went in there—and obviously this is, like, 1999—I think at the time when I went in there, everybody wanted you to be very big, kind of like doing a multi-camera sitcom as opposed to a single camera. And I’m just not very good at it. And there’s a huge skill—when you look at someone like Matthew Perry, for example, who is so excellent as Chandler in Friends, and then you will see him in another project with more drama, and it’s single camera, and that switch is perfect.
I am not perfect or great at the multi-camera. I haven’t done those, to be fair. So when this came along, which wanted natural acting—like, no acting. And I was just relieved because I felt like this was something I had to offer and I felt like I found something that I could do. Not in any arrogant way, but I struggled with the other way, and like I said, it’s a skill set, and the people who do it, like Kelsey Grammer in Frasier, for example, they’re amazing. So for me it didn’t feel difficult. I was so glad to be able to not have to act, if you like. So I just loved it and I was grateful. Because I had had lots of projects where I’ll do my takes and the sound guy’s always saying, “Can you speak up? Can you speak up?” [Laughs.]
I think certainly in the earlier days, that was to do with insecurity on my part, where I’d be a bit insecure if I wasn’t good enough. Then maybe, maybe I’d want to just be really quiet, so in case I wasn’t good enough, you wouldn’t hear it anyway. I just really enjoyed [The Office]. The harder ones to me were the bits that we called the talking heads, so when we’re just on our own talking to camera. I can’t remember—were we looking into camera or were we looking past it?
AVC: David Brent definitely glances at the camera a lot.
LD: I think had time gone on and had we done more seasons, as Dawn, I would have looked into camera more, but I felt as Dawn that was always Tim’s place or Brent’s place. I think Dawn would just be getting on with it and probably a little bit too shy to bring the camera into it the whole time.
That was another project where the cast got on so well, and the cast hung out. And I only lived 10 minutes’ drive away from the studio, and we didn’t do super long hours either. The show I’m on at the moment will be 17- to 19-hour days. And then in The Office, it was just… plop in about 8 in the morning, and about 4:30, 5, we’re kind of done! Ideal. And about 3 o’clock, a little tin of Rovers biscuits would come out, I’d have a few of those, it was very nice. You’re really taking me back—it’s so nice to have these memories.
AVC: You mentioned earlier that you knew Tamsin Greig from 10 years of radio work. It won’t be familiar to a lot of our U.S. readers, but The Archers really is a British institution. [The Archers is the world’s longest-running radio show, and has aired more than 18,700 episodes since 1950. Each episode is 15 minutes long and airs twice each weekday, at 2 and 7 p.m. —ed.]
LD: I was in [The Archers] for 10 years. It ended, sadly, because then I was really living in L.A., and I just couldn’t get back. Because it wasn’t done in London, either, it was done in Birmingham. Birmingham is where I’m from, and my family’s in Birmingham, and it’s about two hours from London. But to fly from L.A. to London and then go two hours to Birmingham, it just wasn’t working. And it was a shame. I could do it for 10 years, because you didn’t do it all the time. You did a month’s episodes in six days, and you used to do a six-day period once a month, and you weren’t on a contract. So they would come to you and say, “Are you free for next month? We’ve got you in six episodes,” or whatever it is. And so you always try to be free for it obviously, but it meant you could do other work as well. So it was really great. I met some lifelong friends doing The Archers.
And my audition for it. I’d never done radio or voice-over before, and I didn’t know it was going to have an audition. The producer, Keri Davies, he called me on my phone—and it was back in the days when your phone was attached to the wall. It wasn’t even a cell phone, it was just a regular old phone that you dial with your finger. And he calls me and he said—and I wasn’t prepared—but he goes, “So maybe you could read something as Hayley [Tucker]”—the role I played—“and do a Brummie accent.” And I went, “I haven’t got anything”—and right in front of me was a seed packet. I was going to try to grow some flowers in my garden. And I remember reading the instructions for the flowers in a Birmingham accent. And I got my role!
And I think she [Hayley Tucker] was only meant to be in one or two episodes. So I don’t know that they were necessarily thinking I was auditioning for a 10-year role. But yeah, I loved doing that. That was tremendous fun. I remember playing a trick [Cracks up with laughter.]—me and Sam Barriscale, who played my boyfriend, John Archer—so we always had a read-through before each episode. We played this trick on—this is really taking me back now—he played Ed Grundy [Barry Farrimond]. Anyway, so we’d gone through his script [Laughs.], and we blacked out certain words. It’s the small things that amuse me. When he came to read it—he didn’t like to tell on us to the director. I watched him struggle being polite to me and Sam, but also not wanting to look unprofessional at all. And he was trying to sneak a glance at the next person’s script. Oh, I must do that for someone else on this job. Now you’ve refreshed my memory—uh oh!
AVC: Now you’re working on The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina.
LD: Yeah, I’ve been in Vancouver since March 9th, and then we finish December 22nd, so we’ll have been there nine months, and we’re doing 20 episodes. The first 10 drop on October 26 on Netflix. And that will be our season one. I don’t know when the next season will air. I’ve been so lucky in all my jobs. I just, you know, when you hear nightmare stories of other jobs—which I’m sure are true, but I’ve been lucky and never experienced them. So I don’t have any gossipy tales to tell, but lots of fun tales.
AVC: You do a lot of cooking and potion-making on this show. What are you actually stirring in all those pots?
LD: So we’ve got this oven in the Spellman kitchen, which Aunt Hilda uses, mostly. When I’m cooking, sometimes they’ll put food in the pan. I am vegetarian, so I somehow sneakily managed to make Hilda a vegetarian, I think. Her sister is a carnivore, and also probably eats people. Sometimes we want [it to look like] things are bubbling and cooking—so often dry ice will go in the pot. And then the other day I walked in and there was a kettle boiling in a pot, just so that we could have the steam coming out. And so I was literally cooking a kettle. But our art department are amazing. I’m like, “Where does Hilda put all this food?” She makes all this food, no one seems to eat it. And then we’ve got the embalming room where all the dead bodies go, and there’s freezers for the dead bodies in there, so I think Hilda keeps all the spare food in there. Because she makes so much of it! Jams and lemon curds—it looks lovely. Delicious.
LD: I did love that. I originally auditioned for Lydia Bennet, who Julia Sawalha played. And how amazing is she? But I’d never done any TV before, and they wanted a name for [the role of Lydia], and Julia obviously is amazing, and she’s a big name. And then I was offered Maria Lucas—and what an amazing first job. I just got to really cut my teeth on television because I’d barely been on camera before, and I’m kind of glad, I suppose, that I didn’t take on the weight of a role like Lydia Bennet, who not only is a much bigger role but a very famed character of Pride And Prejudice. And I got to watch Julia work and watch how she does it, and still do enough of a role to really fully give me experience. That was lovely. Going to Peterborough—that’s the first town we filmed in, and we were staying in this hotel. And in the middle of the night I woke maybe at, like, 4 a.m., and I saw an old lady at the end of my bed. I did this thing with my eyes where I kept closing and opening, closing and opening. And I was like, “That’s not real, that’s not real.” And it wouldn’t go away and she’s moving her mouth, but I couldn’t hear anything, and I was really spooked! I don’t know what that was. And then I turned the lamp on them for about five seconds. She was still there and then she went, and I didn’t go to sleep again.
AVC: You seem to have played a lot of characters named Lucy. How did the one on Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip come about?
LD: It was a huge honor. I originally auditioned for, I can’t remember the character’s name, but Sarah Paulson’s role [Harriet Hayes]. I auditioned for Aaron Sorkin, and I don’t have a great American accent. The role had to be American, and obviously Sarah Paulson is amazing. And then when I left, they called and said, “We really liked you, but you can’t be this role—but we’ll write a role [for you].” I didn’t think that would happen—you know, when, in the nicest way, people say things to be nice, and maybe they mean it, but it doesn’t happen. And then they did, and called it Lucy. And then another Lucy I played was in a pilot, with Lauren Graham, and it was written by the Arrested Development people [Mitch Hurwitz is a producer on both Arrested Development and The Bridget Show. —ed.] And I was a friend of Lauren, and she wanted me to be in it, and they wrote this role. And I feel like that’s a thing here more than in England—if they write a role for you, they name it your name.
AVC: And Studio 60, that was your first U.S. TV role?
LD: Was it my first? I did this movie called The TV Set. Ioan Gruffudd played my husband. Sigourney Weaver did it, and David Duchovny. It was really a low-budget movie that was actually really funny. Really cool. It was about pilot season in Los Angeles. I did that before Studio 60. And Garfield—oh my gosh. Garfield! Tail Of Two Kitties! I’m slightly forgetting the order of things—but then they weren’t TV. They were movies.
AVC: What were your expectations going into Studio 60, which was so stacked with talent?
LD: I was a bit nervous, I won’t lie. Obviously it was a great project, and the stakes are always a bit higher because you want to make sure you do a good job and that people like you. And then of course there is all this talent on there, and you feel quite humbled to be put in with them. I had been dying to work with Matthew Perry, so that was a bucket list thing ticked off. But eventually over time, after I’d done a few episodes, I sunk into just enjoying it and being around people I like being around.
I was getting married at the time, so I was organizing a wedding in England from over here in L.A. whilst doing [Studio 60], and I was also moving house. I remember it being a very packed time. I also—I love the Warner Bros lot. It’s so beautiful and the mountains are right there and there’s something very—I’ve worked there the most of anywhere in L.A. I find it a little bit—not home from home, because I haven’t been there that much—but I feel at home when I’m there. So, anything that films there, I’m very glad to be doing it. Trying to think what else happened on Studio 60... George Clooney—they were filming Ocean’s something, I want to say Ocean’s 12, while we were there. [I remember somebody rushing in and saying,] “George Clooney’s here! He’s shooting hoops!” That’s how quickly it went ’round. That’s how big George Clooney was that we were all impressed with it.
AVC: It’s funny that you auditioned for Studio 60 with an American accent. You do one for just a second in Gay Of Thrones with Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness.
LD: Oh my god, that was so funny. Because they asked me to come to Gay Of Thrones, and I’m like, “Okay, but also know that I haven’t seen a single episode of Game Of Thrones, but let’s make that work.” It’s no offense against Game Of Thrones, I just haven’t seen it. And I think as time went on it became like, “Oh, I just haven’t seen it now.” So I honestly really couldn’t say anything about it. But what was funny is that what the format of Gay Of Thrones is that you sit with [Jonathan] and the producers, and we watched the episode air that night, whenever it was. Then immediately you go onto the set and he does something with your hair and we decide what kind of things we’re going to say, what kind of things we’re going to come up with. And I said, “So we’ll just play with the fact that I have no idea what I’m talking about.”
And there were just really funny things. I think this episode there was a character that was trying to learn English? Some of them speak another language in it, is that right?
AVC: I have to confess that I haven’t seen Game Of Thrones either.
LD: Okay. Good. We’re on the same page! And I remember this guy coming in and trying to speak English. And he would—she would correct him. It’s not, “the,” it’s “then.” But then later on he would say super-long words like “gastroenteritis.” And I was like, [Sarcastic tone.] “Oh, he knows that word then, but he didn’t know the word ‘and.’” And so we just kind of made up and played around, and I do improv a lot here in L.A., so we just sort of played around with things, and that’s always fun.
AVC: Your hair looked pretty fabulous by the end of it.
LD: Oh, did it? Oh, good! I can’t remember... He fiddles around with it. And then you take a break while he—because he’s an actual hairstylist!—and we take a break while he goes and does something with your hair. And we cut to the end where it’s all done. I forgot that! I don’t think I’ve seen that, though, either. You’ve got to watch more of my stuff than I have!