Interview: Martin Henderson talks Secrets and Lies: “The material was so strong, it made such an impression”

The six part series sees a man accused of murdering his neighbours’ young son.

Australian thriller, Secrets and Lies features actor Martin Henderson as a family man who discovers the body of the four-year-old son of one of his neighbours. He finds his life turned upside down when he becomes the prime suspect in the case and sets about proving his innocence but the secrets of the past come back to haunt him.

DIY spoke to native New Zealander, Henderson (The Ring, Devil’s Knot) about the six part series which begins on Channel 5 on 23rd September, his part in the critically acclaimed The Red Road opposite Game of Thrones star Jason Momoa and his time treading the boards in London back in 2006 in the Sam Shepard play, Fool For Love.

Can you tell us about Secrets and Lies?
I certainly can! It's a six part murder mystery thriller set in a suburban neighbourhood in Brisbane, Australia. At the top of the show my character - a working class father of two, husband and house-painter, a fairly typical Australian bloke - goes for his morning run and comes across the dead, murdered body of his neighbours' child. He recognises the child and alerts the authorities and the police come by and start their investigations and very quickly he starts to realise that he in fact is the centre of the investigation. As he tries to claim his innocence he actually ends up implicating himself further, out of desperation and clumsiness. So he starts to take the law into his own hands and as he does so, as the title implies, he starts to unwittingly uncover a lot of secrets and lies of the people around him. But his own past and his own secrets also start to come to light as the police pursue the investigation to a point where he even starts to question his own innocence. I can't say any more than that!

Your character, Ben, evolves a lot across the six episodes. How does he change from where we start to series end?
We see a man whose marriage is on the rocks at the beginning and that becomes very clear very early on, that him and his wife are having certain issues that may or may not be resolved. Yet he remains extremely committed to his family. Over the course of the series and as the investigation deepens and he becomes more and more implicated he also becomes more and more ostracised from the neighbourhood and society in general, putting further pressure on his family. It starts to create this rift and what you end up seeing is a man not only trying to defend his innocence and keep himself out of jail but he's also fighting for his family which is becoming further and further compromised. So there's a really nice arch of a man, a typical working class man who, for all intents and purposes, is a very responsible, simple, honest, hard working guy and you start to see him become undone by this and make certain decisions that probably he wouldn't in a different state of mind.

You're a New Zealander but have worked extensively in Australia in the past. What was it like going back to film over there after being in the States for so long?
It was lovely. I've wanted to do it for a while. As much as I love my life in the United States and I'm grateful for it, home - both Australia and New Zealand - are still very dear to me and I do miss it and it was just one of those opportunities when the script was sent to me it was so good. The writing is so tight, it's just a very compelling piece of drama. The woman who directed the first three episodes, Kate Dennis, was someone who had started her directing career back when I was about 21, she was the second unit director for a TV show that I did called Big Sky. We were both kids really and so to go back and be directed by her 20 years later was just a really wonderful experience and there were many people, both on the cast and the crew, who I'd worked with all those years ago. There's just a certain way of working and living in Australia that feels very comfortable. There's a sense when you're on set that everybody's pitching in to help each other, whereas in America everything is so unionised. The electric department would never pick up something from another department, that sort of stuff.

Brisbane is generally somewhere that doesn't feature much on TV and in films. How was it filming on location there?
It's very unique. The story was conceived in Brisbane, by a Brisbane writer so he set it there in a world that he knew and the producers, Hoodlum, are from there so I think that was always the intention in telling the story as a Queensland story. As an actor it was different. It was nice and I think for the viewer it's really nice because I think that there's a certain aesthetic that you don't really see in Melbourne or Sydney which is most of I guess what you guys [in the UK] watch over there. All the dramas typically come from there or they're in the outback, we see the big brown, flat land of Australia whereas this is a much more fecund and very lush, green, sub-tropical environment. And that was actually a part of the writing too. Unfortunately we shot it in the middle of winter and it was set over Christmas time and of course in Australia Christmas time is the middle of summer and that was a big part of the story, this hot, oppressive humidity and sweat and people not being able to think straight and it gave a sort of sexy, sinister feeling too which we had to try and replicate because we shot it in the middle of winter!

So you were freezing but pretending to be sweaty?
Yeah we were! I was constantly walking around with my bloody shirt off which I think had more to do with the fact that the main director was a woman than anything.

She knew what she was doing...
Yeah, pervert! [laughs]. But it was cold. It was very cold having to jump in the pool and stuff and act like it was the middle of summer.

It's dark material that you're dealing with here and you were also in Devil's Knot which deals with true-life child murders. Can you switch off at the end of the day or do you take that home with you a little bit?
I think you always do a little bit. Any job is very hard to completely divorce yourself from when you leave the office so to speak, and particularly in the story-telling world. You're dealing with stories so you're really absorbing, thinking and imagining who these characters are in the world so I think there's always a little bit of carrying it around with you. Secrets and Lies we shot over three months or something so there is a sense at the end of something like that, it's nice to let it go.

Secrets and Lies is set for a U.S. remake. How does that feel to have someone take on your part?
It's a compliment at the end of the day. They're only remaking it in the States because the material was so strong and it made such an impression on them that it made them feel like it as worth making for an American audience. Ultimately I think it's a huge compliment that we all did a good enough job that it turned out well enough for them to invest in it. But as for someone else playing your part, yeah to be honest there's a little moment where you feel some kind of ownership over him [the character] but then again he's the American version. There was a moment there where we had discussed whether or not I would maybe do that but that felt a bit gimmicky to be honest. In the end I was working on another show for Sundance so it wasn't really an option. We'll see how I feel when I see it! [laughs].

Ryan Phillipe is playing the role. He's not bad!
Yeah I'm sure he'll do a great job and I think he's good for the role. Hopefully he'll kill it and ABC will do well with it and they'll continue to buy more Australian and English shows.

I understand that you weren't told who the killer was during filming. How do you play a character when you don't know what his motives are yourself?
I don't know if I love it. I'll be really frank. Personally the way I like to work, I like to get all the information or as much as I can about who the character is, what his back story is, what he's doing in each scene, why he's doing it and get very clear about what it is I'm trying to do at every moment. I think the producers felt in their minds that there was something to be gained from keeping certain information from the cast so that there was a certain ambiguity and that it would maybe express itself organically through our performances. I understand and respect their willingness to do everything they can to make the show the best but I personally, as a performer having acted my whole life, I don't really think it benefits me in terms of the way I work. Other actors might like it but I actually like to know exactly what I'm doing. Even if the character doesn't know certain things that's fine you make choices based on that. But the actor not knowing it? Ultimately I don't think it harmed the performance but I just don't like working that way.

You also star in the show The Red Road with Jason Momoa. Could you tell us a little about that?
We're just about to go back to Atlanta in a couple of weeks to start shooting the second season of that for Sundance which is the network here in the States where it airs. It's also a dark thriller. It's maybe a little more adult in a sense. It's very gritty, a lot grittier than Secrets and Lies but it's essentially about these two communities that are living side by side about 30 miles north of New York City in what's called the Ramapough Mountains and you've got this Native American community, or at least a group of people who claim Native American descent, which is up for debate as there's no way of proving it because it's an aural tradition and so there's sort of a political issue there that the show goes into as well about these people looking for an identity. In a similar way to Secrets and Lies, Jason's character comes back into the community after being away for about 15 years and when he does his presence brings back a lot of things from the past that happened prior to him leaving and that then threatens to undermine the balance of power that exists between these communities. I play a cop in the small predominantly white middle-class neighbourhood. The show deals with racism and what it is to be an American and what it is to have an identity or a sense of belonging to a group of people.

Can you relate to that as a New Zealander?
I can yeah. I think I actually do greatly. I think it's interesting as a New Zealander living in America, as much as I love living here and I am very grateful for my life and my career, my sense of who I am at my core is very much a New Zealander and I will never shake that. It's something so deeply ingrained like before I could even think about what that means it's something that is imprinted on you as a child. I think that has to do with the culture you're in, the people around you, the values of that culture and just the environment, the land too. I really sympathise and empathise with native people that are still trying to establish that connection to the land and to nature because I also feel that if I don't have it for long periods of time I just don't feel connected to myself.

Are there any plans for you to return to the London stage after your successful run in Fool For Love?
I don't really plan anything [laughs]. I didn't even plan doing it in the first place! When I got asked if I would do it, it was quite a shock because it was something that I had never done. I just remain open to whatever would be a good thing to do at any given time and if there was an opportunity to be in a play that I enjoyed. I would have to love the material though and funnily enough Fool For Love was one of the few plays that I worked on in classes over the years so I was familiar with [playwright] Sam Shepard and the play itself so it felt like the perfect thing to do. I have so much admiration and respect for theatre actors because that experience taught me just how rigorous it is to get up every night after night for months and do the same material. So for me I would have to be in love with the material to feel like I could keep exploring it each night otherwise I don't have that natural muscle if you know what I mean? I'm used to doing a few takes and moving on. So to do it repetitively, I'd be open to it but yeah it would have to be something that I would really love.

Secrets and Lies starts Tuesday 23rd September on Channel 5 at 10pm.