Actor Amanda Burton on How to Be, Play and Raise Strong Women
Actor Amanda Burton on How to Be, Play and Raise Strong Women
Amanda Burton’s made a habit of playing smart, serious leads. She’s been a crown prosecutor, a police commander, and from 1996 – 2004, she played forensic pathologist Sam Ryan on the BBC crime series, Silent Witness (premiering on Knowledge June 12).
Britain loved Amanda Burton. In 2002, a writer for The Telegraph described the Irish actor as “the most envied woman in Britain… the person that most women in the country would like to resemble.”
Refreshingly, her character’s looks and sex life didn’t own the storyline: instead, the focus was on the skilled and compassionate work she did to solve murders.
This emphasis on her work was significant. It still is. In a 2014 study of American broadcast networks, cable, and Netflix, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that “male characters were more likely than female characters to play work-related roles (66% vs. 41%)”, whereas “female characters were more likely than male characters to play personal life-related roles (such as wife, mother, girlfriend) (43% vs. 24%)”.
In Sam Ryan, women got to see something different. For her portrayal of the character, Burton racked up an impressive collection of “Best Actress” and “Most Popular Actress” awards.
Over the phone from London, Burton spoke with us about deconstructing the dead, raising strong daughters and dodging bomb scares.
(The following interview has been condensed.)
K: How are you? What was the highlight of your weekend?
AB: I was packing up my house all weekend; it was such a nostalgic time. It gave me the chance to read some lovely letters. And funnily enough, in the wardrobe I came across my wonderful Marc Jacobs leather coat that had been bought for Sam Ryan for the first episode of Silent Witness. I was pleased to see it still fitted. It was one of the first things that we bought when we were out shopping for this character – that and a beautiful Armani suit. I remember we bought it at a very beautiful store in London called Harvey Nichols. My God, there was so much money in television then… my wardrobe was sensational.
Amanda Burton in the (much-loved) leather jacket she wore as Dr. Sam Ryan in Silent Witness.
We’ll be airing the first episode of Silent Witness on Friday, June 12. What are your memories from shooting that first episode?
I was just so excited about having the lead in a show… which doesn’t always happen for a woman.
And it was such an interesting series. I had been fascinated by the Patricia Cornwell books [which feature Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner] and really wanted to play a forensic pathologist. The opportunity just came by… It was extraordinary. They were literally having a meeting at the BBC saying, why don’t we do a series about a forensic pathologist?
I was working with a wonderful director, who had such a filmic eye, called Harry Hook. We were filming in Cambridge… an amazing location. And the scripts were just so new and hard-hitting.
It was all such an amazing departure, I think, for a woman to be not someone’s wife, someone’s girlfriend. She was such a headstrong, career woman… passionate, passionate, passionate about finding justice after people’s deaths.
Also, I was able to use my native tongue. I’m Irish and I’d never really played an Irish role, particularly in a series, before.
What do you think the magic recipe is for a series to have this kind of longevity – almost 20 years and running?
I think it’s keeping its integrity.
In my time on the show, when new people [came] on board… they wanted to change things around. They wanted Sam to be more kind of girlfriend-boyfriend material. I just used to say, no; leave it as it is because it has a fantastic audience. It sold everywhere and the feedback was very, very good. I was quite feisty about it.
I wasn’t going to start changing Sam into some kind of happy-go-lucky, smiley girl just because somebody came in and said, you know, I think we should have a few more jokes.
I went on to co-produce it and that was really good as well. I worked with some lovely producers, fantastic directors, really great actors. All in all, it was an amazing show to do.
I’m wondering if playing a forensic pathologist made you more analytical in your personal life.
Absolutely, I think that show had an enormous impact on my life. I was involved with it [in] my late 30s through to my late 40s. It was a very hard-hitting show to do, and I think it took its toll on me. (I certainly have discovered much more of my light side since those days.)
There was quite a lot of method acting; I went to autopsies and I studied in a very detailed way. I really needed to know what I was doing because I would have been hung up and dried by the critics had I not done the research. My prep time was massive. I used to rush home and have supper with my children, do their homework with them, and then I’d start prepping my day at about 9[pm]. And that used to go on to about 12[pm]. And then I’d go to bed and get up again at quarter to six and start all over.
So it was a really full on, massive time of my life, but it was so rewarding. I learned a lot about my stamina, my strengths as a person. I became a very strong character through that show.
How did the experience change the way you thought about death?
I think I became quite immune – not to suffering, certainly not. I think that the character herself had such an enormous amount of compassion. I’ve always been very emotional and – I hope – a very warm mother. It was a very emotional time for me because I took the stories on board so much.
For years, I would dream that I was doing autopsies. It was the most extraordinary time in my career, but looking back on it, I think in my personal life it was quite a dark time.
It had a very big effect on me. I felt that I’d been given an enormous insight into death and people’s grieving. If there was any more growing up to be done, I took it to a different level at that time. It made me very patient and it made me value life.
Amanda Burton held court with some big brains as forensic pathologist Sam Ryan in Silent Witness.
You mentioned before that women don’t always get the chance to play strong leads. What did Sam Ryan bring to the screen that was missing for you?
It was the chance to play a very serious career woman. She did have some love affairs, but it wasn’t the raison d'être in her life. I think that was very important. I never saw her as being glamourous or sexy; I think some people did find her sexy. I never got that. I certainly wasn’t playing her like that! I just wanted it to be a truthful show about the after effects and piecing together death.
The thing that I did love about it – and I think it has changed, slightly – is that you never saw the violence. It was about piecing together what had happened after the death. I think it’ll be really interesting to see how it stands up today.
How far would you say we’ve come over the past 20 years when it comes to creating a diverse and representative range of roles for women on TV?
I think some of the shows that have come here from America are amazing. I love the Danish noir shows that we get, like The Bridge. I think that women’s roles have really, really progressed. I don’t see at all that there’s a dearth of parts for women. I think women are portrayed really well. It’s also up to women to make sure that they’re portraying women in a good way, with integrity… making sure that they’re steering their characters into intelligent zones. We have a part to play in that.
You were the youngest of four girls in your family. You attended an all-girls secondary school. How do you think your upbringing impacted your role choices?
Well, my mother was quite matriarchal. Five women in a house with one man! We were all very strong characters. I pretty much did what I wanted to do, not in a spoiled way, but I certainly didn’t feel that there was any gender bias for me at all, which was quite remarkable as I was born in 1956 in rural Ireland.
My family… didn’t follow the sort of norm at the time. There was quite a lot of traveling. We were very interested in culture, so I was able to go to lots of theatre even though I was brought up pretty much during the troubles in Northern Ireland. My parents made sure that if there was a cinema showing of something, we went to it; if there was theatre in Dublin, we went to it; if there was a show in Belfast…
Many times we had to leave a theatre because of a bomb scare, but we went as much as we could through that time.
My father was involved in amateur dramatics… I was always learning his lines for him. It was sort of going to be in my blood, really.
Are your daughters into acting?
My youngest daughter, Brid, she’s… in the Soho Theatre writing course. She’s written a short film that the whole family is going to be involved in, which is going to be great fun. I’m so looking forward to that. And my eldest daughter is behind camera. She works in film and television and makes her own music videos. We’re all crazy creatives.
They’re 25 and 26 now, so they’re very independent young women and taking their place in the creative world – which I love. They grew up knowing that their opinion mattered in the family. I’ve always been a great one for having dinner as a family and really thrashing it out and talking about interesting things and making lively conversation.
If we had people over, there was never a kind of kids’ corner in our house. I used to hate that.
So my kids got used to really enjoying talking to older people; they’ve always been able to talk to anyone, and I think that’s a fantastic gift.
A journalist for The Telegraph once described you as “the sort of person who seems not to walk but to bounce.” My dad’s like that. I’m wondering what puts the bounce in your step.
Well, I’m a glass full person. I like embracing the day, and I feel that I have a lot of love in my life. I treasure my life. And I treasure my daughters hugely. I feel very blessed. I love meeting new people; I love talking to people. Every day is an adventure for me; I think that puts the bounce in my step.
Silent Witness premieres on Knowledge June 12.