She’s the queen of acerbic British comedy but the actor is taking a dramatic turn as a Muslim widow in acclaimed new film ‘After Love’. She talks to Ann Lee about the career flourish of her forties, rebooting the ‘Darling Buds of May’ and why she doesn’t mind showing some skin
Joanna Scanlan doesn’t really think of herself as famous. Fans aren’t clamouring to take selfies with her on the street or pestering her for autographs. “Nobody ever recognises me,” she shrugs, nonplussed, over a call from her home in south London. “It’s very nice. I just go about my life.”
As modest and unassuming as she is off screen, Scanlan is a bold and unforgettable presence on camera. Through her roles as dismally inept press officer Terri Coverley in political comedy The Thick Of It, cynical ward sister Denise Flixter in satirical sitcom Getting On and feisty Detective Inspector Viv Deering in police dramedy No Offence, she’s built a reputation as one of Britain’s finest comedy actors and has been dubbed the UK’s “dark-comedy queen”. She can effortlessly steal a scene with her deadpan delivery of pithy one-liners and her impeccable sense of comic timing.
The 59-year-old has been a whirlwind of activity during the pandemic. “I’ve gotten very involved in our community,” she says. “We’ve had a Covid-19 action group. We’ve done a lot for our local food bank. We’ve had a choir in our street. We’ve started a history group… I’ve been busy. Very busy!” Not to mention developing new TV shows for her production company George & George (founded with her Getting On co-star Vicki Pepperdine) and co-creating Sex Lives, a series of comedy sketches on Instagram about women’s sexuality during lockdown.
Scanlan is currently enjoying a day off from filming The Larkins, a reboot of ITV’s much-loved family drama The Darling Buds of May. She’s sitting on an office chair in her study with a pair of glasses perched on top of her head and wearing a white T-shirt with the slogan “This Girl Can” and a black fleece. Fresh faced and rosy cheeked, the actor looks like she’s just stepped in from a countryside walk rather than from the suburban streets of Croydon.
But we’re here to talk about another project in her busy schedule, After Love, a British drama by director Aleem Khan. Scanlan plays Mary, an English woman living in Dover, who converted to Islam for her husband and childhood sweetheart Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). After his sudden death, she’s devastated to discover he has a secret family in Calais.
While she’s better known for making people laugh, this is the latest in an admirable line of dramatic parts for Scanlan. Often she is in a supporting role but here she takes centre stage with a subtle yet moving performance. As Mary, she’s almost mute in her grief – her pain so immense that she locks it in tight, scared of what will happen when it finally unfurls.
Before shooting, Scanlan spent a few days wandering around London dressed in a salwar kameez to get into character. “I hung out in the central mosque in Regent’s Park. It’s a very relaxing place. I went through all the washing ceremonies before going in. I learned the prayers and learned to understand what the prayers meant. It’s a religion which welcomes anybody who wishes to convert. There’s a welcoming quality to being part of that family.”
Mary takes a trip across the English Channel to have it out with her husband’s mistress, Genevieve. But the confrontation never comes. Instead Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) mistakes her for a cleaner. Mary goes along with the subterfuge as it gives her the chance to snoop around and ends up befriending Ahmed’s love child Solomon (Talid Ariss).
“She’s very intimidated by Genevieve initially,” says Scanlan. “There’s a rage inside her, which she has to suppress, because this woman has effectively stolen her husband. But as she gets to know her, she realises that Genevieve didn’t get much for herself either, and that neither of these two women had the best of him. But there is a resulting child, which can be the best for both of them.”
After Love is a haunting portrayal of a mind slowly fracturing with grief. One scene shows Mary sitting rigid with shock in the middle of a sofa, as a group of women around her wail in anguish. The clouds of her suffering drift gradually across her composed face before a single tear emerges. Scanlan’s performance as a woman reeling from the devastation of her husband’s death and his betrayal is nothing less than astounding.
“Grief can have moments of madness in which your sense of self has disintegrated,” Scanlan says slowly. “The healing is about how you put those pieces back together again. You probably come out of it in a different shape from the one that you went into it. I think when someone dies, you partly leave the earth yourself. You’re reaching for the other place where they’ve gone.” Her face floods with emotion, her eyes reddening as she gestures with her arm to the sky. “Now I’m going to cry…” She takes a whisper of a beat to compose herself. “It does take a lot of coming back to the ground. That does involve patience but also courage.”
Another powerful moment comes when Mary carefully studies her half naked body in the mirror. “For whatever reason, I often have to take my clothes off,” laughs Scanlan (who also appeared partially nude in The Invisible Woman and No Offence). “If you do it once, they ask you to do it again. I know that it’s not sexual. I use the naked body as a costume. You’re inhabiting it to do something with it. It’s not just about being looked at, it’s about playing something.”
Scanlan had wanted to act since she was a child growing up in north Wales. When she was a teenager, her parents bought a hotel in Ruthin. The actor enjoyed trying out different personas as she helped out at the reception and in the bar. As a student at Cambridge University’s Queens’ College, she joined the renowned comedy group Footlights, where she became good friends with Tilda Swinton.
When she attended the college, it was the first year that women were allowed in. She has spoken in past interviews about the “sexually aggressive atmosphere” at the time but politely deflects when asked about it now. “I appreciate the question. But it’s just something I can’t talk about at the moment. It’s the anniversary of our matriculation. A number of us are talking to each other about that experience.”
After graduating, Scanlan spent most of her twenties struggling to even get an audition. Defeated and disillusioned, she got a job as a drama lecturer at what was then Leicester Polytechnic. At 29, she had a breakdown and moved back in with her parents. “What that depression and anxiety felt like was a state of complete paralysis,” she says. “That feeling of stuckness and inertia would take the form of just shaking for several hours.
“There were lots of emotions that I wasn’t letting myself feel. I wasn’t letting myself feel joy. I wasn’t letting myself feel rage. I wasn’t letting myself feel contentment. Gradually through time, rest, and taking away responsibilities temporarily, I began to get better. It was really important to be in nature, to live a simple life. I’m glad social media didn’t exist then, for sure.”
Scanlan didn’t work for more than a year, spending her days doing yoga, learning photography and walking her mother’s dog. She started therapy “to learn how to live as a responsible adult with dreams”. Progress was slow as she inched closer and closer back to a sense of well-being. “The project in my thirties was putting myself back together.”
It was her GP who urged her to return to acting for the sake of her mental health. Eventually, she got a part as a midwife on Peak Practice. Scanlan was 34. While other actors have complained about roles drying up for women in TV and films as they’ve become older, she has bucked the trend – her career flourished after she hit 40. “As a child, I did loads of plays, and I was always playing the 40-year-old. I guess casting-wise, I just had to catch up with myself.”
She sees how the industry is gradually changing for older actors as more women’s stories are being told. “That is due to women being in the workplace,” she says. “Women are no longer hidden away or behind the kitchen sink. That’s the change that’s happened in my lifetime. Having been born in the Sixties and now to look at our world today, the stories have caught up with reality. There are many more opportunities for storytelling which put women at the centre.”
But her early knock-backs are hard to forget. Scanlan keeps a stash of rejection letters from agents. “They’re so funny to read. They’re all very polite, but when I look at them, I still feel a sting. It’s a really visceral thing of just being judged as not good enough. It still hurts a little bit.” What did that experience teach her? “I’m wondering whether it taught me anything.” She starts mulling it over. “I guess it taught me that I needed to build the emotional, mental and physical muscles to support a dream. That nothing is handed to you in the form that you imagine it might be.”
Or when you might think. Getting On, co-written with comedian Jo Brand and Vicki Pepperdine, was commissioned by the BBC when Scanlan was 46, the same year she met her husband Neil, an accountant, at a yoga festival in Devon. The trio had started writing the show a decade before. The acerbic satire about NHS nurses working on an elderly ward ran for three seasons, earning Scanlan a Bafta acting nomination, and was remade by HBO in the US. “I was euphoric about that,” she says. “It had been 17 years between opening the typewriter and starting to write something and it actually being green-lit. There had been lots of near misses on the way.”
She’s hugely excited to be bringing the Larkin family back to the screen. The original series of The Darling Buds of May, based on HE Bates’ novel, made a star of Catherine Zeta-Jones and was a massive ratings success in the early Nineties. Scanlan has been cast as loveable Ma Larkin alongside Bradley Walsh, Sabrina Bartlett and Tok Stephen. “I really hope it gives everybody a boost,” she says. “I love those books so much. I read them when I was 14. I found them utterly joyful because the family are the most permissive, fun, morally centred people that you would ever want to meet. They are exemplars of joie de vivre!”
Acting continues to be an escape where she can disappear momentarily. She’s never needed the fame. “It’s the most satisfying thing, to step out of your own shoes, go into someone else’s, put them on, see how they fit,” says Scanlan. “If they don’t fit, then it’s my job to change the shape of my foot, not for them to change the shape of the shoe. That’s a great experience to have.”
After Love is out in cinemas on 4 June