BBC’s acclaimed multilingual limited crime series and UK smash hit is coming to Netflix this April 2. The Serpent focuses on the crime spree of real-life serial killer Charles Sobhraj, known as ‘Bikini Killer.’ In on the con is his partner-in-crime, Candian girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc. Together, they get away with a series of murders along the Asian Hippie Trail in the 1970s.
Playing Sobhraj’s right-hand-woman is English actress Jenna Coleman. As Marie-Andrée (and ‘Monique’), she conspires with Charles (played by Golden Globe nominee Tahar Rahim) to find and drug young travelers.
In this exclusive interview, ‘The Serpent’ star Jenna Coleman shares with ClickTheCity about the challenges of learning a new language for her role, working during the pandemic, 1970s fashion, and more:
Question: How familiar were you with the story of Charles and Marie Andre before you landed the role in ‘The Serpent,’ and do you also have an interest in the true crime genre?
Jenna Coleman: You know, true crime actually is not something that ever has particularly appealed to me, it’s not something that I ever really seek out. But as soon as I was sent the scripts and started reading about the story, I was completely hooked in. I instantly started reading the biographies and Googling online and looking at all the news clippings, it really drew me in. So I suppose it gave me my first experience of understanding the real addiction of true crime stories. And I haven’t heard a single thing about it, not until it landed in my inbox.
Your character has to switch from the French to English language seamlessly. How difficult was this to master?
Yeah. Technically, incredibly difficult because I didn’t speak any French before we started and it was a really limited prep time. So obviously I think as well just like learning scenes in the way that you want to drive the story and be telling the story. It was definitely a mental challenge because you had to perfect a French Canadian accent, and then also working with Tahar constantly flicking between. And I think dramatically, it makes it very interesting for the scenes. It’s like if you see bilingual couples now and I find it so fascinating. When did they decide to speak English? When did they decide to speak French? When are they trying to be more secretive and hide something? It just took a lot of prep, really. A lot of hours, let’s say, of getting to the point where it could be seamless to slip in and out of the language and tell the story.
For the production of ‘The Serpent,’ you had to reschedule and relocate some scenes due to the pandemic. Did the pause become a challenge for you when you’ve already found momentum for your character? How was it like shooting the final stretch of the series?
I think that’s why I as well as everyone fell in love while we were filming, I think momentum is completely the right word. There’s something about the energy in Bangkok, recreating, being in the place where all of those things really happened. There’s like a kind of kinetic, frenetic energy in the city. I think in us trying to capture that real vibe of the 1970s it really helped and when you’re filming. We all felt like we’re on such an adventure, and it was fast paced and high octane, and all of that really fed. So I think when you’re on that journey and it’s kind of exciting. And also playing people on the run. There’s something about that energy that really informs you. So it was so bizarre, as we were kind of being on the run. And then obviously checking in and seeing the news and the world was just closing down, and then suddenly stopped!
So you’ve gone from such a high-energy octane level, to this. What felt like this big kind of life and death story, to… Okay now you’re at home and you’re waiting. You’re waiting for five months and then when you pick it up, we picked up the series in the place called Tring in Hertfordshire, because we couldn’t travel. We’re supposed to go to Budapest after Bangkok for Paris, and suddenly we shot Bombay, Karachi, and Paris in this little place just outside of London. And this is how this massive, huge adventure ends–in this little quiet country-like village outside of London! It was very, very bizarre. It felt like a very weird place to end this big series where we’ve been traveling the world. But we got it made, which is pretty amazing and on screen, you would never know. Which is a massive testament to François [François-Renaud Labarthe] the production designer.
Everything looks like it’s all from Thailand.
Oh yeah, in the scene we flick from certain scenes we shot inside Tring immediately, which was actually six months before in Bangkok. It’s pretty amazing what they pulled off.
What was the energy and mood like on set? We got to interview Tahar last week and he said that to get into his character, it was also about everyone else around him, so even off-camera he would interact less and differently. Would you say it’s the same case for your role?
No, not really. I feel like Charles, when you read all about him he has an aura, and I think it’s that control element as well. For someone to walk in the room and have everyone kind of obey him. I’ve experienced a similar thing before playing Queen Victoria, and it’s a power. How do you play power? How do you project power, and the point is you can’t project it. We discussed that really early on, it’s not about how I walk into a room, it’s about how everybody else reacts when I walk into a room. And that’s kind of how you find power, it’s really not about playing it. But with Marie-Andree, she was a lot more introspective and internal and is more on the sidelines kind of watching. And in a way, Charles is kind of her compass that she operates completely around on, so she’s more reactive. So I definitely had a very different approach because the character was so different from Tahar.
How about the energy on set?
The energy was incredible! Tom Shankland is so freeing as a director. We weren’t stuck to marks or continuity or blocking things in a certain way. Which is just, cool, everyone do what they want. It kind of helped us, it made everyone feel really collaborative and creative. Because we would be shooting something and then the guys behind us are kind of improvising their own scene, like making drinks in the bar. It was very free, the feeling of it was very free. It was really lovely for all the cast, but also made it have that kind of authentic lived-in vibe.
Let’s talk about the 70s fashion in ‘The Serpent.’ Was it able to help you get into the character?
Yeah, of course. Costume. For me, voice and costume are just major parts. If you don’t feel right in what you’re wearing, it really changes the way you walk, the way you feel, they way you sit. It informs everything. We had such fun to play with the costume in terms of the duality of Marie-Andree and Monique. How she becomes the person that Charles kind of invents, this character he wants her to be there to play. The journey of Marie-Andree from the very devout religious girl who’d never really traveled from home, little life experience, to the more killer’s accomplice. The more glamorized. We always had her reading magazines, because it was like she was kind of the outsider, she didn’t like herself. So she didn’t want to be Québécois. She wanted to be Parisian. She wanted to be the girl in the magazine, she wanted to be what Charles wanted her to be, I suppose. There was real fun in playing with those.
We spoke a lot about a very dark Brigitte Bardot as being an initial image for her. Me, dark-haired, and I was part wigged as well. As the series goes on, we really messed around with the costume and the makeup to become the undone, unraveled woman. Almost looking as if she was wearing like yesterday’s makeup. You know, like breaking her in a bit. The journey of all the costumes was really, really fun. And also, we use a lot of vintage stuff as well, found in the markets. Like old vintage kimonos and things like that.
If you were given the chance to meet Charles Sobhraj in person, what would be the first thing you will say to him?
Ooooh. Oh. Oh, god! That is a question! I’m not sure I want to talk to him. The thing is, I maybe want to ask him how he was able to garner such immense, almost unbreakable power over people. But I just know he would never give me a straight answer. Like I feel like it’s almost… I wouldn’t really want to look him in the eye is the honest truth. [Laughs]