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Jemima Rooper can 'totally see' why 'Attic' matriarch makes twisted decisions

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Jemima Rooper can 'totally see' why 'Attic' matriarch makes twisted decisions
Jemima Rooper can be seen in the mini-series, "Flowers in the Attic: Origin." Photo courtesy of Lifetime

NEW YORK, July 9 (UPI) -- Lost in Austen and Hex actress Jemima Rooper says she tried not to judge Olivia Winfield, the eventually wicked woman she plays in Flowers in the Attic: Origin, because the character made the best decisions she could to survive what she sees as an impossible situation.

Based on V.C. Andrews' gothic novel, Garden of Shadows, the four-part limited series, which spans several decades starting in the early 20th century, premieres on Lifetime on Saturday.

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It follows Olivia, a wealthy, educated spinster whose life in Connecticut with her businessman father (Harry Hamlin) is changed forever when she meets charming captain of industry Malcolm Foxworth (Max Irons).

Shortly after they marry in Virginia, Malcolm reveals himself to be a cruel spouse. His behavior only worsens with the arrival of Malcolm's kind father, Garland (Kelsey Grammer), and his bubbly, pregnant new wife, Alicia (Alana Boden).

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That leads to a twisted plot involving murder, rape, incest and imprisonment, which will haunt several generations of their family.

"What I really enjoyed when I first started reading the scripts is that Olivia isn't a typical heroine or villain," Rooper told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.

"She is quite modern for her time, which, hopefully, helps the audience relate to her a little bit, where if she had been more insipid, more feminine, more traditional, she may have been hard to connect with."

Olivia constantly tries to push back against the constraints of an era when it was actually legal for a husband to assault his wife.

"She continues to find different ways to survive. That's what's at the core of it. You sort of go, 'God, would I make that decision in that time?' A lot of them probably not, I hope," Rooper laughed, "but I can totally see why she does."

Williams plays Nella, the maid at Foxworth Hall who bears witness to many horrors over the course of decades.

"Her being Black in that time, the position that she found herself in was actually quite a good job," the actress said.

"Although it is quite grueling for her to stay, it's what she has to do to survive -- to protect and provide for her family because that's No. 1 for her. That is what is an anchor, her family," Williams added.

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"That's what makes her a strong woman. There are many times in the script when I was like, 'Wooo, this would be a great time to go.'

"But that is 21st-century me talking, not Nella talking from 1919. It's a completely different time, circumstances and opportunities. These are the cards she had, and this is how she had to play with them."

Boden doesn't have children, but looked to her own mother for inspiration as to how to play Alicia, a young, terrified parent imprisoned in her dead husband's home with his killer son and his conspiring wife.

"Put your kids first and they become your world. All of her decisions were very much thinking of her children, as opposed to what is best for her," Boden said.

"When you read the scripts, you are trying to figure out who this person is and why they do what they do and the way their mind works. The one thing that really stood out to me about Alicia was her resilience and how she keeps going no matter how hard it gets."

Rooper said she relished the role because it allowed her to play a complicated woman over a long period of time -- an acting exercise she described as quite rare.

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"Normally, on television or film, you have younger actors doing this decade and so and so [does the next]," she said.

"I was convinced after I was cast that I would only be needed for a tiny bit of filming. To get to play the character all the way through from this starting point to this end point is a gift to an actor."

Having three different, strong females at the center of the story also was a draw.

"Most of them are pretty questionable aside from T'Shan's character, Nella, but they all are survivors. In one way or another, they all pick themselves up and carry on. We don't always see that on television," Rooper said.

Williams agreed, saying the women's distinctness give their characters and their relationships more depth.

"They are very different, but, yes, all have gone through trials and tribulations within that house and away from that house. Working with these two ladies was fantastic," Williams said of her co-stars. "They made it a joy to go to work every day."

Rooper said she felt safe in even the most violent and emotionally intense scenes because she had such a generous and professional partner in Irons.

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"It was one of the first things I asked my agent when I was agonizing about moving to Romania and taking this beast on," she recalled.

"I didn't know who they were looking at to play Malcolm, and I was at a point in my life where I was really like, 'I don't want to spend four months doing this kind of stuff with someone who is really difficult or not very nice because I'm just too old for it."

She wasn't personally acquainted with Irons before the project, but was relieved to hear he would be playing Malcolm since they have mutual friends and she believed the actor to be an upstanding guy.

"He's the gentlest, sweetest soul. There are lots of ways we really connected and I feel like we have a really good friendship and we looked out for each other," Rooper said.

"It was nice because after having the heavier stuff in the early episodes, we got to have quite a lot of fun doing some of the later stuff together," she said, adding the fact that Irons is nothing like the terrible person he plays makes the character all the more fascinating to watch on screen.

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"I know a lot of male actors who would have no problem playing that part as it was written and would just go for it and really enjoy it and Max really fought against it," Rooper said.

"It's not in his natural demeanor to behave like that, to speak like that, so everything was very considered, and he really explored all the different nuances of that, which makes for a better performance.

Williams said she didn't read the novels that inspired the miniseries when she was growing up, but said her mother had been an avid fan of them in her youth.

"When I told her I booked the job, she was absolutely over the moon and she confessed to me her obsession when she was younger and how naughty it was to read them," Williams said.

Rooper took a stab at why the books and various screen adaptations have remained so popular since the 1980s, despite their dark and tawdry nature.

"It's that guilty pleasure sort of feeling," she said. "It's not so real that you feel awful watching it or being witness to all of these things. But, yet, it's not so ridiculous that you can't invest in it. It's just this perfect alchemy that really works."

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