Taut thriller The Secrets She Keeps offers up great escapist drama, says its stars. But it tackles wider societal issues too, as Gemma Dunn finds out

Laura Carmichael had been looking for a challenge - and she certainly found it in BBC One drama, The Secrets She Keeps.

The Downton Abbey actress - who had shared her desire to play a psycho, stating "that would be really fun" - landed the script for the Australian psychological thriller last year having spent time in Sydney with family.

"My boyfriend's brother lives there so I had just been, which was another weird thing about this job, as when I was there, I was like, 'God, Sydney is great. I would love to come back'!" recalls the 33-year-old over Zoom.

"So when the script came in, it felt serendipitous. It's meant to be."

Having already aired Down Under, the six-part series - an adaptation of author Michael Robotham's novel of the same name and inspired by a real-life hospital kidnap incident from the 1990s - casts Carmichael and Jessica De Gouw as two women who, despite being from two vastly different walks of life, hold one thing in common: explosive secrets.

While mummy blogger Meghan (De Gouw) is happily pregnant with her third child - her husband less so; lone shelf-stacker Agatha (Carmichael), also pregnant, is struggling to make ends meet, in awe of her counterpart who seemingly has the 'perfect' set up.

Cue an envious obsession which rapidly escalates into full-blown stalking.

"[Agatha] is this dark character, but unlike lots of thrillers it really focuses on her emotional journey," Carmichael teases. "So you understood the trauma that she's been through and what has led her to where she is...

"It felt very unique of this genre to have this about two women and their desires to be mothers, and the need to be the perfect mum and how that flipped into being something quite dangerous."

"What drew me to the project, initially, was the fact the scripts were wonderful and female-centric and female-led," agrees De Gouw, 32, who is long-term friends with Carmichael.

"It just felt like it would be a really great experience and a real challenge as an actor, in terms of the breadth of the emotion. Plus this sort of domestic noir is a really good escapist TV drama; these lives are not my own, but you can see yourself in these worlds in some way, without it being too overwhelming."

As for the page-to-screen reworking, "I think that they've done a pretty good job of sticking with the novel," The Crown actress follows.

"Everyone has their secrets, and everyone has these internal battles going on, and so from the outset, there's this undercurrent of unease from all the characters; they're all going through something.

"It was quite fun because while the audience don't know what's going on, I certainly went into the show carrying a lot. I think it serves it really well."

As for the societal expectation put on women today, both stars - who donned fake bellies for the part - agree it's an important topic to address.

"It does feel like it's around a lot - it's that Instagram world that I can 100% relate to, and I am terrible at it!" Carmichael goes first.

"Some people can do it really well and are very authentically themselves, whereas I worry about the wording of a caption. I don't want to offend anyone," she admits. "But more than ever we're exposed to a glossy version of how we all wish to be perceived - we have to be really careful with that."

"I think the expectations of women and motherhood are such an overwhelming thing," De Gouw concurs, her character having been taken by the pull of social media.

"We try to really put women into boxes and [Meghan] is someone who feels like she doesn't fit and she's really struggling to find her place and her voice," she continues. "She's exposing herself to the world but it's a very cultivated version of herself.

"I sort of dug into that world of mummy bloggers and lifestyle influencers and it's a very strange world because they preach solidarity and community, but also there's this expectation of things that you should be buying and eating and the places you should be going.

"I felt overwhelmed digging into that, so imagine taking part!" she muses. "It's not something I continued; I definitely tapped out afterwards."

Did filming out in Australia offer some release from an often-intense shoot?

"It was interesting being somewhere where I didn't really know anyone," reasons Southampton native, Carmichael. "It was quite absorbing as I could go into the work of it at home and not have the usual distractions of real life.

"But I would let go at the weekend and I had some great friends there!" she quips. "I got there pretty much as they were going to into winter, which is not what we would recognise as winter; it was gorgeous sunny blue skies and really crisp.

"It was an amazing time. I loved it there."

For Perth-native De Gouw, it was a chance for her to return to a city in which she'd previously spent a lot of time.

"I guess the best way to end the day is to have a debrief with the cast and with the directors - and usually have a glass of wine," she says.

"I got to show Laura my version of Sydney and introduce her to my friends there. It's such a beautiful city, there's so much to do and see, so it was lovely."

Both back in London, what's next for the pair, tentatively speaking?

"I've had work put on hold, but it's sort of starting to look like it's picking up again, which will be wonderful," De Gouw shares. "But everybody has been in the same situation, so we've just got to take it as it comes."

"I really don't know," offers Carmichael. "It feels like it will be an edging out slowly, but in terms of thinking about the future, I guess for me it's fantasising about what I'd want to do next - but with no leads yet!

"It was such a joy to do something so different," she finishes. "So I want to do something different again next!"

The Secrets She Keeps starts on BBC One on Monday, July 6.