The Key to Acting in a Prison Drama
By Claire Bueno
As the appetite for crime dramas continue to soar comes a new Channel 4, six part series Screw, created by Killing Eve writer Rob Williams. Set in a bustling men’s prison, the show really does capture the sense of danger and tension mixed with the day to day grind of prison life, full of eclectic colourful characters. Once such colourful character is Jackie Stokes, a no nonsense, yet very approachable prison warden portrayed perfectly by Laura Checkley. It was such a pleasure to catch up with the King Gary star and gain a real insight into how an actor you prepare for a role situated in a 21st century prison.
I have had the pleasure of seeing the first three episodes and it’s one that gets under the skin isn’t it?
Yeah I think with any new series the first episodes are so difficult to get an audience on board, because it’s not just about the plot; that can start to have fun in episode 2 and onwards. But in the first episode it’s about meeting the characters and falling in love with them, or getting the audience to try and fall in love with them as quickly as possible. I’ve only just started watching all of it. I don’t like to do it all in one go, it takes me a long time because I’m so hard on myself. Obviously I know what happens but I’ve been sat there thinking, ‘God I think I’d watch this if I weren’t in it, I’d definitely watch it (laughs).’ You’re right, from ep 2 it starts to unravel very quickly, I forgot how gripping and intense it is.
It really is, I think it helps as well because Rob Williams volunteered in a prison, it must make the show feel visceral and real?
Definitely, Rob was teaching and volunteering in prisons for years, so it’s coming from a real place and a rich place. And it was so wonderful Rob was around all the time, mostly every day, so if anything felt like, would this happen? Would that happen? It was lovely to have him there, even though we had officers around all the time, it was great to have his input, and that’s why the script is so brilliant. Obviously it’s a drama so things are heightened somewhat, but some of the stories Rob’s got are fantastic from real prisons. He’s not using any real stories, but I think that helps having Rob’s experience.
And Jackie she is a colourful character. I would imagine when you read the script she was a character where you thought, you know what, I could really make her my own?
Yeah when you read a script sometimes, and actors will know what I am talking about when I say this, you read something, you go, ‘I know I can do this and probably better than most.’ Not in a big headed way, I just know this woman. I grew up with women like Jackie and what always helps me
decide on a character is, is it speaking to me? And do I understand this voice? And (laughs) she’s brilliant, she’s fun to play, she’s really warm and I think out of all of the screws, she’s the one to trust the most (laughs).
Yeah absolutely she’s the salt of the earth type isn’t she?
She is, and she’s fair and the prisoners like her. She likes the prisoners, but she’s got a very healthy work / life relationship. She goes home, she’s got some foster kids, so she leaves everything at work, and then she goes home and she has her life. She has a very healthy work / life relationship, unlike some of the screws. Her and Ali who is played by Faraz (Ayub), they’re what you see is what you get. She’s fun, I get one liners as well; she’s brilliant.
She is, the way I see her is she’s the bridge between Leigh the head warden and the rest of the team, because Leigh isn’t so approachable really and you’re the one that keeps the balance, keeps camaraderie and the jovialness, but everybody goes to her to get to Leigh.
Yeah absolutely, I think they’ve been working together for a number of years, we discussed that with the writer Rob. Nina Sosanya and I had a big conversation about what our past relationship was like. I think Leigh trusts Jackie as much as she can probably trust anyone, so Jackie is the go between. I think Jackie likes to see herself as the unofficial number two (laughs). But their relationship without spoiling it starts to unravel, because Leigh doesn’t have the right boundaries, and I think that starts to bother Jackie. Jackie is trying to be Leigh’s friend, but Leigh doesn’t let anyone in and that’s what’s difficult, and that’s the separation between her and the staff, and it starts to really unravel throughout the series.
Absolutely, and the one thing I noticed as we proceed through the series is in the prison, the guards have to have that camaraderie, that cohesiveness because it’s a dangerous environment and if they don’t have each other’s backs, it’s a really perilous place to be in. And I wondered how that translated off screen with the ensemble and how you all worked together to have that cohesion?
It’s funny cos when you walk into some jobs there’s just an immediate bond, and we did have that. I thought it’s been cast so brilliantly because you look at the cast, it’s so rich. Even with the prisoners, everyone feels that they are very authentic and in the right role. I think Kahleen Crawford, who cast it did an incredible job, and every guest actor that came on, you’re like: ‘God this is so good, where did you find them.’ (Laughs). So we did feel that immediate bond, and I think it was a really good job with the director Tom (Vaughan) and the casting director Kahleen all coming together, trying to fuse this team. But it naturally happened, we had to on day one, we had to have really honest conversations, and that immediately opens you up. And then on the physical side we learned how to hold and restrain and to just be really physical with each other, and trust each other. So I think no matter your differences in the job, and having spoken to prison officers at the beginning who said: “You put all that aside, you absolutely trust in the rest of the staff, you know they’ll have your back. If you’re in a situation you know that they are 10 seconds away.” So I think it is a given that you have to trust your staff no matter the differences between you at the time.
I think it is interesting what you say about that because I always feel that when they are walking through the prison they’ve always got this peripheral vision almost, like they’ve got eyes at the back of heads. And I wonder how you prepare for that role where you’re not just interacting with your scene partner, you’re also having to project that you literally have eyes in the back of your head.
Yeah we had conversations with prison guards, I spoke to female prison officers working in a male prison, and just another level of protection and awareness that you have to have as a woman, as well as being an officer. But they said at all times, no matter if they are having a great conversation with their work colleague,
they have eyes on every level, because you have to, that’s part of the safety, protecting your partner, so it was something we discussed. You’ll notice in the series when we are walking along, we are very rarely looking at each other. I would practise. I was in a flat in Glasgow and I had this hallway, I used to walk up and down it, do my lines and imagine that I was walking with Leigh, Nina Sosanya. And then you get on the set and it’s all there for you, it’s almost like no acting required because all the SAs (supporting artists) were so brilliantly cast. They weren’t just plucked from an agency, a lot of them had to put themselves on tape; just brilliant actors and really authentic. So when something is happening on the twos, what we call the balcony above, it would be mad not to look about and to keep yourself safe, and your colleagues. So it’s almost like once you get in that environment it just starts happening naturally. And obviously knowing the information of how one would behave as well. I mean, that two weeks we spent with real prison guards was just invaluable.
I was gonna say as well, for you as an actor, your job is to study the human condition. And here you are in a prison with an eclectic bunch of characters who come from all walks of life with their own demons. And to be absorbed in all of that because again it’s rooted in and anchored in truth must have been like a kaleidoscope for an actor with all these different characters?
Yeah and also you’re playing a scene that is fairly emotive where you might be falling out with one of the other characters, but then you have to remember you’re on the wing and each prison officer has their own persona. And so there’s levels to it, it’s not like you are doing a kitchen sink drama and you’re just having a row across the kitchen. This is; you are having a row in a professional environment and a prison. So there’s all those levels you’ve got to remind yourself of. Would Jackie really let herself go here? Would she hold back? We just talked to each other all about it: “I think I’m gonna hold back here because I think this would happen, and Jackie wouldn’t want that prisoner over there seeing that weakness.” It’s unlike anything I have ever done, and I have always been obsessed with prison dramas. It’s been such a joy and so interesting, I have a new found respect for prison officers and what they do for society. They are unsung heroes really. We don’t really think much about them or talk about them, because people don’t like to talk about prison.
It’s true and I think the other things that this show brings is that it’s a 21st century programme and it does deal with social issues, but in a non-preachy way, but within contained environment. It’s almost like a pressure cooker. Was that something else that interested you with how the plot evolved?
Definitely. Actually a prison officer said this to us when we were researching, that often prison is just mirroring what’s happening on the outside. When the drugs get bad, it only means it’s worse out there. I was hugely shocked to hear that that they (the prisoners), only get an hour outside of their cell every day. I know it’s prison, I know it’s punishment, but just talking to Rob and hearing the daily routine, cos we went through the daily routine of what a prison officer would be. Obviously that includes when we let the prisoners out, and I just thought when they unlock the doors everyone comes out at once. But they release landing by landing because often up on the twos they might have the VPs, what they call vulnerable people, and you can’t release them at the same time as the ones, because the ones will be after them. There’s so many politics and also just in terms of the infrastructure of prisons, and the lack of money and support from the government, and that’s here; it’s even worse in America. I feel like I’m still scratching the surface of prison life and the prison service, but its super interesting and so layered. I feel that Screw makes us just look at it a bit, because it is looking at it from the prison officers point of view, and not the prisoners. I think all those prison offers certainly like Jackie and a few of the others went into it for the right reason. But because they are not supported financially, because they know that they can’t really change it in a big way, the everyday small stuff is an achievement. If Jackie can fill out a form for someone and get that visit for them, or get an appointment with their solicitor for an appeal, it’s the small every day stuff that is the achievement. And talking to real prison officers they’re like: ‘We can’t change the big stuff, but we can change the everyday stuff.’ And that’s what I think this show does. I hope anyway (laughs).
Definitely, I absolutely took that from it for sure. And finally just to ask you what have you taken away with you from making this show that you think that can better inform you and help you in relation to your craft for the future?
(Laughs). Working with Nina Sosanya makes you a better actor. She is literally hands down, incredible, just incredible. Working with an ensemble of dramatic actors as well because I’ve spent a lot of time in comedy, so this felt like a huge leap for me, and it wasn’t, it was just telling the truth. Actually it felt a lot easier in places because when you are doing a lot of comedy you have to think about the rhythm, the physicality, there’s a lot of science to comedy. Whereas it was lovely just to be, and to be in the moment and just to tell the truth. I learnt loads about how to just be. That sounds really obvious because I went to drama school, I know you have to be in the moment. I think acting with these brilliant actors, like Ron (Donachie) and Stephen Wight who plays Gary, you learn from each other. And working with brilliant DOPs (director of photography) and going to a set every day. Often when you are filming you go to different locations every day, you don’t get to go to the same place every day. So it was the closest to a 9 to 5 you’re gonna get. We filmed in what was an old ex-concert hall, called Kelvin Hall in Glasgow, and they had built the prison within that, it’s incredible. And we were in some trailers just aside of that and we would get in our uniform, we’d walk to set, we’d go to work. And that was our every day, there were occasional locations, but every day we were going to the same location, and it just felt like work in a weird way, in a really nice way.
Laura Checkley stars in SCREW now available on
CHANNEL 4 & ALL 4
Production Stills: © Channel 4
With special thanks to Epilogue Agency
Screw - Official Trailer