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The Way’s Sophie Melville: ‘My idea of acting was middle-class people in frocks’

A new dystopian series about riots that break out over a local steelworks, written by James Graham, is coming to the BBC just weeks after news broke of Tata Steel’s closure in Port Talbot. Stage star Sophie Melville tells Ellie Harrison why it could be the most impactful thing on screen since ITV’s ‘Mr Bates’

Monday 19 February 2024 06:00 GMT
‘Welsh people are either perceived as poetic and mythical or a bit grungy, a bit working class’
‘Welsh people are either perceived as poetic and mythical or a bit grungy, a bit working class’ (The Other Richard)

If it’s not political, then chances are Sophie Melville’s not bothered. Lucky for her, the Welsh actor is starring in a big new BBC show from James Graham, the man behind shocking post-Brexit mining drama Sherwood, and punchy plays from Ink to Best of Enemies. The Way is about a mass civil uprising that erupts over the uncertain future of a major steelworks in the small industrial town of Port Talbot, and it couldn’t be more topical.

In the days before I meet Melville, news breaks of the closure of Port Talbot’s actual Tata Steel plant, the largest steelworks in the UK – and where generations of the actor’s family have worked. The move means thousands will be left jobless. “It’s really scary,” says Melville, whose aunt lives there. “The steelworks are the heart and the soul of that town, and they’ve been trying to rip it out for so long, but it just happens to be at the exact time our show is coming out. I actually can’t believe it. It’s devastating.”

She is hopeful that The Way will make people take notice, in the same manner that Mr Bates vs The Post Office stirred up the nation’s rage. “People don’t really know about it,” she says, “and that’s the beauty of drama – people are educated without having to sit down and listen to a lecture. We need to see the humanity in it.”

The 33-year-old seeks these kinds of projects out. She had her breakout role in the 2015 one-woman show Iphigenia in Splott, an unflinching study of how austerity has ravaged the UK. It returned in 2022, and was hailed as a “shattering modern classic”. And she’s recently been performing in Cowbois, a queer take on the Wild West, which has just finished its run at the Royal Court. She imbues every role with a restless urgency, and couldn’t be more suited to making art that pushes and provokes.

But The Way is set to be her biggest part yet. The directorial debut from Michael Sheen, it puts her among the cream of Welsh acting talent, with Gavin and Stacey’s Steffan Rhodri and It’s a Sin’s Callum Scott Howells in the ensemble cast. Set in the present day, the show imagines a family, the Driscolls, who are caught up in the civil uprising. The action unfolds like a panic attack, with increasingly febrile scenes of rioting and police clashes, and the rage of local steelworkers igniting a more universal howl of discontent. Sheen has said that the series is trying to “capture what it has felt like to be living in our culture over the past 10 years, where you are never sure if you’re living in a sitcom or horror film”.

Melville plays Thea Driscoll, a police officer who masterminds the family’s escape from the embattled town. As the Driscolls set off on their journey, Thea is the only one who’s seemingly level-headed: her mother is seething, her father is grieving and her brother is suffering from addiction withdrawal. “Everyone is in crisis. It’s chaos,” Melville smiles, sitting across from me in a café in Clapham. “They’re like my family, to be honest. I’m totally typecast. I’m like, Thea? Yeah, I can do this in my sleep.”

On the day we speak, there are gale-force winds outside; Melville, down from Swansea and staying at a friend’s house nearby, looks as if she’s been blown through the door. She is fresh-faced and makeup-free, her blue eyes alert, her blonde waves unruly. She opts for a matcha latte because, she says, coffee makes her “mad”. Words and ideas stream out of her. Her political drive is something she traces back to her grandad – or her “bampa”, as she calls him.

Steely-eyed: Melville portraying Thea, a police officer for a small industrial town, in new series ‘The Way’ (BBC/Red Seam/Sanne Gault)

“He worked for the Socialist Party for South Wales, so I spent a lot of my childhood going on marches and protests,” she says. “[Politics] is in me without me even being fully aware of it.” She pauses. “I just want to do stuff that has a massive effect on the audience. Obviously, there’s space for escapism, of course there is, but if there’s a message, it makes me want to do it. There needs to be something where I feel it will have a brilliant effect on someone’s life, because I don’t even know why I’m an actor – I just sort of fell into it by mistake. But things can really have the power to change our society.”

The Way’s shoot was memorable. “We filmed a huge riot scene in the centre of Port Talbot on the hottest day of the year,” she says. “The way the supporting artists are running at you, it’s so f***ing scary. I was petrified. At one point, this poor man smacked his head on a bollard and we needed to call an ambulance.”

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Sheen, who also stars and has been a fierce champion of Welsh culture and history, brought a “quirky” element to the series, which is steeped in local folklore and mythology. “It feels very Welsh to me,” she says. “Welsh people are either perceived as poetic and mythical or a bit grungy, a bit working class. In this, there are the gorgeous hills and the beaches, and then there’s the dirty, ugly, infrastructure of the steelworks. It just feels like what it is to be Welsh. Like me – I’m massively into yoga and spiritual stuff, but I’ve also got this mad rage and passion and fire. Seeing all those different bits in The Way, I was like, I feel like that.”

Melville in ‘shattering modern classic’ Iphigenia in Splott (Jennifer McCord)

Having spent her career so far mostly treading the boards – from Iphigenia in Splott to the postpartum depression play Mum to Abigail Graham’s modernised Merchant of Venice – Melville loved her first big TV job. Particularly how it’s just the cast and crew watching a scene, not a whole theatre audience. “No one else is judging me if I mess up,” she says, unlike in the play Cowbois, where she recently had a wardrobe malfunction. “I got stuck in my apron on stage the other day. There’s this whole sexy scene where I undress, and I couldn’t get my clothes off. I had to ask the guy who I was stripping for to help me, which kind of ruined the vibe a little bit...”

In Cowbois, Melville’s Miss Lillian is a saloon owner who falls for Jack, a transgender bandit. She says she has “never felt more at home” with a company. “I’ve never felt so unfiltered, and I really let my queerness just fly because the company are majority queer people. It’s taught me so much about myself, and I wish I’d experienced that 10 years ago. I feel like I’m really coming into my queerness doing this play. A lot of us are neurodivergent – I call it neuro-spicy – so being in the dressing room, I don’t have to mask any of my spicy brain. It’s just a proper splurge of colour and joy.”

Melville has dyslexia and Irlen syndrome, which she describes as a form of autism that affects how the eyes interpret light. “That white wall right now,” she says, pointing across the café, “is crawling like this.” She waggles her fingers. When she was 25, Melville was diagnosed with ADHD. “I was like, there’s definitely something more going on here,” she says. “Then when I was dating someone whose mum was an ADHD examiner, she met me and was like, ‘Sophie, you’ve got severe ADHD.’”

If you come from nothing and you allow yourself to dream big, it’s dangerous

Melville grew up in Swansea, in what she describes as a “really brutalist” council flat. “They’re trendy now but it was horrific back then,” she says with a chuckle. “My mam and my dad, neither of them have any education, we were criminal class, but I can’t really say why that is, I don’t want anyone to get in trouble. But that was how we lived, hand to mouth. There was no talk about careers or education or anything like that, because in my immediate circle, it was like, you work for money to eat.” She says it was just the three of them at first, before her sister came along several years after that and her parents broke up. Later, she tells me that addiction, explored in The Way and a play she did last year called Sorter, is a subject matter close to her heart. “A lot of it is happening in my family.”

School was difficult – due to Melville’s late ADHD diagnosis, she didn’t have the support she needed. “I was always misunderstood because of my ADHD and my queerness, always a bit overexcited, and I didn’t fit into any binary box. Teachers thought I was naughty, so for my GCSEs, I had a whole row to myself because I would distract people. But being in school was much nicer than being at home.”

To help Melville release some of her energy, her mother put her in dance classes from the age of two. “She had to work her arse off to afford for me to able to do it. I owe her everything.” The dancing led to a love of performing, but Melville couldn’t see herself as an actor at first. “I was like, it’s all Shakespeare and s***, innit? My idea of acting was middle-class people in frocks.” Reading monologues by politically minded Welsh playwright Gary Owen, who wrote Iphigenia in Splott, changed her mind. “There were people in them like me.” She went on to train at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Melville still can’t quite believe she’s made a career out of acting. “If you come from nothing and you allow yourself to dream big, it’s dangerous,” she says. “From the start, I thought, that’s not for me. People like me don’t do that. That’s for people with a private education… I’m still waiting for someone to be like, ‘You shouldn’t be here, pip.’”

Her family, she says, “don’t really get” her career, though her mother is looking forward to seeing Melville’s face on billboards for The Way, and her grandad came to see her play the other day. “But only because he was down doing some socialist conference for a week.” She shakes her head, amused. “He says to me, ‘You need to start a revolution.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, one step at a time.’”

‘The Way’ begins on BBC One at 9pm on Monday 19 February

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