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'We've lost a whole generation of talented actors to Lycra' - Emily Watson

Emily Watson tells Darragh McManus about her 'trippy' new TV drama, Frank McCourt's ability to find humour in a bleak place - and superhero films dominating Hollywood

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Versatility: Emily Watson, with Paddy Considine, in The Third Day

Versatility: Emily Watson, with Paddy Considine, in The Third Day

Versatility: Emily Watson, with Paddy Considine, in The Third Day

It's not easy to describe The Third Day, an ambitious new drama from Sky Atlantic starring Emily Watson and a rich roster of acting talent. That, if you like something a little unusual in your TV viewing, is a good thing.

Jude Law plays Sam, a husband and father who is struggling with business problems and clearly traumatised by some horror in his past. He saves the life of a suicidal girl called Epona and, driving her home, ends up marooned on an island. The place seems simultaneously wonderful and unsettling. Locals are by turns welcoming and prickly. A strange pagan festival is in preparation. A boozy night is enjoyed, money is discovered in the boot of the car, and Sam can't shake the feeling that Epona remains in danger...

It feels like an intriguing blend of Twin Peaks, The Wicker Man and The Prisoner: lots of oblique camera angles, ambiguous dialogue and a strange, fractured air of dreaminess. Written by Dennis Kelly - the unheralded genius behind the British series Utopia - The Third Day is something unique.

Watson - whose last TV role was as nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk in HBO's critically acclaimed Chernobyl - plays the brusquely sympathetic pub landlady Mrs Martin. To work on "such a great character", she says, "was really good fun. And don't be deceived by what you see of her at the start - there's quite a journey to be taken on that front."

Did she know beforehand what sort of show they would be making? "Yeah, you can kind of tell from the script," she says. "Reading it was like, 'Really? What? Wait, who are these…?' You know, it keeps taking these strange turns. There's an odd texture to it, and that dreamlike feeling increases as you go on. As Sam's experience of the island becomes more extreme, it gets very trippy. You're unsure of what's real and what's not. He's trying to work out what's going on, through a filter where everything is very different and weird.

The Third Day is ambitious on the level of structure as well as tone and theme. It begins on September 15 with the three-part 'Summer' and concludes with three-part 'Winter' - beginning October 6 and co-written by the British-Irish author Kit de Waal. The focus shifts to a newcomer played by Naomie Harris in the second half, while the stories of Mrs Martin, her husband, played by Paddy Considine, and the others continue.

Those sections are separated by a kind of intermission, something unprecedented in TV: a live theatrical event, 'Autumn', which airs on October 3. "The 'Autumn' section is groundbreaking," Watson says. "It's been a part of the show since the beginning."

Before Covid, 'Autumn' had been conceived as a music festival: an actual one, members of the public chosen by a lottery to come to the island and take part.

"It would have been amazing," Watson says. "We'd all be there, as our characters from the island. Obviously, that's not happening now, so they've reconceived the whole thing and the islanders are staging a warped version of a passion play."

She describes it as "slow cinema", going out as-live with a 15-minute delay and shown in British art galleries. "People will watch the day unfold as they do this ritual on the island. I think we start around 9am and go till 9 at night. It's a bit terrifying but exciting," she says.

The setting, Osea Island, is a real place, in an Essex estuary. Watson calls it "the most unexpectedly beautiful part of the world". The island almost functions as a character in its own right, giving The Third Day some of its most striking images. Was it as dreamlike in real life as it looks on screen?

"It is, in a sense," Watson says. "It's a bit weird, and a bit spooky. Enormous open skies, huge sunsets and sunrises, incredible wildlife… And being completely cut off from the mainland, that does something quite special to you. Getting an entire film crew on and off was a logistical problem, so a lot of us stayed there, which became quite an immersive experience too."

A causeway is revealed twice a day, during low tide, and driving across it was "an incredible experience. When the water's gone out and you're sitting there surrounded by mudflats, all these seabirds are right next to the car, in a way you don't usually see." She laughs and adds, "My driver turned up in a low-slung Jag the first day - he didn't bring that again!"

Born in London to an architect father and teacher mother, Watson studied drama in Bristol and did theatre before being cast as the lead of Lars Von Trier's 1996 Cannes Grand Prix-winning film Breaking the Waves. The role catapulted her into the public eye and earned the first of many awards nominations, including two for the best actress Oscar. In the quarter-century since, she has carved out a reputation as one of the screen's most versatile, subtle and powerful performers, in films including Hilary and Jackie, Gosford Park, Punch-Drunk Love, Red Dragon, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, War Horse and The Theory of Everything.

She also, of course, starred in two Irish films, released within a few years of each other in the late 1990s: Jim Sheridan's The Boxer and Angela's Ashes, directed by the late Alan Parker.

Of the former, she says: "I read the book of Angela's Ashes when I did that film, and loved it. I loved Frank McCourt's view of the world, the humour he found in that terrible, bleak place. It was a great thing to be part of - hard but beautiful at the same time."

The Boxer was made when the peace process was very much a work-in-progress, with nothing yet guaranteed, and Watson recalls how it felt "as if we were going into a 'hot' part of Irish politics, which was very sensitive. You were aware of it. I met people who were closely engaged in all of that. There really was a sense of this being a delicate place to be, trying to create something."

She remembers her most recent success, Chernobyl, as "an amazing experience to make". "That was one of those things where, when you read the script, you just go, 'Oh my God! We can't mess this up!' It's just an extraordinary, 360-degree take on an event that we all know about - but also don't know. Revelatory, emotional, scientific, political… it was so many things," she says.

"It's always great to get praise from the public and critics and awards, but this felt like it was about more than just us," she says. "It really was a story that had found its moment. It's so evidently about the danger of suppressing the truth, and we're right there again."

Chernobyl and The Third Day lend weight to the argument that, for dramatic actors, the real action is now in television, not cinema. While arthouse movies are as frequent, and brilliant, as ever, the rest seems dominated by comic-book franchises, with that "grown-up" middle-ground almost erased.

Watson agrees that "Hollywood is dominated by superhero films these days; I think we've lost a whole generation of talented actors to Lycra. There's a middle-level of interesting films - like The Boxer or Angela's Ashes - that don't get made any more. And that's sad, because there's a way of dwelling with somebody on the big screen - particularly if working on actual film, which some directors still do - that you don't get on the small one. You don't live and breathe them in, in quite the same way.

"That said, the potential of television is enormous: longer form of writing, diversity of subject matter and audiences - it feels as if it's trying to represent a lot more people than it used to. The funding principle is so different for Sky or Netflix than Hollywood: people are paying £7.99 a month anyway, so they can use that money to go in any direction they want."

Watson, who turned 53 in January, adds: "I feel fortunate, being the age I am. In film, 10 years ago, it looked as if it was all going to dry up. Then this era of television happened and there's now a wealth of interesting work for someone my age."

'The Third Day' airs on Sky Atlantic and Now TV from Tuesday

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