Based on the successful series of novels by acclaimed author Ann Cleeves, the detective drama Shetland (in its fourth season on the independent public TV station KCET) follows DI Jimmy Perez (Doug Henshall), as he solves mysteries in a tight-knit island community located in the beautiful but remote Shetland Isles in Scotland. In Season 4, Perez and his partner DS Alison McIntosh (Alison O’Donnell), or Tosh, find themselves having to reopen the case of convicted murderer Thomas Malone (Stephen Walters), whose sentence has been overturned after spending 23 years locked up, in order to find out whether there’s a connection to a new murder.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Scottish actor Doug Henshall talked about why he wanted to sign on for Shetland, how much the series has evolved since the pilot, why he likes that the crime drama is character-based, the relationship between Perez and his daughter (Erin Armstrong), what he enjoys about the Perez-Tosh dynamic, the challenge of the weather in Shetland, and shooting six more hours for Season 5. He also talked about the great time he had on Outlander, playing Taran MacQuarrie in the first season of the hugely popular series.
Collider: When you originally signed on for Shetland, what was it about the story and character that most appealed to you and attracted you to the project?
DOUG HENSHALL: Well, I know David Kane, who wrote the pilot. I’ve known David for about 30 years, and I really like the way he writes men because he writes men who are in touch with their emotions. I like the fact that he’s kind and empathetic, which aren’t really qualities that you associate with policemen on television. And I like the relationship between him and Tosh, which is a character that David has been writing, as long as I’ve known him. She’s this left field, smart, funny, Glaswegian girl. I really like the relationship between the two of them. I also like the setting. I like the notion of what policing is like there, and the challenges that that brings. It was a very simple two-parter, based on one of Ann Cleeves’ novels, and I really had no real ambitions for it, but I liked the pace of it and the fact that it seems to move quite gently. I was interested to see whether or not you could make something like that successful because it didn’t initially jump as being something that would be, if you know what I mean. But I was intrigued enough to want to be part of it, and give it a go.
This is the longest span of time that you’ve ever played the same character. How have you found that experience? Do you find yourself growing and evolving, as an actor, alongside the character growing?
HENSHALL: Not so much, as an actor. Normally, I bolt at the idea of playing anyone for too long because I don’t want it to become dull and like another job. I was always of the opinion that he remain ambitious, every time, and that we didn’t do roughly the same thing over again. In essence, that is true, but the way that we get there remains ambitious. The show has evolved greatly since that pilot, so that keeps me interested.
Was it also important to you that, if you were going to do a crime drama, that it be one that’s focused on the characters first, as opposed to solving the crime?
HENSHALL: Yeah. Originally, the pilot was an adaptation of the book and was two one-hour episodes. Unless you’re Columbo, it basically just falls into a very familiar, quite dull procedural cop drama. You only have a certain amount of time, so most of the time you have, you spend going, “Where were you last night?,” rather than being able to see anything of their personal life or getting to see how you get from A to B, in a more interesting way. So, it was important to me that the show went from being a basic procedural to a stellar story. I didn’t want to do any more, after the first [season], unless we change the format, and thankfully the producer, Elaine Collins, was very much of the same mind, so we managed to get there. And then, with what happened to Tosh [in Season 3], that really galvanized people because, over those six hours, you really got to care about people. That’s the only thing that’s really interesting in drama.
How has DI Jimmy Perez changed since you started playing him?
HENSHALL: He’s slightly more disillusioned and disappointed than he was, at the beginning. He had high hopes for the life he was going to have in Shetland, but his time has gone to something else and he’s become caught up in this place where he’s seen as this sad widower, and that’s beginning to hang around his neck like an albatross. His daughter moving away has partly been a relief – mostly for her – and she’s mystified as to where he is and what he’s doing, so he just concentrates still on work ‘cause it’s the only thing that he feels he has any control over or any purpose. The longer that you go on like that, the more difficult it becomes to do anything different. I think he feels a little bit trapped.
Since it is one of the most important relationships in his life, how would you describe the relationship Perez has with his daughter?
HENSHALL: In [Season 4], it becomes slightly more about them being two adults, rather than one adult and a child who’s being destructive about what you want them to do. There’s more grown-up conversations happening. These relationships are very good. They have to grow exponentially. They can’t suddenly go off on a mad tangent somewhere. The important thing is the fact that she does go to him. She’s got a life that she wants to go and lead, and she doesn’t really see being in Shetland, which is inevitable, but still quite scary for him. It just takes a huge part of his life away. It’s that link to his dead wife, and if that goes away, then a part of that goes away. I think it keeps evolving quite well, so I’m glad about that. I’ve known Erin [Armstrong] since she was 16, when she turned up to the pilot. It was the first time that she’d been able to do a job where she didn’t have to have a ward on set. I remember this sweet little girl who turned up, and now she’s grown up and she’s an adult. She’s 23 and in university, and she’s a woman. That’s been interesting to watch because kids change a lot, in a year or two years. She’s grown into a fantastic young woman, so that’s been nice to watch. I do feel quite paternal towards her.
It seems like one of the more fun parts of playing a character for a longer period of time is really getting to grow with the rest of your cast.
HENSHALL: Yeah, and thankfully, we’re very lucky, in that we’ve managed to retain the same people, and not just in the cast, but also in the crew. We all know what we’re doing and we all know what we’re making. Sometimes it’s easy for things get away from you, a little bit, if you have too many people coming in all the time, trying to put their mark on it. If something is successful, you don’t have to do that. All you have to do is keep doing what you’re doing, or have been doing.
Are you surprised with how much people really seem to respond to the dynamic between Perez and Tosh (Alison O’Donnell), or is that something you expected because it was also on the page?
HENSHALL: That relationship has grown considerably, over time. Alison has a really difficult job because it’s such a great character to play, but when that’s the first big character you play on television, you’ve got a lot to learn. It’s very difficult to be playing your first big role in something like this, and immediately hit the ground running. It took her awhile to get her head around it. Now, she’s in a very good place with how she feels about it and how she plays it, and I like the relationship that they have. It’s very comfortable, it’s full of respect and warmth, and they work very well together. I like the way that it’s evolving, and I like the way that Alison has grown into it.
This show reminds me a lot of Wallander, which was also based on books, focused on a detective, and the location was so important and so much a character, in itself. How do you feel that the location and the weather really contributes to the story that you’re telling, and does that also help you, as an actor?