NEW YORK — There was a very good chance that Oscar- and Emmy-nominated Emily Watson would end up in the new mini-series “Too Close.” After all, one of her oldest friends wrote it.
Watson has known actor-turned-author Clara Salaman since both were 5 years old. Now, in their 50s, they’ve finally collaborated on their first project and even COVID-19 lockdown couldn’t stop them.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it? It’s just gives me such joy that it all worked out because it’s such a precarious universe trying to put things together,” Watson said.
“Too Close,” a three-part harrowing series on AMC+ which debuts Thursday, aired earlier this year in Britain to rapturous reviews. It’s based on Salaman’s novel, which she wrote under the pseudonym Natalie Daniels.
Watson plays a buttoned-down, no-nonsense forensic psychiatrist trying to assess the mental state of a criminal suspect who drove her car over a bridge with two kids inside, including her daughter.
The suspect, played by a ferocious Denise Gough, has been dubbed the “Yummy Mummy Monster” by the British tabloids and claims not to remember anything about the incident. She is facing 30 years or a lifetime in a psychiatric hospital.
The two — a broken, angry woman facing life behind bars and a supposed cool professional — begin a sort of mental cat-and-mouse game, each probing the other’s weaknesses.
“Underneath that chilly veneer, I reckon you’ve got quite a temper. What are you so angry about?” the suspect asks the psychiatrist, who responds: “Don’t talk to me like you know me. You do not know me.”
Salaman said she is drawn to mothers who kill their own. “I’ve always been absolutely fascinated by women who do it and thinking, ‘Well, what has to be going on in your head that you think the best option is to kill your children?’” she said. “So then I just sort of worked backwards.”
Salaman’s screenplay crackles with great lines. In one scene, Watson gets a bit bossy, triggering this observation from the suspect. “You’re being very assertive today. Very Helen Mirren. It’s quite sexy.”
Over time, both women begin to understand each other and share searing moments of pain and guilt. “We are the wrecked people,” the inmate says to her psychiatrist.
“As an acting exercise, it was very much about two people unpeeling each other. The psychiatrist is not the composed, together professional that she likes to think that she is,” said Watson.
The Yummy Mummy Monster is deeply humanized and the psychiatrist — once dubbed “Little Miss Mary Poppins” by the suspect — must face her own imperfections. Viewers may even shockingly start identifying with the suspect.
“It draws a very sympathetic portrait of the person in that situation and or really makes us try to understand how somebody gets that,” said Watson. “We’re all one step away from doing something desperate.”
The series was a critical hit in Britain, with The Independent saying “You won’t see more blatant awards fodder this year, but that doesn’t mean ‘Too Close’ won’t win them, or that they’ll be undeserved.” The Guardian called it ”a fantastically compelling, brilliantly scripted whydunnit.”
Watson is quick to credit Gough — whose stage work includes “People, Places and Things” and “Angels in America” — as an “intense talent” able to capture damage and explosiveness. “It was amazing to go onto the dance floor with somebody like that,” Watson said.
She and Salaman have known each other since nursery school and through their teens as both pursued acting careers. They both starred as 13-year-olds in a production of “As You Like It,” with Salaman as Rosalind and Watson as Celia.
Salaman, who appeared on “The Bill” from 1999 to 2001 before turning to writing, handed over the manuscript of “Too Close” to Watson even before it was published, telling her friend it might make a good TV piece.
It was then that it dawned on the author that having Watson consider a part in it made a great deal of sense. “I said, ‘You can read it.’ Then I went, ‘Actually, Emily, you’d be brilliant in either part.'”
Watson, who has earned Oscar nods for “Breaking the Waves” and “Hilary and Jackie” and an Emmy nomination for “Chernobyl,” shot the series during the pandemic, with masks required, COVID-19 tests three times a week and the cast and crew consigned to different bubbles.
Salaman visited the set a few times and watched the dailies, but the two old friends are looking forward to a time when they can get together and celebrate.
“Emily and I know each other so thoroughly, so bonded, from so young. And our moms, both dead, will be looking down, just loving it,” said Salaman.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits