Stefanie Martini on stepping into Helen Mirren’s shoes for the Prime Suspect prequel

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Helen Bownass
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Until recently Stefanie Martini was another drama student in big debt. Now she’s stepping into Helen Mirren's iconic shoes as TV legend DCI Jane Tennison but, she tells Stylist, she’s still got some growing up to do

Photography: Rachell Smith

Before there was Sarah Lund, Carrie Mathison or Stella Gibson, there was Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, star of long-running police drama Prime Suspect. And before there was Tennison as we left her in 2006 – all, verve, volatility and utter badassery – there was Tennison Jr. It’s this younger version of Jane who’s the subject of ITV’s newest drama Prime Suspect: 1973, which charts the rise of the bolshy WPC (the outdated acronym for ‘woman police constable’) in the early Seventies as she ascends through the ranks. Tennison is a character who arguably changed how women were portrayed in TV police dramas. Focusing as Prime Suspect did on the challenges Tennison faced as a woman in the misogynist police world of the time and portraying someone who was a force of nature at work, but struggled with her own personal demons, it was both innovative and bold. It also introduced new possibilities for female leads.

Played with equal parts humanity and daring by Helen Mirren, hers are very large shoes to step into. And the young lady charged with the task is Stefanie Martini – a name that sounds destined for the big screen. “Some people assume it’s a stage name,” she laughs. “It’s not. As if I was like, ‘Well, Stephanie Smith is taken, I’ll take Stefanie Martini’. What a knob!” Like the young Tennison, Martini is in the early stages of her career, having graduated from Rada 18 months ago after growing up in North Somerset, with a family unconnected to the industry who have “stable steady jobs”.

Since then Martini has travelled back to the 1850s in ITV drama Doctor Thorne but playing Tennison is big time – fronting a primetime TV drama aged 26 is certainly no small feat. Indeed, when I talk to Martini, she’s in LA for meetings, although she’s quick to reassure me it’s not so glamorous. “It’s grey, cloudy and I’m talking to you from the equivalent of a Planet Organic on a big main road,” she explains. It’s not the first time I’m impressed by how grounded she is – rarely do you hear actresses talking about debt or how they still live like a student. Tennison would be proud...

You’ve only just graduated, yet you’re now fronting a big TV drama. How are you dealing with it?
I’m kind of riding the wave and trying not to think about it too much or it might go away. Acting isn’t a stable career where you can sit back and think, “I’ve made it now”. It could all end, I could never work again. It’s just a job!

How does that uncertainty sit with you?
I love it. For me, knowing that I was going to be doing the same thing day after day for years and years would be my worst nightmare.

At the moment your Instagram account feels authentic – just you and your friends hanging out – but there is often pressure on celebrities to have a perfectly curated social media presence. Is that something you’ve considered?
What and stop posting pictures of going to the gym? I hope I don’t. I hope I don’t become really self-aware. It’s a choice isn’t it? I can either buy into it and portray myself as a perfect human being or not. However many Instagram followers I get is not important, the work is important. I can see how people can get carried away though.

How did you prepare for it?
I’d already watched all of Prime Suspect and rewatched it up to series five but then I did stop and think, ‘I have to let it go’. I’m not actively trying to copy [Helen Mirren’s role]. I didn’t want to lose myself in someone else’s performance.

The rise of a woman in a man’s world was a key theme in the original drama. What did you learn about the female experience in the police force in the Seventies?
I was most shocked about the everyday sexism – like when women police officers were expected to make tea for a bunch of men without questioning it. You just took it on the chin. You had to keep playing the game. The show is coming at a really poignant time actually with things like the Women’s March going on.

Prime Suspect was ground-breaking in part because Jane Tennison wasn’t perfect. She was often unlikeable and didn’t try and smooth over those parts of her personality.
Yes. It was very interesting trying to work out at what point she realises she has to walk all over people and that it doesn’t matter if she’s not liked. It’s really important to see women like that on TV; women who are imperfect. It took me a long time to realise everybody won’t like me. In my job when I’m meeting new people all the time, you can’t make everyone fall in love with you. As a woman I’m made to feel like I should be agreeable and pleasant at all times, and if I do have something to say I should say it in as nice a way as possible or else I’m seen as hysterical. Realising that and getting out of the habit are two different things.

The original role of DCI Tennison was so important for female actors. Has the industry moved on enough since?
I wouldn’t say there are enough roles like that, but if you look at Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley, for example – she’s incredible – there are more work-based procedural parts for women, but there’s still more to do. What Prime Suspect did for TV at that time, in terms of breaking boundaries, would be quite hard to do now. It gave a voice to many of the women we see on television now.

I know you had to audition a few times to get into drama school. What kept you going in spite of the setbacks?
Once I decide to do something, I’m going to do it. I’m quite single-minded. Lots of people say, be safe, go to uni, get a degree, and go to drama school, but that’s six years...

And it’s so expensive too. Graduates now can easily come out with £40,000 debt...
It was £45,000 for me. I’m either never going to be able to pay it back or else it will all get done in one go, I can’t let it stop me. I just wanted to throw myself at acting, and not worry about a big imaginary number.

What do you watch on TV?
I actually don’t own a television. It’s not through choice, I’m basically still a student in all aspects of my life. I don’t have a living room, I’ve got a tiny kitchen, I’m not adulting at all yet. People tell me about shows and I’ll watch them online. I love Peaky Blinders, Game Of Thrones and Stranger Things. I’m excited to have a TV. That can be my aim for this year.

That sounds quite achievable. What about for women as a whole? What should we be aiming for?
I just hope that no woman anywhere stops herself doing something because she doesn't think she can achieve it. Don’t limit yourself because of what the world is putting on you.

Prime Suspect: 1973 starts on 2 March

Photography: Rachell Smith/Camera Press, Rex
Stefanie Martini also stars in Emerald City, Wednesdays at 9pm on 5Star