The Serpent Star Jenna Coleman on the “Rollercoaster” of Playing Marie-Andrée Leclerc

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Adam Rathe
·5 min read
The Serpent Star Jenna Coleman on the “Rollercoaster” of Playing Marie-Andrée Leclerc
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From Town & Country

Jenna Coleman’s come a long way from Kensington Palace. The actress, who T&C readers know from her turn as the titular monarch in Victoria, has left royalty behind in her latest role, as Marie-Andrée Leclerc in the true crime limited series The Serpent, airing now on Netflix.

Leclerc is the girlfriend of Charles Sobhraj (played by Tahar Rahim), a Frenchman living in Bangkok in the 1970s who drugs, robs, and kills travelers along what was known as the hippie trail, a travel route from Europe to Southeast Asia. And while she isn’t quite the maniac that Sobhraj is, Leclerc—who reinvents herself as a woman named Monique to play the part of his moll—is by no means an innocent. The two are a kind of ex-pat Bonnie and Clyde who pose as gem dealers and leave a trail of forged passports and burnt bodies in their wake.

The dark role might be a departure for Coleman, but it’s one she relished. Playing Leclerc gave her the chance to portray a complicated character whose deeds divided observers in real life, fans of the TV series, and even the actress herself. Here, Coleman tells T&C about what drew her to The Serpent and why dark characters can be so thrilling to play.

How much did you know about Marie-Andrée Leclerc before signing on to the series?

It actually was a very long time ago. I was doing All My Sons at the Old Vic, and [producer] Damien Timmer, who I had worked with before, sent over the script. I received six episodes already written, which is so rare, and also this amazing research pack of materials: the real newspaper clippings, interviews, her statement, her diaries. Reading the script for the first time, I had an instinctive response, and I don't think I moved for six hours. The tension in the series and also the character was so fascinating. I felt like I was so drawn in by the character and found her so complicated and enigmatic, the story absolutely blew my mind and sent me down a research worm hole. It was just a complete no brainer.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

She’s a part of Sobhraj’s killing spree but does have moments of moral crisis. What made you want to play her?

I had lots of questions about her. There was a lot that I could understand, and I could also see the appeal of playing the duality of Marie Andree and [her alter ego] Monique. She was this person who, from literally one perspective of the camera, looks like this exotic 1970s, dark Brigitte Bardot, yet underneath was an entirely different person. How did this devout and inexperienced woman, who'd had no life experience, meet this man and in the space of three weeks begin actively drugging people and robbing them? I think I felt a real urge to understand her.

You’ve also played Queen Victoria. Is there something different for you about playing characters who were real people?

It's twofold, but I love it because I love research. That beauty was there with Queen Victoria, too; I've spent so much time at Kensington Palace now, and I got to touch her real-life shoes, walk around the palace, touch the banisters, and walk down steps where she saw Albert for the first time. Your imagination runs wild because these things really happened, and it really existed. We were filming The Serpent in Bangkok, where this story really happened, and the real-life people like Herman Knippenberg and Nadine Gires, they came to set and watched us filming and told us that their experiences of meeting Charles abroad and the real-life story. There's something so thrilling about that and also recreating something that has happened.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

What part of playing her was the most challenging for you?

I felt like I was on a roller coaster, since we had so many stops and starts with filming [during the pandemic]. I've never felt so much energy and momentum, and then suddenly we went home for five months when the coronavirus hit, and we were waiting to tell the rest of the story. We went from the height of being on this adventure to suddenly being on the couch, and then back on set getting straight into it. There’s a scene in episode eight that feels like her Lady Macbeth moment, when she has totally hit rock bottom. She’s a woman who’s completely become undone and there’s something really thrilling about arriving at that point.

The character was involved in abhorrent things, but does playing her make you see her differently?

It changed while I was shooting; it still changes now. I really am delayed between what I think and feel about her, which is why I find her quite enticing and also quite addictive to play because there's so much variation. I really didn't want to say goodbye to her, as a character. The reaction here in the UK has been very interesting, because some people are like, “Poor Marie-Andree, what a victim. She was lost in love.” And other people are like, “She's such an accomplice, you were playing such a dark murderer.” There's been such a range of reaction. I feel conflicting things about her, but I adored exploring her psychology.

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