Six years ago, Eve Myles decided she’d had her fill of the actor’s life, and signed up to retrain as a midwife.
It wasn’t as if her career was exactly on the skids: she’d only recently finished playing the title role of a district nurse in BBC One drama Frankie, and had spent the five years before that defending the Earth from aliens as Gwen Cooper in Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. But something just wasn’t clicking any more.
‘I’d been doing this job for over 20 years, and I just got to a point where I had a bit of a wobble,’ the 41-year-old tells Weekend. ‘A proper wobble, this time, actually. So I signed up to become a foetal sonographer, which is something that’s always interested me.
‘I guess what it was about, is that I really needed a challenge. I needed to be pushed, and I needed to be turned on by my job again. And then along comes Faith Howells.’
Faith Howells, for the few who aren’t in the loop, is the small-town solicitor Myles plays to such winning effect in Keeping Faith, the Welsh drama that became last year’s surprise word-of-mouth hit after racking up more than 17 million iPlayer requests.
Originally screened on S4C as the Welsh-language Un Bore Mercher (‘One Wednesday Morning’), the first series followed Faith’s struggle to deal with her husband Evan’s sudden disappearance, while the second – currently airing on BBC One – examines the aftershocks of his equally out-of-the-blue return. Part thriller, part domestic drama – as a mother of three, Faith has to combine unpicking Evan’s web of secrecy and lies with making sure the kids get to swimming club – a huge part of the show’s appeal lies in Myles’ earthy, relatable lead performance. But she almost didn’t take the job at all.
‘I said no three times,’ she recalls. ‘But as soon as they sent the first script over, of course I was hooked. And I knew it was one of those big challenges that would either be the making or the breaking of me.’
Chief among her concerns was learning a new language. ‘Although I was brought up in a community [Ystradgynlais, Powys] where a lot of Welsh language was spoken, nobody in my circle did,' she explains. ‘I had to do it literally from scratch.'
After a four-month crash course, she felt ready to tackle the back-to-back Welsh and English language shoots. ‘But I still have to have the subtitles on when we watch it!’ she admits, hooting.
The second series sees Faith – whose yellow raincoat has become perhaps the most iconic garment in a TV thriller since Sarah Lund’s jumper – drawn into ever murkier waters as she tries to clean up her husband’s mess. ‘It’s about survival,’ says Myles. ‘Underneath the surface, she’s kicking for her life, and for her children’s lives.’
The scenes in which a shattered Faith confronts Evan – including an outbreak of cold fury in which she batters him senseless – are lent an added frisson by the fact he is played by Myles’ real-life husband, Bradley Freegard. Presumably they don’t bring their work home with them?
‘Oh God no,’ she says. ‘We’ve got two kids [Matilda, nine, and Siena, five], a house and a dog to run. There’s shopping to do, the bath to run… I think I’d lose my mind if we bled Faith and Evan into our house. There aren’t enough compartments in my brain. You wouldn’t wish what that couple have been through on your worst enemy.’
She hadn’t even known Freegard was being considered for the role. ‘I was in hospital, just coming round from the anaesthetic after an operation, when Brad told me he’d been cast as Evan,’ she recalls. Her response? ‘I asked for more morphine!
‘Nothing had been discussed with me,’ she adds. ‘I wouldn’t dream of [getting him an audition], and he wouldn’t dream of doing that for me. You get the job on your own merit, or you don’t get it at all. Simple as that.’
And the dramatic incident that had landed her in hospital, limbs suspended from the ceiling in casts, just weeks before filming on Keeping Faith was due to commence? Wiping down a table.
‘Having played Gwen Cooper for six years without an injury, shooting down helicopters and doing all those daredevil stunts, I get a Dettol wipe, lean over the table in my living room, and a piece of wood goes through the shaft tendon in my finger. This infection got into my bloodstream – I could see my hand filling with fluid, pulling the joints apart, going blue. That was 9am. By 3.30pm I was being prepped for an operation, and I was in hospital for a week.’
The role of Gwen Cooper, police constable turned Welsh foo-fighter, was created especially for Myles following her 2005 guest turn opposite Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor Who. ‘That was absolutely huge for me,’ she says. ‘The producers came to see me at the National Theatre, and said “We’re here because Russell T Davies has written a 13-part drama for you and John Barrowman – what’s your schedule looking like next year?” The last thing they said to me was, “You must keep this to yourself, it’s not to become public knowledge.” I said, “That’s no problem at all.” Within two minutes of them leaving, I’d told everybody.’
Are she and her girls enjoying Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor? ‘Oh, absolutely,’ says Myles, who worked with the future Time Lord on Broadchurch. ‘It was such a precious thing, when I found out it was Jodie. I got in touch with her straight away and she was so, so excited. And yeah, the girls are thrilled by it. When the first couple of episodes came out, we couldn’t call Siena Siena, we had to call her the Doctor. I was very pleased by that. My eldest daughter said, “You’re the Doctor and our mum’s Gwen Cooper”.’
Torchwood’s final season in 2011 was a US co-production, partly filmed in Hollywood. ‘We literally lived under the Hollywood sign,’ recalls Myles. ‘It was hilarious. I never thought any of that would happen to me. I never thought Russell T Davies would write such a thrilling character for me to play, that we would start on BBC Three, then go on to BBC Two and BBC One, and then finish the last series at Warner Bros in Los Angeles. It was a long way from growing up in a flat on a council estate.
‘We didn’t even do drama in school,’ she adds of life in Ystradgynlais, where her mum combined two cleaning jobs with working in a shop. ‘We had one teacher, Hazel Williams, who had been an actress – she’d been on [long-running Welsh soap] Pbol y Cym – and she introduced us to the idea of doing three weeks at the Royal National Theatre of Wales in Cardiff, over the summer. I auditioned for it, and I can remember, when I came out of doing one of my GCSEs, Hazel was waiting for me…’
She starts to choke up at the memory. ‘Gosh, I’m sorry, I’m a bit over-tired,’ she says. ‘But she was waiting for me, and she said, “Good news, you’ve got onto the course”.’
At which point the teenage Myles had two thoughts: one was that she’d never been away from her mother (it was just the two of them living in their top-floor flat, her dad having left when she was three, though they are now close again), and the other was that she’d never be able to afford it. ‘I got a scholarship of £350, which meant we had to find another £350. So we did bucket collections in the Miners’ Welfare Hall, we did boot sales in the local market… What people in my community lacked financially, they had in abundance in heart and love.
‘Without those three weeks at the National Theatre, this would never have been my path,’ she reflects of a career that has taken her from a decade-long stint on the S4C drama Belonging to recent roles in Victoria, A Very English Scandal and Cold Feet. Nor, she adds, would she have met her husband (they started dating while playing brother and sister in Titus Andronicus at the RSC) or had her children. ‘It was one of those real Sliding Doors moments.’
As, indeed, was taking on – at the fourth time of asking – what has proved to be the biggest, most game-changing role of her career. ‘We had no press outside Wales – we had very little in Wales,’ she recalls of Keeping Faith’s soft launch. ‘So for people over the bridge’ – delightfully, Myles always refers to the rest of Britain as ‘over the bridge’ – ‘to have watched it and spread the word and taken ownership of it; for it to have that that effect on them, really meant to me that we’d made something important. And for me, it proved that I can be challenged, that I can be put into areas that I didn’t know I could do – and that I still love my job.’
An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend, 15 August, 2019
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