Joanna Scanlan (1980) in conversation with Anna El-Erian

The Angevin Talks

Queens' alumna and Honorary Fellow, Joanna Scanlan (1980), returned to College for the latest Angevin Talk, hosted by Anna El-Erian in the President's Lodge.

You can watch the streamed recording of the Angevin Talk here.

As well as being one of the first women to matriculate at Queens' in 1980, Joanna is a BAFTA award-winning actress and writer who has appeared in numerous versatile roles in film, television and theatre. Some of her credits include After Love, Notes on a Scandal, Bridget Jones' Baby, The Thick of It, and Gentleman Jack. On stage, she has appeared in Cloud 9 (Almeida Theatre), Vernon God Little (The Young Vic) and Polly Teale's Madame Bovary (Oxford Playhouse). Joanna is a supporter of the Bats, Queens' drama society, and the Scanlan-Michell Fund is named for her and the late director Roger Michell (1974). Joanna was last at Queens' for her admission as an Honorary Fellow alongside seven other Queens' alumni.

Joanna spoke about her early years in North Wales, her rebellious streak while at school, learning Welsh, coming to acting later in life, her BAFTA-winning role as Mary Hussain in After Love, and being a trailblazer as one of the first women to attend Queens'.

"For me, acting for many, many years was just a way of being the real me."


Joanna Scanlan in conversation with Anna El-Erian

Anna El-Erian: You are known for your versatility as an actress and your ability to portray a very diverse range of characters with depth and nuance across many genres. How do you decide on your roles? How do they resonate?

Joanna Scanlan: Firstly, I must say, it is an amazing honour to be sitting in this chair. It’s been a long time since I arrived in this room, matriculating in 1980, and even then, it remained in my mind a sort of sanctum, a very special place in the College. I love the fact that you have inaugurated these Angevin Talks and you’ve chosen this as your space. It’s not the easiest space to play – it reminds me of a production I did of Caryl Churchill's play, Cloud 9, where we were on a revolve and we never knew exactly where the revolve was going to be at the point that we got to a joke, and then one’s head would have to kind of turn in different directions!

It is a beautiful historic space, obviously, and [she looks at the portraits on the wall of the Long Gallery] we have some queens, I think, probably to look at and to listen – please listen! So thank you, Anna, for inviting me, and thank you to Mohamed, to all the people, Sneha and the MCR who have put this together, it’s really a wonderful thing to be part of.

Roles. I don’t know that I choose them, I think they choose me. You know, I often think that acting remains the last vestige of serfdom in Europe because it is unlike any other job. There are no HR aspects to it, and once you’re under contract, you are not allowed to go and do what you want to do. It is a very strange thing. You can’t be ill, you can’t go to a funeral or be there at the birth of your child, necessarily – unless, obviously, you’re the one having the child, but even then! It is a strange profession and I think there’s a lot of mythology and marketing around particularly filmmaking, which builds it into this world in which actors select their lives and become the arbiters of their own existence, and actually I don’t think that is generally the case, or it doesn’t feel like that for most people.

That said, I have always had one watchword in what I’ve chosen or how I’ve gone about choosing, which is the word ‘quality’. Of course, it comes in many manifestations that are very difficult to quantify. There are no metrics for ‘quality’, as such, but I think for me it’s been about usually the people, and their intentions first and foremost. So I have never really been concerned by the scale of the project, but I've always been concerned by the intention behind the project. And of course, it’s a commercial world generally that I’m in, although I do try not to make any distinction between what I think of as participation and community practice and professional practice, to me they’re pretty much the same thing, actually.

You are a big proponent of community theatre and all that it brings to the community, and so I understand. You moved to Wales with your family, when you were in rural Cheshire?

Sort of. I was born in a town called West Kirby which is on the Wirral and is a sort of lovely dormitory for Liverpool business life, or at least that’s what it was when I was born there in 1961, and it looks out over to North Wales. I think my mother just kept looking over the Dee Estuary and wanted to move to Wales.

You were three or four years old?

Three, yes.

How do you recall your early years?

We moved to a house that was sort of attached to a farm. There was nobody around, no people to speak of. There was the farm up the lane, and there were two children in that household, and there was another farm adjacent which also had two children. Otherwise, there was nothing. There was a moment in my childhood when the lovely farmer’s wife, who did the milk round – in those days you didn’t have to have pasteurised milk, you could just have what’s now fashionably known as raw milk – so we had raw milk from her farm and all the children got a form of salmonella from the milk, and then the local authority put us into quarantine for six solid months. We were not allowed to go to school and we were not even allowed to go into the local village.

This is what I most remember as my childhood because it was bliss, absolute bliss, although it defined something of my future because I think I never quite caught up with maths after that point! There were animals and nature, and three or four children around, and dogs. Many dogs. One very strong memory was that my brother and I, for entertainment, would wander to the bottom of the lane, stand on the stand where the milk churns were put to be collected every day, and eat gooseberries off a bush that was built-in. We went back recently and that gooseberry bush is still there.

I went to a boarding school – that’s a sort of contradiction in terms, isn’t it, why would you need to board if you're local – but my parents wanted me to have a Catholic education, they’re a very Catholic family, and to be honest they were in their 20s, they were very young. I think they wanted to socialise and have a nice time in the week! And I think my mother was actually struggling with what it was to be a mother. I think she really never quite recovered from giving up work when she was 21 or 22 because it was conventionally the thing she was asked to do, so I think she really didn’t enjoy being a mother of small children. I think that’s a big area of life – I haven’t had children myself but a lot of my friends who have had children have had to unpack a lot of that identity shift and change that happens at that stage.

You were at boarding school during the week and you’d come home for the weekend?

Yes, from six until nine, and then at nine I went to another Catholic School, New Hall in Essex, that was obviously not – you know, there was no coming home at the weekends, that was too far.

So how did boarding school form your early years in your life?

I think it helped me learn to socialise. I mean, I’ve always been somebody who’s loved people and got on with people and had a lot of friendships, and friendship has been a real blessing in my life. I think it also taught me to repress a lot of unwelcome emotions that just simply weren’t possible to experience in the context of girls’ boarding school dormitories and just the sort of marshalling of the day which needs to take place, and I think in terms of creativity, that’s been quite interesting, because all those feelings which were not necessarily managed as a child, as soon as I was playing a character, I was permitted to express. So for me, acting for many, many years was just a way of being the real me. The authentic emotions, the unwelcome so-called negative emotions of anger or rage or jealousy or all those feelings, as soon as I was in a character, I was allowed to express them, be them, enjoy them, and feel the power of that.

Were you a model student? Were you rebellious?

I’m afraid I was extremely bad at school. Very, very naughty indeed. I was sent to an Anglican school much closer to home – again, boarding – which was a lovely, lovely school where there was a lot of drama and music and sport, and a lot of extracurricular activities, but not a hugely academic school. I just wanted to make as much fuss as I possibly could. I would wake up every morning and think, right, what is the set of (what I considered inappropriate) or irrelevant rules that I was going to break that day, and then I would set about doing it. And then I would set about being as visibly punished as possible. I really felt sort of Joan of Arc, you know, I felt like I was taking on a crusade for everybody else to smash these ridiculous rules.

Then I gradually began to realise the value of petty rules is that you can take characters like myself who are just acting up, and actually, it doesn't do you that much harm, does it? To go from house to school without a coat, it’s not the end of the world, whereas if the only rule is don’t get pregnant and don’t have intravenous drugs, then those would have been the ones I broke. I was just looking for rules to break.

Was that looking for attention, per se?

It wasn't quite attention, it was more this sense of self-righteousness. It was like, “I’m right and everybody else is wrong, and I want to prove to the staff and the powers that be that they’ve got it wrong and I’m correct.”

So you finished high school very rebellious.

A very strange thing happened to me. It was in the lower sixth. I woke up one morning – and I can actually feel the memory of this – and I thought, “Do you know what? I cannot be bothered today to break the rules.” It was so much energy, oh it was exhausting, and I often think I used up a great deal of my energy, you know, my chi that was there for the rest of my life, I used a lot of it up breaking all those rules. I woke up one morning, thought, “I just cannot be bothered, I’m going to put my coat on as I walk down from house to school and conform,” and then two years later I was made Head Girl.

I didn’t know that, that’s not really public knowledge!

No, it's really strange, isn't it? I still carried on smoking and drinking as Head Girl, but I managed to conceal it by then.

When did you learn how to speak Welsh?

Of course, I was surrounded by Welsh speakers, and there was obviously the usual learning swear words and singing all the hymns and so forth in Welsh, but I didn't speak Welsh, not in the 70s. The 60s was the growth of renewing the Welsh language, it was starting as part of many other kinds of movements, and then by the 70s that was becoming instituted. By then I was just a little bit too far down the line, and I so regret that I didn’t do Welsh O Level. I mean, a lot of my school friends, their first language was Welsh, and they all did the Welsh O Level, and it was not considered to be something that we would find necessary. And my goodness, it has become something I found necessary because I did a drama in Wales – three years ago, I think – and I had to learn Welsh for that.

How did you find learning it at a later stage in your life versus as a child by osmosis?

As an actor you’re always having to take something on, right, some new thing, so it didn’t feel different from that, but it was extremely hard to feel confident in it, I think. I feel very inferior not to be able to speak Welsh in Wales, so that made it hard to be the person who couldn’t converse easily in Welsh. My niece is a fully fluent Welsh speaker, and she was the person who mainly taught me because it was only in front of her – she was only 19 at the time, 18 or 19 – that I could be… you know, when you learn a language you’ve got to be prepared to look an absolute idiot a lot of the time, and it was only in front of her that I felt really able to be that. The rest of the time, I was still pretending that I could actually speak better than I could.

So you wanted to be an actor as a small child, however your career started in earnest when you were 35. Can you tell us about your journey?

How long have you got?! So I did want to be an actor, and I felt that was just a natural direction for me. In fact, I did apply for English and drama courses at a lot of universities as I was doing my A Levels, and I also applied to Queens’ because it was the first year of women here. I had been quite informed by my Art teacher and my Drama teacher about what I now know is second-wave feminism, and to have the honour of being in the vanguard of women’s progress into these colleges meant something huge to me historically, and it still does. I mean, I don't think anybody would dispute that. But what it meant, of course, coming here, was that then this college was not really prepared, I don’t think.

I was going to ask you that – were they prepared for you?

To feed it into being an actor, it meant that this was the first year I didn’t know how to navigate, plus I’d done the fourth term exam and so on, so I had no experience. I’d been at these girls’ boarding schools feeling like I was a rebel when I was a privileged little girl who didn’t know anything about anything. So coming here that first year was a disaster, but I pulled myself together just before May Week and said, “Listen, you came here to do acting.” I mean, I know that’s not what you’re meant to come here for! I thought, “That's what I want to do,” so I went and did a couple of auditions and got some roles for the summer, so I went and did a play in Harlow, I went to Edinburgh with Sidney Sussex, and then after that, it was like bam, I was in. I did 21 plays in the remaining two years.

Wow, that’s incredible.

Does that sound shocking to everybody? I had this wonderful moment with Vic Gatrell, who was teaching me at Caius for History. I would go to see him once a week with my supposed essay, and very rarely would there be an essay to read to him, and he was jolly cross with me. Then we did a competition, the National Student Drama Festival, which I won prizes at – I don’t say it to show off, but merely to show Vic Gatrell’s extraordinary approach to that – so when I got back at the beginning of the next term, there was something in my pigeonhole. It was a card from him saying, “I’m so sorry that I gave you such a hard time about not producing any essays for me, I didn't realise you were serious about it.” And I thought that was just an amazing thing because it then endorsed that, “Yes, I am actually serious about it!” And I was serious about it. But I left here unable to get any kind of movement forward.

I just didn't know what to do, and at the same time, my parents, who'd been well-to-do all through that childhood and all through that education, suddenly their business completely collapsed and they had absolutely nothing. So they couldn’t help me, they couldn’t help me either to find somewhere to live or send me to a drama school for a postgraduate year or any of the sort of routes that might have worked. I mean, I was on E staircase in this beautiful, Tudor, wonderful college, visually and historically and academically, and in every sense, and I found myself within moments in a council flat in Bermondsey sharing with a friend. The shock – and then prior to that, of course, the green, green grass of Wales – to my inner confidence was huge, but it was the very best thing that happened to me. Because there was an extraordinary coincidence that up the road in Rotherhithe, there was an organisation called Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop, which was actually run by Dartington College of Arts. It was a hub of the most radical thought about community theatre, so I qualified as a member of the community by living in one of these council flats and being unemployed actually being on Mrs Thatcher’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme, £39 a week, and I qualified for that as being a member of the community.

I suddenly just got myself something to do every day, and I started making theatre in interesting ways, and about trying to reconfigure the notion of Peter Brook’s empty space. So everything that the black box theatre of the 1970s was all about, which was that we have this sort of sacred place which is tabula rasa, and into it we create. Into it we perform, we make, we bring in things and we make it, and that sort of Ground Zero purity of theatre making. Alan Read’s proposal, and Dartington was very connected to Exeter’s department at the same time, was that no you can’t, there is no such thing. I essentially came out of a classical tradition and suddenly I met another tradition that was an answer, or in dialogue with the classical work. It was such an amazing thing. I don’t know what the words are to describe what has happened to that piece of land since 1983, and it had started before that with the London Docklands Corporation. So I learned that we have baggage, and our baggage is actually the essence of what we need to work with as artists.

I had started acting professionally, but I had to have a sort of day job. I was working, but to get extra money, these focus groups were really interesting. “These days everybody’s using them, you know, even the Labour Party are using these focus groups, and they're really exciting and you can go because you’re an actor! You can go and be anything you want, and tell them that you're a housewife with two kids, and you can go and do that if you like. It’s 50 quid and it’s cash!” So I said, “Brilliant, I’m going to go and do it!” So I did a couple of these focus groups, pretending. There was a demographic that they were trying to get together in the room and I just pretended I was what it was. I realise it’s a lie and not something to be proud of.

So when I went to the audition for The Thick Of It, Armando [Iannucci] was saying, “Well we’re thinking about having a story where a woman comes in from a focus group,” and I said, “Oh, well, I’ve just done a focus group,” and I told them this whole story. His mouth was on the floor. He said, “You are kidding me. The whole Labour Party policy is being developed with groups of people who are faking it!” And so he made that the storyline for one of the first episodes, and at the same time I told him about my experiences in the interim years, the wilderness years, I’d worked at the Arts Council, and I told him about my life as an Arts bureaucrat, and about various people that I came across there, and so he created Terri who sort of came out of my experience. I can’t honestly say I wrote that, I think it’s very much Armando who wrote that, or Jesse Armstrong was also part of that team, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, all the people who are very famous for Succession now.

They really saw you as a person and wrote it around you and your experiences.

Interestingly, most of the actors – the original cast anyway – for The Thick Of It were also writers. I didn’t realise that until a few years later and I thought, “Oh, actually, apart from James Smith (who played Glenn), everybody else was a fairly experienced writer.” So they were coming to act, but I think the bits of their writing brain were being harnessed in the process.

You have been incredibly outspoken about mental health, its importance, and about seeking help, and as a younger person, you say you had to overcome extreme fatigue which ultimately led you to acting. Can you talk a little bit about that and how important it is to you, and any message that you would like to convey around that to us this evening?

So those feelings that I sort of bundled away as a little girl, they came back to bite me. So in those years in my 20s when I was working at Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop and then in higher education and then at the Arts Council, I just was not living the life that I think I was meant to live, whatever that means, or how I felt I was going to offer something to the world. I felt I was teaching but I was not teaching well. I couldn’t do things well. I was not my best self, in my view, I was actually a very poor teacher, and the reason for all of that was that I had periods of extreme depression and just being unhinged really, and then one day I just had a major collapse in that I couldn’t do anything.

I couldn’t walk, I just was crying. I felt ill, I thought I had flu, I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and it didn't get better the next day or the next day or the next day or the next day for a year. I was so surprised, I thought, “I don’t know what to do.” The doctor was worried and so forth, and the GP sent me to the local hospital to be examined by the consultant physician, diagnostician, just to have a look and check there wasn’t anything organic wrong with me, blah blah blah. He did all that, he did my reflexes, etcetera, he sat me down and said, “Hmm. Nothing wrong with you in organic terms, but is there is there anything else?” I think he asked me maybe about my dreams, he said, “Do you have many dreams?”

“Not particularly, that I'm aware of.”

He said, “Is there any other job you ever wanted to do?”

I said, “Yes, I wanted to be an actor.”

And he just looked at me and said really simply, “Well, I think if you don’t go back to acting, you will be ill for the rest of your life.”

That might be a sentence that I would never have remembered if I hadn't felt it to be completely true. It was like something physically hitting me in my sternum. I thought, “Oh, it’s true,” and then I thought, “But what does that mean, to be an actor? I’m already 30-whatever.” All my friends from Cambridge, you know how well people do from Cambridge, they had these wonderful careers, they were world-famous by this point. How could I then step up and say, “I’d like to do that too.”

So I then set about the challenge of, I think, trying to manage my mental health. Because I knew that unless I did so, I would never find the authentic me, and I’d never find the way and the means to continue on the path that I think I should have been on.

So work was an important outlet in managing that, but how did you manage your well-being?

Well, it wasn’t doing the job that was going to make the difference, it was preparing to do the job. So I started therapy, proper therapy – I say proper therapy, that’s no aspersions cast on any other kind of therapy – but I saw a therapist three times a week for, I think, five years. That’s a commitment, that is a big commitment, but I knew that unless I did it – I was already starting with really delusional paranoid thoughts. I don’t know if anybody else has ever experienced any mental health crises, but often you can be in parallel in your own mind. So there's one part of your mind which is convinced of one thing, or in my case, there was one part of my mind which was convinced of something that I was ‘blah’, one of the delusions I had was that the real reason something was wrong with me was that I had AIDS. So I was convinced I had AIDS, no amount of AIDS testing would have proved to me otherwise, and then another part of my mind knew that that was delusional. They’re living alongside each other, these two opposing and contradictory thoughts. So the other bit of me, let’s say – I’m sure anybody here who’s an expert in Psychiatry or Psychology will be able to tell me what the names of these parts of the mind are – but another part of me thought, “Right, you’ve got to deal with that, you’ve got and do something,” and I thought, “Well what can I do?”

I’d read lots and lots about psychoanalysis and how useful it was. I thought, “I’ll do that,” and thankfully – again, I still didn’t have very much money – the British Association of Psychotherapists ran a scheme whereby you could have this kind of work for £10 a session, which made it possible for me to do that. I worked with an absolutely wonderful woman for all those years, and she was very enabling somehow without ever being prescriptive. I remember the point when I dared to say to her, and it must have been at least two years, “I’d like to be an actor,” and I thought I could hear all the judgments that she was going to have. “What? You’re going to go and be an actor, that’s a very silly profession, don’t bother with it.” And I think she perhaps did think that, but she didn’t say so. She never said very much, to be honest with you.

But she gave you a very safe environment.

She gave me a place in which I could, you know when you’re doing that kind of psychoanalysis, you lie on a couch and you can’t see your therapist, they're behind you, but in front of me – much like the lovely queens – was a print of a Samuel Palmer painting. I don’t know if anybody knows Samuel Palmer’s work, but it was a picture of a man sort of in a smock, a kind of rural-looking fellow with a dog beside him, holding a staff and walking along a pathway at night towards a moon. And that image just became my metaphor. I don’t know whether I was the man in the smock, the dog, the staff or the moon, but somewhere in the mix, there was something that spoke to me about a pathway and healing.

And you started working.

Then the work actually began. I began to get the jobs, I left my job at the Arts Council, I got my first acting job, and really after that I never felt I was in the wrong place, I felt I was in the right place.

What a journey. Joanna, you have a talent for delving into the complexities of human emotions and motivations. As we hear your life story, that’s evident in and of itself. It adds layers to your performance. I was absolutely captivated by your performance in the Aleem Khan film After Love, for which you won your BAFTA, and if it was up to me, I'd be giving you two BAFTAs on the same evening. What an incredible film and what an incredible story. How did you prepare for it? You were so immersed in the culture, the Muslim religion, with spectacular credibility and I don't say that easily. Your empathy in the role, the way you straddled and dealt with those very difficult emotional issues – I think anyone who sees that film could put themselves into those roles and into that situation. How did you do that, how did you even begin?

I was lucky, so the writer was the director, and I think that that helps because there’s a sort of solid integration between what we’re being asked to do and what is on the page. So Aleem Khan had written and was directing for the first time, and he had based the story partially on his mother’s experience. His mother’s experience, both his parents’ experience, is an extraordinary story. In the 1970s, she was a teenager living in a tower block in Tower Hamlets, a white working-class girl, and her father was a communist, so she came from this communist family. And into the tower block arrived a young Pakistani boy who had come to live with his aunt and uncle, sent from Pakistan aged about 17 or something like that. It’s one of those tower blocks, most of them have been demolished now, but they had the stilts underneath. Brutalist, beautiful – I love brutalist buildings – and they would play and hang out in that area where the sort of piers are underneath the building, and they fell in love.

She was 14 or 15 and he was 17. Because her father was a communist, he was an internationalist. So where one might have expected a kind of white working-class kind of closing of the doors against immigration, he welcomed it. Probably proselytising for communism on the way, but the two fell in love and eventually, I won’t go through the full story, did manage to marry, and they had six children. She converted to Islam as part of this process. So when I was offered the role which I did have to audition for, along with a lot of my friends, we were all sharing notes about how the process had been of auditioning. When that happened, Aleem and I talked a lot about Islam. Of course, he’s a young gay Muslim in a very different world from the one his mother had grown up in, and the character would have grown up in a very different universe, but he nonetheless wanted to honour his parents’ story to a certain extent.

So I learned a lot technically about Islam and about the sort of the theory of what it would be to be in that family. But I met his mother, and as soon as I met her, I knew who the character was. It wasn’t that Mary is a replica of her as a person, but there’s a certain quality within her that was the only thing I ever really thought about playing the role. Whenever I felt like, “Oh, what am I supposed to be doing here?” I just go back into my memory of the exchanges I had with her and her humility, her generosity, her openhearted way of looking at the world was something that was quite rare. It’s quite a rare quality.

I also spent as much time as I could – you know, I went to the central mosque in Regent’s Park. I went incognito, and I had such a lovely time in the mosque. I mean, obviously, I've been to mosques before, but as a tourist or for something about the architecture or whatever, not as a worshipper. There I was in the women’s section feeling this deep calm, this deep sense of calm, and the way that the prayerfulness was also mixed up with real life, I thought that was quite distinct. There were people checking things on their phones but then also praying, and all the preparation of the washing and so forth, I love the ritualistic aspects. And most importantly for me, I could grab hold of a lot of these ways of conducting oneself because I’d gone through a pre-Vatican II Catholic education. So I think the pre-Vatican II is the relevant bit because I remember the Angelus Bell going and having to pray at 12 o’clock.

It was extraordinary how you handled that.

I felt safe in it, I loved it, I wanted faith in action. I mean, faith is something that fascinates me.

I was mesmerised. I was sitting there, I could not even look away for a minute, you were outstanding.

I did have to learn the Arabic pronunciation and the Urdu which was really hard. The Arabic pronunciation was very difficult, and that’s not least because the way that each geographical location of Islam pronounces is slightly different. So in Pakistan, it is slightly different from Saudi or something like that. But in fact, the moment when it all came together for me was when Talid, who plays the boy Solomon in the film, his mother came one day we were in Dover. She was there to help him and just accompany him. She was from Syria living in Paris, the most beautiful woman with a huge amount of grace and I said, “Oh, I’m really struggling with this prayer, could you say it for me and can I just record it?”

And she said, “Yes, yes, I will.”

She recorded the prayer and the way in which she said it, it was then that I could hear the spirituality of it, that was the first time I heard the spirituality of the prayer having listened to as many versions as I possibly could. And thereafter I knew who Mary was in terms of how she felt about prayer and the role of it in herself.

And how devoted she was in her role as that person for many years that she’d become.

I think overall, my approach – I haven’t got to one other than ‘be curious’, and a bit magpie-like. I’ll take it wherever I can find it, but I know it’s not me, so I’ve got to go outside of myself to look.

Well, ultimately when you’re in it, one can’t tell the difference between the role and you, you become it, it’s extraordinary how you do that.

Thank you.

I love watching the Oscars and the BAFTAs, and I have to say, I have never watched anyone accept an award that is obviously a surprise, and you were up against Lady Gaga and all of these incredible people that we all know, but you were so self-possessed. You got up there and gave the single most eloquent speech of thanks for this award that I’ve ever heard because most of the time I just go, “Can you believe this speech?!” Have you always been self-possessed? How did that moment feel? Can you share that with us?

Oh, I wasn't remotely self-possessed, but I can give a fake version of it. Because when I was in the Anglican school, the third school I went to, we had many wonderful drama teachers and there was a session that was called Elocution, and it’s called ‘Private Elo’, and Betty Low, who only died last year and she was, I think, very nearly a hundred when she died – so then she was quite elderly – she would teach me what she called public speaking. So every week I would be given a topic, I’d have to go away and research it, and then come back and do a five-minute talk, week after week after week, and I’m afraid it’s that that kicked in at that moment because inside, I can tell you, I felt like I’d been hit by a pantechnicon. It felt like a car crash, it was so terrifying, but then Betty Low just came in and said, “You’ve got to marshal your thoughts, think quickly.”

And you were flawless, it was unbelievable.

I think public speaking is something that’s really a very valuable skill to learn, and it’s not something that comes naturally. Who does it come naturally to? There’s nobody in this room who feels like, “Well, just, you know.” [snaps fingers] I had to learn what to do, how to think a little bit ahead of what you’re saying.

How did that moment feel? Was this a dream? Was it something that you were looking at as ‘this would never happen to me’? How did that culminate?

As lots of impostor syndrome feelings, as I have right now, but I try not to listen to that too much because it wouldn’t help. The biggest, strange feeling was one of relief. It wasn’t really joy. It was kind of a quiet sense matched with a sense of optimism that it potentially would mean there would be more opportunities to do interesting things.

I’ve arrived, all my work’s not been for naught.

Well, at the same time, thinking, “Gosh, I’m jolly old for this!” and you know, “There’s not much time left, so bring it on.” A kind of slight race against the clock, but it had been a very convoluted journey, very convoluted, and at one level that everything I ever did contributed to it, you know, when people say, “Have a nice day,” or, “Have a good day!” or whatever, I always think, “No, please don’t say that,” because it might be really important for me that I have a bad day, that a bad day might do me more good than a good day. Because it’s the integration of all of those experiences that can lead one to a more authentic experience, I think, a more authentic way of living.

I know a lot of people are going to want to ask you questions, but I’d like to end with this thought – is there anything that you have yet to do that you would like to do if you look back and sit back?

So much. I honestly feel like I’ve just graduated. I was thinking this today, I was thinking, “Do you think it’s really too late for me to start to do an MBA?” Mohamed might be able to tell me! I want to do more education, I want to do more leadership, I want to give more and more constructively, more effectively. I want to embody something about the value of our cultural life in Britain, and the pride with which we should hold our cultural life. How creativity is manifest in many forms and how participation in creative activities is such a great thing for both our general productivity, but also our mental health, our sense of being grounded, our sense of connection, and the way of us discovering and exploring meaning. Without that, where would we go for it? It’s so important and I think there’s a lot to be proud of in Britain.

Our education system is one, and colleges like Queens’ represent that at the very highest level, and our cultural life is another. I don’t feel traditionally that we know the reasons why the Arts have taken the pathways that they have in terms of funding, but yesterday, the whole industry was literally jumping for joy at the announcement in the Budget that films under a 15 million pound budget would now receive a 40% tax relief benefit. I mean, I had emails all afternoon from people who’d been working on this for seven or eight years, because they feel there’s something correct about that, the place of that level of storytelling in our culture advocates for all our interests.

Well, you were very instrumental in that, and you went to Downing Street and met Rishi [Sunak], and did it all, so congratulations.

Yes, he’s a Star Trek fan, and a Star Wars fan – all the stars.

Joanna, I’m going to open it up for some questions. Please, just put your hands up. We have a question right there, thank you.

I was really interested in what you were saying about the role of community theatre and the role that the Arts play in sharing stories, supporting stories, and voicing stories. I think it’s also really important, and I was just wondering if you had any thoughts – this is kind of a broad question, but given the current state right now in Gaza and in the West Bank where we’re seeing artists who are being silenced, we’re seeing theatres which are being shut down, and those community spaces being completely eradicated. What can community groups and community theatres and artistic places and spaces in the UK do to expand that sense of community to become one of international society?

I did a lot of Augusto Boal work when I was starting at Dartington, at Rotherhithe through Dartington, where you would take a space and through a series of very prescribed processes, you would then examine conflict and difficulty. And you take it head-on. And I think that’s where dialogue and the process of examination can take place within a boundaried setting which the Arts provide, I think because it’s a world of imagination. You can explore everything within it – injustice and war is something that is… the legacy of horror that develops on from those conflicts is so huge, the only means, really, of being able to process is through our cultural experiences. So I would advocate that there is as much conversation and dialogue as is possible within the boundaries of our own country and that we extend to that global community as much as we possibly can because most artists will always say to you, we’re not of any nation, we’re one nation, we’re one on people.

I’m just wondering if you have any thoughts about how the UK film and TV industry has evolved throughout your time in it. Do you think it’s changed for the better, for the worse, and do you have any pieces of advice for young actors starting out?

I wish I did because it has changed greatly! So a lot of the routes that I – you know, when I learned you’ve got to get a headshot and go to a professional photographer and have that taken, and then get some stamped addressed envelopes and send off these postcards to potential casting directors or agents, that just doesn’t exist. Technology has entirely obliterated the means that I had at my disposal. That said, I think there are some principles that probably always remain in terms of getting one’s career and so forth going, and that is to take as much charge of it as you possibly can. So, having said that I wait for the jobs to come to me, I also try to constantly put ideas out there and communicate with people about what I think I can offer.

TV and film have changed so much, it’s not the same business. Today, you know there's a lot of talk in the last – you know, recently the hits of Covid, followed by the strikes, followed by our borderline recession and the global challenges of where money stays and where it goes to, all have made everybody very depressed in television. I’ve had a series of emails today from people saying that more than half the workforce, I think, is out of work in TV. The huge number of studios that were mentioned in Jeremy Hunt’s budget are actually empty at the moment. He mentioned a couple of films that are being made there, but most of them are empty. All the drivers and the facilities vans are all sitting there with nobody using them. So, at the moment, it is not a good thing, but arguably it’s a correction from a vast expansion of the industry through the streamers and the new model of ownership. I mean, business is at the root of how this has all been working, and so once you moved away from a publicly funded system with three channels or whatever to a streamer-led, venture-capital-supported system with subscribers, the whole thing has expanded, and then is now contracting.

So, I’m no businessperson, I do not know how that is going to level out, but I think as an artist I can’t even think about it. This is partly why I was thinking about doing my MBA, but as an artist that’s not really my job. My job is to think about people and how they conduct themselves in our world. What their motivations are, and how to make something that communicates and is entertaining, and because in a way, we are all now television makers [she picks up her phone]. Well, we are, we’re making a show right now! I think, getting into the actual means of production is where it’s at when you start out, because you can. There’s a kind of democratisation, and at the same time a dilution and a vulnerability. Nothing is very solid, but there’s a lot of it.

Hi. Thank you so much for your talk, it’s been very interesting to hear about your journey to stardom. You’ve worked in both TV and film – obviously, due to the nature of films, they are a lot more condensed in storyline and character compared to TV shows that just have more time to develop things. Do you prefer working within TV or film, do you find one easier than the other to get to grips with a character?

Well, the way I think about it personally is that as an actor in television, generally, it’s very narrative-driven. There is a narrative that you’re conveying at every point, and it’s very well thought through, and it’s often the characters who are responsible for that narrative. So, I feel as an actor, I’m sort of telling a story in most TV, particularly TV drama. In a film, generally, the responsibility for the narrative doesn’t really rest with the actor. The narrative is being constructed through the edit in a way that is very different from most television making because, at the most extreme – you know, ‘next episode’, ‘press now or you’re going to miss the next episode’ as it’s become on television for binge watchers, but that is never going to be the case for a film

A film is going to have that moment when you get six or seven minutes’ worth of credits, and so the job for me as an actor in film, I always feel, is to be. It’s to just be that character in that moment, whereas I never quite feel that that’s enough for TV. And in fact, the way they write a lot of television shows so that you might get at the end of a scene, you’ll get ‘end on Beth’. ‘End on Beth’ means we’re looking at Beth’s face and she’s going to tell us what she feels about the fact that he’s just dumped her, you know, or she’s going to be vengeful, so we’re moving now into the revenge narrative or whatever that is. That would never happen in film. Generally. I mean, all those rules are there to be broken, aren’t they?

But I feel that my job is just to feel what it is to be that person, and then the director and the editor will do what they like with it. Which is why you can end up sort of cut out of a film very easily when it becomes not the story they want to tell.

I’m doing a PhD in Film Studies. So a part of your life was severe mental health issues, and that’s interesting for me because part of my thesis is talking about how there is a therapeutic function in film art. So I think somehow your personal experience seems to align with my work. But for you, it seems to be the case that because you always wanted to be an actor and you kind of repressed that vocation, that desire, and that seems to be part of why you had that depression or mental health issue in the first place. Would you say, according to your personal experience, that acting, or storytelling, or embodying that journey is a therapeutic process in some way, that it’s kind of a redemptive narrative in a way?

Thank you. Yes, but I feel I shouldn’t say it, I shouldn’t admit to that, because I don’t think it’s a very good reason to go into the profession and also because that wouldn’t be the case for everybody. I think there are many challenges within being a working professional in TV, theatre or film, which actually could push you over the edge, and certainly not be therapeutic, so I don’t feel it’s universal. But for me, I would say yes, there is something therapeutic about, as you say, that embodiment.

But I also think there is something therapeutic, and I don’t know if this is related to your thinking in your PhD, but about going to the cinema. The experience as an audience member. And I can remember going as a teenager to our local – they built an art centre, 70s black box – art centre called Theatr Clwyd when I was about 15 or 16, and my brother and I, as soon as we one of us could drive, we got in our car and drove the 20 miles to the cinema where the BFI put on various programmes of work, and I remember us going to see Car Wash, the Black Car Wash musical set on the edges of LA, and my mind exploding at the possibility of other lives, living other lives. And then the following week, we went to see Visconti's Ludwig, about Ludwig of Bavaria, which was… you probably couldn’t get two films that could be further away from each other, but again, I was like “Oh, and there’s that too!”

And that, I feel, opened up chambers in me which I think are a therapeutic process, it is a therapeutic process. That wonderful moment when you come out of a great film having seen it in the cinema with all the sound and the light and you walk down the street, and for a couple of hundred yards you’re still in the film. You’re still in wherever that might be, whether it’s the desert or whether it’s Manhattan, and you’re living it, and I think for me, one of the barriers to mental well-health, whatever that expression should be, mental ease, is feeling a sense of limitation, or block, or barrier. The openness of the experience of cinema, of being so sensorily connected to another world, which is quite unique, I think, to the experience of cinema.

Theatre is very different. I think that is therapeutic.

Something I’ve noticed and always wondered is that it seems actors who have had their breakthrough role or shot to stardom through comedic roles often seem to do really, really well in other genres, and give really compelling performances when they move into different genres away from comedy. I was wondering if you’ve noticed that yourself and if you think there’s a higher bar for going into comedy, if it’s more difficult to work with those roles, or if there’s something in comedy that really well prepares you for different types of roles?

Thank you, good question. Well, you know – what’s that phrase, somebody might have to help me out – comedy is just tragedy faster? Played quicker? I think there’s something of the truth in that that, certainly myself just as an actor, just on a technical level, if something should be funny and isn’t funny, if I say it quicker, it becomes funny, and that –  any good director will say, “Just say it quicker,” and it often works. But you could be trying to get the juice out of some sentence and killing it dead.

I do think about myself that the reason I was in comedy is because I was fat. So I think it started out – I would have been in, if I’d been thin at 18, 19, 20, I would have been off playing Ophelia! I think a lot of it was about how you look physically, and I'm not saying that there isn’t a bit of my brain that sees the world as a series of jokes, because I think there, but something done by somebody who’s overweight has traditionally meant things. It's signifying to an audience, perhaps at the very worst level, it’s signifying their experience should not be should not be noted as your experience. A kind of othering which then allows some comedic space, I think, at the worst. I'm not sure there’s necessarily a best!

But for me, being overweight was always about translating as being empathetic, caring, you know. There’s a whole series of things that go with casting that are really also part of that conversation. And then age comes in, then suddenly you’re a bit older, so then you can play a mum, or you can play a grandmother, or whatever. You can play a woman in the workspace, which when you’re very young, that doesn’t necessarily work either. I think comedy and tragedy, and comedy and drama, fall somewhere into that same marshalling of casting decisions.

I also think that what makes something funny, in filming anyway, on the screen, is in the frame you choose to put around that event. So coming in here doesn’t often read as funny, but something where you get a whole body shot or a two shot or something, or you can cut and change your timing in the edit. Those sorts of moments can make something funny.

I mean, I think Armando’s show, The Thick Of It, is a very good example of that – where he had supposedly the mockumentary, and it’s why the mockumentary has worked comedically because this camera is constantly changing the point of view. Who is the person looking, and why are they looking, and if they’re looking in this dispassionate way, they don’t care. This person clearly doesn’t care, then we’ve got some distance, and that distance allows us to laugh. Whereas if it’s all up here, it’s not going to be that funny. So, I as an actor tend not to do anything differently in either category, I just try and be as what they call ‘truthful’, it’s a bit of a code to that, but ‘truthful’ as possible to my character’s motivation and her experience.

Joanna, if you look back today, what would you say in closing to your younger self?

Keep on keeping on. It’s not over till it’s over – and I genuinely think this – that it is the ‘doing’ that is the value. I don’t go to work, and at any point, actually, whether it was professional work or working as I do in community theatre in Croydon or wherever else, I don’t go and do that for an end result. I do it because the ‘doing’ is the reward in itself. I genuinely think that’s the case, and therefore there’s not that much you can worry about, because ‘just do it’, as I think it was Nike said. But the ‘doing’ is its own reward, I think, and the days go by, and hopefully, the rolling stone does gather some moss.

I've heard you say that if you’re stuck, just make some soup, go for a walk, go and do something, because the rest takes care of itself.

That energy, I mean, it’s all about energy, which is probably the actor’s main tool. It’s energy creating energy, momentum creating momentum.

Joanna, thank you so much. What a fascinating discussion. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for attending this evening for a very memorable evening.