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Queen of comedy Jessica Hynes talks about her new film ‘Nativity 2’

Jessica Hynes. Picture: Alex Sarginson

Jessica Hynes. Picture: Alex Sarginson

  • by CLAIRE BLACK
 

JESSICA Hynes loves performing but her true passion is writing. She might be behind the camera for a bit, but not before a sublimely catty turn in festive film Nativity 2.

I must begin with a disclaimer, I feel it’s only right. In my eyes Jessica Hynes can do little wrong. Whether as put-upon Cheryl in The Royle Family, or Siobhan Sharpe in Twenty Twelve, or in that inexplicably ignored BBC2 pilot Lizzie and Sarah, with Julia Davis, and most definitely as Daisy in Spaced. Hynes is, as far as I’m concerned, a magnificent comedy actor. And a very fine comedy writer. And, come to think of it, she’s a great straight actor too, as her Olivier and Tony Award nominations probably show, as well as that drama One Night in which she played Carol, a struggling single mum on a council estate. Multi-talented, you might say. It’s just that I enjoy her most when she’s making me laugh.

A case in point is her too-brief appearance in Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger!, the sequel to 2009’s surprise comedy hit Nativity. Hynes is Angel Matthews, Welsh singing sensation and host of A Song for Christmas, the X-Factor-like competition which is the Christmas tree upon which the glittery bauble that is the story hangs. She is hilarious, a vision in pink ice lipstick and perfect eyeliner, swinging on a ginormous holly ring and dishing out less than complimentary assessments of the child performers. Her bitchiness (particularly in some fine scenes with David Tennant) adds a much-needed sharpness to the selection box-sweet story. Her deadpan physical comedy as she swings above the stage is pitch-perfect. My only complaint? I could’ve done with much, much more of Angel Matthews. Or rather, much more Jessica Hynes. But, truth be told, I’ve kind of felt like that since Spaced and, as it turns out, with a bit of luck it might, finally, be about to happen.

It’s not that Hynes, 40, hasn’t worked pretty solidly – she has. If you’ve kept your eyes peeled you’ll have seen her on telly, in films (Son of Rambow, Faintheart, Confetti) and on stage (The Norman Conquests and The Night Heron). Maybe it’s that even subconsciously it’s impossible not to compare her with her Spaced co-stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who you can’t miss, whether on Hollywood red carpets or, in Pegg’s case, in two of the biggest movie franchises around, Star Trek and Mission Impossible. It’s not that, I imagine, Hynes wishes she’d taken that route – she’s consistently said quite the opposite – it’s more that Hynes is an amazing talent and it just seems wrong that since Spaced she’s not yet found another niche. Not yet.“I feel so lucky,” Hynes says, plonking herself on to the sofa, coffee cup in hand. She’s not talking about her latest role, although it’s clear she loves the film, she’s talking about Claridge’s, where we meet. “To spend more than a moment eating a cucumber sandwich downstairs, to actually get to spend the night then to be here during the day – it’s pure heaven. I love it.” She grins. “These stunning surroundings bring out the best in people. It’s definitely an argument for beauty being important.”

I confess, sometimes I don’t know whether Hynes is joking. She’s got the kind of delivery (or maybe I’ve just watched Spaced too many times) that means at certain moments I can’t help but hear Daisy, the over-enthusiastic writer-wannabe. It’s a little disconcerting. But there is something genuinely excitable and enthusiastic about Hynes. Whether she’s praising Nativity 2 writer/director, Debbie Isitt, (“She’s got big baubles. Big massive ones”) or talking about Richard Pryor (“I find him faultless”) or why she loves sitcoms (To the Manor Born and Dad’s Army get special mentions), she doesn’t hold back. She talks fast and she’s funny and genuinely good company.

Hynes first worked with Isitt on Confetti, a mockumentary about couples competing to win their dream wedding. In fact, it was on the basis of a vignette that Hynes made with Martin Freeman, shot at the National Wedding Exhibition, that the film was made. Hynes talks in reverential terms of Isitt’s self-belief, her vision that she can do what she wants. “I have respect for all creative people because they’re doing it,” she says. “There are so many stages when you can fall down, as everybody knows, and it’s hard to keep plugging away and pursuing projects when there are a lot of dark nights.

“Even people who are very established, so you’d assume it’d be easy, it’s never easy. Sometimes I actually think it gets harder. I have immense respect for people who get up and do their thing.”

There have been bumps along the way, but Hynes has been doing her thing since she left home in Brighton at the age of 18 and moved to London to become an actor. She’d always wanted to perform and when a teacher complimented her on her role in a school play, she thought, “I can do acting. Phew! That’s sorted.” She was eight. First there was Saturday-morning drama club in Hove Town Hall and then the National Youth Theatre. She left school after her A-levels to make her career happen.

And happen it did. It started with odd parts in short-lived comedy series. Then, in 1995, she met Pegg at the audition for Six Pairs of Pants and the year after he introduced her to Edgar Wright. The three of them created Spaced, with the then-Jessica Stevenson dreaming up most of the set-up based on her experience of living in the basement of a Georgian house with her then- boyfriend, now husband and father of her three children, Adam Hynes.

Spaced won cult status and a geekily loyal fan following. Hynes picked up two British Comedy Awards in 1999 and 2001 for her performance as Daisy and things looked rosy. When Spaced ended, Pegg, Frost and Wright went on to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and haven’t looked back. For Hynes, it hasn’t been as straightforward.

At first, the parts that she expected – goofy, funny, subversive, just like Daisy – didn’t come her way. The ones that did, including ill-received sitcom According to Bex, weren’t right. The obvious thing might’ve been for Hynes to write her own stuff – she’d done it before and brilliantly, but that didn’t quite happen either. Partly it was about nerve – her praise for Isitt comes from someone who knows how hard it is to have the self-belief to create their own work – and partly because Hynes by this time had small children (Gabriel is now 14, Barbara is nine and Freda is six) and was still acting in other people’s material.

Looking at her achievements, I wonder if the self-belief is easier when she’s co-writing, which she’s done quite a bit of. Sharing the burden of the creative process. “Actually, Spaced was the only…” she starts, before amending, “and Lizzie and Sarah and Learners, which I wrote but collaborated on with a director. And now I’m writing a BBC 4 sitcom which has been commissioned. We’ll be recording that in March and delivering it in April. And I’ve got a commission from Sky Atlantic drama to develop a series idea that I’ve created. We’re at the stage where they’ve commissioned a script and a series arc and a bible.”

All of this pours out at breakneck speed, as though she can’t quite believe it’s true and she’s just got to say it. The only thing that breaks Hynes’ flow is that, in a rather uncool way, I laugh at the the word “bible”. I can’t help it. I love that every TV show – the good, the bad, the execrable – has a book referred to by this name that contains everything the writer imagines for their show, all the information about the characters, the plot, everything. I find it funny. Hynes smiles.

“It might even be better than the Bible,” she deadpans. “At this point, it’s better than the Bible.

“The point is,” she says, getting serious again, “that I’m making a very concerted effort which requires a lot of sacrifice, because it means I’m turning down a lot of things in order to write. That’s always something that I’ve not had the confidence to do but I suppose I’m getting more confident in my old age to make choices about what I want to do.”

And now we’re getting to it. It’s a known fact that Hynes isn’t mad keen on doing interviews. It’s so well known that three people told me it in the 15 minutes before I trotted along the plush corridor to, well, interview her. She has said that she comes across “jaw-droppingly badly”, but that’s not true. What is undeniable, though, is that it can’t be easy to deal with, ‘So how does it feel that you used to be in Spaced with Simon Pegg and now he’s a massive Hollywood star?’ type questions. The last implied part of the enquiry, which is “...while your career has been a bit of a let down”, is never said but it’s there, hanging in the air. And it’s not true. In fact, Hynes talks about Spaced much more readily than I expect her to. I don’t get the sense at all that it’s an awkward topic, or something that she doesn’t want to talk about. Quite the opposite. Why should she feel awkward about it – she made it. But I can imagine that it hasn’t always been easy and there is no denying that her collaborators have gone on to huge things. But since that’s not really what Hynes is after, I wonder what she does want?

“Performing I love,” she says, “but writing, telling stories, I love, love, love. My interest is in telling stories and subverting expectations. I like to challenge people’s preconceived ideas about everything and to create things that are genuinely original and genuinely entertaining.”

That was the seed of Spaced according to Hynes and, unless I’m very much mistaken, that doesn’t sound anything like your average Hollywood fare. It’s also, she says, the basic idea of her BBC 4 comedy too, although it’s a more retro-style sitcom set at the time of the Suffragettes.

“It’s about a group of women who are in an embroidery circle and they decide to turn their attention to militant suffrage action to really very little effect, very little effect,” she smiles. “It’s like a kind of female Dad’s Army. It’s kind of the opposite of Spaced, but that’s why I like it because I like the discipline of writing something that’s quite proscenium arch and therefore very focused on strong characters. The thing for Sky is completely different. It’s pure fantasy, action, violence and fun. I’ve got my fingers crossed for that.” Part of the joy of Spaced was that it was a programme for an audience steeped in telly and film. All that larking about with flashbacks and cutaways came from Hynes (and Pegg) having been “television addicts” as kids. They were playing. Pegg still is. Hynes, it seems, is ready for something else.

“There aren’t many things where it’s character-led and not about locations and sets. It’s about characters and their relationships and the comedy that comes from that. It’s technical because you can’t smudge the edges or use any devices. If you watch Dad’s Army, the performances are great. They’re not over the top, they’re very subtle. The scripts are delicate and clever. I think there’s absolutely room for that on television. There’s a space for a gentler approach. I’m interested in comedy that’s born out of the dynamics between people.”

Maybe the speed at which she talks masks some nerves about how her new projects will be received. I can imagine that there’s a lot riding on these projects for her, not because she’s short of work – that’s unlikely to ever happen – but because these projects are hers and she really wants them to succeed. She does perform in the BBC 4 comedy, not because she wanted to necessarily but because “they were keen”. But she assures me that it’s “genuinely an ensemble piece”.

“It’s great when people say, ‘oh you’ll be brilliant, why don’t you come and do this for me?’. It’s very hard to say no, but there’s got to be a point when, if you want to do your work, you have to realise that you can’t do everything. It’s about drawing a line and saying ‘I’m committing to this’.

“I’m often inspired when I see films and I think, oh my god, how did that even get made? You know some sub-sub-sub-sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, ill-conceived performance with a Hollywood actress in Lycra. You just think, why? But it kind of inspires me because if they can get that shit out there then what’s stopping the rest of us? Just buck up your ideas guys cause it’s got to be better than that. You can’t get too bogged down in judging what you do, you just have to do it and then let other people decide.”

That last statement is trotted off with ease, but it maybe sounds a little bit rehearsed. Or maybe I’m imagining Hynes to be more fragile than she really is. For all her interest in the more gentle kind of TV comedy, in recent years Hynes has also toyed with the type of comedy that’s least likely to be described that way – stand-up. She’s done a few gigs for charity and “loved it”.

“But if I’m going to be serious about it and start calling myself a stand-up I need to get on the circuit and start working, doing more sets and more nights.” I can’t imagine how that could ever fit in with what she’s already got going on, or even maybe why she’d want it to, but she warms to her theme as though it’s something she should be doing rather than something that she might want to do.

“It is great to just turn up and do it, but it’s not really the best way, you have to write your material. That sounds obvious but stand-ups work incredibly hard at what they do and they’re good because they gig a lot and try out new material. I don’t do that, it’s something I play around with – I do guest bits and charity things and I’ve got material. I’m always writing stuff down, but I’m not out there at the moment.”

Stand-up, she says, is the type of comedy that she likes best, the “purest form of entertainment”. I can see why she likes it. It fits with her interest in finding the truth that no one else will admit to.

“The kind of comedy I’m not so keen on is people making jokes about flossing, or teeth, that repetitive ‘isn’t it funny when ...’, ‘don’t we all ...’. I find that slightly tedious,” she says. “I prefer comedians who mine themselves in a way that’s ruthless and revealing. That’s what I enjoy. Although I don’t do that specifically in these two projects coming up, I’m always just trying to make it absolutely the best that it can be. People deserve that.”

And if anyone can do it, Jessica Hynes can.

• Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! (U) is on general release from this weekend.

 

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