Holli Dempsey Previews Emily’s Journey in ‘Harlots’ S2

Harlots, Hulu’s glam and gritty series about whorehouses in Georgian London, is back on July 11th for a second season. The stakes are higher than ever as the fight for control of the streets becomes a battle for the lives of Margaret Wells’ (Samantha Morton) girls. We sat down with actress Holli Dempsey, who plays the tenacious Emily Lacey, to discuss her story this season and how Emily will fare striking out on her own. Check out her answers below, and look out for some mild spoilers ahead:

What is it like working on a show about women that’s also produced and directed by mainly women?
Holli Dempsey:
That was really a dream. It was the first job that I’ve ever experienced anything like that on. It was pitched to me as The Sopranos from the whore’s point of view, and that first tagline just sold it to me immediately. What Sopranos did for a gangster and a serial killer is what we’re doing for women who have arguably not caused as much damage as that. It’s been great. It’s the oldest stories in the book, and those women pushed a lot more money around London than a lot of the men did at the docks. So it’s just things we’ve never heard of before, and I think it had to be dealt with by women. Just having women at the helm of it, it really does steer the ship. Having female directors is definitely a good idea when there’s more sensitive material, because women have boobs and we understand. Just little things that are really helpful, and if it was a male director they might have missed that.

Can you talk a little about Emily’s journey from being a pawn for others to becoming something of a power player herself?
I think she’s learned a lot from the streets and worked her way up to Margaret Wells’ house, but I think quite quickly thought that she was better than that place. She moves out into Mrs. Quigley’s thinking that the grass is greener, but as you know it turns to terror and the lady likes to imprison women. So arguably she’s gotten to a better place, but she’s got no freedom now. And Emily really is a fighter; I think that’s all she’s ever done throughout her life in order to survive. She’s constantly fighting on the streets and gives as good as she gets because women have to. They’re up against the power of the male-dominated society and the strength of men against them, so they always have to keep fighting on different levels. I think Emily’s always scrapping to get what she can, and Charles [Quigley] helps her in that sense. She uses him, I guess, a little bit even if she doesn’t know she’s doing that. I think she’s a real survivor, so she’ll do whatever she can to survive – forgetting everyone else in the way.

Speaking of Charles, what is your take on how that relationship has developed?
I really love Emily and Charles. We think we’re like the Kim and Kanye of Georgian London. I think what we’ve both brought to our parts has made us go in that direction, so we’ve had a lot of fun as Douggie and Holli. As Charles and Emily, I think he’s really fallen for her. He’s never spoken about a woman like this. She’s from a different walk of life than he’s from, and he’s really taken by that. I think for Emily, it’s a lot more doing what she has to do to survive. And obviously her archnemesis is Lydia Quigley, who is Charles’ mum, so there’s always that problem between the two. I think she knows Charles isn’t as bad of a person as his mum is, but Charles can’t trust either of them, bless him. He’s stuck in the middle going, ‘Who can I trust? I can’t trust my mum, and I can’t trust this woman that I love.’ I’m putting words into his mouth now.

How will Emily factor into the Margaret vs. Lydia battle of wills this season?
I think you’ll see in Season 2 that there really is a camaraderie between characters you wouldn’t expect, so me and Margaret Wells have to come back to each other even though we thought we’d burned our bridges with each other. Emily can be selfish, and she can be single-minded. But when it comes down to it, there’s a bigger threat and that’s usually Lydia Quigley, who is a real danger to people. I think what we do well with Harlots is [showing that] everyone is flawed, and everyone has a reason to be how they are. I thought Lydia Quigley was the worst person we’ve ever met, but in Season 2 you get a glimpse of why she’s like that. The show’s great at showing both sides to people. There isn’t good and bad, the men aren’t bad and the women aren’t good. We show everyone as flawed.

There’s also a new camaraderie growing between Emily and Harriet. What’s that dynamic like?
It’s a dream filming with Pippa Bennett-Warner. I’ve got a friend for life there, and we’ve had a real giggle this season. We’ve had a lot of scenes at Emily’s house, and once again in order to survive we’ve had to turn to each other [for protection]. They’ve become a real tag team and they live together now. Again, it’s not a romanticized version of a friendship; they are still using each other. I think everyone in Georgian London has had to use each other, as we do today. [Something Harriet does sends] Emily into quite a lot of trouble. So yes, as much as it was nice working with Pippa, Harriet is a different story. Poor Emily, just as she gets on top she has to fight again. But that’s Emily, that’s her story.

Emily has a learning curve in season 2, learning to run her own bawdy house. How is that adjustment for her?
Bless Emily, this is what she dreamed of. She thought ‘I’ll have my own house one day,’ and then here she is. She manages to get the deeds of a house through bribery and, of course, instead of making the business thrive and working hard on it… She doesn’t necessarily have what it takes to go into business. She can’t read; she doesn’t have the basic skills to start a business and keep it running. So, when she gets her newfound wealth and house, she spends all the money on making it really decorated. We call it nouveau riche. Her and Charles spent everything on feathers and fur and pearls. She looks ridiculous – no, she looks amazing – but she’s gone with that as opposed to investing the money and making sure she’s got roots there. She’s really just blown it living that life of a madame before she’s even earned it. Which is quite embarrassing to watch.

What has been your favorite aspect of playing Emily?
I do love how selfish she can be, because it’s quite fun if you’re not like that. I spend a lot of time worrying and caring about other people in my real life, so it’s really lovely to just be completely single-minded. Even if she’s doubled up with Charles, she’s still on her one lone mission. Just being so gobby, which is what we call it, just rude and loud and saying exactly what you think when you think it. And some of the lines the writers have written for Emily are just golden. Who thinks these things up? Some of the writers, they seem really sweet when you meet them and then you hear what they come up with and you think, ‘Blimey, that’s dark.’ She’s not the easiest to get along with. She’s not necessarily likeable and that’s okay, because not everyone is in life.

If you had to sum up this season of Harlots in one sentence, what would you say?
At some point, everybody falls from grace. Which is very exciting, considering the powerful women from season one – this is not a sentence anymore, I’m sorry. You will see them all fall from grace. Women, men, you get it.

You can watch the trailer for Harlots‘ second season below, and remember that the first two episodes premiere Wednesday, July 11th on Hulu.

Tags: ,