“I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t even listen,” Keala Settle confesses. “I heard ‘so, Roger Allam and Nancy Carroll’ and then I didn’t hear anything else except ‘do you want to do this?’ and I said ‘yes.’”
It all worked out for Settle who can rattle off favorite murder mysteries on her streaming queues without hesitation. Acting in one for the first time with Murder in Provence, Settle has had the opportunity to work alongside some of the genre’s iconic actors.
The BritBox original is based on the Verlaque and Bonnet book series by M. L. Longworth, adapted for television by Shelagh Stephenson. The series follows a leading trio: investigating judge Antoine Verlaque (Roger Allam), criminal psychologist Marine Bonnet (Nancy Carroll), and deputy commissioner Hélène Paulik (Keala Settle) as they solve murder cases in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France.
“Nancy and I,” Settle explains, “we are trying to pull as much information as we possibly can and throw it all at Roger, and his character pulls all the pieces together to solve the case. And it’s never really what you think it is.”
“A lot of it is masked by the picturesque views of where we are, which is so lovely because you’re like ‘this is gorgeous’ and then all of a sudden, someone dies!” Settle says. Despite knowing the storyline, Settle was still caught off-guard watching a cut of the first episode. “Roger and I were sitting next to each other, biting our nails, going ‘boy, that was really good, that really shocked me!’”
Attending the screening deviated from the actor’s usual protocol as she rarely watches her own work. “It’s like saying ‘do you want to see your receipts for the bananas you bought?’ And it’s like ‘no! I bought the bananas, I was there, I ate them, they’re gone.’” But in this case Settle couldn’t help but eat her receipts.
“You immediately get lost in it,” Settle says. “There are so many different turns within each episode.”
On playing Hélène, Settle spoke about the joy of playing a woman who felt real. “There are nuances to all of the women portrayed in these episodes that no one ever really sees and it strengthens the storyline. It’s a freedom in a way because we aren’t binding ourselves to what people think we’re meant to be. We’re just being in every sense of the word. We get to be women.”
Settle, who is known for her performances in The Greatest Showman as well as Broadway’s Waitress, Hands on a Hardbody, and Les Misérables reflected on the craft that went into playing the part. “People talk about ‘this is how you act on stage.’ But, I think in murder mystery, there are so many of those faculties you use on live stage or a film or even singing that you also use in things like this.” She emphasizes her point by exclaiming, “I mean, Roger Allam was the first Javert!”
That musical theatre connection sparked a way for cast and crew to come together offscreen. “The first week Roger and I met, all we were doing was ‘Les Mis this, Les Mis that,’ telling all these stories,” recalls Settle. “And in between takes, we were trying to keep spirits up. I never do this because I’m so scared, but for some reason, I started singing when I was off-camera. And Roger started doing it, too. And, so did Nancy,” Settle shares. It became a ritual between takes and brought cast and crew together as they dealt with safety protocols and new restrictions. “The only way that I really found to bring some levity was to start singing whatever. And then Roger would join in. And then all of a sudden, you’d hear a crew guy join in from somewhere and you go ‘ay!’”
Despite the challenges of filming during the pandemic, the actor sees Murder in Provence as her benchmark for how collaborative and fulfilling work can be. “It was madness, but everyone was so stalwart,” Settle says. “I take my hat off to the crew. Everyone was so intent on getting all of the best bits out of every scene for three months. It was an ensemble piece from top to tail. I’m really proud of what we’ve done. I’m so proud of this piece for all of us.”
All episodes drop exclusively on BritBox March 1 as Settle rehearses for her West End debut in & Juliet as Angelique/Nurse March 29. The musical opened on London’s West End in 2019 and explores what would happen if Juliet lived at the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The coming-of-age story, which features a book by David West Read and music of Swedish pop songwriter Max Martin, was nominated for nine Olivier Awards of which it won three.
Though Settle joins the cast for the first time, the actor already has some experience with the show. “I actually did the reading in 2017 in Los Angeles,” she shares. “That was the first workshop that they ever had, and it was right before The Greatest Showman dropped.”
“Five years later, I had no idea I would ever be anywhere near here, nor would I ever have thought I would be in it nor would I have ever thought I would be in it on the West End,” the actor proclaims, adding, “I’m really excited to be a part of it! I’m not making any promises, but it would be really cool to see it in the U.S.”