Nearly all the recurring players on the PBS show Sherlock are based on fictional folks found in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Holmes tales. The most obvious exception? Molly Hooper, the morgue registrar played by actress Louise Brealey. In fact, the show’s creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss at first only intended the Holmes-assisting Hooper to appear in the show’s first episode. But over the years, Molly has become a genuinely beloved character as viewers tracked her unrequited crush on Benedict Cumberbatch’s titular sleuth and her predictably doomed romance with Andrew Scott’s villainous Moriarty.
In the name of full disclosure, I should point out that we actually used to work together as editors on a U.K. film magazine. So, the obvious question is, How did you go from that professional zenith to slumming around with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman on Sherlock?
[Laughs] Well, it was about that time I started doing a little bit [of acting]. I actually trained in New York at Lee Strasberg and then came back and signed with an agent and got [BBC hospital drama] Casualty straight away. I did two years on that and then did bits and bobs including (the Dickens adaptation) Bleak House. And I feel like Sherlock has been going on for a while. It’s been about four years since we started it. So mostly I do that and stage.
And the original plan was for Molly just to appear in the first episode of Sherlock?
Well, this is what they tell me now! I don’t think I knew that at the time. But, yes, she was just meant as a mildly comic turn, coming along and being lovestruck. Because [Sherlock cocreators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss] were quite keen not to invent anybody new. They’re both huge Conan Doyle fan boys and they just didn’t want a regular who wasn’t from canon. And then they felt that she might have more mileage in her. Molly’s wheedled her way in there! In her white coat!
Having played a nurse on Casualty and now a morgue-worker on Sherlock, have you become medical expert?
[Laughs] No. I’m still rubbish at getting rubber gloves on and off, even though I’ve worn them in about eight things now. I am quite good at putting things down on a pad and nodding.
What can you tell us about the new season?
I think it’s worth the wait, which is the main thing. It’s grown in ways that might be surprising. It has everything that we had but everything’s sort of moved. Certainly my character is on a completely new journey.
How much do we see of Molly this season?
More! Lots more! Loads more! Which is great, very nice. Yeah, they found a good way to get her out of the morgue and into different scenarios with the other characters, which is great.
Does Molly have any better luck with the opposite sex this season?
I think she does a little, yeah. She’s not kept herself for Sherlock. She’s not been saving herself, Clark, I’m afraid.
When I visited the Sherlock set there were about 500 onlookers, of which the vast majority were teenage girls or young women. The whole thing had the vibe of a One Direction show. What is the appeal of Sherlock to that demographic?
The crass answer is that they all want to touch Benedict. But I think it’s more interesting than that, actually. He’s not your average sex symbol. Of course, he’s terribly handsome and all the rest of it. But he’s smart, and a bit odd, and I think in some respects he’s quite an interesting object of their desires. It’s not as simple as One Direction.
What kind of fan mail do you get?
One of the interesting things is that they come from all over the world, literally. A lot of young Chinese women really, really love Molly. The Philippines. Russia. There’s lots [of fans] all over Europe. America, obviously. Canada. Everywhere. They just really like her. She’s unthreatening. I always [compare it to] Dirty Dancing. She’s sort of Baby wanting Johnny Castle to change her world. She embodies that. And then I’m really mouthy on Twitter talking about feminism and stuff. They seem to rather enjoy the contrast.
Do you still work as a journalist?
Yeah, I do. Although I’m trying to think the last time I did an interview. I wrote a thing about taking my own kit off in a play for The Times, which was quite strange. I haven’t done as much recently because I’ve just been really busy. I wrote a play last year (Pope Joan), so that was the writing element of last year, rather than journalism.
What was the play about?
It was a ninth-century political thriller about a transvestite Pope with 50 people in it. It was a ludicrous enterprise for a first play.
You’re also in a film called Delicious?
Yeah. It’s actually the story of a boy looking for his dad. But he meets this girl who’s got all sorts of terrible issues, eating issues and stuff, and ends up trying to feed her. It’s quite funny! [Laughs] It’s witty and—what do they say?—it’s witty and tender! They’re looking for distribution at the moment and in a bid to get some they put my bare bum in the trailer. Thanks, guys! It was at the same time that I was taking my kit off onstage. I was feeling a lot bolder than I do now.