Exclusive Interview: Freema Agyeman

Londoner Freema Agyeman on female interactions and the importance of community, how comedy and tragedy walk hand-in-hand and why her latest role fulfilled a very personal longing.

Photography Yolanda Y. Liou | Styling Olga Timofejeva | Hair Molecia Seasay | Make up by Andriani Vasiliou | Shot on location The Kensington Hotel | Styling assistant Lucy Proctor

You’d have to have been burying your head in the sand to have missed Sky’s latest comedy-drama Dreamland. Set in sunny Margate and starring Lily Allen in her first TV acting role, the darkly comedic exploration of multi-generational female relationships and family dynamics is based on Sky’s 2018 BAFTA-winning short of the same name, which was written by Sharon Horgan and is produced by her production company, Merman, who were responsible for the brilliant Motherland.

Freema Agyeman, who rose to fame with her role as the Doctor’s companion Martha Jones in Doctor Who, stars alongside Lily as Trish. Recalling what drew her to the role, she tells me: “I’d been working in the US for so long and I was feeling…I was missing all things English really. And I was feeling the pull of coming home. And so then, post pandemic I decided to make that move back. And then, quite serendipitously, the first script that I got to see was Dreamland, which is so English in its very essence, that it satiated everything that I needed it to in that moment. And I recognised it so completely, because it’s the closest to my own life and upbringing and background and class, to anything that I’ve ever done before, so it felt like such an amalgamation of homecoming in every sense that I just felt like I had to do it.”

We meet Trish in episode one, pregnant for the third time with her partner Spence (played by Kiell Smith-Bynoe). After two boys, she’s decided this is going to be a girl. Her sisters Clare (Gabby Best) and Leila (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) rally around her with their mum (Frances Barber) and their Margate-legend nan (Sheila Reid), ‘manifesting’ a little girl at Trish’s ‘mani-festival’. But a knock at the door heralds the return of their other sister, Mel (Lily Allen), whose unexpected reappearance and the news she brings threatens to destabilise the family.

Freema wears top and skirt, both by Zimmermann

“There’s so many things I love about this script, and the whole show,” Freema tells me. “I think it’s beautifully written and observed, and funny and moving. As well as the characters – who are at the forefront and the core and are utterly relatable to me (and I just adored every one on them) – I just loved all of the other themes that were addressed. I mean, it’s only six half hour episodes, but we’re looking at regeneration versus gentrification, community, the notion of belonging, classism, racism, womanhood, motherhood… I hope that people can further these discussions. I mean, that’s one of the many reasons why we create art, right?”

It feels almost certain that there will be discussions, not least because the series ends with many unanswered questions. Are there plans to make a second? “We certainly all hope so,” Freema nods. “I think Merman are exquisite in creating authentic stories. And I think these people live and breathe. I certainly want to see more of their lives and interactions. I love how much we can see how fiercely in love with each other they are, but there’s so much dysfunction there, and so many complexities, and I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of all of that. So hopefully they resonate with the audience, and they will want more too, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see…” she shrugs.

As well as wanting to explore the characters and themes further, Freema tells me she would love the opportunity to work with the team again. Alongside being a lot of fun, everybody was so supportive, she reveals. “It’s a show about women, and it’s female centric, and about female interactions and relationships. But you know, no two women’s experiences on this planet are identical. We have commonalities and threads. So, there is a sisterhood that was very much, I think, felt and created on set, but in that community that we formed, we were all so different. We have different stories and experiences, and so you know, depending on what you needed, from who and at any point, you could find it. There’d be laughter, or you could have deep discussions, creative analysis, or entertaining conversations. So, you know, it was very nourishing, I think on set and off.”

Given the variety of work she has done, it is perhaps surprising that this was Freema’s first experience of comedy. But it is a genre that she very much enjoyed exploring. “I didn’t know what to expect, right? Because I’m so new to the comedy world and I think for this to have been my first experience, the bar has been set very high,” she tells me. “You had all the comedic actors, like Kiell Smith-Bynoe, who comes from that scene. It was so fascinating for me when these actors from the comedy scene would come on, and they had like a shorthand, because they all knew each other. And I would watch how confident they are, and how good at being off the cuff, and how quick witted they are. And I was just in awe. So yeah, I learned a lot and have realised I have loads more to learn, as well.”

Freema wears top and skirt, both by Zimmermann

Would she like to do more of it? “I’m not going to presume I know what every comedy set is like, but I certainly did find this one, as I say, to be very nurturing and open,” she nods. “I think this is described as a dark comedy, or a comedic drama.

We’re laughing at things that are essentially pretty bloody tragic. But that’s life; comedy and tragedy walk hand-in-hand in this life for every single one of us. Because of that, I know I was able to lean into what I can rely on, which is a more dramatic performance. But then I had the opportunity to perform some comedy alongside that. There were enough moments where I felt sweaty palms, which always makes me realise that I’m out of my comfort zone, and that’s what I love. I love diversifying in my career. I love the opportunity to grow and to learn. So yeah, I would, is the long answer to that question. Provided it was in another space like this.”

So, more comedy is on the career wish list – any other genres? “For me, I’m realising increasingly that the environment and the team and the community are paramount. Because I could be given the best role in the world, a role I have always dreamed of playing. And if you’re doing it in a vacuum, or in an environment that’s stifling, and non-encouraging, then it’s not going to be work that you’re proud of. Or grow from. I just know it. Because, you know, yes, the material is so important, but I think there has to be a marriage. It’s like alchemy, really. All of the components have to be there, together, I think, for it to be a whole experience. And so, I’m starting to look at it as like, who would I like to work with as opposed to what role I would like to play,” she explains.

What would the dream collaboration be, I wonder. “Whenever I watch Shane Meadows’ work, I just love his characterisation and that kind of gritty realism in his writing and his vision. I can watch his films and forget I’m watching drama; it just feels real. And also, I love Taika Waititi in terms of his characterisation, and writing, but also humour. I love Jordan Peele’s work for that as well. When it comes to his movies, I like the way he really gives space to his actors, I think, to find things – maybe I’m assuming, but it just feels like there’s a real collaboration there with his actors. It just feels like they do have room, for want of a better word. And then in terms of writers, Phoebe Waller-Bridge… If Bruce Robinson was doing anything today, I’d love to work with him. Withnail & I is like my all-time favourite film!”

For now, though, Freema reveals that she is focusing on something a little different. “I love shape shifting, I love getting the opportunity to live in other people’s skin. Sometimes the further from me they are, and the bigger the challenge, the more I get out of it. But what I’ve also discovered is, when it’s so close, and you can actually feel you’re producing, or building this person in an authentic way, that’s so satisfying. And that’s now also making me think I would like to do a little bit more, to lean more into that direction, and use more of my own experience and my own voice in some of my work. I started writing during lockdown, as I’m sure so many people did who needed to get their thoughts onto a page. But you know, just because you’ve got pen and paper, a writer that does not make…” she laughs. “I have ideas, but I need the expertise of someone who understands that. So, I have started writing – very, very early days – with a playwright friend of mine. So, we have started working, with the view towards producing a one woman show.”

Freema Agyeman

Freema wears suit by JUNLI, and bra by Zimmermann

The project is being written with the stage in mind. “Sometimes things take their own life, don’t they, and I suppose move in other ways,” she observes. “Who knows, maybe we’ll put it down and not revisit it for another 20 years. I don’t know, but we’re certainly enjoying its inception. For sure.”

Alongside this writing project, theatre in general is something Freema is giving a lot of thought to. “I am in some talks at the moment, for a couple of things. And I think that is probably the direction I’m going go in next,” she reveals. “I’ve only ever done one theatrical production – that was at the Trafalgar Studios, with Stockard Channing. It was Alexi Kaye Campbell’s piece Apologia, directed by Jamie Lloyd. It was a wonderful experience.”

It was, though, a very steep learning curve, she admits. “I always felt like dividing us within mediums wasn’t fair: ‘that person is a TV actor, that person is a film actor’,” she explains. “I’d always felt like that felt quite exclusionary and limited your opportunities to kind of expand in other areas. I felt like, at the end of the day, we’re all storytellers. However, I got to theatre and was like: Oh wait, I’ve got to actually project my voice to the back of row Z. I don’t have the pipes for that! I realised one needs to acquire a different set of skills for each medium… But that’s great, because how are we going to know that if we don’t get the opportunity to explore and expand. I remember hitting a wall early on, thinking ‘no one’s going be able to hear me’. And then, the production got me a dialect coach, and I’d work with her on how to use my equipment in a different way. Once I got over that hurdle, and also using my body in a different way, filling the space in a different way. You know, choreographing your movements in a different way – it’s like a dance. That was so exciting for me; to learn. I was terrified, which is why, again, I knew I was in the right place. I am desperate to have another go at that, and so I am going to!”

Quite what the project will be remains to be seen, but for now, Freema is simply enjoying being back at home in London after spending the best part of ten years in the States playing the roles of Dr. Helen Sharpe in NBC medical drama series New Amsterdam and Amanita Caplan in Netflix fantasy Sense8. “I absolutely love being back,” she exclaims. “I worked in America for the last decade, give or take, and I’ve loved every single moment of it. I wouldn’t change a thing. But it’s like, you know when you go on the most incredible holiday? You love it so much; you never want it to end. But then when you come home and you turn the key in your door and you get into your bed, you just can’t help but think that there’s no place like home. It doesn’t undermine what you’ve just done. It doesn’t take away from what you’ve just experienced. All of that was bliss and perfect, but there is space for all of it!”

Dreamland is available now on Sky Atlantic and NOW.