Getting blooded for the part - with real blood
Catherine Walker was stuck behind an ambulance in traffic the other day. It's something that's happened to her before, but this time, she had a different appreciation for what was going on inside - she was able to run through in her mind exactly what the paramedics were doing, as the blue lights flashed and they leapt into action on behalf of the car crash victim being carried to hospital.
Walker has recently undertaken a whirlwind crammer course in the language, rhythms and high drama of medicine's most nail-biting speciality, trauma care, thanks to her key role in Critical, a new medical drama shortly to air on Sky, set in a specialist major trauma centre.
The show's daring USP is that all the action in each hour-long episode is set in real time - it's a minute-by-minute battle against the clock, as the team grapple to save the lives of the most unwell and injured patients to enter the hospital. "It's the only place that you get life and death now in medicine," Catherine explains. "Other than being out in a war hospital - in an army hospital. Which actually a lot of (trauma doctors) do. Our lead character is also military, because that is where the cutting edge of trauma is."
Critical's creator, Jed Mercurio, was a hospital doctor and an RAF pilot before he became a scriptwriter, so is no stranger to the battleground of A&E. The preparation Walker, who plays Vascular Registrar Fiona, and her co-stars undertook was rigorous and exacting. "I was absolutely convinced that I was squeamish," Catherine says. "We went to do our training in St George's hospital and I thought, 'Oh my God, I'll be found out. . . I can act it, but what if I can't take the reality of it, which is going to be so important for this show?'
"But all the squeamishness goes because it's just so fascinating," she goes on. She started off standing against the wall in case she fainted, but found "within a couple of minutes, it begins, and you're moving closer and closer and closer. And suddenly it's two-and-a-half hours later and . . . it's absolutely fascinating."
Walker, who is a feted theatre actress (she's won three Irish Times theatre awards) and played a long-running role in RTE's The Clinic, has, for most of her career, ping-ponged effortlessly between work in London and projects back home in her native Dublin. It's a lifestyle that suits her, she says, between bites of a chicken sandwich at a central London hotel, "I think there is the travelling player thing, definitely. I"m quite happy in transit, I like moving."
This role, however, is no doubt her most high-profile professional undertaking yet. Walker, who is 40 this year, has done her time in the wilderness, professionally speaking, and so is always grateful for the straightforward reward of being employed. "I was very shy for a long time," she says. "I did find it hard to find my place. I've kind of learnt along the way how to cover that a bit. But no, actors are often shy - it's a place where they can get lost."
She understands easily the transitional, formative experience that her character in Critical, Fiona, is going through as a doctor still in training, forced to take on perhaps more responsibility than she is ready for. "Fiona hasn't learned yet, and I kind of hope she doesn't ever really, to fully control her emotional life, and her attachment and empathy to the patient," she says.
"It's still a very male-dominated world. It's a bit of a boys' club, and it can be really tough. A lot of the time, women are told they're not strong enough for trauma . . . I would be quite emotional - I'd get quite affected by things, and I think Fiona gets quite affected by things. I quite love that she isn't hardened."
Critical begins on Sky 1 on Tuesday 24th February at 9pm.