Crystal Balint brings music and morality to The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco

As all actors know, auditioning can be a heartbreaking experience. You connect with a character, feel you’re perfect for the part, knock it out of the park in the casting session … and then get told you’re not what the project is looking for.

So, it’s natural to develop coping mechanisms, especially if, like actress Crystal Balint, you’ve been working in Canadian and American television for more than 17 years.

“I tend to keep a little bit of distance from characters—even if I fall in love with them—because you just never know,” she says. “But this was one I couldn’t help but fall in love with right out of the gate.”

Balint is speaking of jazz pianist and former cryptologist Iris, one of four co-lead characters in the new mystery series The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco. “As soon as I saw the script and read the pages I was sent, I immediately felt I had a connection with Iris,” she says. “I felt this was someone I could bring justice to.”

Luckily, showrunner Michael MacLennan and the series’ other producers agreed, showing great “excitement” and “enthusiasm” for her two auditions. She was exactly what this project was looking for.

In late January, just three weeks after her first reading, Balint landed the part. “I was just thrilled,” she says. “I had been a fan of the original series, so I was really eager to see where we were going to go with this one.”

The show is a spin-off of UK series The Bletchley Circle, which ran for two seasons and focused on four former Second World War codebreakers who solved crimes in their spare time. Last Friday’s premiere episode on Citytv saw original series characters Millie (Rachael Stirling) and Jean (Julie Graham) travel to California to investigate a murder that appears similar to one that occurred in London during the war. Once in the Bay Area, the amateur—but brilliantly skilled—detectives meet up with former U.S. military members Iris and Hailey (Chanelle Peloso), who agree to help them with the case, thus, forming a new circle of sleuths.

Balint, who has previously appeared in The L-Word, Supernatural, The Good Doctor and Mech-X4, phoned from Vancouver to tell us what she loves about Iris, what it was like working with Rachael Stirling and Julie Graham, and what viewers can expect from this new iteration of The Bletchley Circle.

This spin-off features two original cast members, but also two new leads and a brand new setting. How did that play out on set? Did it feel like you were joining an established show or kicking off something brand new? 
Crystal Balint: You know, I think both Julie Graham and Rachael Stirling came in with very open minds and open hearts, and they came in with so much excitement and so much enthusiasm for what we were endeavouring to do with this spin-off. I never got the sense from either of them that there were any sort of hang-ups that they were feeling or any sort of reluctance to try any of the new directions that we were heading. They both came in really open-minded and very supportive to the vision that Michael [MacLennan] had for this particular spin-off of the show.

They, of course, in carrying that torch of The Bletchley Circle storyline for their two characters, worked very closely with Michael and made sure that they thought their storylines had been honoured from the original series. But I didn’t feel in any way that they were stifling or that they weren’t willing to also play. In fact, they were the opposite. They were really eager to explore what might happen to Jean and Millie in America, and they were really excited to do that both with Michael and with me and Chanelle Peloso, and just explore where this goes in a completely different setting. We looked to them for some guidance in some areas, but we were all sort on this fresh new ship with this show. It was really wonderful.

Your character, Iris, introduces Jean and Millie—and the audience—to the Fillmore, the neighbourhood of San Francisco where multiple murders are taking place. Did you do a lot of research into the area?
When I was invited onto the project in January, I had approximately seven weeks to prepare before we went to camera, which was late March. And I’m sort of a history nerd, which is why I was a fan of the original show, so I was really excited and really eager to start digging and learning about both the time period and the women that actually did this job and also the area in which the show takes place. Like I do with a lot of projects, if there is some kind of reference for me to glob onto, I will generally go full hog into that. I will just go as deep as I possibly can.

So I went down to San Francisco for a weekend and sort of hit the pavement and met with people in the Fillmore who were knowledgeable about the history of the [area], particularly in that time period. I also visited the area where the Presidio was and spoke with some individuals there, and I just sort of walked the streets to get an idea of the [places] and of the streets that we mention on the show. Even though, of course, they’re completely different now.

I felt it was really important for me to get a sense of just what that city felt like, because if you’ve ever been to San Francisco, it’s a very vibrant city, and that area has so much life and so much history. I spent a fair bit of time sort of rooting Iris and her family and her experience, so it gave me some foundation when I started to build who she was.

Did you do the same with the history of American codebreakers?
CB: I did, yes. There’s an excellent book written by an author named Liza Mundy called Code Girls that was released sort of serendipitously last fall. It covers in great detail the amount of input that the American female workforce put into the Second World War, once the U.S. joined the war after Pearl Harbor. And even before that, she goes into great detail about codebreaking efforts that were in place that led to this mass explosion once the U.S. entered the war. That’s something that not a lot of people knew about. We knew about Bletchley Park, of course, and that’s being featured in lots of movies and also television shows like The Bletchley Circle, but there has not been a ton of information available to us about what happened on our side of the pond, in the U.S. and Canada.

I think I got about three-quarters of the way through the book before I had to start shooting, but I tried to absorb as much as I could. Not so much the logistics of codebreaking, because I’ll be totally honest, I don’t have a mathematical mind and those who do, I bow down to. It’s an incredibly complex art form, I would say. But I did want to understand what it was like to be a woman in the 40s when it was not something that came every day, the opportunity to really save lives, in a really abstract sense but in a very important sense. And then what it was like to be snatched up out of what you’re expected to do as a woman, asked to carry this incredible task and then released and sort of forgotten about—which is really what we talk a fair bit about in both series of The Bletchley Circle.

Iris is a jazz pianist, and in real life, you’re a singer. Did that shared love of music help you better understand her character?
CB: Yes, absolutely. When I was asked to read for the project, that was another thing that really stuck out for me. It doesn’t happen often in film and TV, at least for me, that there is a crossover. Music is a big part of my life. I’ve been singing since I was quite young, and I play a couple of instruments. I’m not a pianist, but I’ve dabbled. Music, in general, is a big part of my life, so wherever I find any opportunity, it gets me a little bit jazzed up—no pun intended.

It was really lovely to incorporate those elements into breathing life into Iris because music can be very mathematical. Those who do particularly jazz, from my understanding of it—and again I don’t have formal training in it, but from my understanding of jazz and its complexities—there is a very sort of mathematical, rhythmic thing that occurs there. So just me being a fan of music and being a lover of music, it was really nice to be able to just have that be a part of who Iris was.

And we had an incredible composer working on this show. It was just so lovely to have those pieces be, not just a part of Iris’ life, but part of the world that we find these women in. Jazz is sort of like another character in this San Francisco environment. So it really did help me. I listened to a lot of music. I listened to old jazz, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday. Just every time I was in my car driving anywhere, doing any errands, walking, I was listening to jazz, and I was really trying to get that in my body.

What else really drew you to Iris?
CB: I really love Iris’ fortitude. She has a really strong sense of who she is. I wouldn’t say it was rare in that time period for a woman of her ilk, an African American woman living and working in a city like San Francisco, but there is something really grounded about that and really inspiring about that. I think one of the things I loved most about the way she was written—and the way I perceived her to be and I tried to bring to life—is that she had such a strong moral core because she knows exactly who she is, and she’s not willing to budge on that. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t have moments of doubt, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t sort of struggle with things, but at the end of the day, I think Iris sleeps well. Because she knows in every day, she ‘s done her best.

That’s why when we meet Iris in that first episode, it really throws her off her game, because she knows what she should do, but then there’s this life that she’s put together, and she knows in her heart of hearts what is required of her and what’s necessary and what her instincts are telling her to do. But she struggles, like all of us, like every person.

I love her love of her family. I mean that’s always an appealing quality when you find characters like that. I call her a lioness. She fights for her family, and through the course of the series, you start to find that she incorporates these other women into that, and realizes that that’s also a part of who she is.

What do you think viewers will most enjoy about this version of the show?
CB: I think what people will enjoy most about this show is that it’s a fun kind of romp. I mean, there’s some serious stuff that we tackle, to be sure. We cover a whole range of serious issues that were taking place in the 50s. You know, the civil rights movement hasn’t quite started yet, but things have happened, and women’s rights are beginning, and gay rights are starting to become a thing, and there is stuff going on with the Cold War—but nothing has quite blossomed yet.

So, what’s lovely about that is that we got this opportunity to play in this environment where there are serious things, but there’s also some life to it. There is life, there is colour. It’s different from the first series, where Britain’s a very different time after the war. There were rations. But there’s just a different energy in San Francisco. So, I think what viewers will really love that this is California in the 50s in this hotbed of change, and it’s colourful and it’s fun and amidst all of this, there’s some great humour. And at the core of it, these fantastic relationships with these women that just grab you. It makes you think about the relationships in your own life. Do I stand up for what I believe in? Do I fight for my people? There’s something lovely about that.

The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on Citytv.

Images courtesy of Omnifilm Entertainment

A.R. Wilson

A.R. Wilson

A.R. Wilson has been interviewing actors, writers and musicians for over 20 years. In addition to TV-Eh, her work has appeared in Curve, ROCKRGRL, Sound On Sight and Digital Journal. A native of Detroit, she grew up watching Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant on CBC, which led to a lifelong love of Canadian television. Her perpetual New Year's resolution is to become fluent in French.
A.R. Wilson
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