HEAVEN AND HELL
JOANNA VANDERHAM TRADES THE PARADISE FOR PURGATORY
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