Hayley Atwell: ‘Denise makes a choice that haunts her’

Hayley Atwell stars as a young police officer who takes the law into her own hands in Life of Crime on ITV this Friday…

ITV’s new crime thriller follows the life and career of police constable Denise Woods over three decades. What can you tell us about her?
“Denise is an upright, nervous thing, beginning her career in a police station in Brixton during the 1985 Brixton riots and Thatcherism. Denise is ambitious when she starts off. The drama unfolds when she makes a morally ambiguous choice, believing it’s for the greater good. However, the consequence of it haunts her throughout the rest of her career.”

Denise is convinced she knows who brutally killed a teenage girl and gambles her future on the killer. What are the consequences?
“Denise makes a choice she’s going to have to live with. She does something that affects her professional and personal life. Throughout her life the decision she takes in the 1980s keeps coming back without respite. Because of it she takes her energy off her family and her home life begins to crumble. She’s an interesting protagonist, deeply flawed, but with a desire to do good. Some people might think Denise’s choices are completely wrong, but others will realise they might do the same.”

Is it satisfying to play a character who evolves over three decades?
“It is! Because we had limited resources I had to find specific changes in my own physicality. For example in the first episode I wanted Denise to be nervous and darting about the place. But by the third episode there’s a stillness and quiet confidence about her, which comes with experience and success. The small budget we had for make-up and costumes were then able to fill in those gaps and make her physically older.”

Given the strong male-dominated police force it was a difficult time to be a female police officer. Did you do any special research for the role?
“I spoke to a lady who, in the 1980s, was in the ranks of the Brixton police force. She’s a very strong woman – she had to be – and she explained how it was for women then. There was a lot of bum slapping, and you were deemed either a lesbian or a slut in the work force. It was a no-win situation because if you complained you were considered uptight. Denise is an example of a woman who managed to come out the other end with tremendous respect from her peers. She’s tough because she has to be. But later in the series you see her making choices for work rather than her family.”

What sort of impact does the job have on her personal life?
“Her mum Rose, played by Ruth McCabe, really doesn’t understand why Denise puts her work first. And later there’s a breakdown in her relationship with her husband Ray.”

Did you enjoy getting into the costumes for the 1980s period?
“It was brilliant! I am sure I was wearing jackets that my mum used to have.”

What major historical events provide the backdrop to Life of Crime?
“In the beginning we have a Margaret Thatcher speech and the Brixton riots. It’s a really good backdrop for the drama because it was a time of political turmoil in Britain. These events help anchor the drama and give it a sense of time and place. Denise’s drama then sees her making a difficult choice with good intentions, which she has to live with.”


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