Jo Hartley: ‘I think we should portray life as it really is’

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  • This Is England Actress Jo Hartley tells Sophie Goddard about taking on her most challenging role yet, and what it’s like working with king of comedy, Ricky Gervais….

    It’s Shane Meadows’ This Is England or Eddie the Eagle (she played Cynth and Janette respectively) that actress Jo Hartley is usually recognised for, but her latest role looks set to show the actress in a different light entirely. BBC drama/comedy In My Skin is a coming-of-age story about 16-year-old Bethan Gwyndaf (played by Gabrielle Creevy) who is struggling with her father’s sociopathic tendencies and her mother’s bipolar diagnosis. Directed by Lucy Forbes and written by Kayleigh Llewellyn, the series is loosely based around Kayleigh’s own life, with Hartley playing Bethan’s mother, Katrina. “There’s fiction there, but also a lot of truth,” Hartley explains. “We didn’t want to mimic her [Kayleigh’s] mum entirely, I wanted to bring something to it of my own.” Here, she fills us in on the show, as well as her next role in the eagerly-anticipated second series of Ricky Gervais’ After Life

    How did you feel about tackling the topic of mental health and bipolar disorder specifically? Were you apprehensive?

    I was sitting with my agent and said, ‘What is it – a kid’s programme? I want to do something a bit more challenging…’. You know, being a typical actor! She told me to read it, and I was blown away. It was my first project in a while where it’s a dramatic role but an element of responsibility too, because it’s real life for people. There’s an opportunity as an actor to transform and experience something that you’ve never experienced yourself.

    How did you research the role?

    It really challenged me. I have a friend who has bipolar disorder, and observing her behaviour was an education for me. It raised a lot of awareness and created a lot of empathy around what people actually have to live with. It allows you to understand that principle of unity and how privileged we are to have our health. This is what this whole [Coronavirus] situation is bringing about now. We are all connected and we’re in this together. And although I’ve never experienced bipolar, Lucy [Forbes], Kayleigh [Llewellyn] and I wanted to show people what it looks like.

    Jo Hartley

    Credit: David Reiss

    Did you ask your friend for advice?

    I did. My friend is amazing, she has chronic hypomania and you’ll see in the show there’s moments of that, where you just don’t know what I’m going to do next. Lucy has a lot of experience with that as she was very close to somebody who was bipolar and obviously Kayleigh had experience too. We had a scale of one to five and they would say either ‘scale it up’, or ‘scale it down’. A lady called Camilla Leach from Bipolar UK was really helpful as well. She said, ‘As someone who is bipolar, you look completely how I felt during that situation’. I also watched a lot of videos on YouTube of people in manic episodes. It was quite disturbing, but I physically mimicked it and practiced alone. Then I would send videos to Lucy.

    A role like this must require a huge amount of energy?

    Yeah. There were things I could draw on from my own personal experience, too, like my father dying when I was 17. I’m 48 now, but as you get older the grief never really goes. There’s one moment on the bed where I talk to Gabby – it’s really beautiful – and I say I’m sorry. Something happened where I could feel a shift in grief with my father. It was a very personal moment, and I used it.

    Did the fact Kayleigh’s script was based on her own experience add an element of pressure?

    Less ‘pressure’ and more ‘care’. Kayleigh’s an amazing woman and she’s been through a lot, but she’s so held-together and smart. There was a responsibility for me, because you love someone and think a lot of them. I really did have to let go of the outcome and the expectations of myself from myself, and just let my higher power work through me. I had to prepare more for this role than I have with anything, and this is a gift because I love acting. I went to my audition and after, I looked up and they were all crying. I thought, ‘I hope I get this!’.

    What’s great about shows like this, is that mental health issues are being normalised – one in four of us are affected by mental health issues ourselves. What’s the feedback been like?

    We went to a screening the other day and I felt really overwhelmed. Me and Gabby started crying. We just have to wait for people’s opinions now, and ultimately, we’re powerless over that. We’ve had a couple of letters from people with bipolar, Kayleigh forwarded one to me. She said it was one of the most powerful things she’d seen and that we’d done it truthfully. And Kayleigh cried on set. There was something in episode five, she looked at me and Gabby and just burst out crying. She said, ‘I can’t even begin to tell you…that’s what it was like, that’s how it happened’.

    It’s moving to see moments of humour despite the seriousness of the situation, too…

    It’s so good isn’t it? There was this one scene – a scene with a cup of tea – and I was crying laughing at it. You’ve got this heart-breaking stuff and the next minute, it’s really, really heavy. We won a Welsh BAFTA for Best Drama and we won an RTS award, so it’s evolving a bit like Fleabag, where it’s very funny but it’s also dramatic. These stories are being placed more now, where life is really painful and dramatic, then you’re laughing. A friend of mine had somebody pass away recently and they were really upset but then you laugh at something – I’ve done it with my father when I was younger, too. You feel guilty for laughing! But life will bring humorous moments and this is why these programmes are good.

    Jo Harley

    Credit: David Reiss

    It’s very honest storytelling, isn’t it?

    Yeah. I watched Actors on Actors last night with Timothee Chalamet and Emma Stone, and Timothee was talking about how important it is for people to see a replica of themselves on screen. Beautiful Boy was about addiction and it was a real performance, I found it very authentic. People want to see the truth. As humans, we want to see identification. In life, nothing is just one-dimensional – nothing is just sad or just funny. I think there is a place in the world for ‘dramadies’. I think there should be more of this and we should portray life as it really is.

    You’re returning for the next series of After Life, what’s it like working with Ricky Gervais?

    Well, I did Life on the Road with Ricky – I got an audition and met him, and the audition went really well. We laughed a lot, and I got called back for a recall. It was a really small part but Ricky started to keep in contact with me – I went to his house at Christmas when he had a party for a few of his friends, it was really nice. Him and Jane have become friends, the kind of friends you email and go and see now and again, and he’s just a very kind, intelligent, lovely human being.

    How did you feel when he offered you the role?

    I was coming home from dinner one Friday night and I got a text from Ricky asking if I got the script (I hadn’t). He said, ‘I’d like you to do a little cameo in my show, would you want to?’. I wanted to text him back saying I was a bit busy at the minute as a joke, but I didn’t know him that well and thought he might not understand! So, I said ‘Yes! Of course I’m free!’ and I got this little cameo.

    What’s in store for your character June in the second series? 

    Ricky said he writes for people – he’d written After Life with me in mind. In this season I’m in all six episodes – I have a storyline and it evolves, it’s funny. She’s a character in full force now, it’s a beautiful thing! With Ricky, it’s about timing and allowing it to be funny, not trying to be funny. It’s just responding and listening and the rest sorts itself out. It’s like being part of a big tapestry. I saw him talking last night on his live feed saying there’s about six lead characters that could all lead that show now, because he’s developing the lives of those characters. What a gift to have someone like that writing characters for you. I was really moved – the universe is a good place when you’re patient’ and I’ve worked really, really hard. I’ve been acting for 18 or 19 years now.

    Who else would you like to work with?

    I was really blown away by The Irishman, so Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro – they were the people that I grew up watching. I’d love to work with Terrence Malick or the Coen brothers. Edie Falco – I love her, I met her recently in New York. Spielberg, Shia LeBeouf – I find him very interesting and quite electrifying – and I think Brad Pitt’s getting much better as he gets older, too.

    In My Skin is on BBC One and iPlayer now and After Life arrives on Netflix April 24th

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