Erin Doherty shape shifts in the thriller 'Chloe'

She plays Becky, an office temp worker who becomes obsessed with the life and death of someone she used to know.

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Photo: NYT
Photo: NYT

Published: Tue 16 Aug 2022, 5:34 PM

Last updated: Mon 12 Sep 2022, 3:20 PM

After playing Princess Anne on two seasons of The Crown, Erin Doherty realized that people assumed she had a similar — if not quite as regal — background.

Nina Gold, who scouted Doherty for The Crown, had long thought that “playing a whole different kind of social class is one of the most difficult things to do convincingly,” she said, until “Erin really blew that theory of mine.”

The actress, 29, actually grew up in Crawley, a town in south England whose most famous landmark is Gatwick Airport. But it took some time to “not be seen as this upper-class actor,” she said in a recent interview. When she read the script for Chloe, a tense six-part noir about a working-class con woman, she signed up immediately.

In the limited series, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, she plays Becky, an office temp worker who becomes obsessed with the life and death of Chloe (Poppy Gilbert), a wealthy and glamorous redhead she used to know. To investigate what happened to Chloe, Becky poses as Sasha, who speaks with the right upper crust accent and wears the right designer clothes to be accepted by Chloe’s friends. Like the narrator in Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, the specter of Chloe becomes a fixation whose reality, it turns out, Becky knew nothing about.

Doherty plays Becky’s escape from a drab life caring for her mother, who suffers from early onset dementia, into a seemingly better life as Sasha with equal parts guilt and relish.

Becky, a compulsive liar with a severe Instagram addiction from southwest England, is the “polar opposite to Anne,” Doherty said. After her role on The Crown, period pieces about blue bloods kept landing in her inbox, but Chloe is Doherty’s first television role since playing the princess.

Growing up in Crawley, “I was always like, ‘Right. How am I going to get out, then?’” Doherty said. Her acting ambitions were sparked by films like Kramer vs. Kramer, which her father showed her when she was a child. He made her a syllabus of classic films, and encouraged her to study performers like Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro.

On weekends, her father would ferry her between drama club and soccer practice. “Women’s football is massive now,” she said, but it didn’t feel like a career option at the time. She recalled former England captain Faye White presenting an award at her football club. The teenage Doherty was star-struck, but was dismayed when White explained that playing professional football wasn’t her full-time job. Doherty decided to pursue acting instead.

When she left high school, Doherty auditioned for a number of drama schools, and didn’t get into any of them. After an acting foundation year, she was accepted into the Bristol Old Vic Theater School, whose alumni include Oscar winners Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Irons and Doherty’s The Crown co-star Olivia Colman. But “I didn’t really know anything about the legacy,” she said.

Prestigious London theater schools, like the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, seemed “massively intimidating,” she said. “There was a vibe I felt hugely uncomfortable with.” Nestled in a leafy suburb, the Bristol Old Vic was like a school inside a big house. Its cozier atmosphere suited her better.

Although Doherty had spent countless weekends and summer holidays performing, when she was 19 it suddenly struck her that she had never seen a play. “So, I booked my ticket,” she said, to see a play by Mike Bartlett at the National Theater.

“Where I came from, it wasn’t a casual thing,” Doherty said. But at the theater, “there were people there in jeans and a T-shirt.” Since then, “there’s something about plays and theater that just shakes me a different way,” she said. In September, Doherty will play Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the National.

“We’re all dealing with whether or not we feel worthy of things, like me going into the theater,” Doherty said. British class anxiety, which Doherty said she still experiences, is at the heart of Chloe.

Alice Seabright, the show’s creator and writer, spent part of her childhood in France, and said that she was interested by how, “In the U.K., people are just so attuned to where people are from and people’s backgrounds.” As Becky hides her real accent and background, her deception exposes the “world she’s entering as being full of fictions — also full of lies,” Seabright, 32, said.

With her tendency toward self-loathing, Becky might be dismissed as unlikeable. When she was casting the role, Seabright remembered something filmmaker Mike Nichols once said: Go with the person your character becomes by the end of the film. “There’s a warm energy to Erin that is the opposite of who Becky is when you meet her,” she said. “But it’s who she is underneath.” After casting Doherty in The Crown, Gold also chose Doherty for a role in the upcoming period feature Firebrand.

Doherty is drawn to material with a serious side. “I really, really care about why people’s stories need to be told,” she said. “Whenever I go home, my dad is always like, ‘Are you going to do anything funny?’” She developed this quiet intensity at drama school, she said, where she was “very, very serious” about her studies. “I was the person who didn’t go out at all,” she said. “I didn’t have a relationship. I didn’t really have many friends. The friends that I had were people who I admired.”

Chloe also explores the intensity of female friendship. Doherty never had many friends growing up, she said. But in a coffee shop overlooking the River Thames, she was effervescent company with an impish sense of humour; it was difficult to imagine her as a loner.

“I love people, but I think I get overwhelmed by how much of an impact they can have on your life,” she said. Her last best friend was in elementary school, and when they were then sent to different subsequent schools, “I remember being really, really heartbroken by it,” Doherty said. “Honestly, I’ve not had a best friend since.”

Through the characters of Becky and Chloe, Seabright interrogates what happens when young women put one another on a pedestal, and feel “like that person is throwing back an image of you that makes you feel bad about yourself,” she said.

To viewers who grew up online, that dynamic might feel familiar. “The image of someone can loom over your life, even if you’ve never met them, or very rarely meet them,” Seabright said.

Doherty described the parasocial relationship between Becky and Chloe, conducted via Becky’s obsessive scrolling of Chloe’s social media, as relatable, and said she understood how an obsession can swallow you. “I think it’s really easy to become hooked on things, on people, on outlooks,” she said, despite people having “an inner world that is so different” from what they present to the world.

With a relatively modest (for a Crown actor) 113,000 followers on Instagram, Doherty’s fans likely have their own parasocial relationships with her. She is ambivalent about social media.

She finds that public aspect of being an actor “jarring,” she said. Dressing up for red carpet events is “like a little ticket,” she said. “As long as you’re wearing that outfit, you’re allowed to be here.” But the person inside the designer outfit still wonders what’s going on, Doherty said: “The extravagance of it is quite unnerving.”

However much her job requires Doherty to shape-shift and enter rooms that might be more familiar to Sasha than Becky, you can still hear the actress’s hometown in her lively, frank way of speaking.

“Thankfully, my accent is one that people feel at ease around,” she said.

@2022 The New York Times

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