‘Chameleon face’ Jodie Whittaker happy to shirk the limelight
The St Trinians and Attack the Block star may have long established herself on Britain’s premiere film circuit, but she’s still able to slip out of view, says Marianne Gray.
Actress Jodie Whittaker has seldom been out of work. An indication of how busy she’s been is that when she married her drama school sweetheart, Mexican-American actor and scriptwriter Christian Contreras, their honeymoon had to be postponed for a year.
Her latest job is Hello Carter, a British comedy she describes as a “modern farce” co-starring Judy Parfitt, Downton Abbey’s Charlie Cox and American actor Paul Schneider. In it she plays Jenny, a character working uneasily in an office environment.
“It would have been a nightmare if I had to do that job in real life,” laughs Whittaker, 32. “I’m absolutely hopeless. I can’t sit still and I’d never answer the phone properly. I’m a quiet person’s nightmare – I’m quite loud - and I’m not very rational. I suppose that’s why people always offer me quirky roles.”
Recently we’ve seen her in Broadchurch and Cranford on television, on stage at the National Theatre (Antigone), in a couple of St Trinian’s films, in the East London urban indie film Attack the Block and as Viggo Mortensen’s fanatical Nazi wife in Good. Next we’ll see her in Broadchurch series two, as well as in two new films this month, Get Santa and Black Sea.
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“Doing my research for Good, I bought a stack of books on the Nazis,” she recalls. “When I went in to collect some from my local bookshop, God knows what they thought I was up to. They asked me: ‘Are you the girl who ordered Mein Kampf?’”
The chatty daughter of a businessman and a nurse-turned-magistrate grew up in Skelmanthorpe (pop 2,000) near Huddersfield, but knew from an early age she wanted to act, lining up her dolls and making them “speak in different languages”.
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Leaving school at 16 (“academia wasn’t for me”) she messed about getting a BTec in performing arts, travelled on her own with a backpack, worked in a pub (“I still pull a good pint”) and went to drama school, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where Hayley Atwell and Michelle Dockery were among her contemporaries.
After graduating in 2005, she got a major job starring alongside Peter O’Toole and Leslie Phillips as the teenager who turns around the lives of two old actors in the critically-acclaimed Venus which brought awards and credibility.
“Of course I realize it shouldn’t have been that easy. I’ve just been massively lucky. I love the uncertainty of the acting profession and watching the year pan out. Every piece you do has a different environment to it and I’ve been to many places I would never have thought to go. That is a fantastic reason to take a job.
“It would be naïve to say I was comfortable not working and I have had ‘quiet times’ but I’ve never had to do another job.
As actors we aren’t in control of our work. I’d love it if Christian wrote something for me to work in. We’ve never worked together.”
She continues: “Even though I work a lot, people seldom recognise me. It’s brilliant; I’ve got a chameleon face. I prefer it that way. I’m happiest to blend into the background. And I never recognize other actors. All my neighbours in Muswell Hill are apparently actors, but they must have chameleon faces, too. I couldn’t name another actor who lives there.”
Indeed, the actress happily admits to feeling settled in the area, and is even trying to persuade her friends to move there.
“I’ve lived in Muswell Hill for ten years and I’m working towards getting a place with a garden now. I’ve not been grown up enough yet to get one! I’m also encouraging a load of mates to move here because it’s a great place to be. But actors are actually unreliable friends because we’re never where we’re supposed to be, so we’ll probably never see each other.”
Having recently been away in the Lake District shooting a new comedy drama called How to Live Yours, she’s also working as an executive producer on the film.
“It’s my first time and it feels very grown up!”
Hello Carter is in cinemas now and out on DVD Monday