Lisa McGrillis interview: In My Own Words with… the Maternal actress and mum-of-two

Actress Lisa McGrillis talks exclusively to BT TV about being a working mum, bringing her baby on set, and her high-profile roles in Avoidance, Maternal, Sex Education and Best Interests.

By Sophia Moir Published: 7 February 2023 - 2.57pm
Joseph Sinclair Lisa McGrillis headshot

Lisa McGrillis recently landed her first leading role, but she’s always been worthy of being a leading lady.

The British actress - who was born in Cheltenham but raised near Carlisle - started out as a stage actress before landing her first TV role in BBC comedy Hebburn alongside Vic Reeves in 2012.

Since then, the 40-year-old talent has starred in primetime TV shows including Mum, Avoidance and King Gary, although it’s her starring role in ITV’s medical drama Maternal that is earning her rave reviews.

Coming up, she’s set to star in Sex Education season 4, as well as Best Interests on BBC One.

Outside of work, Lisa is also a mother of two, and speaks openly about the challenges of pursuing her career in the arts alongside raising her two young children: six-year-old son Jack, and two-year-old daughter Cleo (the latter of whom appears in Maternal - more on that later). 

Lisa’s husband - and father of her two children - is fellow actor Stuart Martin, who currently stars in Victorian detective drama Miss Scarlet and The Duke.

Lisa is currently an ambassador for PIPA - Parents and Carers in Performing Arts - and she says that "being an actress can be challenging at the best of times, but throw a baby into the equation and it can feel like an impossible sum". That's without your spouse being an actor, too...

Here, in a new interview with BT TV, McGrillis talks about being a working mum, bringing her baby on set, plus her exciting TV career, in her own words.

'I’m championing all women that are trying to work and be a parent'

Lisa McGrillis holding clapper board on set of Maternal Lisa McGrillis / Instagram

You can’t really begin to imagine being a working parent until you’re doing it. Before you have a baby, you’re like “it’ll be fine, I’ll manage it, I’ll do it”. Then when it comes to doing it, you’re like “sh*t! How do I actually do this? It’s impossible!” 

It’s incredibly difficult to work in our industry and be a parent. The hours are so anti-social. The make-up girls are in with you from 6am, then obviously if you’re commuting, you’ve left for work at 5am. Then it’s a 12-hour filming day, so you don’t finish until 7pm and it’s like 8pm by the time you get home. That’s a really long day. If you’re doing that five or six days a week, for four months, it just doesn’t lend itself to parenting. 

What happens is, you end up feeling incredibly guilty. You’re missing out on nativity plays and sports days. But someone said to me once, “Lisa, can you remember your sports day when you were 5?” and I was like “no”. I hope one day [my kids] will feel super proud that I’m doing a job that I really love. When you’re feeling so guilty and terrible, and you’re thinking “oh my God, I’m really messing up my kids”, remember that as long as they’re surrounded by love and they feel safe, they’ll be OK.

I think there’s just something about going to work that’s pure escapism. Especially when it’s in a job that you love. It’s a bit like when you drop your kid off at nursery, and you’ve got the day just to be you again in your job, which is really special.

'Bringing my baby to work on Maternal was the best and worst idea I’ve ever had'

Maternal cast with babies ITV

I volunteered my baby daughter Cleo to play my baby in Maternal. In my head, it was like “that’ll just solve that childcare issue because she can come to work with me!” But the reality is, you need to be in work mode. There’s a lot going on on set. A lot of people need your attention. You’re carrying a storyline. 

Then, suddenly your baby is screaming. Cleo really needed me, she was like “I need mummy!” Cleo had a chaperone, but they just want you, don’t they? You find yourself hiding, like going to the toilet without them seeing you. But there was also just something beautiful about it, because Cleo was stretching her arms out, asking for me.

In the grand scheme of things, it was nothing. Cleo probably did six days [filming] in total, in the total of like three and a half months. Maternal really lent itself to supporting parents. They were reciprocating it by going “yes! Of course, let’s just make it work". 

When Cleo is a bit older, I can go “look!” She’ll have a few quid to spend. I must remember to put some money into a bank account for her, because I’ve definitely spent it. I’m acting as her agent!

'Working with Romesh Rangathan on Avoidance was a really crazy time'

Lisa McGrillis Avoidance BBC

I’ve got mixed emotions about filming Avoidance. I suffered quite badly with postnatal insomnia [after Cleo], so I definitely felt that I was going mad during that particular period of my life. She was so tiny and I just wasn’t sleeping. 

I was going to work and trying to manage everything. It was a really crazy time, but Romesh [Ranganathan] was amazing. Considering I was having a pretty tricky time during that period, we always just laughed so much. 

We were like a little family, just the six of us in the cast. I love that show. I thought it was really sweet and unique, and made with love. I very much wear my heart on my sleeve. If I’m feeling something, I will talk about it. 

Romesh Ranganathan is just as lovely as he comes across. He’s so funny and so dry, but also really caring, and self-deprecating. He’s always like “you know what you’re doing” and “you’re better at this than me” and I was just like “I’m definitely not, Romesh, you’re absolutely smashing it!” 

'I still can’t believe I’ve been cast in the new season of Sex Education'

Sex Education Jean Milburn Netflix

I play Gillian Anderson’s sister Joanna in the new series of Sex Education. She’s a bit of a whirlwind character who explodes into Jean and Otis’ lives. You’ll learn more about Jean Millburn through her sister.

It’s really mad going into a show that you’re already a fan of. I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience, filming at the iconic house of Jean and Otis [played by Gillian Anderson and Asa Butterfield], with Ncuti [Gatwa, who plays Eric] standing outside.

I still can’t believe they cast me in it. The casting was so last-minute and they weren’t even sure if we could make it work because it clashed with filming Maternal. I was chatting to the exec producers about it, and I was just like “someone’s clearly dropped out!” but they were like “no, it was always you, Lisa!” so who knows? 

It was an absolute clusterf**k sorting childcare for it. I was filming on a Monday in Liverpool, then getting in the car at 7pm, arriving in Cardiff at midnight, and getting picked up at 5am [on the Tuesday] to film in Cardiff. Then going back to Liverpool after wrap at 7pm, to film there on the Wednesday. It was just mental. Fortunately I’ve got an incredibly supportive mum and dad, because my husband was working in America. 

I have no idea whether the next series is the last. Like lots of television, it’s about knowing when the right time is to stop. Sex Education could run forever, because they could just get more kids. But audiences really like to see the same faces. Some of that cast have been doing it for five years - they can’t be 17 forever. I’m not sure what Netflix plans to do with it to be honest. I’m just grateful I got to be a part of it when it’s such a hit show. Would I be up for returning? You’re never gonna say no to Sex Education, are you? 

'Filming Best Interests with Sharon Horgan made me love her even more!'

Best Interests First Look BBC

I play Brenda, a Christian PR, in Best Interests with Sharon Horgan and Michael Sheen. I’m helping the family to finance the court case. I’m very much a supporting part in this very difficult and sad story... I feel like I’m definitely a cog in the machine, which is much bigger than me, [but] an important cog. 

There are such incredible actors in Best Interests. Sometimes I was privy to watching people rehearse who I’ve got huge respect for. Sharon Horgan is one of my absolute icons. I love her. It was really amazing to work with her actually. I think this role for her is so different to anything I’ve seen her in. She absolutely smashes it out of the ballpark. 

I think this will be an incredible piece of television. It will be a hard watch. I felt really proud to be a part of it. The subject matter is so difficult, and you can’t sit in that, so we used to have such a laugh during filming and in between takes.

75 TV shows we can't wait for in 2023

Catch all the shows you love on BT TV

Watch the latest shows and sport from Sky with a NOW Membership, Netflix, and Discovery+ all in one place.

60 Second Tech Talk with... Lisa McGrillis

Lisa McGrillis headshot Joseph Sinclair

Tell me about the phone call you received when you got the role in Maternal…

Getting the job is the best part of the job! I’ll tell you where I was when I got the job of Maternal. I was travelling back in the car from filming Avoidance in West London, and I was on my way home. It was my second-to-last day of filming. I remember that car journey so vividly. I was stuck in traffic, and I had to tell someone, so I told the driver that I’d just been offered my first lead role. And he replied with, “are you looking for a driver?” 

Do you have a work WhatsApp group with the other cast in Maternal?

We do! We, Parminder [Nagra] and Lara [Pulver] have got a WhatsApp group called “the tres amigos”. When Maternal went out on the first night, they couldn’t watch it live, because they both live in America. They were FaceTiming me and I was like “get off the phone, I’m trying to watch it!”

Best podcast you listened to while filming Maternal? 

I pretty much listened to all of Grounded by Louis Theroux. I went right back to the beginning as he started it at the start of lockdown. They’re all brilliant!

Most famous person/cast member in your phone book?

Lesley Manville, or Jodie Comer!

Most-used apps in your phone?

I’m ashamed to say Instagram and WhatsApp, probably!

Guilty pleasure app?

I’m a terrible shopper! So the Zara app is in constant use. Instagram is also a guilty pleasure because it steals so much of your time and it’s so addictive. I cannot go on TikTok for that reason, because if I go on it, I’d be on it forever! I went on once and I was on it for 45 minutes, and I was like “what just happened?” No, I’d never join TikTok - I can’t!

Most underrated app on your phone?  Something you use all the time but not many people know about…

Voice notes! I use voice recorder a lot, and I use one called Rehearsal Pro which is a line-learning app. You record your lines, then you can mark up scripts. I learn lines by recording the other lines, then leaving a space for my lines. 

Fave parenting app?

When the babies were very little, there was this amazing app I used to go on called The Wonder Weeks! It told you week-by-week what was going on. It got me through those times when you have no idea and are desperately trying to find answers on an app! The second time, you don’t do anything.

Last photo you took on your phone?

It’s a screengrab! I just sent a screengrab of Russell T Davies posting on Instagram about Maternal, saying that the show is amazing. So I sent that to my family WhatsApp group, and the tres amigos chat!

Fave Instagram filter?

Paris! It really smooths you out. I feel like I really need smoothing out since having children! I have aged so much in the last six years. I looked like such a spring chicken before I had kids. Now I look like a screwed-up piece of paper.

Last box set you binge-watched?

The White Lotus, like everyone! Oh my God, we’re obsessed.

Fave Spotify music playlist?

I love to listen to a playlist that a friend made for our wedding. 

Last book you read on Kindle? 

I don’t have a Kindle! I like to feel the paper in my hands. I’m reading Where The Crawdads Sing. It’s good, isn’t it?

Most-used phrase shouted at Alexa?

I’m usually asking Alexa to “play Chu Chu Wa”, which is a Spanish holiday song! It’s one of the most annoying songs of all time, but my kids love it. It makes me feel like scratching my eyeballs out!

Stream all episodes of Maternal on ITVX, and all episodes of Avoidance on BBC iPlayer.

Release dates for Sex Education season 4 and Best Interests have yet to be confirmed.