On FX’s gritty period drama Taboo, Spanish actress Oona Chaplin (the granddaughter of that Chaplin), 30, costars with Tom Hardy as a conflicted married woman forced to confront a scandalous romance — with her brother.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Taboo (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET) is an unusual show. What drew you to it?
OONA CHAPLIN: It was sort of funny because it was one of those projects where I just go, “I’m never going to get this, but I’ll give it a go.” I felt that I didn’t have the right look for the time [the show is set in 1814]. But of course, I’m often wrong.
You play a woman named Zilpha Geary, who is the half sister of Tom Hardy’s character, James Delaney. Zilpha has a lot going on — how would you describe her?
Zilpha is a woman of the time, completely. She’s in a marriage that is convenient and in a financial situation that is a little complicated, but she likes her luxury, quiet, and relatively normal life. And then her brother comes back from his mysterious trip, and that throws everything up in the air. Her desires are in direct conflict with how she thinks her life should be, and that is always really interesting. The friction between what you want and what you think you should want is really juicy as an actress.
The relationship between Zilpha and her brother — is that what Taboo refers to? What would you say the series is about, ultimately?
It is about all of the deliciously filthy things in life. Everything from close-ups of butcher’s hands covered in pig’s blood to, you know, the dirty looks that wealthy men give prostitutes. We live in dark times right now. We have wars that are breaking hearts and minds and lives, and people are getting elected that confuse a lot of my friends. So we have to learn to look our darkness in the face and honor it. And I think this show does that. Like, what is the most unexpected and f—ed up thing that could happen here? And then it happens.
There certainly is a lot of filth… Everyone looks so unclean, and there are a lot of bad teeth.
Yeah, although my character is relatively clean. But on set, the makeup girls have a lot of fun getting everyone as dirty as humanly possible. Every morning there’d be a queue of people waiting to get muddy. They’d get caked in makeup, but sometimes they use real mud. I’m not sure what they use on their teeth. Hopefully not real mud.
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Is it hard to do the more intimate scenes when the other person is covered in mud?
Well, Tom Hardy’s beard smells amazing. He puts this wax on his beard, and it smells absolutely heavenly. All the filth was kind of offset by his heavenly smell.
So Charlie Chaplin was your grandfather. Has that connection influenced you as an actor? Do you spend a lot of time watching old Chaplin films?
My God, yes. I think he was and is the greatest film creator of all time. It’s sort of amazing. He really did it all. His work still shows us what the tenderness of the human heart is capable of — and without being cheesy. It’s a reference that I go back to over and over again because it’s still so relevant. Going back to a simpler and more honest way of telling stories is something that I’m really interested in. Instead of having all of these 25-minute chase scenes, what happens when you really have an honest connection with a child? Charlie is beautiful. He’s a master. I’m extremely proud to be related to him, although it feels very surreal sometimes. I don’t quite believe it. I think someone’s lying to me.