Just three years out of drama school, young Scottish actress Joanna Vanderham is fast making a name for herself. The star of ITV’s autumn hit The Paradise is back on our screens in a new drama tonight, and, finds Stephen McGinty, she’s determined to do it her way
WHEN making love on a moving train, it’s not necessary to be nude, at least, that’s what Joanna Vanderham believes. At the end of a long day of rehearsals on the set of Dancing On The Edge, BBC 2’s new drama which begins tonight, the Scots actress realised that she appeared to have agreed with the directions in the script which called for her character, Pamela, a socialite in 1930s London and that of Stanley, a music journalist, to be naked – which wasn’t quite what she had in mind. At the end of the day, the director, Stephen Poliakoff, asked if everyone was okay, thinking he was referring to the whole day and not that particular scene. She said yes.
“The way it was written in the script the pair are naked and then there are lines of dialogue for the scene. I read that and it’s in a lot of scripts. You would be surprised how often it is in scripts. It is just casual nudity and everyone knows it’s just casual nudity and isn’t necessarily expected and definite. We were having a rehearsal and Stephen talked about the relationship between Pamela and Stanley the whole day. We read that scene and at the end he said: ‘Are you okay?’
“The next day I said it wasn’t what I meant and it caused a bit of a discussion. It wasn’t a big deal but I put my point of view across and he listened to what I had to say. These images don’t go away. However much for us it may be a tasteful scene, people can take it out of context and it no longer is. I don’t want to be known for that. I want to be known for my performances and the good choices of work and at the moment it would have been a bad move on my part.”
I doubt many young actresses would have the strength of will to talk round a director, especially one as single-minded in pursuit of his vision as Poliakoff, the last remaining auteur in British television drama who, when it comes to budget and episode length, usually gets what he wants. Then again, Vanderham has a persuasive manner and talent to burn. It’s less than three years since she was chosen from drama school in Wales to play the lead role in The Runaways, an adaptation of a Martina Cole crime novel for Sky which also starred fellow Scots Ken Stott and Alan Cumming. Since then she has become a well-known face thanks to her role as Denise Lovett, the feisty Scots shop assistant who dreams of a successful commercial career in The Paradise, BBC 1’s autumn hit which was based on a novel by Emile Zola.
Born and raised in Scone in Perthshire, Joanna’s mother is a doctor and her father, who is Dutch, a successful businessman. As one of four children, she traces her acting ambitions to a need for attention.
“It was always a part of my character I think,” she says speaking on the telephone from London, where she now lives. “When I was growing up my mother made me and my siblings go to after-school clubs and drama club was just one of them that we all had to go to. For me, it was just the one that stuck. I was about nine or ten when I started and I was just a big show-off as a kid. I always wanted attention, being one of four children you are always vying for attention with successful parents.
“That was where it started and when I got to my final year of high school all my friends were applying for university and I printed off the form to get into drama school and asked mum if she would sign it. She did. There was no debate and she came to every audition. Now my dad will say: ‘With Jo, we just always expected her to go to drama school’.”
She said that she messed up her audition to the RSAMD in Glasgow – “I was so bad. I tried to do fake drunk acting” – but was accepted to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff where a casting director spotted her potential during a class visit. Three weeks later she was flying to Cape Town in South Africa to film The Runaways where Alan Cumming, who played a transvestite, made a big impression.
“Meeting Alan was a very surreal experience as he was having his make-up test done in the make-up truck and I was giving back a nail polish that I had borrowed. We just hit it off. I had been filming for six weeks before he arrived, as his character comes into the series later on. I was just about knowing what I was doing and it was nice to have someone come along and say don’t take it too seriously, be professional, but this is not the be all and end all. He just had this confidence. He made things look fun.”
Working with Poliakoff was fun, but in a different way. The playwright, who is a national institution and successor to dramatists such as Dennis Potter, writes haunting dramas which corkscrew around the themes of memory, loss and the hidden malevolence behind often affluent people. He also has an eye for young talent, casting Emily Blunt in Gideon’s Daughter and Romala Garai in his feature film Glorious 39. While Vanderham was largely un-aware of his work prior to securing the role, she was left in no doubt about the importance of it.
“From the start we had a mutual understanding that what he had written and what we were trying to make was, as he said, the best piece of work he had made, so it felt like there was quite a lot of pressure on us, the actors, but at the same time Stephen was always there to give you that boost of confidence. He would take you to the side and say I know you can do this. I was 21 when we filmed it. He gave you that confidence and it was very empowering. It turned out to be fun shoot.”
The drama is about a black jazz band and how they are adopted by high society in London during the 1930s. Vanderham plays Pamela, a socialite on the fringes of the story but who works towards the centre over the five episodes.
“Pamela comes across as an ignorant socialite and frivolous young woman who doesn’t have a care in the world, but as her story is told you realise that she is shouldering a lot of emotional damage and that is what gives her strength at the end. She is almost the moral compass at the end of the story and that is what made it so fun.”
Hollywood, or at least an indie film shot in Manhattan, has already beckoned for the actress. Last summer Vanderham filmed What Maisie Knows with Steven Coogan and Julianne Moore, but for now and until April when the second series of The Paradise starts filming she is “resting”. She laughed: “To be honest I’m waiting for the right thing to come along and making tactful choices. Being brave at being unemployed is what I say.” It is unlikely to be for long.
• Dancing on the Edge is on BBC 2 tonight at 9pm