‘Unforgotten’ Star Nicola Walker on Cassie’s Return to the Force: ‘She Cares Too Much About the Job’

Nicola Walker in Unforgotten - Season 4 on PBS Masterpiece
Mainstreet Pictures LTD

Time has not healed Cassie Stuart’s wounds. The smart, empathetic detective chief inspector magnificently played by Nicola Walker on the gripping British crime drama Unforgotten took a leave of absence at the end of last season because the cold-case investigations she’d been leading had become too much for her. Now, as Season 4 of the PBS series begins on Masterpiece Mystery!, she wants to exit the police force permanently.

But Cassie is three months shy of her full pension, and with her father (Peter Egan) suffering from dementia, she needs the money. She could opt for less taxing work, but decides to return to her former colleagues, now being led by Detective Inspector Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar), as they search for the killer of a long-missing young man whose headless and handless body turns up at a London garbage dump.

Cassie’s journey is something Walker and series creator and writer Chris Lang discussed at length. “Chris and I were always interested in looking at the cost of being involved with these sorts of cases that we all love watching on television,” Walker says. “Cassie does not have superpowers. She’s an ordinary person who’s really good at her job, and it took her to the place of having an emotional breakdown because she can’t fly away or make herself invisible.”

An Olivier-winning actress, Walker excels at playing tough, relatable women coping with life’s predicaments, ranging from Derek Jacobi’s perpetually troubled farmer daughter Gillian on the PBS dramedy Last Tango in Halifax to nattily attired divorce attorney Hannah Stern, whose own marriage has crumbled, on SundanceTV’s The Split.

Walker spoke with TV Insider about Cassie’s struggles, filming those interrogation scenes, and why she doesn’t have a career plan.

Cassie is still quite fragile at the beginning of Season 4. But she goes back to her old unit instead of taking an easier job. What is she thinking?

Nicola Walker: She absolutely knows she is not completely well, but there is no way she would go back and take a desk job. She cares too much about the job, and that is the key to Cassie: If she’s going to be there, she’s going to do what she does brilliantly, although she’s still struggling.

Cassie at least has a highly supportive, low-maintenance partnership with Sunny. It sounds similar to your own relationship with Sanjeev Bhaskar.

Absolutely. I’d never met Sanjeev before the first read-through. We sat down next to each other and had this whispered conversation, and it was clear that we both felt exactly the same — an absolute mixture of terror and quiet excitement because the scripts were so good you knew — unless we did something wrong — it was going to be great. I’ve made a fabulous friend through the show. Our families spend time together socially. There’s no acting in that part.

Sanjeev Bhaskar and Nicola Walker (Mainstreet Pictures LTD)

How challenging is it to play a character who’s going through so much emotional turmoil?

Cassie is not a burden to carry around because she’s so well written. Everything I feel playing Cassie is on the page and then I do my very best to put it in the camera. I think if something’s well written, you can let it go. As you’re doing it, you’re letting it go and moving through the story.

Some of Unforgotten’s best moments are the intense interrogation scenes. Is there a knack for keeping them fresh and interesting?

When we started, our director, the brilliant Andy Wilson, said, “I want you to look at this set of documentaries” — about 24 hours in a real police station — “and really watch how police officers behave in real interview scenes.” We get brilliant actors sitting opposite us for these 12-page scenes, and they must think Sanjeev and I are annoying because we would not be looking at them half the time. We would be creating very long pauses where we’re writing things down, in all the ways police really do. Frankly, they’re very easy to do because they have such a beautiful rhythm to them.

Unforgotten isn’t the only TV show you’re headlining. You’re also on The Split and have a new crime drama, Annika, coming up. Does it seem like we’re in a very fertile time for women-led TV dramas?

I’ve had a good run the last six or seven years. And I feel like the last 10 years have been moving in the right direction. If I look at the work I’ve had, on each of those jobs there are women in positions of power within the hierarchy. I think that is what is noticeably changing — that there are far more women heading up production companies and in executive roles. It has to change at the top and filter down to everyone else.

Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan in The Split (Mark Johnson/SundanceTV/BBC Worldwide)

What about the third season of The Split? Is that going to keep you busy through the summer?

Yeah. I’m really looking forward to it. Because of COVID, we’ve been delayed. We know this is the last one, so it’s bittersweet. I’m just looking forward to seeing everybody because I’m not really venturing out very much yet.

Is there going to be more Last Tango in Halifax or did the last season wrap things up?

It didn’t. When we were filming, [creator and writer] Sally Wainwright was saying, “I want to write more.” I think we’re in a queue. She’s got quite a lot of other work. But I will wait as long as she wants.

You were on Broadway a couple of years ago in an award-winning production of A View From the Bridge. Would you want to do film or TV over here?

I loved being on Broadway. It wasn’t a dream I’d ever had because I never thought it would happen. I think I’m officially middle-aged now, and I’m sure there are a lot of actresses my age, very, very good ones, in America who are happily taking the work available. I’d love to, but I certainly don’t think I would be foolish enough to have a plan. I don’t think you can have a plan in our business. You just keep your fingers crossed.

Unforgotten, Season 4 Premiere, Sunday, July 11, 9/8c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)