By Claire Bueno
Aisling Loftus is an actress we’ve become very familiar with over the years having appeared in War and Peace, Mr. Selfridge, Broken and not forgetting our beloved Midsummer Murders! But her latest role in The Midwich Cuckoos could be her most exciting role to date.
Adapted from the 1957 book by John Wyndham, it tells the story of a group of woman who become pregnant by brood parasitic aliens. Some of us may recognise the familiar theme as the inspiration behind John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned starring Christopher Reeve or perhaps its 1960s predecessor starring George Sanders.
But Sky Max’s version is very much a 21st century drama, with a rich female driven storyline that sees Keeley Hawes cast as Dr. Zellaby. But for Loftus the opportunity to demonstrate her versatility, sensitivity and commitment to her craft is very apparent. The Nottinghamshire born actress captivates audiences with her performance as the sceptical mother Zoë Moran.
I was equally captivated by Aisling in person as we sat over Zoom to talk at length about the complex storylines behind this truly chilling, sci-fi.
The show is so gripping, and I wondered when you read the script if it had the same impact on you?
Yes, it very much did. I’d read the book a long time ago and when I got the scripts through, I thought that I would it read it again as a part of my prep. You have no idea where the story is going to go because there’s all kinds of different reactions from all the different characters to what is happening. Although my character isn’t a part of them, I particularly loved the scenes where the mothers are sitting around talking about their experiences because I think a lot of the big ideas come up within those. When it’s in the domestic realm you’re more concerned with behaviour rather than meaning. It’s a great read; David Farr’s writing is pretty special.
What I loved about your character in particular is that she is not a follower, she’s the one who questions what’s actually happening. Is that what you liked about her, because she is an independent thinker?
Yes, if she had felt that chemical love when her cuckoo was born, she wouldn’t be the questioner, she wouldn’t have her eyes open. I think because she doesn’t have that bond with her cuckoo, her cuckoo doesn’t exert that control over her. She initially feels like she’s a bad person and that there’s something very deeply wrong with her because she doesn’t love her child and at that point they all think that they are their children. Even though there’s something strange going on, they are still their offspring, so she initially feels very ashamed and wrong as a person. But then she realises there comes a point when the little girl Sunny arrives, where things start to click into place. That no, the wrong thing isn’t her, the wrong thing is the cuckoos and they are the malevolent force, not her. So, for that reason she has got perspective that the other mothers haven’t, which is very isolating and compounds that feeling. You know when people say they are a soothsayer, you must be very strong in your convictions if you are the only person that can see the truth.
And I think what is interesting and where your character is very representational is that not all women that give birth have an instant bond with their child and with that comes an enormous amount of guilt, I imagine that you had to play that quite sensitively?
Yes definitely. Before we got started Alice Troughton, our director, said, “I think it would be a good idea if you listen to this podcast called Zombiemum.” It’s about this woman who had an experience of postpartum psychosis, and she has different guests come on to the show to talk about their birth experience and their early motherhood experience. Listening to people talking about postpartum psychosis for one, I’m just grateful to learn about it, because it’s horrifying. There’s that gap in the timeline,at the end of episode two where we have the babies, and then its only two years later (laughs), but we have these five-year-olds. In the in-between people had treated Zoë as if she had had postpartum psychosis or postnatal depression and that her experience was that, rather than the reality of birthing something that isn’t anything to do with you and, in fact, isn’t even human. I thought that was a very helpful part of her backstory, that she has gone through something really horrendous. She’s got through it, so now she is quite committed to having a normal, nice life but she simply can’t because this is their child. As the story goes on, she realises there’s no way of integrating herself into this situation and there’s no way of rationalising it. The only thing she can do is escape it, but the cuckoos do not want that; they want to be protected and cocooned until they are viable outside of that community. They don’t want someone departing and potentially threatening their existence. So that is her arc through the series, I suppose.
And I think what you have just hit the nail on the head with is the cuckoo’s behaviour in the show. Did you go into your own exploration of literal cuckoos and how they behave in nature?
Yes, the way they push the eggs out of the nest?
Yeah, they’re brood parasites.
Yes, they absolutely make sure that they have the resources that they need to thrive, which is what the cuckoos do. But by this mind control, by making their parents love, nurture and stay until that’s no longer serving them, that is really cleverly done.
It really is. And as you said this was a book originally written in the 1950s, what are the themes within the book that are still relevant in the 21st century?
I think that the idea of bodily autonomy, that theme was explored in a different way in 1957 compared to now. When some of the other mothers decide that they want to have a termination, that’s offered by the state. Well, of course, that isn’t in the book because the abortion act was 1967 and that was limited abortion anyway. I think that David explores the idea of bodily autonomy further in our version. But in John Wyndham’s version, I don’t know if he has had a lot of women in his life, but he really understood the kind of rage that motherhood can bring up. There’s a very pre and post, that nothing is the same and actually, especially in those early years, your time is never your own. Your resources aren’t your own. I’ve read a lot and I was very interested in reading about early motherhood, also because I had just become a mother myself, and I had quite a hard time initially. Those first six months were really hard and coupled with lockdown, it actually really helped me with Midwich, because early motherhood is quite a lonely place to be. You’re knackered, and you really don’t want to do anything anyway. But there’s always something that you have to do. In a sense, through lockdown we were all living in Midwich, weren’t we? My family in Ireland, they could only go five kilometres or something, it was like the Eden Project; everybody had their own invisible Eden Projects going on for a while (laughs).
I was re-reading some of it the other day and one of the mothers is so angry that the man can never understand. I think it’s a bit of a missed opportunity in his story. It’s a man, Dr Zellaby, casting his gaze in the story. He pontificates quite a lot and I actually think he’s fascinating. I know some people find that character quite pompous, but I like what he has to say. David so cleverly made Dr. Zellaby a listener. If you think that people can be on transmit or receive, Dr. Zellaby in the book is on transmit, and Dr. Zellaby in our show is on receive and all the more insightful because of that I think; she’s really in the jungle with them.
Science fiction serves very well as a social commentary. What is it for you about science fiction that allows us to explore the extremities in human behaviour?
I guess when something is extracted, when an idea is explored in a kind of kitchen sink way, we can see in it a story about particular people.
Whereas when it is that speculative sci-fi, like with The Handmaid's Tale, and I can’t wait to see The Power, when we all sit down and watch the television, we all know it’s a constructed world, and because of that we’re more willing. I’m watching Severance at the moment and the ideas that come up in that are so much more potent than seeing someone struggling through their work / life balance. To me, when ideas are extracted and taken to the nth degree it allows us to think more deeply about what is being said and how it relates to your own life, rather than looking at a pedestrian story.
Yeah, yeah, definitely. I’m just about to do a short, and then hopefully, I’ll do a feature at some point as well. And I’m on board to do this feature with a friend of mine who has written a great feature called Half Moon Bay, so we are hoping to shoot that soon. And I’m developing other stuff, so it’s a hectic time, and it’s very creative for me. I’m very fortunate, so we’ll see where it takes me.
And as we said the Cuckoos are kids, how does that effect production, because the kids can only work for so many hours a day? How did that effect the logistics of filming?
It didn’t massively affect me. Our little girl Scarlett Leigh was absolutely brilliant and I’m so happy that she was my cuckoo. I do think they were all brilliant, but I particularly thought Scarlett was amazing. She was such a good little actor so it didn’t matter that there was only limited time with her, because she just nailed it. She’s really special and I can’t wait to see what she does when she is older. I know they say don’t work with animals and children, but if they are good children and good animals then it’s great (laughs).
You’re an actor who has sustained a career over 20 years, do you have any advice for aspiring actors on how to sustain a career that has longevity?
I think having perspective is very important. We’re sold the idea that, you get that big job and that sets you up forever, but it never does. Every job is the prize, so whatever you’re doing, be it a short film, a series, a film, or a play, then that’s the prize. When you are doing it, you are part of that tiny percentage of actors that’s working, so grab it and grab it with both hands. I think when people have been working for a while, they can get quite blasé about it all and it’s such a shame because you don’t know when it’s going to be gone. My husband had a job in New Orleans and because we’ve got the baby, I was over there with him as we wanted to stay together but it meant that I wasn’t acting that whole time and I really missed it. It made me think that the next job that I have I’m really going to relish it and I think when you relish the job, you do your best work and people enjoy working with you and that can lead to more work.
I heard recently that quite a lot of young actors have an idea that you just have to do the one thing and then you blow up (laughs) but that’s not a career is it? That’s just a moment in time. You keep on having a career and getting better as an actor with a willingness to learn and to soak up the people around you. I worked with Ron Cook when I was quite young and I thought, “What a pro!” He’s done his work before he’s got to work and because he’s so prepared, he’s so much fun to work with. Because of that preparation, he can play different ideas and he has worked his whole life. That’s a big inspiration to me.
Aisling Loftus stars in The Midwich Cuckoos
available now, exclusively on SKY MAX
Photographer: Bertie Watson Stylist: Charlie Moore Makeup: Justine Jenkins Hair: Narad Kutowaroo
Ivory silk jacket Zimmerman, Silk shirt and crepe trousers both Joseph, Earrings and ring both Completed Works Sandals Aislings Loftus’ own
Production Stills: (c) SKY UK
With special thanks to Personal PR