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7 Questions with… The Irregulars Royce Pierreson: ‘I want every young black actor who sees this to know that we’re going in the right direction’
The Line of Duty and Witcher actor talks exclusively to BT about playing Doctor Watson in Netflix's new dark fantasy Sherlock Holmes series The Irregulars.
“Outside the room I was relaxed, almost too relaxed and I was waiting for that feeling to hit, that feeling you get before every audition.”
Royce Pierreson is talking about his audition to play Doctor Watson in Netflix’s fantasy series The Irregulars. It’s a role that Pierreson dreamed of playing from a young age (“The Sherlock Penguin classics, the orange and white ones, I used to read those a lot”), but it was an opportunity he never imagined would come his way.
“And then just as they were coming out to get me for the audition, I remember being sick in the hall. I was sick in the hall and I remember thinking, ‘there’s the fear’.”
Luckily, Pierreson’s sudden bout of nerves didn’t stop him getting the role of Dr Watson alongside Henry Lloyd-Hughes’ Sherlock Holmes. The duo are playing Holmes and Watson as we’ve never seen them before in a show that turns the Arthur Conan Doyle universe on its deerstalker-clad head.
The legendary sleuths of 221B Baker Street are darker, cagier and, when it comes to the mysteries of Victorian London, playing second fiddle to a young gang of troubled street teens known as The Irregulars.
Pierreson, whose career highlights already include starring alongside Thandie Newton in Line of Duty, starring in the Bafta-winning BBC drama Murdered By My Boyfriend and appearing alongside Henry Cavill in Netflix mega-hit The Witcher, is an actor who relishes a challenge and in The Irregulars he builds a new Doctor John Watson from the ground up that ranks alongside any that have gone before.
We caught up with Royce to ask him some burning questions about The Irregulars and more…
1. How big a fan of Sherlock Holmes are you and how daunting was it to play Watson?
I’ve been a fan of the books since I was young. I thought it was a goal that was never going to be imagined because there was no way a situation would arise where I would get to play Doctor John Watson. I think it happened right before the Black Lives Matter movement, so we were in the quiet before the storm still. I did not expect the call from my agent saying there is a chance to play Doctor Watson.
So when it came, I felt lucky but I also felt very ready. Everything felt aligned. Often with acting there is something in your head which doesn’t quite fit with the character you are playing and you are thinking about it too much. But with this show everything just worked.
2. This isn’t like any Holmes and Watson we’ve seen before – how would you describe their dynamic?
It flipped the dynamic. Watson in my opinion has always been the dogsbody, the voice of reason. And my Watson is to a point, but he’s also a carer for Sherlock. He’s the engine that is keeping them both going. It plays on the relationship that many people know and is really interesting.
I’m following in the footsteps of some incredible actors, I’ve watched and learned from. Lucy Liu, David Burke, Martin Freeman, Jude Law, to put my name in the ring with them is a special feeling.
But I always knew I wanted to give it my version, to flip it and make Watson more rough and ready, more world-weary.
This Watson has travelled the world and he’s a chancer, he adapts, he’s a black man in Victorian London high society so he had to adapt. He’s made himself John Watson. That was my way into this character.
It gave him a fearlessness and a feeling that he can handle anything. He can survive in any situation. As a black Watson in Victorian London, I constantly reminded myself that this guy is a fighter, this guy survives.
3. Why do you think the Holmes and Watson relationship fascinates people so much?
One of my many loves of the Arthur Conan Doyle world is that constant companionship. They always have each other’s back. They are so different, so apart in how they think and see the world, but they become such close friends and allies. They become brothers.
The love Watson has for Sherlock, not just in our story, but across all adaptations of the book, it’s quite special. It’s hard to write characters that you genuinely connect with in that way without it feeling forced or shoe-horned in.
It’s something that is there in the text, which is why people love it, but it’s also there for actors to portray, mess around with and enjoy.
My Watson has a love of Holmes’ talent, his mind, there is a protection, all of these things wrapped up. It’s not just one emotion and you should always be looking at that.
4. How did you find the costumes and maintaining that fabulous moustache?
Oh man, it was difficult. I would go to shave and then forget. I’d shave a bit off my face and then remember I was shooting in two weeks. It was a learning curve, the moustache game.
We had a brilliant costume designer. I spoke to him on the first day about how I thought this character was a chancer. We got all these little details into the costumer – maybe he picked this up here, or this came from this country – the audience might not pick up on it all, but it’s great for me to have those conversations with the designers. When I pick up the costumes each morning it just means I think, ‘That’s my John Watson right there’.
5. Watson and Bea have a great dynamic – what was Thaddea Graham like?
Thaddea is so great. She brings so much energy to the show. She kept everyone’s spirits up and I think she brought that yin to Watson’s yang. You see Watson so combative and highly strung. To have Thaddea’s character come in and needle at that, it really unravels Watson. It was a real joy to work with her on that dynamic.
6. Since the Black Lives Matter events last year, do you think there has been much progress in the acting world?
I think it’s difficult to answer. From my audition to now, so much has happened, but so much more needs to happen. You take the Golden Globe nominations, you still see that lack of diversity, which is very obvious still. But we are going in the right direction.
For me as a black actor now, with this show coming out, I feel proud and at no point was my John Watson cast because of the colour of my skin. Drama Republic, the production company, I’ve worked with them a few times and they are fantastic because they cast for the right reasons.
For me to come out and show my version of John Watson, I want it to be a statement. I want to say, this is where we’re going and this is where we need to continue to go.
- Royce Pierreson
For me to come out and show my version of John Watson and place it alongside these actors who I’ve grown up with, at this moment in time, I want it to be a statement. I want to say this is where we’re going and this is where we need to continue to go.
I want every young black actor who sees this to know that we’re going in the right direction. Never stop knocking at that door. Things are changing.
Don’t get me wrong we have a long way to go, not just with black actors, but many areas. But the fact we’re having a conversation and the fact so much is changing, this is what we need to continue doing and this is what we need to keep talking about.
It only stops and we only reset when people stop having the conversation. There’s an amazing quote from Ava DuVernay, the brilliant black American director. I’m paraphrasing, but the idea of acceptance and diversity being offered with open arms is so wrong. It’s a wrong that needs to be righted. And it is being righted. It will happen. There won’t be a time where it happens and we wash our hands of it. It will be a constant struggle. And you don’t know and you won’t know until you’ve gone through it. Until you’ve gone through it, you don’t know.
7. The Irregulars is set up perfectly for season 2. Are you ready to get the moustache going again?
I really am. I think it sets up an expansive world. There’s such a rich universe from the world of Arthur Conan Doyle, but also from what Tom [Bidwell, the show's creator] has created. He’s made these really full characters. I can’t wait to see where it goes next. I keep asking him, but he won’t tell me.
Watch The Irregulars season 1 on Netflix from March 26