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Lauren Lyle is a woman to watch. From her much-loved role as Marsali in Outlander to her gritty character in Vigil and now, fronting the first female-led primetime detective series from ITV featuring a police detective in their 20s since Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect.
We sat down with Lyle ahead of the first episode of the three-part series Karen Pirie airing this Sunday on ITV at 8 pm (add it to your diary now and thank us later), to discuss the process of bringing this beloved character to life and why the justice Karen seeks feels so personal.
Lyle is fresh from a busy few days at London Fashion Week where she sat on the front row at S.S. Daley and Paul & Joe. Not only is she garnering attention from fashion designers, but industry execs are also watching her every move closely. So much so, that she was spotted at the table read-through for Vigil by an executive who ‘saw me, and said “we need to see her and get her involved with Karen Pirie”‘. You can see why. It’s the most perfect casting. Like Karen, Lyle is petite, blonde, immediately likeable and also hails from the character’s native Scotland.
‘It’s been so cool working on something really relevant that’s truly saying something,’ shares Lyle. ITV is deeply beloved for its detective series, and characters like Vera and Lewis are long-established icons within the crime drama genre. How did she feel joining such a beloved collective?
‘I never thought I’d get to play an iconic British detective in my 20s. Let alone one who has so much depth.’
Karen Pirie is actress and screenwriter Emer Kenny’s adaptation of celebrated crime writer Val McDermid’s first novel, which focuses on the reopening of a cold case murder investigation. Karen is tasked with looking into a murder that’s been the subject of a provocative true crime podcast. When teenage barmaid Rosie Duff was stabbed to death in 1995, suspicion fell on the three male students who discovered her body.
‘It felt so meaningful for the show to be seen through the lens of a woman. A woman who knows what it means to walk home at night and not know if you’re going to get home safe. To fight for this woman that the unimaginable happened to’ shared Lyle.
‘The need for justice is very personal for Karen.’
Contributing fashion editor, Sarah-Rose Harrison sat down with Lauren to talk all things Karen Pirie…
What drew you to the role of Karen?
The scripts were just so witty. It was such a self-aware adaptation of what it is to live in the world we’re in and what it means to be a woman within it.
Something that a lot of men have asked me is, ‘is Karen firey?’ and you would never ask a guy that. ‘Is he firey?’ I asked my boyfriend what he associated with ‘firey’ and he said, aggressive. Karen’s really not. She’s smart and hopeful.
We’re so used to seeing middle-aged male detectives who are going through a divorce or a drinking problem and they’re dealing with that and then the case comes along and they struggle through it. Whereas Karen is at the beginning of her career. She’s passionate, excited and slightly out of her depth but that’s her advantage.
We all had those moments dressing up as a doctor, police officer or fireman, did you ever consider being a police officer?
It’s funny I actually never wanted to be a police officer but I always thought the uniform was cool. In the first week of filming when Chris Jenks and I got given our police badges we would go off between camera setups to would practice flipping them at each other. We got really slick at it as you have to look cool doing this stuff.
It’s tricky because the police are quite controversial, but I think Karen’s a realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be in the force. Learning the police jargon was fun. With all the interrogations I had to learn everything backwards. There’s a really big monologue, like 14/15 pages that I actually spent my birthday learning. We filmed that scene all in one take, I felt like I really trained a muscle after that.
On your podcast, She’s a Reck, you ask guests to share their favourite albums and songs. Was there a particular album or song that helped you get into character?
I had Tresor’s album Nostalgia on repeat. It was the most buoyant way to wake up to those 5 am Scottish sunrises. My Spotify-liked songs became my morning routine. There were 45 songs from that summer that I played non-stop. Especially Lipstick on The Glass from Wolf Alice’s album Blue Weekend. It had just come out and I listened to that a lot – I actually had their lead singer, Ellie, on the first season of my podcast so that was a lovely reuniting of creativity to listen to her whilst preparing each day.
I got really into upbeat electronic music like BAYNK and Fred Again. Really epic music that fitted the epic locations.
Karen’s partial to a knitted vest. Was there a particular item of clothing that helped you get into character?
Oh, her bumbag for sure. I’d get in my trailer every morning have my porridge and my process was to dance along to my playlist of those 45 songs, pop the collar of my shirt – which is quite a Scottish thing to do – and, put the Patagonia bumbag on.
The bumbag was a staple. What did you keep in it?
I had little snacks and protein bars, we got really into Pastel de Natas on set but I wouldn’t put one of those in there. It came in handy for my mic pack and on set, we loved the ongoing mystery of ‘what’s in the bumbag.’
I had a lot of creative control over Karen’s wardrobe. Lesley Abernathy (head of costume) and I really got together as the only note for the character was that she ‘that she wasn’t fashionable and didn’t know how to dress.’ So we embraced sweater vests, which I love and a popped collar – a little nod to androgyny. It felt like her armour.
‘I loved the idea of her being accidentally fashionable and a little bit iconic.’
1 in 3 women experience sexual violence, a heartbreaking statistic Marie Claire shone a light on within our Abuse is Not Love campaign. Whilst the series focuses on a crime that fictionally occurred 25 years ago it felt very current. It evoked the murders of Sarah Everard, Sabrina Nessa and Ashling Murphy. What do you hope audiences take away from watching Karen Pirie?
A number of young women were murdered during the time we recorded the series simply just trying to get home. That’s literally it, isn’t it? We’re just trying to get home.
Emer wrote things into the scripts during filming to keep it mainstream and how, what we as women are already doing, ‘calling when walking home, keys within our knuckles never feels enough.’ We’re doing everything already and it can’t keep happening where women are told to do more. Something has to change.
I hope people who might not have engaged with this conversation previously watch the show and do. Whether that’s by speaking to their male friends about how easy it is to help get a friend or a woman get home safely rather than expecting them to do it themselves. It’s been on us for so long.
The line, ‘Rosie and all of the Rosies deserve better’ stayed with me after the show.
Emer talks a lot about how she writes what her questions are. She writes about how she sees the world and her questions to it. She’ll put different options and answers as well as alternatives to each answer into different characters so those questions can be thrown up and the audience can make the decision for themselves as to what’s right.
That’s why I’m so proud of the show. It’s not shying away. This can’t keep happening, that’s why it’s so personal for Karen to get justice for Rosie and how heartbreaking it is for the families.
Your best friend on the show, River is actually played by Emer. How was it working so closely with the show’s writer?
We really bonded, we now call each other Clooney (Emer) and Pitt and we’re hopefully going to work together forever. There were moments with especially particular police jargon where I ask her, ‘do I have to say it exactly like that, it’s so difficult and she’d laugh and say ‘I’ve done 12 drafts, you have to do it exactly like that.’
Where will you be watching the series?
I’m having all my friends around and we’re going to hunker down and watch it at my house. We’re getting Homeslice pizza and I’ve told everyone to bring champagne. It’s terrifying but I’ve seen the series 100 times now so I’m excited to watch their reactions.
Karen Pirie is on ITV, Sunday 25th September at 8pm.
Photography, Joseph Sinclair
Makeup, Maria Asadi
Hair, Joe Pickering-Taylor
Styling, Emily Tighe