With outstanding appearances in Doctor Who, Victoria and the haunting drama The Cry, Jenna Coleman has established herself as a leading lady of the small screen.
After Jenna Coleman left the legendary sci-fi series Doctor Who, her co-star Peter Capaldi paid her a handsome tribute in an interview. ‘She’s a fabulous actress, she has great depth, and great lightness, and humour, warmth and passion. And she’s a star, an absolute Audrey Hepburn.’ ‘Has he said that?’ Coleman asks incredulously in her gentle Northern lilt, when we meet on a crisp September morning in a sun-dappled garden near her home in east London. She mulls over this praise for a while. ‘He usually calls me “little elf ”,’ she says.
This self-deprecating attitude is typical of the 32-year-old, despite the fact that she is now a global name and has fans curtsying to her in the street, thanks to her titular role in Victoria. The sumptuous royal drama has captivated audiences since it first aired in 2016, due largely to Coleman’s beguiling and convincing portrayal of the young monarch. Her research for the part was meticulous, involving reading through 122 volumes of the Queen’s private diaries and learning how to play the piano. ‘Ultimately, it’s my job as an actress is to try and capture the essence and energy of somebody,’ she says.
‘From really early on it felt very right, it just fitted,’ she explains when I ask how she knew she wanted to act. ‘I loved to watch films, and my head was always in books and stories. I just had to work out how to do it as my job.’ Eschewing drama school, Coleman took on the role of the wild child Jasmine Thomas in Emmerdale at just 19, and her portrayal won her a Most Popular Newcomer nomination at the National Television Awards in 2006. Three years later she joined the acclaimed BBC series Waterloo Road; before she appeared as Clara Oswald, Doctor Who’s sparky sidekick, initially opposite Matt Smith and then Capaldi.
She is excited to see what Jodie Whittaker does as the first
female Doctor. ‘I think this year has proved there’s an active interest in seeing a spectrum reflected back at you rather than a stereotype, and people at the top realising that will sell and that’s what people want,’ she says. ‘But I do think there’s still a way to go – if you’re not playing the young girl or the mum or the older lady, there’s quite a void in roles for women.’ Not for Coleman, though, whose latest ratings hit, the tense psychological thriller The Cry, saw her take the lead once again and master another challenging genre.
Despite her success, she does not court fame. ‘I did a world tour with Peter Capaldi, which is a hilarious sentence in itself, and we’d turn up in Rio de Janeiro or Mexico and there’d be screaming people,’ she says. ‘But you have to go into it knowing it’s not real, so you dip in and have this amazing life experience, I think that’s the only healthy way. I don’t think it’s a very normal thing to be on red carpets with photographers – you have to remove yourself a little bit.’ She is notoriously coy when it comes to discussing her two-year relationship with Tom Hughes, who plays her brooding on-screen husband Prince Albert, and she maintains a close-knit circle of female friends who help keep her grounded. ‘I’ve got a WhatsApp group called HQ, for “Headquarters”,’ she confides. ‘They know who they are.’
Soon Coleman will be winning over a whole new fanbase, having signed up to star in a production of All My Sons, alongside Sally Field, Bill Pullman and Colin Morgan, at the Old Vic next April. She’s come a long way since, aged 10, she played an Italian bridesmaid in a touring production of Summer Holiday. How does she feel about treading the boards again? ‘Good. I need to. It’s about time. And to be with that incredible ensemble!’ With or without a crown, it’s clear Jenna Coleman’s reign has only just begun…
‘If you’re not playing the young girl or the mum or the older lady, there’s quite a void in roles for women’