Cush Jumbo on parenting, working hard and learning to sail for The Beast Must Die role
Crumpets. All the different cheeses. Knowing where everything is in the local supermarket. Feeling like part of a community. These are just some of the things Cush Jumbo missed about living in the UK.
The Londoner, 35, took her one-woman show Josephine And I to New York in 2015, and then landed a starring role as Lucca Quinn in the CBS legal drama series The Good Wife, and spin-off series The Good Fight.
Following the birth of her son Maximilian in 2018 (with husband Sean Griffin), Jumbo decided the time was right to leave the US, and come home. “I’m a real family-orientated, friends-orientated person, and I had to think about where I wanted to bring my son up – and I wanted it to be here,” she muses. “I made the move primarily so that he could have his friends and his cousins and his culture around him – and have a dry sense of humour. And then I work my work around that.”
After 10 years “spent paddling like a crazy swan”, as Jumbo puts it, jobs seem to be coming in thick and fast. The day before our Zoom call, she was in Manchester filming star-studded new Netflix series, Stay Close. And soon she will be going into rehearsals for Hamlet at The Young Vic – a production that was delayed because of the pandemic.
Her revenge thriller The Beast Must Die, is why we’re chatting today though. It’s currently streaming on BritBox and is its first scripted, original drama. The five-part series is adapted from the classic murder mystery novel written by author Nicholas Blake (the pen name of Cecil Day-Lewis, father of Daniel Day-Lewis). It follows Frances Cairnes (Jumbo), who, grieving for her son, infiltrates the life of the man she believes killed him. “It was one of the best scripts I’ve read in quite a long time; it was nail-biting, and I didn’t know where it was going,” recalls Jumbo. “I loved the idea of playing quite an ordinary person – which is what we all are – doing quite extraordinary things, because she is driven by such incredible pain, and has nothing to lose.”
There were moments she could really connect to her character’s emotions. “I’ve had grief in my life, I’ve lost people young in my life,” she confides. “Also, I’m watching my son grow and change… He was living on the Isle of Wight with me when I was shooting, and it was quite comforting. I thought it would be difficult, but it was quite nice because I would go to work and have quite heavy days, and then come home and have comfort from my son, which made me feel a lot better – but also made me feel quite bad for Frances.”
As for the physical side of the role, Jumbo had to learn how to sail, something she’d never done before, and put her very much out of her comfort zone, although she ended up finding it “meditative”. “I did a month of lessons, a kind of crash course, because I had to sail a yacht that was 48ft in the show, and I had to sail it for real. I’m a city girl; I was born in London and I don’t think I saw a cow until I was about 11. So I was like, ‘OK, let’s see how this goes!’
“But I actually loved it. There’s something really epic about shooting somewhere you can see the sea and the land and feel the wind, and I really got into it because it reconnects you to nature, which I think is what we’ve been doing a little bit more in the pandemic anyway.”
Jumbo has jumped from theatre to screen throughout her career so far, and it sounds like will continue to do a mixture of the two. “I can’t go two years without doing a play, it’s like my lifeblood,” she says emphatically. But other than that, her list of projects or dream roles is “not like other people’s”, she explains. “It’s a little odd because I’m a little odd; I’m a strange fish. I do a bit of writing, and a bit of acting, and I don’t necessarily pick the most obvious parts… If you were doing Oliver on stage, the musical, I want to play Fagin, I don’t want to play Nancy.
“I want the most interesting journey, the most interesting story, and the biggest challenge and what’s going to satisfy, so I pick everything based upon that. My time is so valuable in terms of the time I get to spend with my kid – every choice I make has to be the right one for me and not the right one for everybody else.”
Asked what else she has learned about herself, Jumbo reflects on what it’s like working with a lot of younger actors now. She’s inspired by the way that especially the girls acknowledge that they know they deserve to be in the room. “They do it in a very assertive but polite, lovely way,” she says. “They don’t do this ingenue, ‘I’m so lucky to be here, sorry for my space, sorry for this, sorry for that’ in a way that we were just trained to – and for a black girl, you were trained to even more, because it was like you also have to know 10 more accents than everybody else, you’re going to work a little bit harder, they’re probably not going to see you anyway. Everything was always harder.
“And so, I am learning from younger actors about the kind of grown-up that I’d like to be, which is nice.”
The Beast Must Die is streaming now on BritBox.