In BBC One’s huge new drama series from Jimmy McGovern, Sean Bean stars as Father Michael Kerrigan, a Catholic priest presiding over a Northern urban parish.
Modern, maverick and reassuringly flawed, Father Michael is a man who must be confidant, counsellor and confessor to a community struggling to reconcile its beliefs with the realities of daily life in contemporary Britain.
Sean Bean tells us more…
Tell us about your character
Father Michael is the parish priest for the particular small town where Broken takes place. He’s embedded in the community amongst the people who live there, and he has an interesting relationship with many of the characters that you see across the series. He’s fighting an uphill battle with quite a few of them, as to them he represents an organisation – a religion – that has not really lived up to their or their loved ones’ expectations in the past. This means some are reluctant to have anything to do with him and don’t believe in what he believes in. Then there are others who see him as a figure of respect and go to him for advice when they’ve no one else to turn to – it’s a real mix.
Father Michael therefore has to adapt to each character as he sees them. In a productive way, he understands that there’s a certain kind of negativity towards the priesthood and towards religion in general, so it’s not a simple job for him to find his way through this mini battlefield of how people regard him as a priest. He does his best to accommodate and approach them in a way that is very honest. It’s a community that has mixed feelings about religion these days, which I think is representative of our country as a whole.
He’s very well-meaning, and he’s also someone who is carrying a lot of sadness, grief and guilt – and very horrific memories of the past.
How did you prepare for the role?
Though I’ve had dealings with priests and churches before, I’d never really thought about playing a priest! I’ve been in church and seen priests in front of me, but when you’re actually up there, looking the other way and you’ve got the vestment on it’s quite a different story, let me tell you. I found it quite nerve-wracking the first time. I wanted to get everything right – I guess that’s the thing.
We worked with a wonderful guy on Broken called Father Denis. He’s a very approachable man, very knowledgeable and he helped me through that process and making the character look authentic. It took me a little while to relax into the part. From what I gather, priests do get nervous. They never know which kind of audience they’re coming out to see – so like we see with Father Michael across the series, a priest has to adapt to the congregations. I won’t say it’s like first night in theatre, but I’m told it’s similar in terms of how nerve-wracking it is to begin with.
What made you want to play him?
Jimmy McGovern! I worked with Jimmy on The Accused and I had a wonderful time. It was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had, and when Jimmy came up with the idea of playing a priest I was very flattered that he should think of me to play the role. I just jumped at the chance.
I met Jimmy about two years ago in London alongside [Executive Producer for LA Productions] Colin McKeown, and he was enthusiastically throwing out ideas – acting them out in front of me – and it was just fascinating to see what he had in his head. Describing this character who did some pretty bad things – that we don’t know about at the beginning of the series – before discovering something else and deciding to become a priest. That’s how it all began.
Jimmy’s scripts for the series started arriving two years later and I was just flabbergasted by them, because he had really thrown his heart and soul into it. The depth of the writing and the honesty and the bravery of what he was getting down on paper – he really went for it. So I wanted to play Father Michael because it’s such a terrific story.
What stands out about Broken to you?
Jimmy’s writing is so visceral, real and just straight from the heart. He can write dialogue that is how people speak. I think it’s one of the reasons why a lot of actors want to work with him. He’s got a brilliant gift for flowing natural dialogue and he intersperses it with very dry, very funny lines. How he’s written six episodes I think is quite incredible. It involves so many characters who are all dealt with very deeply. There’s no padding. Each character has been heavily invested in by Jimmy and they’re there for a reason. They’re essential to the plot, to the script, to all our characters. How he’s managed to do that is incredible.
His writing is very brave, with lots of twists and turns. When I read episode six I was just knocked out by it. I thought, how the hell has he managed to do this? Because I was wondering how it would end. He’s just a terrific writer who’s not afraid of portraying the truth, and of portraying life as we see it today.