New crime show ‘DI Ray’ tackles racism in a different way: star Gemma Whelan

‘Game of Thrones’ actress Gemma Whelan takes on a different 'war' in the new police drama ‘DI Ray’

05 June 2022 - 00:00
By Tymon Smith
Gemma Whelan plays DCI Kerry Henderson in 'DI Ray'.
Image: Supplied Gemma Whelan plays DCI Kerry Henderson in 'DI Ray'.

Gemma Whelan began her career as a stand-up comedian and comedy TV actor before shooting to global recognition as Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones. She’s now one of the stars of the new police drama, DI Ray, created by Maya Sondhi, produced by Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio and starring Parminder Nagra as Birmingham detective inspector Rachita Ray who, after a heroic action, is promoted and must take on a difficult case that will force her to reckon with her own past and community. Whelan plays Ray’s superior DCI Kerry Henderson. We spoke to her about life after GoT and what attracted her to this role.

What’s it like to come out of playing a character in Game of Thrones, one of the biggest shows in TV history?

I I didn’t realise it was such a big door at the time. It’s hard to quantify the effect it has because your career unfolds incrementally. But it’s certainly got me seen for meatier, bigger roles than I might not have been seen for prior to Game of Thrones. Being on an international stage your work becomes more visible, you’re a name. I’m not saying I was catapulted overnight but, so far, I’ve worked quite consistently since then. I was able to do a lot of other work while I was involved in GOT so I was able to build up a showreel of little things I enjoyed doing — comedy and period dramas, and so on. I don’t feel like it closed any doors, it certainly opened them.

What attracted you to DI Ray?

Jed Mercurio was attached to the show and I knew Maya Sondhi from the stand-up circuit many years ago. As soon as I read the script I loved it but I was very pregnant at the time the offer came in. They said t they knew I'd have a newborn at the time of shooting and were generous to help me with that. They made it accessible for me. My son was five weeks old when I did it — he was on set with me and a nanny and he slept most of the time. But I did it. It showed that women can have babies and work. It’s also nice to play a serious role.

What makes this show different from other police dramas?

This show says something different about minorities, systemic racism and everyday casual racism. A lot of lived experience comes through in the writing. It also sheds light on stereotypes — what we think is one story in the beginning turns out to be something different, but we all base our assumptions on prejudice. It challenges you like no police show has done before in terms of addressing those presumptions and stereotypes. It’s timely.

What do you hope audiences take away from the show?

I hope people take away a black mirror held up to them that reflects their lives back at them but also makes them reflect on their own lives. Everything should be much more carefully thought through — the show raises a certain awareness of ourselves in ways we’re not used to.

• 'DI Ray' streams on BritBox from June 9