Maison Close is the explicit TV drama based in a 19th century Parisian brothel and focuses on the lives of three women who work there.
Revealing, often brutal but also touching, this hard hitting series doesn’t pull any punches with its portrayal of life in a French capital still coming to terms with the aftermath of revolution.
We spoke to Jemima West, who plays central character, Rose, about what it was like climbing into the head of a high class prostitute.
“Well it’s not exactly something you can prepare for by experience,” she laughs. “And probably not something a history of art graduate from the Sorbonne would necessarily consider a career move but this was no ordinary production and I realised it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.
“This is a difficult industry to progress in and if you want to make your mark then sometimes you need to go for something different to showcase your abilities. I think Maison Close has helped me do that.”
There’s no doubting that Hollywood sat up and took notice because Jemima is now filming what is hoped will be the first in a series of movies based on the multi-million selling books, The Mortal Instruments. Speculation that the film could repeat the success of the Twilight series only heightens the publicity around it.
“I’m going to be playing Isabelle Lightwood, a demon-slayer. I really didn’t realise what a following the series had until we started and it’s quite daunting to be honest. We’ve been filming in Canada and there have been legions of fans waiting outside the studio sets for autographs.”
It’s all a far cry from the future this young girl - whose father is an accountant and mother a business interpreter – may have had in mind when her family settled in the French capital.
“I’m English through and through but from the age of five I grew up and went to school in Paris. I did start taking acting lessons as a teenager so the desire to perform was always there, although I’m not sure how comfortable my parents were with my role as a prostitute. Mum has watched the first season of Maison Close but dad didn’t get beyond the first couple of episodes once things started to get a little more steamy for my character, Rose.”
In the show, Rose is tricked into taking on a debt that must be repaid to regain her freedom. Abandoned by her fiancé and with no one else to turn to, she must trust in her colleagues at the brothel to help her through the loss of her virginity, the temptations of drug abuse and manipulation by the madame Hortense.
“It’s not Sunday afternoon viewing with the family. It’s gritty, sexually explicit and has very coarse language but it isn’t there to shock it’s there to give the show authenticity. That’s what has made it such a success.
“It’s sensitive material and a subject that – if handled incorrectly – could have really been a disastrous flop and hurt my career but fortunately we were blessed with a brilliant script and a wonderful director. What I like most is the fact that the characters are so diverse and complex. There are no caricatures; everyone is fully fleshed with nuance and personality.
“We filmed the whole series in Lisbon and the entire cast bonded over the months we spent together.
“In the early stages it was a bit daunting to have all this nudity around you but when you are focused on your work you soon forget about everything but the scene. That said, my very first scene was when Vera (Ann Charrier) jumps out of a cake naked and then begins to participate in an orgy. I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen and the look of shock on my face was more reaction than acting!”
But does she believe Maison Close is glamourising, perhaps even legitimising a profession that ultimately degrades women?
“No, I don’t. If anything I believe it shows how tragic their situations are rather than paint them as two dimensional sex objects, fleshing their personalities out with dark humour and acts of courage. The violence and cruelty they are subjected to is never ignored and we see that their situations are often forced upon them because of bad luck or, in my character Rose’s case, trickery and manipulation.”
And how has she taken to being recognised everywhere?
“In Paris it was a surprise to suddenly see my face appear on huge billboards across the capital when the promotional work began on the series.”
So what does she do to get away from it all?
“I love art and I’m fortunate to be in Paris surrounded by culture at every turn. Exhibitions, cinema, theatre, the list is almost endless. I love foreign cinema and independent movies.”
And if she didn’t make it big in the film business?
“I’d probably turn my hand to something creative. I used to enjoy ballet so perhaps I would have been a dancer. Whatever it was something tells me I would never have strayed far from the arts.”
Maison Close is available now on Blu Ray and DVD and The Mortal Instruments is due for release in 2013.
George R Vaughan