Tonight sees the return of Locked Up, a Spanish drama about an all-female prison. On the surface, it sounds like Orange Is the New Black, but Vis a Vis (as it’s known in its home country) has a colour all of its own. It’s grittier, more visceral, more sexual. The one thing it does have in common? It’s not afraid to break out from the conventional trappings of TV.
The result is a gripping series that has proven hugely popular in the UK, where it premiered on Channel 4 – and can now be binge-watched as a box set on All 4’s Walter Presents (read our review of Season 1 here). With Season 2 about to do the same, following a Channel 4 premiere at 10pm, we sat down with the show’s three main stars – Maggie Civantos, Berta Vázquez and Najwa Nimri – to chat jumpsuits, juicy characters and jumping across to British screens.
Were they surprised by the success they’ve had with UK audiences? When she started filming the first season, Maggie Civantos (who plays lead character Macarena) wasn’t even thinking that far ahead.
“I didn’t have an idea about the future,” she comments. “In that moment, I just thought about doing a job and enjoying it!”
In fact, the job was her first main TV role, and it was one she wasn’t even sure she was going to get.
“I had to wait like one month for an answer to see,” she explains. “They wanted the main character to be a famous actress or a known actress. Finally, they decided to choose me!”
“My goal was just to enjoy the work,” she laughs. “When you enjoy the work, it’s going to be a great.”
“It’s a big surprise for me personally that the series has been a success here and in Spain,” adds Berta Vázquez, who play’s Macarena’s romantic interest, Rizos.
That’s partly because the UK is a tough market to crack.
“You are very particular with TV shows,” teases Maggie. “It’s not easy to be here.”
“You have a lot of great shows!” enthuses Berta.
It’s not hard to see why the show has caught on. With its compelling thriller plot and an ensemble that blurs the lines between right and wrong at every turn, it’s easy to start watching and hard to stop. Over the course of Season 1, Macarena goes from being a wide-eyed innocent to a more seasoned jailbird, learning that she must cross lines to survive.
Was that evolution part of the appeal of the show?
“I think all the characters in the show change. I think part of the story is the bad character and good characters are not what you think it’s going to be. It’s very surprising.”
Nowhere is that more obvious than Zulema, Macarena’s threatening enemy behind bars, who starts off nasty and, by the start of Season 2, actually starts to win over your sympathy.
“Everybody grows, like all together, in the same fight to reach the same goal,” says Najwa Nimri, with a glint in her eye at making you like such a cruel person.
“I had to fight a lot for the things I did,” she says triumphantly. “At the beginning, they want me selling bodies and doing this horrible thing with sex and I knew from the very beginning I didn’t want to do that. If you do that, there’s no return from that, I mean for the people, for my son… you can kill somebody. But having sex with somebody on TV? That’s worse. I don’t know why. I mean, if it’s in a good way, if you’re in love, but if it’s bad…”
“You manage to transform something very bad into something very human,” comments Berta. “It’s amazing.”
Even Rizos, who is visibly fond of Macarena, shows a more manipulative side come the end of Season 1.
“It’s surviving,” says Berta. “We can do bad things for great things – even if I love her, if I need to do something bad, I have to do it. I think we can all do those kind of things. The writers, they made a great job of these kind of things, surprising people with the characters.”
The chemistry between the three of them is infectious, as they happily chat over each other, agreeing, disagreeing yet always listening.
As Najwa puts it, “two years of hitting each other in the face” would be impossible, if the chemistry between the girls weren’t so strong.
“We were in a good mood for real – nobody was bullshitting another one! It worked, because no men were in the middle; we were all women and we were healthy. Two years and it was amazing. On another project and at the end, you’re at each other’s throats.”
Conditions were tough too. Shot in an old industrial building, the cast were in the cold for months at a time, working from six in the morning.
“You have to feel that chemistry,” nods Maggie. “I cannot describe. So cold.”
“And nobody complains,” adds Nawja. “We just did it.
“We were all a very good team,” giggles Berta. “We all wanted to help each other… ‘I don’t know, how do I do this line?’ ‘Hit me more more strongly! Hit me in the face!'”
“You manage to transform something very bad into something very human.”
One of the things that kept them together was their shared belief in the project.
“We were aware we were shooting something very good and we felt passion about our work,” says Maggie. “I remember when I watched the first episode, I thought ‘Wow, this is great’. We watched the first episode in a private room for the cast and the crew and in that moment it was ‘Oh, that’s very good’.”
But that belief wasn’t there at the beginning, because Locked Up wasn’t a typical Spanish series. That’s the other reason why the show has been so successful overseas: it’s more like international TV than the kind of programmes they get in Spain. And it’s easy to underestimate just how big a risk – and just how big a departure from convention – Locked Up is for Spanish TV.
At first, the cast didn’t even know how many episodes of Locked Up they were going to make.
“At first, 8. Then, 12. Now, a second season!” laughs Nawja. “Then, the expectations about the evolution of our characters. We didn’t know about that at the start: if it didn’t work, it would be the end of it.”
“In Spain, we’re used to doing more family drama series. Things like that,” explains Berta.
Do they get much UK TV, then?
“No,” says Berta.
On a platform like Movistar, you can find different shows like Game of Thrones, explains Maggie, but that’s far from the norm.
“Spanish people consume Spanish TV shows,” she puts it, simply.
“It’s an old community. All the grandmas…” elaborates Nawja. “We have a reality show that’s all day long, from 4pm to 8pm every day, it’s super-aggressive…”
“Gossip, gossip!” chips in Maggie.
“It has to change…” concludes Berta.
You get the sense she’s summed up the group consensus. They all stream shows, enjoying the chance to consume culture from other nations.
“Nowadays, it’s good to break all the limits between the countries,” says Maggie. “When you have a universal story, that has to fly around the world. Now, it’s easier than 20 years ago.”
“We can inspire each other. I can be inspired by a Japanese series because I have an online service where I can see things,” echoes Berta.
“Older people needed it. They needed something new, fresh and young!”
“I think it’s the future,” says Nawja. “but I mean, the content on Netflix in Spain is not the same as in Amsterdam… It has to be a net, but for the community – and the community is now the world. And it has to be at the same time. I am the kind of person who wants to be in the mood at the same time as the American or London people. I think that’s not fair.”
“But you have possibilities now,” says Maggie, who is delighted to hear that Walter Presents has just launched in the USA, so a friend of hers can watch their series.
What else are they watching?
“Girls,” says Najwa.
“Love,” says Maggie, who is about to star in her own Netflix series, Las Chicas del Cable (out on Friday 28th April). “Season 1. I started two days ago.”
“True Detective,” says Berta.
“Season 1,” she replies. “I’m in shock. It’s incredible.”
With Locked Up now on its own second season, the women are already itching to do more.
“We have to do a third one!” laughs Nawja. “To break all the heads! The audience need it! They are from Mexico. From Venezuela. From Argentina. They are angry with us. They want more!”
But that’s exactly what has happened with Vis a Vis, as younger viewers (and not just in Spain) have flocked to the chance to see something different. What about the old people?
“Older people needed it. They needed something new, fresh and young!” says Berta.
“The old people needed the naked women and the young people needed the fights!” jokes Maggie.
What’s in store for fans in the second season? More naked women and fighting? The trio promise “more violence” and “more sex”. It’s easy to believe, but that’s precisely why Locked Up works so well: there’s never really been a Spanish TV series like it before.
Season 1 and 2 of Locked Up are now available as a box set on Walter Presents.
For more information on the other foreign-language shows available, see our Walter Presents TV guide.