With Episode 3 of Mary Kills People‘s final season about to air, it’s the perfect time to share my interview with Elizabeth Saunders. She plays the absolutely chilling Frances Thorp, the nurse who is making Mary’s already complicated life even messier.
While visiting the set earlier this year, Elizabeth and I discussed her role, and how being on Mary Kills People has been one of the best experiences of her career.
What can you tell us about your character, Frances?
She’s a nurse at Eden General in intensive care, and started working there just as Mary had left. She finds out about Mary, and they encounter each other in the midst of something Frances is doing. And Frances is aware of who Mary is and what she does. She has a fascination and is almost a fan of Mary. Frances thinks there’s a kinship there, and she has a really high drive to practice with Mary. There are some complications along the way because Frances does as Frances feels the need to do.
Frances appears to have the same principles as Mary — or believes she does — but she steps over the line. She makes choices for people, and that’s the difference. She’s unaware of how things that are happening are affecting her choices. I don’t think Frances is conscious of it. She sees someone who is close to passing, and just feels she needs to make a choice for them because they can’t make it themselves. There’s no one there to make it for them, so she’ll [decide] for them.
Caroline shared that Frances is the scariest villain the series has ever had.
Yes, she is this innocuous human being who walks the planet like we all are. She has not so much a dark side, but a complex, conflicted personality. People can read as very normal, nice and highly effective but there’s a another side that they’re not fully conscious of. That’s what drew me to the part. Frances is not the “criminal bad guy” — she could be your aunt, your mom, or any nurse in any hospital.
How does Frances affect Mary’s work and relationships with others?
Frances is causing Mary to do a lot of thinking about herself. She’s putting a lot of questions into Mary’s mind about her choices and actions.
Over the course of the first two seasons, we learned the origin of Mary’s fascination with death and how is shaped her mission. Will we see what the catalyst was for the path that Frances is on?
We will get it, just not until later in the series. I don’t know many details about where [the idea of Frances] started, but I know that she originally wasn’t going to be someone of my age.
Is part of Frances’ attraction to Mary that she’s looking for not necessarily a family, but a place or group where she feels she belongs?
I don’t think Frances consciously wants to be part of a family. Rather, she has a deep wound that has left her alone in the world. Not necessarily physically alone, although I think she spends a lot of time on her own. She’s a human that feels like she may be kicked off the boat. She doesn’t feel good enough, and there is a loneliness. My theory is that her muddled thinking has always been there, but a traumatic event happened that tied it all into her psyche and is now playing out.
Can you share a bit about your experience in joining a cast that already had two seasons under its belt?
It was fabulous. Our first director [this season] was Norma Bailey, and she was incredible. We met once I was cast to discuss Frances, and how the character was complex and not what she appeared to be, and we decided what to give away and where. I came in on my first day not having met [my castmates], and my first scene was an intense one with Caroline. She was magnificent and incredibly warm, and every single person I’ve worked with on this series has been fantastic. It’s actually been one of the most fantastic experiences of my career.
I credit Mary Kills People with helping to change how female characters are portrayed, and challenging viewers to appreciate “unlikeable” women. Over the course of your career, have you noticed a shift in how roles for women are being written?
I know it’s rippling but it’s not fast enough for me. What they’re doing on this show in terms of all the female characters is creating nuances that are closer to our individual nuances as human beings. I feel — and this is my bias — that women are portrayed in a very limited way, but it’s changing. I’m also not the same person who was working 10 years ago, so my roles are changing enormously. I’m aging and filling out, so I’m getting different kinds of roles. But I also think some of those roles are now being written for women that weren’t being written before. I’m finally seeing women on camera and saying, “Oh, I see me now.” Britain’s always been fabulous for that, and I think [North America] is starting to move on it. And it’s not just about how the woman looks. It’s about the complexity of her character.
When I first read the role of Frances, I wasn’t really sure how to play her, and I realized that it was because she’s so complex and I had a billion choices to make [in my performance]. [In the past], even when the stories were about women, we were getting it from the male perspective. I love that [Mary Kills People] is being written from a female perspective.
I feel blessed to play this role. Often, women are there to give exposition. I played a lot of expository roles, as have most female actors, so I was grateful to get a role that was beyond being the exposition. It’s been one of the best experiences for me.