She plays perhaps the most talked-about recurring character in Murdoch Mysteries history. Siobhan Murphy made an immediate impact when she debuted as Ruth Newsome, sister of Roger and Rupert Newsome (Cyrus Lane) of the Mimico Newsomes.
As outrageous as her brothers, Ruth caught the eye of Constable Henry Higgins (Lachlan Murdoch) and duo were married with much pomp earlier in Season 12. I spoke to Siobhan Murphy about the role, the clothes and how Ruth “waiting for me.”
I’ve been meaning to talk to you now for a couple of seasons, just because Ruth Newsome is such a fantastic character. I’m excited to talk to you and to really drill down and get to know how you got this role.
Siobhan Murphy: I’m so excited to talk about Ruth. She’s one of the favorite characters I’ve ever gotten to play. I’m so glad that you enjoy her as well.
Let’s go back to the beginning. What’s the origin story? How did you get the role? Did you audition?
SM: Murdoch has such a long storied history in Canadian TV. I auditioned several times for various roles throughout the years, which I think every actor has. You know, it’s sort of a rite of passage to get a Murdoch role. Then this was the role that I was waiting for, I guess, because they seemed to sort of see something in me. I can’t speculate from the producers’ point of view, but she was a wonderful mix of sort of funny and irreverent and snobby and posh and all these tropes that I felt very comfortable slipping into. I think it was just that I was waiting for Ruth. Ruth was waiting for me. That was the right fit. I auditioned in the very conventional fashion of going in the room and reading.
Did you hear her voice? Did you get her delivery? Did you understand who this woman was from the get go? Or was it something you had to kind of massage?
SM: For the audition itself, I felt like I had a sense of her. I felt like she was this sort of the poor little rich girl. You know, a bit of just a child who has never been told no and just grew into a woman. So I felt like I had her voice, even in terms of her tone, the way that she speaks in this sort of nondescript accent. My thought was that she’s been sent to a finishing school in England but didn’t really spend enough time in England, so she has one of these sort of strange accent. And I was lucky because, in the breakdown, they mentioned that she was the sister of an already established character, Cyrus’ character, Roger and Rupert, the Newsome twins. So I was able to look back on his episodes and sort of see the affectations he has brought to the voice and the melodic quality. Because there was a very specific Newsome way of speaking.
I was able to use that. Then once I got the part, I delved into the world of Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, just trying to find examples of poor little rich girls throughout cinema. She was sort of a good icon, in terms of just has never heard no and flounces around and leaves sort of an earthquake in her wake but comes out without a hair out of place. That was a bit of my research. And then just going back to the work that Cyrus had done because if I were to be brought in as part of his family and his world, I wanted to make sure the foundation he had laid was respected and further built upon.
The whole Newsome clan is a joy. It’s just incredible how everybody has really loved this family, which is, as I’m sure you know, pretty shocking and rare for this show. Many fans just want to see the core four and aren’t interested in anybody else.
SM: I knew going in. I was like, ‘OK, I know that I’m here for a bit of a comic relief sort or, you know, to alleviate some of the tension of the episodes.’ It’s not about me. I’ll bop in, I’ll bop out. Then I did Season 10 and then in Season 11, I got to do sort of more lovely stuff with Lachlan that was a little bit deeper and truer and not just sort of like ‘Oh, my heavens,’ and causing chaos. I wanted to be very respectful of the fans and loving the format of the show, and knowing they’re probably going to hate Ruth or some people are going to like her, but she’s not going to be for everyone and that’s OK. She’s a lot of noise, and she’s basically a hat that’s become a sentient being. She’s a lot. So won’t take it personally. I’m playing an unlikeable, over-the-top character.
I was really touched that people sort of were drawn to her and didn’t … I mean, I’m sure some people find her so irritating, and that’s also absolutely valid because she certainly is. Absolutely. It is such a testament to sort of the Newsome brand that Cyrus had created, that there was this opening in the fans’ hearts and minds for this other, weird offshoot of the otherwise quite deep and dark and twisty Murdoch world. So I was very grateful for their opening up to this wacky, weird offshoot.
Did that take a lot of time when you were doing the research into playing this character?
SM: I was classically trained at a theatre school in Ontario called York University. They put us through the rigors of you do your research but also you do your research on the voice and the body of the character. Thankfully, as we know, Murdoch gives us these incredible period costumes with the corset, with the padding. So I knew that that would inform so much of how she walked through the world. I knew that I wanted her voice to be established and her way of being, and she is sort of a flighty bird. This is going to sound very actory, but I sort of was looking at things like, as I said, Katharine Hepburn just was someone that I looked at, not because of her voice, which is quite mid-Atlantic, or her posture which at the time was quite sort of considered masculine because she took big steps.
What’s funny is that [Clare McConnell] who plays my cousin, Effie, in the wedding episode, studied Katharine Hepburn, and you can see it in her performance. Her character smokes and has a real sort of languid catlike way of stalking the set. So it was funny because I had thought of Katharine Hepburn, but in a totally different construct. I guess she’s an icon for a ton of actresses. But to go back to what I was saying in terms of actor work. Ruth just really also struck me, this is such an actory thing to say, so I do apologize, as a bit of a bird about to take flight.
You’re already mentioned the clothing, so let’s talk a little bit about the costumes. Joanna has said that it’s a joy to dress you.
SM: It’s wild. Joanna, this is her first season working with all of us. Before that, the costumes were also incredible, and the hats were amazing. I mean, literally, when I say Ruth is a sentient hat, that’s how I felt when I first got to set. I was 90 percent hat, 10 percent woman. It was fabulous because you’re just like, ‘OK, great. So no matter what I do, the hat pulls the focus. It doesn’t matter if I’m bad. They’re focusing on the hat.’ But it was lovely. It made it sort of so easy to embody this fancy-dancy kind of woman with all these pieces to keep moving through space with.
In this season what’s been quite amazing is the colour, the brightness, and the intensity and the saturation that Joanna dresses Ruth in. And the accessories. She’s giving me parasols and purses and gloves and bracelets and necklaces, which of course you would think is an actor’s nightmare, but it’s fabulous because there’s always a joke in the parasol and there’s something to do with the gloves. She gives me props even in wardrobe, which Ruth would have and is a delight. And the colour, I think, is so lovely because in this season, in the last season, as Ruth is now engaged and all the wedding stuff, the brightness and the joy and the … she’s like a tropical bird in a lot of ways.
I think the high point so far was the Kellogg outfit.
SM: She sent me a photo of the piece. She’s like, ‘I made this.’ First of all, I was like, ‘You’re a goddess and a genius.’ Second, I haven’t read the script yet. What’s happening? ‘Oh, you’re the inspiration for the Kellogg Cornflake rooster.’ I’m like, ‘I’m the bird I’ve always dreamed I’d be. It’s perfect.’ That was a real showstopper when I walked onto set, which is … what a piece! It was truly something to behold. Also, at this point, Ruth is terribly broke. Which is just a testament to the trunk she must have hauled with her from Henry’s apartment.
The other interesting thing about Ruth is evolution of the character, is that kind of comic relief in the beginning but now she’s being involved in storylines in a way that has become more akin to what we’ve seen with Crabtree. Inspiring Kellogg and the knowledge that she wrote these saucy books that Julia has read.
SM: You know, you never want to imbue your character or assume a character is dumb, right? Because you can’t play dumb. That’s not how she was written, but she was written as a bit sort of flighty. I just was like, ‘I can’t wrap my head around that. It’s not that she’s flighty. It’s that she’s distracted.’ So if she’s constantly distracted, what is she distracted by? I didn’t know. I’m not going to pretend that I knew the answer because that would be insane. She’s just got a million things on her mind. They might be small, minute things like where did she leave her gloves or did the servant remember to draw me a bath or all these different things. The first inkling I got of Ruth’s, or what the writers knew of Ruth’s, inner world was in the Christmas episode that Peter Mitchell had written.
There’s this whole turn that happens in the scene where we’re going to take down Ponzi. Suddenly Ruth is swilling whiskey and being like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s typical.’ You realize, wait. I remember talking to Lachlan about it. We would talk sort of in between scenes. I was like, ‘Do you think Ruth is actually from one of these families that started as a gangster family and then maybe made right in the world?’ So this generation of kids went to finishing school, but they really come from generations and generations of criminals.
Of course she’s good at conversation, which is now why she’s sort of a nurse’s aide or a conversationalist in a nurse’s outfit at the hospital. So the fact that she has all these other sort of bizarre lives makes complete sense because it’s not that she’s dumb. It’s just that she’s got so many things on her mind.
Murdoch Mysteries‘ Season 12 finale airs Monday at 8 p.m. on CBC and streams on CBC Gem.
Images courtesy of CBC.