It’s probably fair to assume that, for most young actors, that coveted first TV job is unlikely to involve chatting with Bill Nighy about [writer and civil rights advocate] James Baldwin in between takes. But for Crystal Clarke, it did. Her part in the BBC’s new Agatha Christie adaptation, Ordeal by Innocence, following a handful of film and theatre roles (more on those later), marks her small screen debut, starring alongside some of the most recognizable faces in British television: Anna Chancellor, Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson, Downton’s Matthew Goode and the aforementioned Love Actually star.
‘It was one of those moments when everything comes full circle,’ she says of her experiences filming the three-part drama, in which she plays Tina Argyll. ‘These are people who I’ve watched for years, and now I’m working with them as part of an ensemble. There’s quite often hierarchies on set, but that wasn’t the case. I had great conversations with Bill about James Baldwin, who is a writer I admire so much, and so does he.’
Ordeal By Innocence is the third Agatha Christie adaptation from Sarah Phelps, who scripted 2015’s nerve-shredding And Then There Were None and the following year’s Witness For The Prosecution. A quintessentially Christie country house whodunnit, it centres upon the murder of wealthy philanthropist Rachel Argyll (Anna Chancellor). When, 18 months after the death, it becomes clear that the accused, (her son Jack, played by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s Anthony Boyle) actually had an alibi, the blame must inevitably fall on another member of her family, whether that’s her husband (Nighy), or one of her adopted children. Just like Phelps’ two previous takes, Ordeal By Innocence is hardly comforting viewing. ‘I think the understanding of what an Agatha Christie has been is this classic, tea time viewing. There’s not much delving into the workings of the mind, of the characters, which is completely different to how this show is,’ Crystal explains. ‘There’s so much more going on – intense stories, intense relationships. There was so much backstory for me to gather from the way Sarah had written it. That’s what makes it feel so modern.’
So far, headlines have inevitably focused on the re-shoots that brought Ordeal back to the BBC’s schedule. When sexual assault allegations surfaced against cast member and former Gossip Girl star Ed Westwick last year, the show was pulled from the Christmas line-up, its future in limbo until producers made the decision to replace Westwick (who has denied the allegations) with Christian Cooke and re-shoot his scenes over a 12-day period. Crystal’s anecdotes from the show allude to a camaraderie between a cast and crew that worked against the odds to resurrect the project – and, when the entertainment industry is attempting to move forward in the wake of #MeToo and Time’s Up, also speak to the importance of female visibility on set. ‘There was Sarah [Phelps, the writer], there was Sandra [Goldbacher, the director}, there was Ilana [Garrard] who was the camera operator, which you never see – you never see any women operating the camera, so it’s really uplifting to see her do a wonderful job,’ she says. ‘Even in the cast there’s me, Ella [Purnell], Eleanor – loads of women involved. It made it feel much less like a club that I had to infiltrate.’
The shoot for Ordeal took place in a mansion in the Scottish countryside (‘It was definitely haunted,’ Crystal says), not too far from Glasgow, where the New Jersey-born actor previously studied at the Conservatoire. ‘Everybody else was like, “Where do we go eat?” and I’m like, “Here, there, here…”’ she laughs. ‘I’ve got friends and family up there, a real support system, so that made [the shoot] much easier for me.’ Her decision to hop thousands of miles across the Atlantic to study was, she says ‘a story of going where the opportunity lies and feeling a bit bogged down by my country. I was doing it in the vein of James Baldwin or [American activist] Angela Davis, who left the country so they could figure out what it meant to be themselves. You can build a better view and understanding of yourself in terms of the world around you, instead of what society’s telling you all the time.’
It’s a decision that certainly paid off. Shortly before graduating, Crystal answered an open casting call for a little project called Star Wars, and eventually landed a role in The Force Awakens as a Resistance pilot, ahead of thousands of other hopefuls. She returned for last year’s follow-up, The Last Jedi, but admits she hasn’t yet worked her way through the 150 minute epic in its entirety. ‘I didn’t get to finish watching The Last Jedi!’ she says. ‘I was at a screening, but I was doing a play [Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance] at the time and had to get off to do that… Most of my stuff was at the end of the film, so I don’t even know what happened, I just had people telling me afterwards.’
Star Wars and a BBC prestige piece are certainly impressive additions to any rising star’s resume, yet Crystal makes some crucial points about how it can often prove difficult to find interesting, developed roles as a woman of colour. ‘Have I seen three-dimensional characters written for a black woman? Straight up, no. I’ve seen them for women, not specifically for black women, but I get sent in for stuff anyway because my agent is amazing. It’s definitely something that needs to be worked on, especially in period dramas like this.’ Indeed, period dramas are among the worst culprits when it comes to diversity on screen, and Crystal believes that the media has a responsibility to stop white-washing and represent British history more accurately.
‘There’s been this terrible habit of erasing black people from Britain’s history, which is just ridiculous,’ she says. ‘I’m not sure the media understands how much power they have in teaching people what their history is: people might watch drama after drama and not see a black person and assume there were ‘no’ black people at that time, which is so not true.’ She adds that writers shouldn’t shy away from creating black characters, citing Sarah’s decision to write Tina as a woman of colour. ‘It’s amazing that Sarah has written this character from a black perspective. I think that’s what scares people the most – they think they can’t put themselves in a person of colour’s shoes. But I’ve grown up having to put myself in Shakespeare’s shoes, and I don’t have anything in common with him! We have way more in common with each other than we do with him.’
Ordeal by Innocence starts on Sunday 1st April at 9pm on BBC One
NOW READ: 11 Brilliant Period Dramas To Stream On Netflix
Netflix's deep-dive into the personal conflicts, political intrigues and public controversies of Queen Elizabeth II's reign is the streaming service's most expensive original drama to date. Luckily, every penny of The Crown's rumoured £100 million budget appears to have paid off. Claire Foy gives a brilliant, sympathetic performance as Elizabeth, nailing the plummy vowels and poise of the monarch without descending into caricature - but it's Vanessa Kirby's Princess Margaret (and her controversial romance with a divorcé) that will have you gripped.