Character-driven crime drama Traces has returned for its second season on BritBox. We had the opportunity to chat with Canadian actress Jennifer Spence, who plays forensic anthropologist Kathy on the hit series about a team of colleagues at the fictitious Scottish Institute of Forensic Science and Anatomy (SIFA).
While the second season has the team investigating a deadly bombing campaign around Dundee, we get to see more into the messy personal lives of not only Emma (Molly Windsor) and Daniel (Martin Compston) but also Sarah (Laura Fraser) and Neil (Michael Nardone), as well as the complexity around Spence’s Kathy.
How did this project come about for you? Did you always want to do a UK series?
I’ve always loved them because I’d watch them with my parents growing up, so I always had a soft spot for them. This series came about because of my agent and my dad, who is English. He was born in Leeds and insisted when I was a teenager to get my UK passport. At that time, I didn’t understand really what the big fuss was and what the rush was! But he was right when he said, “let’s get it! One day you’ll probably need it, and you can work from anywhere!”
So, thank God that he encouraged me to do that, and then my agent had reached out to a number of casting directors in the UK about her clients that could legally work there, and she sent them my reel and then the lovely [casting director]Andy Pryor (Years and Years, It’s A Sin, Doctor Who) in London had come and asked me to read for Traces. So, it was a beautiful and miraculous set of happenstance and coincidence – but also intention.
Good on your dad for doing that! Which shows did you watch growing up? Coronation Street is pretty popular in Canada and you film Traces in Manchester. Are you a fan?
My mom especially loves that show, even though she’s not the English one! But she’s an addict of that show and they both watch it. My dad likes it too… Who are we kidding? But yeah, and there were a number of ones that I remember watching while growing up, actually. There was Hamish Macbeth, I don’t know if you ever heard of that one. It was a Scottish show with Robert Carlyle, so we really liked it, as well as Upstairs Downstairs… I guess Downton Abbey is the new school version of that.
Even into my adulthood, I became obsessed with Happy Valley, Broadchurch, and all those good ones.
Now you get to be in one! Let’s talk about the success of Traces in the UK. The series premiered on Alibi in 2019 and then was rebroadcast on BBC One and then got picked up by BritBox, making it go international. How does that feel?
It’s really special. Really special and surreal. I’m really grateful it’s made its rounds.
When did you film the second season? How did the pandemic change things?
We were originally supposed to go back [and film]a bit sooner for season two, but yeah, that of course got delayed because of the pandemic. So, we went back to shooting this time last year with safety protocols in place. We were able to still get things done and the production team was really on top of it, so we did feel like we were as safe as we could be.
I think there might have just been like one or two positive cases during the whole four-month shoot and they were caught early because we were testing twice a week, so it never spread. We were back to work in 10 or 14 days, and it was all okay.
The series is set in Dundee, Scotland, but filmed in Manchester, England. Did you get to do any location shoots in or around Dundee at all?
We did! Yeah, I got to go do some location shooting in Dundee, which was so much fun because I’d never been to Dundee [before]. It’s gorgeous and such a lovely community there. We went up for about a week, but the rest of the time we were in Manchester, where we did a lot of interior shots and the odd exterior shot that can kind of double as Scotland – if you don’t zoom too far out wide.
Kathy is such a refreshing character in that she can be very quiet but also outspoken. How were you able to perfectly find that balance and amazing delivery?
Oh well, thank you so much! Yeah, I really love that about her too. She’s sort of a complex character when you think about it. I love playing characters that have a lot of different things going on, and some who have conflicts [with the other characters, because that’s who we are as humans. You’re not just straightforward and perfect and the one thing that she does, certainly, is speak her mind. She’s very direct. She’s very confident and competent and really good at her job, but in terms of her personal life, she’s a train wreck! Whether she’s talking to people in a romantic relationship or it’s someone who is just a friend, talking to them is not second-hand to her. Science is second-hand to her. So, it’s a bit more of a struggle.
The second season does give us a deeper dive into the personal lives of the rest of the cast and not just focus on Emma (Milly Windsor) and Daniel (Martin Compston) like it did in season one. What was it like receiving those scripts where not only do you get more screen time outside of a lab but there’s more revealed about these characters’ personal lives?
Love it! Again, that’s just what sets me on fire as an artist, actor, or whatever you want to call it. Being able to explore that in character and not just myself as an actor, but also just as an audience member. That we can take a deeper look into other characters, not just in this show, but any show. That’s what I want to see. I want to see what people are made of and how they try and fail and succeed – and how it’s messy. That’s what really attracts me to watch something as well. So, it was wonderful to get to see that with all the characters.
My mum even said when I started shooting, “Never mind Kathy, what happens with Sarah (Laura Fraser) and Neil (Michael Nardone)? She was really into those two. That just shows you how they’ve captured something special and we’re invested, right? We want to know what happens and that’s a sign of great writing and good actors who give depth to characters in a character-driven crime drama.
It does get messy for Neil and Sarah. But it also gets messy for everyone. I don’t think I realized just how messy they all were in season one because you think that they’ve got it all together and really, they are hiding so much! I also love that the show found a way to address how weird it was for Emma and Daniel to be together. His father is being accused of killing her mother.
Yes, I mean, I didn’t actually have that conversation with [co-creator]Amelia Bullmore, but I have been really curious to ask her that question myself because it really is the elephant in the room. It’s just like how do these people make it work? Is this actually something that could work out if it were to really happen? They really do get into it [this season], which is great for us as the audience to get to go along with them for that ride. We get to see it from their perspective, and we also see it from what they are hearing from other characters. Without spoiling too much, what are other peoples’ opinions about it? It’s not your traditional setup for a relationship.
From one relationship to another, do you feel that Kathy is safeguarding her feelings towards Pia (Joana Borja)? Kathy plays this fling off all calm and collected, but does she want something more?
I think it is absolutely more than a long-distance fling, but she just would never want to admit that to herself or to Pia, or anyone. I think you know the heart wants what it wants. We can’t deny connection. We can’t deny love. I think, absolutely, she means more than that to her, but she’s scared.
The incredible Joana Borja comes back this season, so viewers will see her for sure.
Is there a specific journey that you would like to see Kathy on in season three or a bit too early to think about that?
I really do hope that there is a season three because I feel like there are still so many stories to tell and so much more we can explore. I’d have to sit with that for a bit of where I want to see Katy go because I feel like we’ve just started to peel the onion. There’s still so much that is unexplored, so I’d be really curious to see. Maybe even a different relationship or further into her backstory – but of course all in keeping with the cases that they’ll be working on. So yeah, it’s what I like about this, is that there’s a lot of possibilities [to dive deeper into all the characters].
I’m glad that they’ve made Kathy Canadian. We want to see this representation.
I was really glad they did that too because that was nice when I read the first script for the pilot episode for season one was that Amelia made it clear in her writing that the Scottish Institute of Forensic Science and Anatomy (SIFA) was this world-class institute and that it would attract academics from all over the world. It was understandable that people from all walks of life would be involved – and there wasn’t a lot of addressing it either or making a big deal out of it. The diversity makes things more interesting so that it’s not so cut and dry.
They do that with her sexuality as well. It’s just so casual.
Which I really loved. [Co-Creator] Val McDermid was a big part of that. I remember watching an interview with her saying that she really wanted there to be at least one queer relationship in the story because that’s life. What’s what I’m surrounded by in my world. We’re all surrounded by different types of relationships and people, sizes, and races. It’s just normal. So why not have it be represented in a normal way without the need to point it out?
The second season of Traces premieres on Tuesday, Feb. 22 on BritBox. New episodes will premiere weekly. The first season is also available to stream.