I couldn’t thank Rafe Spall and Esther Smith enough for coming to the blazing hot summer sun of Phoenix to have a little chat with me. Spall and Smith are the leads in an AppleTV+ series called “TRYING” about a couple who have tried to have a child but now find themselves trying to adopt. The process isn’t as easy as one might imagine.
Apple is putting out remarkable shows. “Trying” is incredibly good. It’s intense at times, tender at times and can be emotional yet funny. Just as life can be. It’s as real as it gets, and you’re as involved as you can be without knowing the characters in real life. The show works on so many levels; most importantly, as I’ve mentioned, you being invested right away in these two. Will they succeed in what they’re attempting to do? Will their relationship suffer? Sit down and watch these fabulous actors maneuver around this storyline, wooing you all the while. -SHARI K. GREEN
*Season Three is out, with one of the final two episodes showing tonight, August 26, and the final episode airing on September 2nd.
TMC: I like that Nikki and Jason are supportive of one another. They’re a strong couple who have the same goals, a united front, you could say. I think it really works for the show because when people try to adopt a child, that’s difficult enough. These characters have issues along the way, but they’re not fighting one another. It’s a fantastic aspect of the show; how do you feel about it?
RAFE: I think it’s very real. I think that it’s quite aspirational, really. That’s what you want, in your own life, to have a relationship like Nikki and Jason where they’ve faced adversity. And it may well cause arguments sometimes but after the arguments, after the disagreements, their relationship deepens. I think that’s really wonderful; beautiful. They, you know, seemingly have found the right person. And a really wonderful thing Nikki said at the end of the First Season, she says, even if this doesn’t work, even if this doesn’t work (getting the kids), you’re enough, it’s enough, we’re enough.
I think that’s a really beautiful sentiment. It’s something that we can all aspire to is finding that person that sees us, accepts us for who we are. All we want to be, as humans, is to be seen and they really see each other. And I think they’re a great couple and I love them.
When we finish a season, I miss them.
TMC: Nikki calls Jason “Jase.” Those are the little things that make this show so relatable and endears your characters to the audience. Did you come up with the nickname or was it written in?
ESTHER: Oh my gosh. I can’t even remember. It feels like it was something that was so… I think that we sometimes slightly get in trouble cuz I definitely add in more Jases than are written in the script, just because that feels like such a normal, natural thing. If someone’s annoying you or as a term of endearment, I definitely add more in, but I can’t remember whether it was originally—
RAFE: I think it was a mix of both.
RAFE: And I think it’s something that has happened during the show for a while, cuz the whole show is written by one guy, Andy Wolton, which in this day and age is unheard of to have written twenty-eight episodes singlehandedly. It’s crazy.
He’s actually written to our voices, as well. He’s written to our specific speech patterns and way of speaking. There is some room for improvisation but most of the funny stuff in the show, ninety-nine-point nine percent of the good stuff in the show is written by him. But we do add the odd thing every now and again.
TMC: Because the first three seasons were written by the show’s creator, with the exception of one episode so far, has been directed by, I think, the co-creator?
RAFE: No. He wasn’t the co-creator. Jim O’Hanlon directed the first two seasons in their entirety. The beginning four were directed by Elliot Hegarty.
TMC: How did that aid both of you in terms of being able to prepare for the roles and be able to bring yourselves, as actors, into the roles?
ESTHER: By having Jim, kind of, there? Do you know what’s really lovely (I love how she says “lovely” by the way) about this show now, from the privileged position of having done Three Seasons of it is that (clears throat) it feels like it’s this family where we kind of return to. And not just in terms of like cast and crew members, everyone involved in that. Particularly like the mainstays like someone like Jim O’Hanlon who’s so incredible and he’s such an actor’s director. He’s so encouraging and listens to you… your ideas and will kind of say something which will make me think of something differently. He’s a real (thinks) yeah, it does feel like you have such an ease with the people you have been creating this thing, for like these three years with… a real shorthand. And, of course, inevitably, that makes it a really lovely ease on set because of that. Because you do feel comfortable and that makes you feel relaxed, which, hopefully, makes you then perform better. Yeah, he really allows a lot of –
RAFE: Yeah. He was around in the beginning. It’s interesting that you call him a co-creator because he sort of is, you know? The creator of the show is definitely Andy Wolton. Well, actually, a gentleman called Chris Sussman who was the head of comedy at BBC Studios who are the production company responsible for making the show, even though it’s obviously paid for and made by Apple.
But the production company… they’re different. It’s not the BBC. It’s not publicly funded. They are a production company and strand of the BBC.
There’s a guy called Chris Sussman who met this writer called Andy Wolton who pitched a few ideas to him, and it came out that Andy himself was adopted and he was like, ‘Why don’t you write something about that?’ So, it was Chris Sussman’s idea. Andy Wolton went away and wrote it. And again, then Sussman went and pitched a few ideas to Apple and was like, ‘Oh. I’ve got this big…’ because, at the time, Apple wasn’t looking for comedy. Apple Europe and Jay Hunt… she wasn’t looking for comedy. But was like, you know, ‘This is a great idea.’ Commissioned it. It was one of Apple Europe’s first commissions. And so, they hired Jim O’Hanlon after we were cast. So, we got cast first and then Jim came on board. We have a slightly different system in England. We don’t have a show-runner system, but he would be something akin to a showrunner but also directs the show, too. Uh, he’s an extremely experienced, brilliant, versatile director who has filled us with a bunch of encouragement, really, and has made us feel good and held and secure.
ESTHER: He trusts us with our roles and that’s so lovely to, kind of, have that.
RAFE: Because it can be strange, again, if you’re on a relatively long-running TV show, you know the characters really well and then you get lots of different directors coming in, I think that’s difficult for directors to come in and do that and we’ve managed to have a really nice continuity. And also, the beginning four of season three, Elliot Hegarty did a really good job, as well. He’s also directed Ted Lasso and things like that, so he’s worked for Apple, but Jim’s a massive part of the show.
TMC: You can tell there’s an ease between the entire cast that translates very well onscreen.
RAFE: I think that’s really important. You want… it’s gotta seem real. People talk a lot about our chemistry which is integral to the show. If it was real, relaxed and even though you have some set pieces that may be, on paper, slightly heightened, they’re all rooted in reality. I think that’s really important because we’re dealing with a very sensitive subject matter and we’re using levity and comedy in order to… as a sort of conduit, but it’s very important that everything feels real, and I think that we’ve done a pretty good job of that. If I may say so myself.
TMC: Talking about the ensemble. Scott and Karen. They’re not the perfect couple, not the perfect match. At first, I was not generally happy with them being together, but I’ve grown to enjoy them more. How do Jason and Nikki feel about Karen and Scott as a couple and if the adoption goes through, would they be their godparents?
ESTHER: That’s interesting. I think, maybe similarly to you, I feel like Nikki definitely had huge reservations about Scott being part of (she laughs) the family but I think as it’s gone on, I think he… them as a couple, they somehow work and I love watching them. I love watching their scenes together. I never; we obviously never get to see that.
We get to read it on a script and then we just focus on your part of the story and then it’s a real lovely treat when you’re watching it all back and there’s this other world going on. I find them heartbreaking. I find them hilarious. And they do really work… and I think the more we go on… I like to think that Nikki and Jason, perhaps… tolerate Scott (everyone laughs). They tolerate him.
RAFE: But also, they, you know, like at the end of the Second Season where they get married, and we see the effort that he’s made in creating that beautiful garden party and stuff, you’re like, ‘Oh! He means well.’ And he’s obviously a very vulnerable character. That’s what I mean. Andy’s written this character that could seem a little heightened but roots him with heart. He’s full of heart.
ESTHER: There’s always those lovely little bits and pieces, like in series one where Karen’s really cold and they’re coming out of the tube station and he wraps his scarf around her and you’re like, ‘Oh. Underneath all this, you love her. You’re just like all of us.’ Perhaps we’re all presenting a different version of ourselves to protect ourselves.
TMC: In this day and age, with overpopulation, drought and the planet warming up, do you think their story is important to tell? The adoption vs. having more children organically?
RAFE: Yeah. I think its representation is incredibly important. I mean, I think that it would be disingenuous to say that was the objective of this storyline because it isn’t. This is a couple who’ve tried to conceive naturally, and they haven’t been blessed with that ability. So, I can’t really talk to the politics of it, but I think in terms of representation, in terms of people that, umm, the one in seven people are affected by infertility, that it’s really wonderful, again, for people to be seen for that story to be represented because it is something that touches a lot of people’s lives and is, sort of, great pain to very many folks. So, I can say that that’s great that we represent that but the political aspect of that, I can’t really talk to because it would be disingenuous.
ESTHER: Yeah. What’s been a really lovely bonus of this show is the amount of people that reach out, who are going through it, who are either going through the process or they’re having fertility struggles and they… it’s like a lovely stream of people constantly getting in touch, kind of, saying that they feel seen by it, they feel like it’s an accurate portrayal of what they have gone through. They see themselves in these two characters and actually, most importantly, that they don’t feel alone with it. I think, particularly over the last couple of years, going through that during the pandemic. I just… I can’t even imagine what– you need your kind of people, a community around you to support you in that. And then having to do that without that, has got to have been incredibly hard but I think that what has been interesting about doing the show is that I’ve learnt the process of it is not easy, and it’s hard and it’s so great to be able to be a source of, I don’t know, maybe comfort for people in that. Yeah.
TMC: Imelda (Staunton; Harry Potter), who plays social worker, Penny, is in their corner. How important is it that Penny is a supportive character for Jason and Nikki? Terribly important because they’re new to the process, right?
ESTHER: Absolutely, and I feel like they need, particularly in this process because it’s something that has taken them a lot to kind of… to have the courage to go, ‘Do you know what? Yeah. Let’s go down this route.’
I think they need as many people on their side, and also people… what I love about Imelda’s character in this is that she’s not this quote-unquote ‘normal,’ what you’d expect, social worker. She kind of is, like, ‘play it as it comes,’ ‘bit by bit,’ ‘step by step.’
The first time we meet her, she’s holding up a piece of her clothing because someone has thrown ‘wee’ on it. (Laughs) And she leaves it outside and she just kind of bustles in and… I think she plays with these two people particularly well because I think Nikki and Jason are also two people who, you know, are maybe ‘square peg, round hole’ people. Particularly, Nikki, I think.
They’re not following a traditional blueprint, what they thought their blueprint was gonna be. And I think Penny really speaks to that and is probably this voice of wisdom somehow. She’s a few steps ahead of them in life and kind of—
RAFE: But also, there’s no antagonist in the show. That’s quite refreshing. There’s no baddies. Everyone’s ‘Trying’ to do the right thing. And to have someone of her caliber, Oscar-nominated, one of our finest actors in the world. Obviously, there’s a lack of her in Season Three, that’s because she’s now the queen of England. (Laughs) We can only hope we do more when she’s finished her reign. Perhaps she’ll come back and hang out with the peasants again.
TMC: There’s some tension, obviously, between Nikki and Princess. You don’t have any kids, right?
ESTHER: No, I don’t.
TMC: Not being a parent yourself, what do you pull from to make this come across so sincerely?
ESTHER: I think maybe on some aspects, maybe it’s…I guess there’s two camps to this because maybe it’s helpful that I’m not a parent because Nikki isn’t a parent and then she becomes one quite quickly with someone who’s older. So, she doesn’t have the experience of knowing this person, so I think maybe that’s probably been a helpful thing perhaps. What I find completely heartbreaking about the Nikki Princess things is that Nikki tries so hard and she’s such a good person. She just wants the best but inevitably, you can’t control what a person, especially (thinks). Princess is ten in this. What a ten-year-old is gonna be like, particularly a ten-year-old who’s probably got a lot of trauma from whatever they’ve been through in their life, and Nikki is just so, kind of, patient with her and so present with her that, yeah, I find it completely heartbreaking but I also love that it’s also given Nikki something, too. She really wants it, so she’s really fighting up against it.
RAFE: Also, from an outsider’s point of view, Esther really is as lovely with Eden (Togwell), who plays Princess, as Nikki is with Princess. Esther’s really kind and gorgeous and lovely with her, so (to Esther) it comes naturally to you, I’d imagine.
ESTHER: I think it’s really because we have the advantage of being with these two little kids off-set, as well. We have a lot of prep time that you do get to bond with them, and you do get to form your own relationships with them. And also, we’re lucky because they’re both really lovely kids. They found two really (thinks) brilliant actors, I think.
RAFE: Yeah. They’re good.
ESTHER: Even though they hadn’t done it before. (Chuckles)
TMC: One of the things I admire about the show is that you as a couple aren’t married. It’s a modern way of telling a couple’s story while retaining your individuality as characters. What was your process like, at the beginning of the series, to bring yourselves together while retaining your own individuality?
ESTHER: That’s such a good question. Umm, I felt like, before we got the jobs, we had this chemistry read together to see if we had the correct chemistry. Trying to prove that in front of people you don’t know that you’ve got chemistry with someone you don’t know (she laughs) that you’ve got chemistry is just funny. Umm, and I think there is, I mean, (pointing to Rafe) you speak to this really eloquently that there’s this extra thing that when two people are performing, it’s not the people, it’s the energy between them. Which I think is so true. And that’s… that’s what’s created.
RAFE: I think that’s what’s interesting from an audience’s point of view is that it’s not Esther or I; it’s what we create together. And I think that because that’s what we respond to because that’s what’s organic… that’s what’s created. That’s what’s like, you know, lighting in a bottle as it were. So, we had to have this chemistry read because chemistry’s there or it’s not. It can’t be engineered or manufactured; it just happens. I don’t know why but I know that the only way that I can play my part towards engendering it, is just by keeping up with Esther. And I just listen to her I respond to her.
She’s so alive and I think that’s really all that we can hope for in any kind of performative acting, interpretation, whatever want to call it, is that it’s alive. It just needs to be alive and real.
TMC: It’s organic.
RAFE: Organic. Yeah. And, you know, I think a lot of it doesn’t even seem written. That’s why people say some of it’s improvised because it flows so naturally in such a real way. It feels sort of lofty and the tiny bits of beauty in the every day, in which he’s very good at picking out and working on, I think is one of the great merits of the show.
TMC: The other thing I captured in seeing the series is that you both have individual ideals. As you said, you bring that energy together and they become joined. I consider your relationship to be on an equitable level of a traditional marriage. That’s what really impresses me about the flow of the show and your characters in general. You feed off each other very, very well.
RAFE: Families come in all different shapes and sizes. It’s not just the nuclear 2.4; married and then kids. These guys weren’t able to conceive naturally, they’re not married at this point, and they love each other… and family means many different things. Many different things.