The story centers on Ursula Todd who dies one night in 1910 before she can draw her first breath. On that same night in 1910, Ursula is born and survives. She finds herself time and again, living and dying in different circumstances only to be reborn into a new, alternative iteration of life once more. Ursula navigates her way through an era spanning two world wars, an encounter with Hitler and major life events.
At just 21, Thomasin McKenzie, who plays Ursula, already has a list of impressive credits including “Leave No Trace,” “Jojo Rabbit” and “Last Night in Soho.” The four-part series is produced by BBC Studios’ House Productions, run by co-CEOs Juliette Howell, Emmy and RTS nominee for “Brexit: The Uncivil War,” and Tessa Ross, BAFTA winner for outstanding British contribution to cinema, whose credits include “Billy Elliott,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Last King of Scotland,” “Ex Machina” and “Room.”
“Life After Life” is adapted by eminent playwright and screenwriter Bash Doran (“Kin,” “Boardwalk Empire”) and directed by John Crowley, BAFTA winner for “Brooklyn” and “Boy A.” The cast also includes Sian Clifford (“Fleabag”), James McArdle (“Mare of Easttown”) and Sean Delaney (“Killing Eve”).
When Howell and Ross set up House in 2016, Atkinson’s novel was on top of the list of projects they wanted to make, but the option was held elsewhere. Howell and Ross took meetings with Atkinson and kept asking her about the option until it became available 18 months later. The next step was to commission Doran. Ross was a fan of Doran’s plays and had also read the script of her 1945-set Channel 4 series “Traitors.” Ross and Howell were looking for someone with “a strong wit and energy in their voice” and “supreme intelligence about the material” and Doran fit the bill.
“She has an extraordinary ability to be both incredibly clever, witty, and very humane,” Ross tells Variety about Doran. “The novel has an extraordinary conceit, but in the end, it’s about how we live a good life. It’s got a big, philosophical humanity about it.” There was another long wait for Doran to say yes.
Though he owned a copy of the novel, Crowley hadn’t read it and his first introduction to the material was the script for the first two episodes by Doran, who he’d met previously and had made an unofficial promise to work together at some point. Crowley was drawn to the story immediately and the next stage was casting the central character of Ursula. The director was taken with McKenzie’s “wonderful” performance in “Jojo Rabbit.”
“There’s something slightly otherworldly about her… she has a faraway look in her eyes,” Crowley tells Variety about McKenzie. “If she had said to me for real, that she had had other life experiences, I would believe her, because I think there’s something slightly ethereal about her. There’s a timelessness to her face – she at times looks almost like a Victorian doll. That’s what drew me to her.”
McKenzie too was drawn to the script and immediately read the book as well, in order to understand that world better. Crowley also gave her books to read on The Blitz, the German aerial campaign against Britain during WWII, and on children with past lives, as both were directly relevant to the character of Ursula in the series. McKenzie’s preparation also included meeting an epilepsy nurse as déjà vu is one of the symptoms of epilepsy, and consulting with her 95-year-old grandmother who was in the U.K. during WWII.
A part of her own childhood is also something that McKenzie drew on for the role. “For a really long time, I thought I remembered being born. And really, it was a memory of being carried around the garden by my mother,” McKenzie tells Variety. “I remember resting my head on her shoulder and then waking up, and my parents must have been having a party. I woke up and I was surrounded by all the people who’ve played a really significant role in my life. I thought that was quite relevant to Ursula’s experience of being born so many times.”
McKenzie’s character experiences several joyful moments through the series, but also a lot of trauma. When she wasn’t putting on the amount of weight required for the happy sequences, Crowley reminded her to find the joyful moments and to enjoy them. McKenzie found that piece of advise useful for the shoot and also for life in general, especially given the pandemic-affected last two years.
While “Life After Life” is a period drama set between pastoral, Edwardian England and wartime London, Crowley wanted to elevate the material beyond that. The team discussed the evocative childhood depicted in Jane Campion’s “An Angel at My Table” and the observational tone in Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.”
“When you’re with Ursula in each life, one should just be feeling what she’s feeling and that should feel as alive as she feels rather than it feeling like a ‘period drama’ necessarily, it was much more about trying to get close to her emotionally,” says Crowley.
Next up for McKenzie is William Oldroyd’s film “Eileen,” based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s Booker shortlisted novel about a woman trying to escape from a depressing situation in small town America; and Olivia Wilde’s “Perfect,” about Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug’s fight against the odds to win a gold medal for Team U.S.A. at the 1996 Olympics.
House has several productions including BBC series “Sherwood” and Netflix film “The Wonder” coming up. Crowley has yet to decide what his next project is going to be.
“Life After Life” debuts on BBC Two and iPlayer on April 19.