BROTHELS, CORSETS, AND WHIPS: AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH JEMIMA WEST
Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for RadioFree.com
February 19, 2015
Originally airing in 2010 and running through 2013 over the course of two seasons, the French television series Maison Close follows the exploits of a group of women working at le Paradis, an opulent brothel situated amidst the social revolution of 19th century Paris. The critically and commercially successful show stars Jemima West as Rose, a young woman who arrives at the bordello seeking her mother, only to be quickly coerced into a life of prostitution. Assailed by dangers both physical and political, she navigates the brutal realities of her new existence while unlocking hidden secrets from her troubled past.
In this exclusive interview, Jemima West reflects on her experience of working on the series, which recently made its North American debut on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD. She also talks about her comfort level with performing in multiple languages, physical training from past projects like The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, and her latest series, Indian Summers.
Maison Close: Season One is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD
RadioFree.com: Looking back on the time you spent working on Maison Close, what were some things that stood out about your character of Rose and made her a memorable experience for you?
JEMIMA: Well, it was one of my first big roles, and my most challenging at the time. And what I loved about the character was that she started as this very young, innocent, naive girl, and throughout the two seasons that we shot, she really became this independent, strong woman. And it was great to evolve at the same time as her over the couple of years that we shot the series. And she goes through so much throughout the first season–she really becomes an adult, when she didn’t expect to become one. It was an amazing experience, and I’m so fond of that character. And if we were to go back to do other seasons, I’d love to. But unfortunately, we finished the series. [laughs]
Did you get to collaborate much with the show’s writers, especially going from the first season to the second?
We were told what was going to happen, and on [season] two, we had quite a few discussions with the writers, which was great, because they brought in a new team of writers for [season] two. So they had written things about our characters, but they also wanted to know what we thought about it. So it was quite collaborative, and that was really interesting. But the character they set up for season two was so good already, there was little to touch up, really. And then obviously, we did a lot of work with our director, who was back for season two, and that was great because he knew us as actors, and our characters. So we were really able to have a team.
Where did you shoot the series? Was it on a stage, or an historic location?
It was a palace in the middle of Lisbon, which was amazing–like, an abandoned palace, and they basically redesigned it for the series, so it became a brothel. And I’d walk to work in the morning because I lived five minutes away, and I’d get to this palace, and we’d get dressed and made up and costumed up. And then we’d go up the stairs, and we’d be on set. And it was amazing because it was built as if it was the real brothel. Like when we went from one room to the next, we were actually going from the kitchen to the living room to the bedroom, and all of that. And that was great because it really creates a universe that we can walk through and evolve in, as if it were real life. And then we did also do a bit of outdoor stuff throughout Lisbon and just on the outskirts. But most of it happened indoors.
How did Rose’s wardrobe, with its specific period costumes, inform your performance?
Oh, I reckoned the costume designers and their hair and make-up, really, contribute 50% of what your character is. And we worked with an amazing costume designer called Sophie Dussaud, and she created everything from scratch. She was such an inspiration. She came up with loads of ideas. And then, obviously, we had to wear corsets. I’d never worn a corset, and that was definitely a challenge, because you have to carry yourself in a completely different manner. And it was interesting, actually, because after the series (we shot for a few months), our waists changed–the way our waists were. Because they sort of tie you in so much and give you such a narrow tummy but then accentuate the hips. So my body actually morphed a little bit after the series. [laughs] It was incredible. And obviously, you’re carrying yourself really straight, and you can’t really lounge, so you’d have to sort of always have a very fixed and firm posture, which is very interesting.
Sounds kind of painful…On behalf of all the viewers, thank you for enduring the corset.
[laughs] The most difficult was actually eating: eating with a corset on is a massive challenge!
Speaking of eating, there’s an episode in the first season in which the girls are at a special dinner. So how’s the food at le Paradis? Did they go all method and serve period-authentic cuisine?
[laughs] I have to say, they were brilliant because they did serve real food, and it was warm and it was fine. We didn’t eat too much of it, but it was actually quite good. Really can’t complain!
In what ways do you think this story, with its setting of a Parisian brothel in the 19th century, remains relevant today? What does it say about contemporary society?
I think it tells a lot about women and their condition, and I think that’s what one should really remember about the series. It’s interesting, also, going back in time when brothels were allowed. Well, in France anyways, they were legal. And it was a normality that men would go to find women in a brothel. It’s no longer the case in France–they’re illegal. And at the time the series was shown, there was a huge debate as to whether or not one had to re-open brothels, because prostitution is very controversial, and people were wondering whether or not brothels had to be re-opened to give women a different context and stability that certain prostitutes don’t have today because they’re out on the streets, and it can be very dangerous and all of that. So I think it echoes with the question of prostitution and its condition as to women’s freedom as prostitutes. It’s a very tricky question to answer, but it’s definitely food for thought. And it’s also more about struggling women, with their freedom at a time where women’s conditions were not the same as they are nowadays. Prostitutes weren’t allowed to go out on the streets during the day. Or when they went out, they had to completely hide their faces. It was really interesting to learn so much about it.
Given your affinity for Rose, did you usually find yourself understanding and agreeing with her decisions, or did you sometimes have to struggle to see things from her perspective?
Well, I wouldn’t agree with all the choices, but I felt a lot for her struggle and the way she dealt with things. Throughout the series, she builds such a strong shell around her to protect herself that she sometimes goes and does pretty extreme things which I, Jemima, would not necessarily agree with. [laughs] But in terms of how she protects herself, yes, I felt very close to her.
On a scale of 1 to 10, to what extent is Rose in need of some nice, warm hugs?
Oh, absolutely 100 out of 10! [laughs]
As someone fluent in both English and French from an early age, do you feel equally comfortable with both languages when it comes to acting?
Funnily enough, it’s easier in the acting, for me, to go from French to English than it is in life. I couldn’t explain why, it’s just because it’s sort of given to me [in a script]–it’s there, the language. I just switch into it. Whereas in real life, because I grew up in France, I find myself struggling in English. For example, doing an interview in English is probably slightly harder for me than doing it in French.
Hmmm…When you dream, do your dreams unfold in French or English?
Well, it’s a funny thing…Apparently, we don’t dream in a language. It’s what we associate with the dream that is associated with the language. So I dream more in French–or, when I think of a dream, I think of it in French. It will definitely stand out if it’s in English. But the more I’m immersed in English culture, the more I dream in English and think in English, et cetera, et cetera.
Do you find that you often pick up physical skills from your various roles (such as playing tennis in 15/Love or using a whip in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones)?
Absolutely. I always love a new challenge with a character, and when you get to learn something new from it, it’s great. The physical aspect is very important. 15/Love, I learned how to play a bit of tennis with a coach, and then I did a TV film where I had to be a professional swimmer, so I was doing a lot of swimming, which helped me a lot. And then, obviously, The Mortal Instruments was fantastic because I actually learned how to use a whip, so I was whipping away in this, like, huge studio, and it was amazing. [laughs] I mean, I would never have done it otherwise. And we were working with a great group of stuntmen, and I was doing some boxing and some intensive physical stuff, and we had a personal trainer. So that taught me a lot. It’s great to learn something new when you’re doing a role.
Have you seen the box office success of Fifty Shades of Grey? Hollywood totally needs actors who can work a whip–you should put that front and center on your resume.
[laughs] It probably should be the outstanding part of my resume, you’re right: “I can use a whip!”
There had been plans for a film sequel to City of Bones based on the second book in the Mortal Instruments series, and then talk of a TV series. At this point, is there any chance you’ll be reprising the role of Isabelle Lightwood in the near future?
I have to be honest with you: I don’t really know. I’m not sure. If I were asked, I’d obviously be very curious to know what it would [entail]. What I can say is that I adored playing her in the first film, and I came away with it very satisfied and happy to have been lucky enough to play that character. I have to say, though, I don’t know what’s going to happen with the next [book]. Is it going to become a film or a television series? I don’t know. And whether or not they’ll call me for it, I don’t know either. [laughs]
What project can fans look forward to seeing you in next?
Well, I’m in England at the moment, where a show has just started airing, and it’s called Indian Summers, and it airs on Channel 4 every Sunday night at 9:00pm. It’s a show I’m really, really, really proud of that I went to shoot in Malaysia last year for six months. And we’re waiting to see if we’re going to go again for a second [season]. It basically talks about the last years of the British colonies in India. And it’s great. So watch it! [laughs]
And I’m sure we’ll have access to it eventually here in the U.S. as well…
You will, absolutely! It’s an American co-production, and it will be airing on PBS, I believe, in the summer.
Jemima, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you today! Thanks for your time.
Thank you…Have a nice day!