“It took me a long time to find my voice” Stylist talks work, timing and ambition with Broadchurch’s Jodie Whittaker

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Helen Bownass
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Stylist sits down for lunch with Jodie Whittaker, an actress who’s not afraid of being heard anymore

Photography: Matt Holyoak

In the corner of a busy Carluccio’s near Stylist’s office, Jodie Whittaker is getting cross about the lack of female directors in the film industry. Her eyes are shining, her accent – a heavy Yorkshire one – gets stronger; she is temporarily put off her spaghetti. Indeed Whittaker is smart, enthusiastic and plain spoken throughout our lunch, whether on the acting industry, the luck of her career or simply the ridiculous amount she spends on coffee: “I go through my receipts and think I could have made a good investment in a coffee shop,” she sighs.

Her passion for film-making is vivid, and a subject particularly close to her heart right now as she’s starring in new indie film Adult Life Skills, originally a Bafta-nominated short. Written and directed by her friend Rachel Tunnard (Whittaker is also executive producer), the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival where Tunnard won the prestigious Nora Ephron Prize – set up in 2013 to encourage a new generation of female writers and directors.

Brought up in Skelmanthorpe, just outside Huddersfield, Whittaker’s background has clearly grounded her deeply. She moved down to London aged 19 to attend the famed Guildhall School of Music & Drama and her first role as a new graduate was in Venus opposite Peter O’Toole. Since then she has cinched in her waist on Cranford, Marchlands and Tess Of The D’Urbervilles and embraced the new in Attack The Block, Accused and Black Mirror (throwaway fact, she also once stood in for Carey Mulligan in the stage version of The Seagull with only three hours’ notice). However it’s Whittaker’s role as grieving mother Beth Latimer in Broadchurch that brought her a whole new level of fame.

It’s refreshing then that at this stage of her career she has chosen to do something totally different. Adult Life Skills is a hugely likeable off-beat comedy in which she plays 29-year-old Anna struggling to get over the death of her twin brother and living in a shed in her mum’s back garden. “Everyone is skint,” she says as we segue into the lack of affordable housing. “A lot of people still live at home. I would have done if I could have.” Made on a small budget and shot in her hometown, it’s also a family affair starring Jodie’s husband, brother and niece.

Said husband is actor Christian Contreras, with whom Whittaker lives in north London. She refers to him rarely – she is clearly deeply private about this part of her life – instead enthusing about films, books and her love of the capital. “I remember coming on a school trip when I was 12 and thinking it was amazing. I still feel like that. The pace suits my manic personality.” London is lucky to have her: hands off Hollywood!

Congratulations on winning the Nora Ephron Prize. What did that mean?
I felt like we’d won the lottery! I was back in England and kept pressing refresh on the Twitter link. As an actress, to get to work on a project where the main focus is the female voice is rare! [The prize] acknowledges this is a tough world, particularly if you’re a woman. Ours was a tiny film – I’m the [only] bloody name in it. That’s ridiculous. It’s celebrating voices being heard and [Ephron’s] voice was heard so many years ago. But then that’s so f***ing depressing, why is it still so minimal?

After making your name in prime-time dramas, this is a change of direction. How did it come about?
I’ve been involved from the very beginning. My oldest friend from age three is Rach [Deering, who plays Anna’s best friend Fiona] and she went to uni with [Rachel] Tunnard. We went on a girls’ weekend when we were 25 to Paris, and were like, “Let’s all make a film together.” I thought it was a fantastical conversation but she did something about it. I’ve never played a part that celebrated female friendship like this, it’s not about being saved by a boy.

It’s a unique premise: a comedy about grief...
I’d never read anything like this before. I couldn’t quite get it when I saw it written down. I’m not cerebral in any way. Education for me was a nightmare. You put someone talking in front of me and I cannot engage with that. I think that’s why I’m an actor; if I can physically be in it, I get it. I’m happy not to understand something now because I spent most of my childhood not understanding. But the antithesis of that is I’m a control freak about time, organisation, structure. Which is why the exec producing thing came about. I didn’t just want to rock up on set. I wanted to be part of the creative process.

Could you ever direct yourself?
No f***ing way. I’d be terrible. I don’t have a vision. But the producing I really enjoyed. I loved having a valid opinion. Often you get, [in a patronising voice] “Yeah thanks for that.” I loved being heard! I’m opinionated and I’m comfortable with confrontation. I’m very happy to say if I believe the opposite of what you think.

Where does that come from?
That’s my upbringing. I lived in a patriarchal household, my dad’s voice was the loudest. There’s so much stuff I don’t know about, if I feel like I do [want to make it heard]. I don’t like not knowing where I stand with someone. I’ve got a really bad temper, but if I can contain it at least you know where you stand. You’re not going to walk away and think, I’m worried I’ve upset her – you haven’t because you’d know! It’s taken me a long time to embrace my voice, but then it reaches a point where you go, ‘F**k it! As long as I’m not rude’. It’ll make me completely Marmite, but that’s fine.

From Reese Witherspoon to Rose Byrne, can you see why so many actresses are moving into film-making themselves?
You rock up to your audition, it takes a long time to find out if you get it, you do the job and then you’re unemployed again. It’s exciting and I’m lucky because I work, but there’s a lack of control in that. I’ll often read a book and be inspired – I have a lot of ideas. But there’s no point just having ideas, you’ve got to do something with them. And it feels like the older you get the more proactive you are. Because you realise 23 felt like two minutes ago and actually it’s 10 years.

How do you deal with periods of not working?
I’ve been really jammy. I’ve never had huge bouts of it. But that is nothing but luck. I’m not in control of when the parts I’ve been right for have come in.

Calling it luck suggests a lack of ego on your part?
[Laughs] I’ve got a massive ego. I’m an actor. I’ve picked a job where you get clapped at the end. But I’m no better than a lot of other people who might not have been seen for that job. I only got Broadchurch in my opinion because of the exact timing of when that audition was.

As someone who likes to have control over things, how does that feel?
Oh god, I’d be a psychologist’s dream. I’m someone who is chaotic but who also has a diary that is so militantly organised. I leave home without my wallet, my keys. I get halfway down the street and I haven’t got my coat on, but I know exactly where I’m going to be and I’m going to be on time. It’s so weird. But everyone is like that in a way. Actors are just used to self-analysing because you can tap into all these Jekyll and Hyde sides of yourself.

You recently launched a campaign for ActionAid, to improve women’s safety in cities. Tell me about that…
They had an exhibition of 30 mannequins [one third were red] that represented how one in three women are subject to sexual violence. It’s too big a statistic to ignore. I remember one summer on a train platform I had a dress on and there was a drunk man with a pint glass, he walked past me and put his hand up my dress. I shouted at him and he threatened to glass me. A woman with a pram hit his ankles and chased him away. I was 22 and I didn’t tell the police. I’m not trying to compare, but my point is how far does it have to go? If being on telly gets recognition for that, then that’s a massive plus.

You’ve just started filming the new series of Broadchurch. The second series didn’t receive the same critical acclaim as the first, how do you feel going into it this time?
There wasn’t a question for us guys returning. This is the final one, and if I wasn’t in it, I’d be devastated. At the read through I was, ‘Should I work on my accent?’ But I was like, ‘F**k it, surely I know how to do it by now.’

Tell me about a book you’ve loved recently.
I just started Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. I went into Waterstones and said, “What’s the best book you’ve read recently?” And two people recommended that. I’ve also recently read The Narrow Road To The Deep North. I got to the end and read the first 20 pages again.

You’re a huge film fan too, what’s the first thing you ever saw?
ET. Film is a medium I’ve found intoxicating since I was a kid. I remember queuing to see The Blair Witch Project the night it opened – we had to say we were older. My favourite thing is going to the Somerset House summer screenings. Attack The Block was on one year and I cried my eyes out. I was like, “This is the biggest thing in my career.”

What’s your wildest ambition?
In a realistic sense? Or personal? My wildest? That’s achievable? Bloody hell! To matter. That’s probably quite self-involved! But I mean, to make your contribution matter. Don’t sap, don’t just be a taker.

Adult Life Skills is in cinemas from 24 June