Actor Pippa Bennett-Warner on pursuing roles that push the needle

A black and white portrait of a woman smiling

The London member muses about taking on characters that challenge stereotypes for people of colour, including her new part as a hotshot lawyer in David Hare’s political drama, Roadkill

By Dayna Southall    Above image by Walker Chaz Oldham  Friday 30 October, 2020   Long read 

Unpredictable would be an understatement to describe this year. Between a global pandemic and worldwide protests, 2020 has been a year that we can’t seem to put into words – and it’s not even over. And another thing that’s unpredictable is playwright David Hare’s new BBC One drama, Roadkill. Intertwining plot lines, scandalous politicians and skeletons ready to jump out of the closet burst at the seams of this new thriller. Stepping away from the real-life disarray of Brexit, the four-part drama takes us through the life of a corrupt Tory MP who attempts to present himself as a squeaky-clean family man with not so much as a scandal to his name. But when a hidden daughter reappears and old ‘fake news’ is brought to the forefront, we’re quickly thrown into the world of shady back-door political deals and dangerous investigative journalism. 

‘There are lots of surprises,’ explains Pippa Bennett-Warner excitedly. ‘By the end of the show, you don’t really get the outcome you would expect, which is good. It keeps you on the edge of your seat.’ The actor, who’s starred in gang-crime drama Gangs Of London earlier this year, plays top lawyer Rochelle who attempts to navigate politician Peter Laurence’s (Hugh Laurie) high-profile libel case against a well-known publication. But when revelations come to light, the lawyer is faced with moral turmoil and we see a more vulnerable side to the power player. ‘I think her need for justice and her will to do the right thing overcomes her desire to be a workaholic,’ Bennett-Warner muses. ‘But she ultimately puts her career on the line, and I think it’s the first time she’s ever had to do this or even wanted to.’
A close up of a woman looking out of a window
Bennett-Warner in Gangs of London
Rochelle isn’t the only female holding all the cards, though. With Helen McCrory playing the Prime Minister and Normal People star Sarah Greene as a journalist, Hare shines a light on women in elevated positions, portraying them as strong individuals standing side by side with their male counterparts. But it’s seeing a top Black female lawyer that immediately grabs our attention. The importance of representation in UK dramas has been a topic of conversation for a long time. ‘This is it,’ says Bennett-Warner. ‘I don’t think I’ve seen a character like Rochelle on British TV. And I’m really grateful to be playing her, because I just think she’s so cool. This representation is needed, and it’s amazing that I can be a part of something like this. She definitely gives off an Olivia Pope vibe, and the on-screen chemistry between Luke (Danny Ashok) and Rochelle reflected our own personal relationship. We had so much fun together.’

Looking back over her career from Moira Buffini’s period drama Harlots to her most recent role in sitcom Maxxx as nerdy manager Tamzin, Bennett-Warner is lending her talents to different roles, breaking out of the norm with more eccentric parts. ‘Most of the stuff I do is drama,’ she says. ‘But I haven’t portrayed anyone in a legal setting before, and there is a different energy to it. It was nice to play someone who was quite tough, but had that flawed human being on the inside. In Hare’s writing, in every scene, he gives you a big juicy steak – amazing dialogue. As an actor, it’s so pleasurable to say his words, because you’re able to go all out.’
Two barristers talking
Bennett-Warner in Roadkill
As the low-lying sun begins to fade during our late-afternoon phone call and rain clouds start to form over the autumn sky, Bennett-Warner and I bring our conversation to a close. We laugh and muse over upcoming work for the star, discussing her role in Maxxx, which she assures me is a must-watch. And we also talk about the unpredictability of the future for creatives. ‘We’ve all had downtime in between projects, but nothing like this where the whole industry has just come to a standstill,’ she says. ‘It’s strange, but I think it’ll be interesting to see where the future of the creative industry goes, and what the coming year will bring.’
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