Exclusive interview: Nicola Walker on playing Hannah Sterne in The Split

The Split’s Hannah Sterne is having all sorts of crises between love, marriage, and work

Sundance brings The Split to the smallscreen tonight from Emmy and BAFTA-winning creator and writer Abi Morgan.

The series stars Nicola Walker as Hannah Sterne, and is both a family and legal drama where two sisters are attorneys, their mum is an attorney, and the baby sister is sorting it all out and contemplating a marriage.

The show, which has already become a smash hit in Britain, is a look inside a world where things seem familiar then very different with regards to family law and how they do it across the pond.

With incredible tenacity and a subtle apprehension, we meet Hannah, played by Walker who just stole the show in the excellent Last Tango in Halifax and Unforgotten.

Walker is a live wire held together with an equal measure of British steel and politesse and decorum. She’s ultra fierce in the courtroom but outside of it she’s not sure of her own mind…or heart.

Pair her with Deborah Findlay, who plays her mother Ruth Defoe, and head of her own law firm, and you have some seriously intense scenes and crackling dialogue in store.

Rounding it out is Annabel Scholey as attorney/sister Nina Defoe and fey blondie Fiona Button as Rose Defoe, the engaged baby untethered to a 9-to-5 gig with a serious case of cold feet.

It’s a new tale of Hannah and her sisters, not the Woody Allen cinematic sisters, but chalk and cheese siblings who are all controlled to a degree by secrets their mother and estranged father have held out from them over the years.

So where’s the drama? Hannah bails out of her mum’s law firm and heads to an old beau’s high powered firm. This resurrects all sorts of buried feelings for Christie Carmichael (Barry Atsma) and it does not go unnoticed by her painfully nice husband Nathan Sterne, played by Stephen Mangan.

We spoke to Nicola Walker about the excellent new series:

Monsters and Critics: I’ve screened four episodes of The Split…a new Hannah and Her Sisters!

Nicola Walker: Yeah. Not many people have picked up on that, but I’m glad you have.

M&C: Your character is very clear-cut. She’s competent but yet as a mum and a wife a bit unsure of herself it seems, like her decisions in life. Could you talk about that?

Nicola Walker: I think that she’s actually felt that she is being very clear cut in her decisions in her life as well. When we first meet her, Hannah’s come from this broken home and when she left law school she married Nathan. They met at law school. She married him quite quickly and she had three children and she recreated that family unit that she lost herself in her own family life.

I think she has always been quite certain about what’s she’s doing in her own family life, actually, or she thinks she has. Once she’s made that decision, she sits there. I think that’s what she is. She steps up as a little girl, and she’s grown into an adult that steps up and does what needs to be done at home and at work.

Interestingly, the father reappearing in her life — in all their lives — thirty years on, that’s the tipping point because we meet her when she is trying to get an identity outside of her family for the first time in her life. And then her father reappears.

M&C: I’m worried about Nathan. I feel like Stephen Mangan’s character keeps being set up for a big fall. Your character is fighting it, and the more you fight it, the more we feel like this isn’t going to end well. Tell me it ends well.

Nicola as Hannah Sterne and Stephen Mangan as Nathan in The Split
Nicola as Hannah Sterne and Stephen Mangan as Nathan

Nicola Walker: Well, they were all friends at law school and all I can promise you is that it doesn’t end conclusively. That’s all I can promise you.

M&C: That’s a great answer.

Nicola Walker: It’s really evasive, isn’t it? I’m trying not to give anything away. She loves Nathan very much, and, who wouldn’t. He’s a fantastic dad. He loves her, but they have been ignoring some problems in their marriage and they do that thing about not talking and not talking and thinking it will go away, and you see that mirrored in some of the conversations she has with people who are divorcing. They talk about that moment when you realize that you just kept hoping.

I think that marriage is a state of hope, but the one thing you shouldn’t do is hope it’s going to be okay, because that’s when it gets problematic, I think.

M&C: The B story in The Split, Goldie’s story that you’re interacting with, is really fascinating. I’m really hoping that they explore what exactly happened and how she exacts revenge, with your help of course. Goldie is now represented by you, but how are British divorce attorneys different from American ones?

Nicola Walker: Well, to be honest. I knew nothing about family law really before I got this part, because it’s a very closed world and if you go, you can find drama about it, but if you want documentary research, there is more American. I did watch some documentaries about American family law.

It struck me that, in reality, it’s not that different. Maybe in the way we’ve portrayed it fictionally, I think you are right. I think it’s maybe been portrayed slightly differently in American shows, it’s been perceived that you could play a bit dirty.

We only haven’t done that because, actually in this country [Britain] we haven’t made much [TV of this type]. There isn’t another drama about family law in this country. I couldn’t find one. I can’t even compare, because it doesn’t exist, which I find fascinating. And especially about, we do lots of legal dramas, but not family law specifically.

We certainly don’t often make dramas in this country centered around people who have great wealth, which I find fascinating. We just don’t often do it.

I think the biggest truth I learned about the family law here is that they get very involved. The stories are very dramatic that they hear from their clients, and I thought you could maybe, in quite a dramatic way, bend the rules. And of course, all the family lawyers here have said “Absolutely not, your first duty here is to the court and that overrides your duty to your client.” And I’m like “So, oh, yeah, I’ve watched too much legal drama.”

The bottom line is these people are lawyers, and their first duty is to the court, ultimately, which is why it’s a very complicated relationship — because they know everything about you from the moment you sit down in that office and say “I want a divorce.” They will find out because the client will tell them everything.

They’ve heard every single story under the sun. I find that really interesting — when you have something as soft and fragile as human relationships in an office which is involved with the rigidity of law. I find that conflict really, really interesting.

M&C: Hannah, she’s the oldest of the siblings, and she is the most responsible of the siblings who sort of foist this on her with what Oscar did to your mother.

Nicola Walker: Yeah

M&C: It actually reminded me, there is overlap in character traits between your Gillian from The Last Tango In Halifax, and this character, even though they are wildly different. They are from completely different worlds, but there is this kind of resolve that you both have like, “Okay. I’m standing in s***. I’m gonna make the best of it. Whatever it is.”

Nicola Walker: That’s interesting. That’s probably because I’m definitely really drawn to women like that, characters who do that. They may fail appallingly trying, but they are gonna keep going. I find that really appealing.

M&C: It’s like a quiet strength. I think that’s one of the things I loved best about Hannah, that you instill in her this kind of quiet resolve, you know what the cards are, you know what’s going on, and you are just trying to make the best of it for everyone, it feels like.

Nicola Walker: Yes. I think she was created…that personality was created when the father left and what becomes clear when he returns after thirty years. That story, the way we tell stories about ourselves about who we are, what we do, what we’re like, Hanna has been very clear. She knows the sort of woman she is.

The problem is that when you bring her father back, and she starts finding out the other side of the story and other versions of her past are fed to her…that story she told herself about who she is, what she is, what she stands for starts to…I don’t think she questions it.

It changes, which is quite enjoyable to play to be honest. Someone who is so certain having to think about re-writing the story, in the moment. That is what you see happening in episodes, especially, 4, 5, and 6.

M&C: It seems like your character, Hannah, is closest to her youngest sister, Rose. Is this true or false?

Nicola Walker
Hannah and her sisters…Nina and Rose and her mum Ruth Defoe (far right), the brass knuckles attorney boss

Nicola Walker: Oh, that’s false. I think that is false, because she would fight anyone who says she is closer to one sister than to the other. The bottom line for Hannah is that she absolutely loves her sisters, and seeing that becomes clearer as the show goes on. I mean, yeah, she’d fight for them.

She says to Rose: “You’re my favorite.” but that’s the family joke. I think that’s been said repeatedly. She loves and needs Nina and Rose equally for different reasons, and she loves her mother totally.

M&C: But Nina is a fink. She totally stole your client. She went to your office, did a naughty, and she’s not very ethical.

Nicola Walker: Well Nina has always been problematic. She’s the problem sister, but we love her for that, because actually what is revealed as it goes on is it’s more complicated, of course, it’s human behavior.

It’s more complicated than it appears to be and Abi’s [Showrunner Abi Morgan] scripts are more complicated as they go on. Nina reveals herself, as the show goes on, to be a very different person to the one you meet in Episode 1.

And that story she is telling about herself to the world…Abi allows them to change. You get to see into the good stuff and the bad stuff through the way the sisters interact, and the mother. That’s why she’s a good writer. It’s not as simple as it seems, personality. It’s more complicated than that.

M&C: I thought you had interesting chemistry with Chukwudi Iwuji. Energetically, you guys were great.

Chukwudi Iwuji
Chukwudi Iwuji’s Zander is on top of Hannah in the new firm as her new boss

Nicola Walker: That’s good. He’ll be happy with that. Yeah, I loved working with Chuck. I should tell him, he’ll be really pleased.

He played my boss, and is a very different legal beast than my mother. She [Hannah] knows him. She knows what he is. They come to a place of great understanding.

M&C: Yeah, well your mother, Ruth, really trains you in the fire.

Nicola Walker: Yeah. Learned from the best.

M&C: What’s your favorite thing about The Split, like if you were to sell this? What’s your favorite thing about this particular project that you’ve worked on, and you’ve worked on so many great projects. What do you love about it?

Nicola Walker: I think what I love about The Split is that it takes what at first appears to be a simple story about family, and it just keeps pulling back the layers, and it gets more complicated as it goes on, in the way that families do. Spending time with the sisters, and the mother, and their father getting to know that family inside out. That’s what I enjoyed about The Split.

M&C: I really loved your work in Last Tango in Halifax.

Nicola Walker: You know, I came to do a play on Broadway a couple of years ago, and I never…I was so excited to get to New York. I couldn’t believe I could ever get there to do a play on Broadway, and on my first day I walked down Broadway to the theater to start re-rehearsing the play, and a woman stops me on the sidewalk and shouted “Gillian, Gillian” and embraced me and she went “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, you were on last night and I thought you were my friend, but you’re Gillian from Last Tango,” and I said, “That is the best compliment you could possibly give an actor.”

It was amazing. It was literally my first 45 minutes walking down to Broadway from my digs.

The Split premieres Wednesday, May 23, at 10/9c on Sundance.

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