Helen Hunt has lifted the lid about playing a “complicated” war correspondent in forthcoming British war epic World on Fire.

Hunt plays Nancy, a female US war correspondent who can’t find peace unless her life is at risk, in the BBC One drama, which is produced by Victoria producer Mammoth Screen.

The drama is written by The A Word’s Peter Bowker; it is a multi-stranded drama that looks at World War II through the eyes of ordinary people from all sides of the conflict. The first seven-episode season will follow the first year of the war, starting with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and ending with the Battle of Britain.

In an interview with Deadline, Hunt said that Nancy is the first person to see 1,000 German tanks moving into France. “She’s smart, she’s funny, which is good in a story that’s not funny much of the time, she’s a survivor as it’s partly about sexual violence in war. It was interesting to be playing someone on fire, no pun intended. She sees the world is on fire and for these early days and no one else does and that’s a very playable thing for an actor.”

The As Good As It Gets star said that the character is a composite of a number of real-life characters that experienced the start of the war. “I want complicated even if it’s not complicated. She’s a million things, unable to be intimate and soft and then terribly intimate and soft and funny and heartbreaking,” she added.

Hunt said that she took the role after reading Bowker’s script and talking to Adam Smith, who directed the first few episodes. “Often, I’m trying to generate my own work, writing things and developing and directing. This was like the good old days when someone calls you and says ‘want to go to a beautiful city and play a great part with some cool people?’. So it wasn’t a long drawn out thing. Every step I took reinforced my good thought about it.”

It is Hunt’s first British TV role and she assumed everyone would be as big a JK Rowling fan as she was. “I teased everybody a lot; no one knows Harry Potter but me. I have a daughter who is Harry Potter obsessed and I am only slightly more obsessed than her and every time someone would come in the giant makeup trailer I would ask ‘are you into Harry Potter?’ and I couldn’t find a single person.

“The Brits do these shows more than we do so they’re so good, down to the wigs and the special effects. The Brits know what they’re doing; I was working with a wig person who knows what they’re doing.”

World on Fire also stars British actors Jonah Hauer-King (Little Women) and Julia Brown (The Last Kingdom), Polish Academy Award-winner Zofia Wichłacz (Warsaw 44) and Brian J. Smith (Sense8) along with Parker Sawyers (The Autopsy of Jane Doe), Tomasz Kot (Cold War), Bruno Alexander (Eden), Johannes Zeiler (Faust) and Eugénie Derouand (Genius). “It was a UK production with a Czech crew and British actors and Polish actors and German actors so I loved all of that.”

But she added that film and TV sets around the world are largely the same. “The thing I’ve found having worked all over the world, I’ve worked in Tel Aviv and Chiang Mail, movie people are the same, the camera operator is the same kind of person all over and the make up person is sort of the same everywhere, it’s a personality that’s drawn to a job and makes the world very small in a wonderful way.”

Hunt has been increasingly moving into directing with turns behind the camera on shows such as American Housewife, Splitting Up Together and The Politician. But she said that she couldn’t be convinced to get behind the camera on World on Fire. “Adam [Smith] directed the first two episodes and he set all of the look. For a moment, he said that they’d lost their last director and I was like ‘oh no’. First, I don’t know if I know how to do it and secondly I want to come home and be with my family. I’m liking being the actor because they can call me when the giant shot is set up, I’ll be in my trailer. They are different muscles… when you write something, directing becomes a different version of writing it by moving the glass or changing the jacket. When you’re directing other people’s stuff, it’s more of a job.”

The seven-part drama, which was exec produced by Bowker, Damien Timmer, Helen Ziegler and Lucy Richer, is an ambitious project, as evidenced at yesterday’s ITV Studios Drama Festival, where the company was shopping the series to international buyers.