The Herald Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

RIS­ING Scot­tish star Joanna Van­der­ham and I are meet­ing in the restau­rant of a noisy, al­most too fash­ion­able cen­tral Lon­don ho­tel cum me­dia hang­out and we bump into each other in the foyer. She is hard to miss – tall, with long blonde hair pro­tected from the rain ahead of our pho­to­shoot and car­ry­ing a shop­ping bag with a change of clothes for the shoot.

By the time we reach our ta­ble, the con­ver­sa­tion is al­ready fly­ing from sub­ject to sub­ject. Van­der­ham’s act­ing skill is called for when our food ar­rives. She has or­dered yel­low­tail, grapefruit and jalapeno – which looks, to the un­trained eye, like three small slices of slime cov­ered in or­ange juice on the tini­est of plates. She doesn’t bat an eye­lid. No trace of sur­prise. She’s clearly good at this act­ing busi­ness.

This is set to be a big year for Van­der­ham, who was born in Perth and brought up in Scone. At the age of 24, the star of BBC dra­mas The Par­adise and Danc­ing on the Edge is look­ing to buy her first flat. “That is where my head has been at since the start of the year.” She will, how­ever, miss her flat­mate’s record player, but in­tends to move “just down the road” from her cur­rent flat­share in East Lon­don.

If this is set to be a big year per­son­ally, then pro­fes­sion­ally Van­der­ham is also tak­ing con­trol of a ca­reer that be­gan with a lead role in Sky’s stylish 1960s drama The Run­away, op­po­site man of the mo­ment Jack O’Con­nell, when she was still in her sec­ond year at the Royal Welsh Col­lege of Mu­sic and Drama.

“They wanted me to come back and grad­u­ate, so they graded The Run­away, to give me enough cred­its to pass the year,” she re­calls.

And did this im­pres­sive piece of course­work pass muster? “I got a first, ob­vi­ously!” She doesn’t men­tion the Emmy nom­i­na­tion she also

re­ceived aged just 19. Mod­est about her own work, full of praise for her co-stars and thrilled about the di­rec­tion her ca­reer is tak­ing, Van­der­ham is en­gag­ing com­pany.

Fol­low­ing her break­through, the big roles con­tin­ued to ar­rive with a reg­u­lar­ity that could have in­fu­ri­ated her peers – from Young James He­riot to a film de­but with Steve Coogan and Ju­lianne Moore in What Maisie Knew. The lead role in a cast in­clud­ing Chi­we­tel Ejio­for, Jacqueline Bisset and John Good­man in Stephen Po­li­akoff’s jazz age master­piece Danc­ing on the Edge was an­other gi­ant leap for­ward, while two se­ries of cos­tume drama The Par­adise, in which she played the cen­tral char­ac­ter, Denise Lovett, won fur­ther ac­claim and a primetime Sun­day-night au­di­ence. Af­ter that role, Van­der­ham was look­ing for some grit. “And I think I found it,” she says. WE are here to talk about her lat­est BBC drama, Jimmy Mc­Gov­ern’s Ban­ished. The se­ries, which also stars Rus­sell Tovey, MyAnna Bur­ing and Ju­lian Rhind-Tutt, is a fic­tion­alised ac­count of the lives and loves of the first Bri­tish con­victs ex­iled to Australia in the 1780s. The se­ries is set in a makeshift camp on a strip of sandy land in New South Wales, be­tween the Aussie bush and the Pa­cific Ocean. Van­der­ham plays Karen “Kitty” McVi­tie, a house­maid con­victed of steal­ing from her mas­ter but spared the hang­man’s noose. “Kitty’s jour­ney in­trigued me. I had no idea what to do. Ever. And I think that is how she felt. Kitty has to sur­vive and it is her in­ner strength that drew me to her.”

Her char­ac­ter’s sur­vival in­stinct leads to a re­la­tion­ship with a sol­dier as she be­gins her sen­tence, but she also catches the eye of a bru­tal ma­jor. “The au­di­ence will be de­bat­ing her de­ci­sion,” says Van­der­ham, be­fore de­scrib­ing the po­ten­tial awk­ward­ness of love scenes. Although there were what Van­der­ham de­scribes as “el­e­men­tal is­sues” (Jimmy Mc­Gov­ern later con­firms it “p****d down” for the first week), the two-month stay in Syd­ney was a blast.

“I learned af­ter my first two jobs that work­ing isn’t real life, it is like an in­ter­lude in your real life,” she says. “For The Run­away, I went to South Africa for three months and rarely spoke to my friends or fam­ily. I was in this bub­ble. But that is an un­healthy way to ap­proach this life­style, and leaves you feel­ing alone when it ends.

“So in Syd­ney I knew I needed to stay in my life. I was there to work, but I also had an amaz­ing time and was al­ways in con­tact with home. I think that is the way to stay sane when you are away for so long.”

So what con­sti­tuted an amaz­ing time in the renowned party town of Syd­ney? Her face lights up. “A lot of the com­pany were very health con­scious while we were there. There was lots of yoga,” she says, be­fore grin­ning broadly. “But there is a pretty good scene out there. We ex­plored that quite a lot. It was mainly me and Rus­sell Tovey. By the end we knew all the main bars and clubs. We ended up see­ing a lot of theatre and cabaret, so we tried to stay cul­tured as well as drink­ing as much as we pos­si­bly could.”

This sum­mer, we will also have a chance to see Van­der­ham take on an iconic role in a new BBC adap­ta­tion of The Go-Be­tween. “I hadn’t seen it be­fore, so I could put my own in­ter­pre­ta­tion on it,” she says. “But af­ter I fin­ished and went back to Scone to stay with my mum, we bumped into one of her friends, who told me: ‘For our gen­er­a­tion you will never be her.’” Van­der­ham plays Mar­ian, or, as the char­ac­ter is known to any­one who has seen the 1970 film clas­sic star­ring Alan Bates, the Julie Christie role. “I thought it was a gor­geous part and some ex­cit­ing co-stars. I now re­alise I will have this com­par­i­son hang­ing over me.”

Still, the pro­duc­tion did have its up­sides, not least in al­low­ing her to meet Jim Broad­bent, who was “as gor­geous as you would imag­ine”. Then there was the cos­tume. “I wore an orig­i­nal 1900 macrame dress in pure white,” she re­calls. “I didn’t think it was go­ing to fit as they were much smaller then but they added an ex­tra panel, and it was a thing of beauty.

“Then, of course, I walked into a door han­dle and ripped all of the lac­ing on the way to the set. I felt I had blas­phemed. But it was a priv­i­lege to wear it and show it off.”

So busy has Van­der­ham been in the past few years that when we rewind to the be­gin­ning of her jour­ney to­wards act­ing, and pon­der why she be­came an ac­tor in the first place, she strug­gles to an­swer. “I started when I was about nine in the drama club for kids in Scone,” she says. “I’ve been think­ing about this for a while. I watched a re­ally cool show with Judi Dench and she talked about some­one say­ing to her, ‘You need to de­cide why you want to act.’

“I only watched this the other day, but it has been play­ing on my mind. My an­swer is, ‘I don’t know – I just do.’ But now I feel I ought to fig­ure out why. Be­cause if Dame Judi had to fig­ure it out, we re­ally should fol­low suit.”

One an­swer dredged from the mem­ory bank in­volves a chance to prove her older sis­ter wrong. “She had a video cam­era when we were grow­ing up and wouldn’t let me be in her video. So part of me thinks that maybe there is an el­e­ment of prov­ing I can do it – ‘I will be in some­one’s video!’”

In­stead, it seems, Van­der­ham sim­ply de­cided not to stop af­ter study­ing drama at stan­dard grade, higher and ad­vanced higher. “I must have had a mo­ment when my friends were ap­ply­ing to uni­ver­sity,” she says, “be­cause I down­loaded forms for 12


Clock­wise from top: Van­der­ham with Orla Brady and MyAnna Bur­ing in Ban­ished; at­tend­ing a film in­dus­try event in New York; and as Denise Lovett in BBC drama The Par­adise

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