“I passionately believe that a show can be touching and funny and sad and mysterious and dramatic,” she said, speaking from her home in London recently. “You don’t have to choose one thing.”
A natural clown with a hypermobile face and a nervy, high-amplitude energy, Haggard had, until very recently, made a career of cameos, one-offs and character bits. People sometimes recognized her from the British TV series “Episodes,” in which she played Myra Licht, the bilious head of comedy at an American network. She also had a role in the Harry Potter franchise — as the voice of an elevator.
But like that elevator, Haggard is moving up. Her six-episode comedy “Back to Life,” about a 30-something woman who has just finished serving an 18-year prison sentence, had a successful run in Britain this spring, lauded in the press as the next “Fleabag.” A new FX series starring Haggard is in production. And Sunday, “Back to Life” makes its American debut on Showtime, with all episodes available to binge at midnight.
“Back to Life” resists some of the easy “Fleabag” comparisons drawn in the media. It’s a comedy and a drama, a mystery and a fish-out-of-water yarn, a piece of small-town sociology and probably a romance. It’s the story of Miri Matteson, who must adjust to a life in a coastal community that no longer trusts her. But it’s also the story of a 41-year-old actress who is finally attacking a role as big and weird and rich as she could dream it.
“Your time comes when it comes if you’re lucky enough for it to come,” she said. “All I can say is, I’m so glad that things are happening for me now, you know, at 40 rather than at 21, when I wouldn’t have known what to do.”
The youngest child of a director father, Piers Haggard, and an artist mother, Anna Sklovsky, Haggard always knew she wanted to act. She spent her London childhood making up dance routines to Whitney Houston songs and staging multiday productions like “The Mystery of the Scratched Boob,” a parody of her father’s horror films like “The Blood on Satan’s Claw.” Her father discouraged her ambitions, but at 15 he reluctantly gave her a part as a teen murderess in an episode of “The Ruth Rendell Mysteries.”
Rejected by drama schools the first time she applied, she eventually enrolled in a two-year course at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Once, she stumbled upon some faculty notes she almost certainly wasn’t meant to see: “Collapsed thoracic, multiple speech impediments, and terrible legs.”
“I remember reading that, thinking, ‘I’m never going to work,’ ” Haggard said.
For about eight years, she didn’t — or at least not enough that she could stop working as a gym receptionist, as a nanny, or in the Christmas decorations department at Harrods. “I would get what I thought was a break, say goodbye to everybody and then be like, ‘Hello again,’ ” she said.
Better acting work arrived: decent theater roles; a spot on the sketch show “Man Stroke Woman,” where she met writer Laura Solon; and supporting or ensemble parts in dark British television comedies like “Psychoville” and “The Persuasionists.” But little of it showed her range.
Then in 2012, she voiced a role in an animated series called “Full English,” created in part by the brothers Harry and Jack Williams, who went on to become executive producers on “Fleabag.” “Full English” was quickly canceled, but the three became friends. A few years later, over too many glasses of rosé, she sold them on “Back to Life,” based on her interest in how society treats female offenders and a hunch that Miri and the series would flutter free of any pigeonhole.
“It had a dark heart,” Harry Williams said by phone of their decision to take it on. “It was a tragedy at the center of a comedy.”
The producers found a director, Chris Sweeney, and filmed a 10-minute taster designed to capture the show’s tone. Two years ago the BBC commissioned the series — when Haggard was nine months pregnant with her second daughter. (Her husband is musician Joe Wilson.)
Solon, who now lives in Los Angeles, came on as a co-writer, and the two women hashed out the six episodes on harried trans-Atlantic Skype calls.
“We were basically doing 5 a.m. calls,” Solon said, “just talking at each other as quickly as possible until one of our children came back or woke up.”
Haggard typed scripts with the baby on her lap or between sessions with the breast pump. Her baby had a tongue tie; her older daughter had recurrent chest infections. Still, she said the added constraints “probably helped in some way.”
“There’s this myth that you have kids and your brain doesn’t work and you can’t do anything, and actually that’s just rubbish because it completely focused me,” she said. “I could have written a million shows to myself in my 20s and 30s, but I was too busy sitting around in my pants complaining about all the time I had. I had too much time.”
From domestic chaos, a show emerged that pits Miri’s wide-eyed innocence against bleaker themes. The neighbors hate her; her old boyfriend has moved on; her mother (Geraldine James) hides the knives. Even the walls of her old bedroom — decorated with posters of Prince, Michael Jackson, George Michael — have become grim.
Before “Fleabag” cleaned up at this year’s Emmy Awards, networks and streaming services had already showed increasing interest in dark comedies centered on troubled, troublesome women, like “Russian Doll,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” or Showtime’s own “SMILF” — shows often created or cocreated by their female leads. But comparisons to “Fleabag,” especially given the several producers it shares (executive producer Sarah Hammond is a third), seemed inevitable.
Gary Levine, Showtime’s president of entertainment, said he wasn’t looking to replicate the success of “Fleabag.” “With successful shows on our competitors, we try to stay away from them,” he said. “None of us were sitting here saying, ‘Wow, this is the next ‘Fleabag.’ ”
Haggard said she loved “Fleabag,” but she insisted that tonally, the shows differed.
“To be mentioned in the same breath is definitely a huge honor,” she said. But “Back to Life” is less worldly and a lot less sexy. Arguably it’s sadder. If people come expecting the cheek and lust of “Fleabag,” “they’ll be disappointed,” Haggard said. “It’s not that. It’s something else.”
But like that show, it stars a gifted actress in a role purpose-built to showcase her charm and abilities. As Miri, Haggard screams, she sings, she scowls, she flirts. She cuts her own hair and uses novelty balloons as a weapon and somehow makes it all seem natural.
“She’s got a very sort of rubber, versatile face,” said her co-star Geraldine James. “And she has a spontaneity that’s very unusual, so you can throw anything at her, and she will respond to it very originally and very wittily, immediately and completely truthfully.”
If Miri borrows Haggard’s sunniness and charm, the circumstances of their lives are obviously different. “Breeders,” a new comedy coming to FX next year, resembles her own life more closely. Alongside Martin Freeman, she stars as Ally, a frazzled North London woman juggling marriage, career and young children. It’s one of those juggling acts where the balls keep dropping.
“‘Back to Life’ didn’t need any of what I was going through,” Haggard said. “‘Breeders’ did. I got to play an exhausted mother of two, which is what I am.”
If “Back to Life” is renewed (Levine said he was optimistic), the exhaustion should continue. Probably it would have been easier to achieve all this decades ago, in the pre-child years, sitting around in her underwear. But Haggard, who cited “relentless optimism” as her defining quality, prefers to look at her journey differently: “I think I’ve just had a varied career,” she said.
James, who first worked with Haggard onstage 15 years ago and has now played her mother three times, had her own interpretation.
“All the talent that she’s always had, it has come right into fruition,” James said. “She had to write that for herself, in order to let to let the world see her full potential. I hope that she inspires a lot of young women to write pieces for themselves.”
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