Ted Lasso has garnered a reputation as one of the more aggressively optimistic TV shows of late, in stark contrast to the small-screen doom-and-gloom en vogue for the past decade. (Season two’s jollier-than-jolly Christmas special, which aired at the beginning of August, no less, seemed to cement those saccharine sensibilities.) But some narrative friction has also been introduced this season, for something approaching tonal balance — and one such addition is Dr. Sharon Fieldstone, played by British actor Sarah Niles.
AFC Richmond’s self-described genius-savant sports psychologist initially comes across as something of an antidote to Ted’s endearing, if increasingly annoying, penchant for positivity. That’s not to say she consciously saps the energy out of the room, but she does carry herself with a measured professionalism. As anyone who’s worked in an office knows, operating by the book can quickly be misconstrued for callousness. “One of my fears was that she would come across as cold,” Niles says, speaking from her home in London.
It’s not all on her, though: Ted, the typically fuzzy mustachioed bear, is surprisingly hostile to Sharon’s profession. Their relationship, nevertheless, warms across the season, and episode eight marks a huge stride not only for their dynamic, but for Sharon’s own journey. “The characters I play are all about truth and love,” Niles adds. “She’s comfortable, and she’s confident in what she’s doing. And being in this space as a woman, you know, amongst all these men — being a British Black woman, an older woman, I was like, I’m gonna bring it all.” Vulture spoke with Niles about Sharon’s journey so far, why it was important to give her moments of vulnerability, and her personal happy place. (Hint: It’s not on a bike.)
We interviewed Jeremy Swift last month, and he said he and Nick Mohammed aren’t actually big football fans, which kind of surprised me. What about you?
[Laughs.] You know, when I watch football, I’m one of those annoying people at parties who’ll go around asking for a cigarette. I love watching the World Cup. I love watching the Euros. I’m not an old faithful, but I have followed it. When I was growing up, there was a lot of hooliganism, so I stayed clear of it, but I love to watch it, and the drama of it all. Being a part of Ted Lasso, when you get a chance to see them play, I’m just like, I wanna be on that pitch. Just the skill of it, it’s wonderful.
You mention hooliganism which, with the European final and subsequent racial abuse, is hot on our minds. But what the show captures so well, I think, and in a way English fiction really hasn’t, is the joyous side of the game.
I felt like — probably coming off Ted Lasso, and then watching the England versus Italy game, and everything we’ve been through — just this vibrant energy. I felt really proud of this England team, and they were young, they just have skill, and they seem to be like brothers together. So there is that side. I do think things are changing, and the love and passion people have. I mean, I follow Ian Wright on social media. I love him.
I read elsewhere that you and Jason discussed Sharon at length when you first came onboard. Run me through that.
One of the things I found really curious on the page was the script described her as “very kind,” but what she was saying didn’t seem that way. So I was like, how do you angle that? Kindness doesn’t always have to be out-and-out positive on face value. When I spoke to Jason he gave me lots of important pointers, about some books I could read, and he talked about Brené Brown, who’s brilliant, and talks about vulnerability and shame. [Jason’s] a wonderful storyteller. He didn’t tell me all of the journey, but he did point me in some directions: She’s extremely good at her job, she’s kind of like an assassin — she comes in, she does a job, she gets out. That’s how she operates. One of my fears is that she would come across as cold.
There’s a reclusiveness that underpins Sharon, I think. Where do you think that comes from? Is it an active choice?
I don’t think so. I think most of those people, if they’re in contact with other humans, don’t actively want to be reclusive. There could be a story down the line where Sharon could go on and have relationships, you don’t know. There’s a scene with Ted where he kind of says, “how was your weekend,” you know, “what did you get up to on your weekend?” And she just says, “nothing that I care to share about at work.” I had all kinds of ideas on what she’d been up to, which I won’t say — you know, a little sparkle in her eye. I think she must love people, and it’s challenging work. She’s intelligent enough that she could have gone and worked somewhere else. You don’t necessarily have to work in football, you know. And she’s made that choice, whatever repercussions or challenges she’s come against.
I think initially she comes across as an anti-Ted, so to speak, as this balance against his unrelenting optimism. How do you think that develops as the series goes on?
I don’t think she’s an anti-Ted. She thinks he’s intelligent. She’s just not interested in the frills and decorations he’s putting up. She’s interested in what’s going on beyond that, and she sees him for that. She’s waiting for him to get to that place of: When you’re ready, and we want to have a proper conversation, we can talk.
Episode eight opens with a conversation between Sharon and her therapist. Do you think it’s important we see a more vulnerable side to her?
Absolutely. It’s funny, you know, you’ve got Ted saying “always look on the bright side, try to be curious and open,” and the moment you bring someone new into the fold, who isn’t quite playing game, everything has to shift around, doesn’t it? So there will be judgments that are made about her, and it’s important to be reminded it’s not that easy for her. We’re beginning to see other facets of Ted, too: some not so nice, some just tricky, and that’s who we are as human beings. On a political level, I think it’s really important to see Black women in vulnerable situations, particularly if they’re playing a person of power.
I think there is the risk of reductive stereotyping, in the way that people read her — were you conscious of that?
I was very worried about it. I did sometimes say to Jason, does she seem a bit hard? I don’t want her to come across as hard, I don’t want people to just … you know. I mean, that’s the reality with a lot of roles — the only kind of Black woman I’ve seen post-40s is Viola Davis in How to Get Away With Murder, but that whole show’s about her. And you see such range, and so many different sides to her, it’s amazing.
There’s the trope of Black women therapists on TV, too, who act as just professional sounding boards for, largely, the qualms of white people. Was that something specifically you were thinking about?
Yeah, I did think about it, and also thought, there’s a part of me I have to trust in. I’m always a truth-seeker, I always seek the truth, and it would be untrue of me to then take Sharon down a road that wasn’t real to what’s on the page, and real to who she is. And I think there’s also a side where it’s just: Okay, it’s not that she’s a hard arse, she just worked really fucking hard to get to where she is. She just doesn’t give too much away that isn’t necessary for the work at hand. She’s not there to be a friend, really. I think she just tries to do the best she can. She says it on the first day: Are you good at your job?
She says she’s twice as good as Ted.
Yeah, which is a great line. And you have to back that up.
I think one of the reasons I like episode eight so much is you get a really full-bodied idea of who Sharon is. She isn’t just a dramatic device, or the embodiment of a trope.
One of the things she’s really good at, and you see she’s clearly got control of, is riding a bike. Which is not me. [Laughs.]
We’re both in London, and you wouldn’t catch me on a bike here. I’m too much of a coward.
No way, I wouldn’t be cycling, no. But you know, when you have an ability to do certain things like that, and you have an accident, it’s really telling about how much control you have over things, over life. And how you recover, it’s really important. That accident really knocks her for six.
Without spoiling too much: Where does Sharon go from here?
I’ve always felt that nothing’s really as it seems. When someone enters the room with her, she’s kind of building an idea. She’s analysing. And she’s building an idea of Ted. She doesn’t think that who she is, and her position, has anything to do with that. It’s just her on a professional level. I feel like people always start one way and they come out another way, so.
What’re you listening to at the moment?
I’m listening to a bit of Cleo Sol. I listen to a lot of old stuff as well. I’m a hip-hop head. I like the old-school hip-hop.
Not to put you on the spot, but one favorite artist?
Oh my gosh! There’s so many. I was listening to De La Soul because, obviously, there’s lots of stuff happening with them. I love them. But there’s just too many, I think.