Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes discuss grey matters in their new drama The Essex Serpent.
You sense a subtle kind of chemistry when Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston settle down on Zoom together to discuss their starring roles in The Essex Serpent.
He allows himself a secret smile when he hears her describe the subject matter as ‘it’s about love in all its shades – all the shades of grey’, knowing just how that might sound written down.
For the grey here is as much about the gathering gloom of the Essex marshes and the invisible horizon between sulky sky and murky North Sea as it is about the growing desire between their characters, Cora and Will.
The former is a fiercely independent woman of science, the latter a rural reverend who prefers to place his faith in God as the enigmatic serpent of the title coils itself around the imaginations of his parishioners.
The chemistry bubbles to the surface again when talk turns to filming the eagerly awaited adaptation of Sarah Perry’s novel along the atmospheric but invariably rain-sodden Blackwater Estuary.
We’re back in 1893 when women were kitted out in swathes of skirts and heavy boots, a world away from the modern Essex image of stilettos and spray tan.
Danes shudders at the memory of the filming.
‘Oh, my trailer!’ she says. ‘I had so many T-shirts, so many layers because I just dragged the mud in. It was wet, it was windy and occasionally quite brutal…’
‘It was windy, wet and muddy – very evocative and wild,’ Hiddleston avers. ‘But there were days when those wonderful sunny Turner skies turned up…’
‘Yes, that tended to be the days you were working,’ Danes chuckles, mock exasperated, not quite suggesting the sun shone out of his proverbial. ‘Tom’s here! The clouds will part!’
Whatever the truth of the tease, their affectionate friction carries over into the telling of the tale.
The connection between the serpent-hunting Cora and the sceptical Will as they strive to find a middle ground between rationality and religion is inevitably combative but it gives The Essex Serpent a vital emotional heart.
For this is densely plotted territory, the theme of a society in the throes of upheaval woven into a spooky tale of a community reeling in fear of a mysterious subterranean creature.
‘It’s hard not to draw parallels between the themes of the story and what is happening in the world now,’ says Danes.
‘I wonder whether this was when we started to splinter – there were all these amazing new insights and technologies, it was a radical moment, very destabilising and weird. Cora and Will are both trying to make sense of so many unknowns.’
Hiddleston warms to the theme.
‘Maybe what the story suggests is that the dialogue between reason and faith should be open and accepting and allow space for something to settle,’ he says.
‘It’s not an argument either has to win. They feed each other – reason and faith ultimately need each other. It’s a fascinating space to inhabit because I do believe we are still asking the big questions and these questions relate to where we derive meaning in our lives.’
What gives the attraction between Cora and Will added salt is the fact he’s married to the sensitive and sickly Stella (Clémence Poésy), a woman almost too good for the world, while the recently widowed Cora, relieved to have escaped her abusive husband, is baffled as to why she finds Will the enticing prospect when her logical mind is telling her that she is a much better match with pioneering surgeon Dr Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), who just happens to be smitten with her.
‘At the beginning, Cora is a stranger to herself,’ says Danes. ‘She hadn’t really had an opportunity to realise who she was while being captive in a very abusive relationship. Now she’s able to learn who she is by engaging with all these different people – that’s great fun to play.’
The Essex Serpent starts on Apple TV on May 13.