Jenna Coleman talks learning French, '70s fashion, and falling for a serial killer on Netflix's The Serpent
The English actress plays the real-life girlfriend and accomplice of 1970s serial killer Charles Sobhraj.
Time to say bonjour to another creepy serial killer.
On Netflix's upcoming, deeply sinister crime drama The Serpent, Jenna Coleman (Doctor Who, Queen Victoria) plays Marie-Andrée Leclerc, the Québécoise girlfriend and accomplice to 1970's French serial killer Charles Sobhraj (played by The Mauritanian's Tahar Rahim). Led by Charles, the couple preyed on Western travelers across Southeast Asia, drugging and robbing them before killing them.
While Charles and Marie-Andrée pick off new targets, Herman Knippenberg (played by Billy Howley), a Dutch diplomat in Bangkok, starts investigating the disappearances of multiple young tourists. As Charles grows bolder, Knippenberg grows more desperate in his pursuit, but thanks to the help of Charles and Marie-Andrée's neighbors Nadine (Mathilde Warnier) and Remi (Grégoire Isvarine), he starts to close in on the infamous killer. Yup, you can go ahead and prepare to sit uncomfortably on the edge of your couch.
Before The Serpent wriggles its way onto Netflix this Friday, we talked to Coleman about getting into character via French lessons, bell-bottom jeans and halter-neck tops, meeting the real-life Nadine and Knippenberg, and exploring Marie-Andrée's mind through her diaries and voice recordings.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your reaction when this part came your way? Was it an immediate yes?
JENNA COLEMAN: I was in play at the Old Vic [in London] and they sent through six episodes in one go with loads of research, material and photographs, statements, her diaries, pictures of them — the pictures themselves were so filmic and interesting, the dynamic between them — and I literally just read the six episodes back-to-back. I was completely fascinated by it and I went down a complete wormhole of research and couldn't stop thinking about it and her. The psychology of her felt really original and like someone I'd never played and really something to explore. Obviously there's a practical aspect of it, in terms of speaking French when I'm working with Tahar and at that point, it was only a few weeks away from shooting. The technical challenge of — in the space of a tiny amount of weeks — getting to the point where I could be on set with Tahar, speaking French and speaking French authentically, so I could tell the story and it not be a factor, was something.
So, I'm assuming there was a vocal coach or language coach at your disposal?
Yeah. So he was teaching me English-French, but also French in the French accent and French-Canadian. It was a massive technical journey to get to the point to get on set so that we could then just focus on getting in depth in the story. It was a really quick process, actually. I had about three to four weeks [to master the language and accent].
That's so little time! Did you learn it phonetically or did you understand everything you were saying as you said it?
To be honest, to begin with, I worked phonetically because what was more important was that I got the sound. How can I describe it? It was like a trifle, layer upon layer upon layer. So it was getting the phonetic sound first, and then getting the emotion of the scene, understanding the scene, and then listening so you understand what the other actor's coming at you with and getting it into the character, and then getting to the point where you can slip out of English, French, English, French, and play the scene and know it so well that you can forget about it. I've never quite described it as a trifle before.
Would you stay in the language or even just the accent between takes?
On set, generally, I stayed somewhere in-between just because the mouth placement is so different. I'm really northern, so I'm really flat and far back in the mouth, whereas the French is so forward. Obviously with the Canadian side of it as well, I found myself somewhere in between, otherwise it was too far to go. I'm not a Method actor or anything like that, by any means, but it was just technically easier to stay in a middle ground.
That's so impressive though. When you first read those scripts and were drawn to Marie-Andrée's story, what was it about her as a character that you were most excited to delve into?
She tricked me. The way that Richard [Warlow] wrote the script, at the beginning she was this more glamorous, mysterious person, Monique, that we meet in episode one. There was something about her, visually. I had such a strong image of her, hiding behind her shades and her hair — the idea that she's this hidden woman and you couldn't quite get close to her and understanding how she felt about Charles, how complicit is she? Then, diving straight into episode 2, it's such a surprise that she'd never left Canada before, she'd had no life experience, her self worth was so low. She'd led a very dull, small — by her own words — life before meeting him and then suddenly she became so intoxicated by Charles and in the space of three weeks was drugging people and on this mad 1970s train journey or what she saw as an adventure. Her diaries were really fascinating and listening to her talk on voice record was so interesting. I realized she lives in such delusion; she fabricates her own world to exist in. I just found that so fascinating because obviously reality is going to catch up with you sooner or later, or your morality that you're squashing. It was all about suppression and how that rises to the surface and gets her.
Did you feel sorry for her at times?
Yeah, I went between all things and I still do. That's what was so confusing about it. I get asked a lot, is she a victim or is she not? She is and she isn't. It's both because she actively went after Charles. There's a certain level that she chose. It's not simple.
Did you get to meet any of the real-life people the characters are based on?
Yeah, we did! They came to set, quite a few of them. The real Nadine [Gires] came to set and Herman Knippenberg helped with a lot of the research. It was very strange to meet Nadine in particular because she arrived when we were around the pool at Kanit House, and she was looking at Tahar and me and the dog. I think she thought, physically, we looked very like them, which kind of weirded her out quite a lot. She told me a really interesting thing. I asked her if they were really in love. She said she thinks so at a certain point, but then he was incredibly unfaithful. And she asked Marie-Andrée if she would ever have children with him and Marie-Andrée replied, "No, I could never. They would be a monster." That isn't an innocent woman who doesn't know that he's got the devil in him.
Tahar is so good at playing Charles. He's almost effortlessly sinister. I'm assuming he's a lot nicer in real life though. How was working with him?
You launch straight into a job and you never know what to expect. I was a real fan of his from when I went to the London film festival when A Profit aired. It was so easy. I feel like our instincts are completely the same. We didn't really have to over-discuss anything. I felt very safe with him. He really pushes you and challenges you as well. He's full of surprises and a very dynamic actor. Our director, Tom [Shankland] as well, is just the coolest guy. None of it was fixed at all; it was all about exploration and that just made it so fun. Tahar's become a very close person. We just explored it together. It was a real, amazing partnership.
I can't not ask about the '70s fashion. How much fun was that and did the clothes – and the wigs — help with getting into character?
I was part wig. We chose it on purpose because in the images of her, she's got this slightly bushy, curly hair that she irons out when she's more glamorous, so we did part wig to get a bit of a different texture. The fashion, the story, the character journey started with the Canadian, more plimsoll, really geeky T-shirt and a big glasses and bushy hair, which was a lot of fun into the darker, Brigitte Bardot vibes. Then as she goes to Paris and gets a bit more tailored, we were looking a lot at Bianca Jagger and Mick Jagger — the energy of them in the airport and things like that. [Costume designer] Rachel Walsh was looking at those images, which are great.
The Serpent arrives Friday on Netflix.