Samuel West (‘Eternal Law’) interview

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With a career spanning over 20 years, Samuel West has established himself as a respected stage, film, and television actor, and theatre director. His television and film credits range from playing King Caspian in the BBC’s The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 1989, to more recently, starring in Any Human Heart, Poirot, and Law & Order:UK.

Created and written by Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham (Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes), ITV1’s new drama series Eternal Law sees Samuel star as veteran angel Zak Gist.

Episode 1 airs at 9pm on Thursday 5th January on ITV1.

> Buy the Series 1 DVD on Amazon.

What drew you to Eternal Law?

“Ashley and Matt have an extraordinary track record. I was very excited by Life on Mars and I thought anything they were writing, even though it sounded like a high concept drama, was likely to be deep as well as exciting.”

How would you describe the show?

“Angels who are also lawyers, it sounds like two different series crashing head on, but it doesn’t feel like that. If you say that there are angels on earth and they all do lots of other jobs – there are angel taxi drivers, angel lawyers and angel doctors – then it makes more sense.

“I think the structure works in two ways, it allows you to say very interesting things about another species, a species that is sort of human but not quite, but most importantly it allows you say important things about humanity and to have big arguments about things that matter, like love and hate, death and war, and right and wrong.

“Whether you believe angels exist and they’re keeping an eye on you, or whether you think they’ve been invented to remind us of the best things of ourselves, there is a reason why they run through the literature for hundreds, in fact thousands of years. It’s pretty exciting I think.”

Zak is a guardian angel. How did you approach playing this role?

“I’m an atheist and I don’t mind who knows it. I think of it more in terms as a different species – I’m a very keen bird watcher and when I meet a new species of bird I look at it and think, ‘your behaviour is a bit like another species I know well but it’s not it’s your own’.

“So playing an angel – even one in human form – I’m really tapping into something which is quite alien. It’s meant to put you in touch with feelings, abilities, qualities of wisdom and long service and goodness.

“I went back to Christmas carols as they’re full of references to angels. In O Little Town of Bethlehem there is a verse, ‘while mortals sleep the angels keep their watch of wondering love’. ‘Wondering love’ is a brilliant way to describe how the angels are depicted in this series, and through history in terms of their attitude towards humanity; they are loving, a sort of all loving.

“The extraordinary thing that angels learn when they look at humans, is that having been born the only thing we know is that we’re going to die; yet we continue to want to love and reproduce and make the best of our time and every time we get knocked down we get back up again. When you put that into a series it teaches us about our best qualities as a race. The way we love, that desperate fast way we love.

“The angels look at humans and say, ‘wow – they’re incredible and I want this, I know I only get a few years of it but I want it because it’s just so incredible’. There’s something about playing an angel and admiring this race that’s really quite inspiring.”

How would you describe Zak?

“He’s a grumpy angel. He is meant to have access to reserves of calmness, wisdom, bravery and hold a balanced view, and he also cares deeply about making a success of things. He’s a bit like a tough uncompromising cop who isn’t afraid to break the rules; and it would be no fun having an angel who was just a goody goody.

“Tom is a very wet behind the ears angel who has literally just come out of the choir and as Richard says “they’re sending me altos”. Although Tom turns out to be a wonderful angel and somebody we learn a lot from. But Zak is not like that.”

How does he view Tom?

“Absolutely as a nuisance to start with! Tom is a complete rookie, he’s useless, he doesn’t even know how to eat a banana!

“He’s read all the books but book learning is no substitute for experience of the world and in some cases he’s absolutely dangerous, he’s always charging off into battle and titling at windmills, doing things for the right reasons at the wrong time. But despite all these misgivings I think Zak turns out to be very fond of him.”

Did you enjoy working with Ukweli Roach and the other cast?

“Although Ukweli is only just out of drama school he’s enormously experienced for his age and he went to a fine school, he’s really top. I knew Hattie and Tobias previously from the theatre. It’s a really fine cast, and the supporting cast is without exception incredible.”

Can you describe Zak’s relationship with Hannah, played by Hattie Morahan?

“Zak’s feelings for Hannah run through everything, his whole being. We learn that he knew Hannah in the past. He was in love with her to the extent that he was almost prepared to give up his wings and become mortal until Mr. Mountjoy persuaded him otherwise. Because there is a sense, although it’s only an undertone, that the world is reaching a bit of a breaking point and that the number of angels has reached a dangerously low point.

“Zak has to think of the bigger picture, humanity en mass. So Mr. Mountjoy persuades him that in order to love Hannah best he has to go back to the earth and make it beautiful for her and save it. When he arrives he meets Hannah immediately and thinks Mr. Mountjoy is testing him.

“The great thing about playing an angel is that you’re sort of a spy, you’re undercover. If anybody knows you exist you’ve failed. Hannah doesn’t know who Zak is. Their relationship is not like a classical love story in that you think, ‘If only she knew that he was really the same person then it would all be alright’, because of course it wouldn’t.

“It would completely mess her mind up, blow Zak’s cover and jeopardise the safety of the whole project and ultimately the whole earth. So you’re playing a love scene and you think, ‘what’s at stake?’ Ultimately the whole planet – no pressure!”

Did you enjoy filming in York?

“Filming in York was such a pleasure. York is an incredibly welcoming city. It can be very disruptive to do a major series in the middle of a city that small, but we felt very welcome and it was beautiful in every sense. The city is a major character in the drama.”

> Buy the Series 1 DVD on Amazon.

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