Skip to main content

'The Tower' star Gemma Whelan: 'I'd love to be a detective!'

Gemma Whelan plays Sarah Collins in The Tower
(Image credit: BBC)

Best known for playing Yara Greyjoy in HBO’s smash-hit saga Game of Thrones, actor Gemma Whelan is swapping the fantasy world for the mean streets of south-east London in ITV’s brand-new contemporary crime thriller, The Tower, which airs over the consecutive nights this week.

Written by Homeland creator Patrick Harbison, and based on ex-Metropolitan police officer Kate London’s novel Post Mortem, The Tower centres on Gemma’s straight-laced Detective Sergeant Sarah Collins, who’s called to investigate when a teenage girl and a veteran beat cop both fall to their deaths from a tower block. 

Up on the roof, Sarah finds rookie PC Lizzie Adama (Tahirah Sharif), her boss DI Kieran Shaw (The Deceived’s Emmett J. Scanlan), and a traumatised five-year-old boy in a bear suit. As Sarah and her sidekick, DC Steve Bradshaw (Kate & Koji’s Jimmy Akingbola) try to uncover the truth, their key witness, Lizzie, goes missing. Will Sarah find out what really happened up the tower?

We chatted to Gemma, 40, to find out more…

How would you describe your character, DS Sarah Collins? 

"What I like about Sarah is her moral compass is exactly North/South. It's so direct. As a police officer, she’s very by-the-book, which makes things interesting because this whole show is about the minutiae of policing and how perhaps protocol is broken in order to save a life. Sarah is very black and white; she’s surrounded by people who are much more flexible, while she’s very inflexible."

What’s the dynamic like between Sarah and DC Steve Bradshaw, played by Jimmy Akingbola?

"Sarah and Steve have worked together a long time, so they know each other's rhythms and the way each other works. Randomly, three or four weeks before we started shooting, Jimmy and I were at a read-through for a new show with Danny Dyer. Jimmy came over and said: ‘I think I've just been cast as your Steve’ and our chemistry and connection was immediate."

Jimmy Akingbola plays Steve Bradshaw in The Tower

Steve (Jimmy Akingbola) is Sarah's right-hand man. (Image credit: ITV)

What do we see play out between Sarah and PC Lizzie Adama (Tahirah Sharif) and DI Kieran Shaw (Emmett J. Scanlan)?

"Lizzie’s very green and impressionable, not things more experienced Sarah has much space for. For Sarah, a lie is a lie, a cover-up is a cover-up and these things are NOT okay. There are these enormous moral compass areas in The Tower and we address people's acceptability rates along the way, as Sarah ends up on the hunt for Lizzie. Kieran and Sarah do not see eye-to-eye at all. Kieran’s got a very different attitude to policing to Sarah; he’s much more ‘shoot now, pay later’."

Tahirah Sharif plays Lizzie Adama in The Tower

PC Lizzie Adama (Tahirah Sharif) and five-year-old Ben are found up on the roof. What did they see? (Image credit: ITV)

What did you find out from police officer-turned-author Kate London in preparation for the role?

"If I wasn't an actor, I’d love to be a detective! I’m fascinated and in awe of the people who do that for a real job, and I chewed the ears off the real cops we had on set. Kate was really helpful in terms of how she saw Sarah, explaining what it’s like working in day-to-day policing and how wearing it can be crossing the line sometimes because you have to. Those snap decisions police have to make that may 'bend the rules’ a bit."

Emmett J. Scanlan plays Kieran Shaw in The Tower

DI Kieran Shaw (Emmett J. Scanlan) doesn't like Sarah... and the feeling is mutual. (Image credit: ITV)

Where do your detective ambitions stem from?

"It’s a bit morbid but, since very young, I’ve read a lot of books on true crime. I'm just fascinated by the psychology of it; reading about people who’ve done that job and finding out how their cases developed and how the people were charged. I hope I'm not unusual. Maybe The Tower is where we find out if I'm a weirdo! I've just always loved detective dramas; as a child I enjoyed watching Murder, She Wrote and Colombo. So to be part of one is magical!"

You’ve starred in such iconic series as 'Game of Thrones' and 'Killing Eve'. Do you get recognised? And is it nerve-racking to have your first big lead role?

"I don’t get recognised an enormous amount, people tend to think they went to school with me. I'm not distinctive enough but that means I can play lots of different characters. If I’d been given this lead role five years ago, I'd have been very frightened. But I've had some nice, meaty roles in that time and, as you grow and develop, you hope to move up. So it felt right and I felt ready."

How do you think 'The Tower' compares to other crime dramas?

"There’s this terrible incident that’s occurred but this show really addresses the Zeitgeist of how, as a society, we are not allowed to say things any more, even small things that might be dismissed as throwaway. The Tower isn’t just ‘Wham, Bam, someone was murdered, let's find the killer’. It's more nuanced than that and addresses certain issues in the workplace for women, for sexuality and for race. And, ultimately, whether ‘small things’ can have huge consequences."

The Tower Gemma, Jimmy, Tahira, Emmett

(Image credit: ITV)

The Tower starts on Monday Nov. 8, showing over three consecutive nights at 9pm on ITV.