Interview: Jo Hartley

The actor tells @JanetChristie2 how she followed the yellow brick road from This is England to bigamy comedy drama Bliss

Jo Hartley stars in Sky One's Bliss, Wednesdays at 10pm. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown, thanks to The Castle Cinema, Hackney Hair and Make up by Charlotte Yeomans

Cutting-edge, gritty, dark, we’re used to seeing Jo Hartley in grim surroundings such as Shane Meadows’ 1980s Thatcher and skinheads flick This Is England after her breakout film role in the director’s Dead Man’s Shoes, yet when she picks up the phone in her east London home there’s a decidedly chirpy backdrop.

“Yeah, budgies,” she says. “I’ve got two of them, and they sing a lot. They do sing a lot.”

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Do they speak?

Jo Hartley as Cynthia, and Thomas Turgood as Shaun in This is England,

“No, but… say hello,” she says to the birds. “They’re both nodding their heads,” she reports. “They’re hilarious,” she says, her sunny disposition infectious. Dippy and Mellow obviously think so and they continue to chirrup, tweet and twitter their feathery little hearts out throughout our conversation.

“I found Dippy outside John Lewis on a bin, all alone, looking lost, so I ran in and bought a salad spinner – the only thing with a lid – and brought him home. I called him Serendipity but my mum said it was too long, so it’s Dippy. And because I’m away a lot performing and they like company, I got another one, Mellow. He’s yellow. So the two of them just talk to each other and ignore me until they want something... millet, or apple...”

Hartley is on song too, having swapped her usual dingy backdrops for a cosy middle-class milieu in Bliss, Sky One’s dark comedy from American stand-up and comedy writer David (Arrested Development) Cross. Hartley plays Denise, in the six part three-hander also starring Stephen Mangan and Heather Graham, which launches this month on Sky One.

Happily married to an award-winning travel writer and mother to the far from skinhead teenager Kris, everything in Denise’s garden looks rosy, but there’s something she doesn’t know about her husband Andrew: he’s equally happily married to another woman with whom he has another teenager, just across town. Heather Graham’s Kim is as much in the dark about her bigamist husband and as the comedy unfolds and darkens, he finds himself increasingly caught in the web of his own deceit.

Jo Hartley as Cynthia, and Thomas Turgood as Shaun in This is England,

“Yes, Bliss is at the other end of the spectrum from This Is England,” she says, “although Shane Meadows does find the magic and beauty, and human-ness and character in there too. Also Bliss has a dark tone to it that gets darker as it goes on. David Cross is quite a dark comedy guy and he had help from Jonathan Glatzer who did Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad.

“I find that if you’re doing comedy if you just play straight and play the truth, it just comes across as funny because of the situation. So I think I’m someone that can cross over,” she says.

“But David Cross said keep it really simple and because the scripts are so good, I just learnt my lines and turned up and found it all on set. I’m not going to sound like I’m doing some sort of Daniel Day-Lewis. But it’s a leading role, so it’s a lot more juicy.

“They shot all mine and Stephen’s stuff first then did the stuff with Heather because they wanted us to stay apart a little bit for Stephen’s sake. But our paths crossed a couple of times and we just clicked. I’d always admired her since I saw Boogie Nights. She’s lovely, a kooky, funny, spiritual sort of person, so we talked a lot about meditation, and I visited when I was in LA. When she spoke out about Weinstein I texted her and said I’m really proud of you, if there’s anything you need just give me a shout, well done.”

Heather Graham wrote recently in Variety magazine about being indirectly propositioned by the studio mogul in the early 2000s.

“It’s important to support people who are standing up and talking about it,” says Hartley. It’s important to be honest and truthful because it frees us up from a lot of pain and suffering. I’m proud of people speaking out, and also recognise those that say sorry for the things they’ve done in the past.”

But she doesn’t want to dwell on sexual harassment, as it’s not something she has direct experience of herself, saying, “it’s a different world, LA… I’m from Lancashire, you know, feet on the ground.”

Even bigamy was a bit out there for Hartley when she first read the Bliss script.

“To be honest, I said to my agent, “I don’t want to do something about a bigamist! But she said honestly, just read it, then my friend Kieron Hawkes, who does Fortitude, said David Cross, he’s amazing, so I caught up. It was a bit like when I did Life on the Road with Ricky Gervais, honestly I’d not seen The Office, but after the audition I watched it and Extras and Derek, all of it. And thought I’m glad I hadn’t seen it before the audition, because I would have wanted it too much!”

Born in Oldham in 1972 Hartley had what she calls “an unconventional journey into acting with This Is England and Shane Meadows.”

She had loved drama at school, after playing Gretl the youngest Von Trapp in The Sound of Music at seven, and her mum took her to Oldham Theatre Workshop on the bus every week, where she did shows like Bugsy Malone and Annie.

“When I did The Sound of Music I knew I was going to do this because my Aunty Betty from New York came to see me, and she worked with Otto Preminger the film director for years [Her aunt Elizabeth Hartley worked as Otto’s PA and assistant for 20 years, including on his final 1979 film The Human Factor]. “And she said yes, I could do it. I remember the people clapping at the end and just thinking I want to do this for the rest of my life!

“I guess for me acting was a bit of a dream. The Wizard of Oz was the first movie I saw and I’ve watched it every year since then. I’d sit and watch the Oscars every year, gripped and I always loved movies, especially those Seventies movies like Scorsese’s.”

But when her father died when she was 17 the dream faded. “I sort of went off piste for a little bit, sort of came off the yellow brick road for a while,” she says.

“When dad died the thought of drama school was something that was probably out of reach. I thought it was for posh kids with a lot of money so I used to get the forms for Rada and Mountview and not fill them in. Then I got a job at Aerospace and worked as an air hostess for four years, moved to London. I travelled and had a great time but then when I was 25 I thought, no, I really want to do this, acting. It was pulling me back, so I went to classes in Ealing and met Shane Meadows and he put me in Dead Man’s Shoes.”

The disturbing 2004 film was Hartley’s first feature and saw Paddy Considine mete out a violent revenge on a northern town’s bullies in an an emotionally pummeling, tense, tour de force. Hartley went on to work with the director again, playing the pivotal role of Cynthia, mother to troubled teen Shaun in his much loved BAFTA award-winning Thatcher era skinhead flick This Is England, released in 2011. Reprising the role in the TV series version in 2015, she again imbued the character of Cynthia with a warm and gentle, upbeat motherly mien that was one of the lighter touches in this raucous celebration of the misfit.

“People love This Is England, the twenty and thirty somethings especially love hearing about the 1980s, and it’s great to be part of it,” she says.

The only downside was the bubble perm that Cyn rocks among a sea of skinheads. Hartley laughs.

“Yeah, I cried when they gave me that haircut because I wanted to be cool like Vicky [McClure] and all the skinheads. But they had to have their heads shaved, so that was worse. I had to cut it off after This Is England though, ‘cos it was such a mess after that bloody perm.”

It was Hartley’s lightness of touch that brought her Channel 4 comedy dramas The Mimic and Not Safe for Work, and Ricky Gervais’s resurrection of his The Office creation in the mockumentary comedy film, David Brent: Life on the Road in 2016. Hartley plays his colleague and pal Pauline at bathroom supplies firm Lavichem, where we find him ten years on, embarking on a make or break bid to become a singer.

“I got into comedy when I did The Mimic because I’d always been drawn to serious drama but people always said to me ‘Jo, why are you not doing comedy? You’re funny. But it had never really knocked on my door until then, when they wrote that part for me,” says Hartley. As for Gervais, she is still friends with him and his partner Jane, who are big animal lovers and welcome pictures of her budgies. As does their cat Olly.

It was back on with the pinny for Dexter Fletcher’s Eddie the Eagle in 2016, playing Eddie’s supportive mother and supplier of biscuit tins in which to keep his medals, alongside the up and coming Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman and Christopher Walken. As her career has taken off she has worked with the likes of Julie Walters in The Jury, Joanne Froggatt in Moving On and Damian Lewis and This Is England co-star Vicky McClure again in Stolen.

Away from the screen Hartley has always trodden the boards, in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, and now, in a miners’ strike era drama, Chicken Soup, at The Crucible theatre in Sheffield. When we speak she is full of the miners’ strike, 1984 and the Battle of Orgreave, when striking miners and the police clashed at the South Yorkshire colliery.

“It’s about five women, three who run a soup kitchen, and it’s about their friendships, relationships, families, how the strike split them, brought them together, loss, grief and survival. It takes you through the years, 1984, 2002 and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, then on to the 
2016 Brexit vote and the foodbanks. It’s got a great cast and is so powerfully written that I didn’t give it a second thought to up sticks and go up there.

“It’s emotional and dramatic and heavy and gritty and rough, and after that there are a couple of things that are dramatic and dark and poetic, so there’s something in me that wants to play those roles. And I can do that, but I think things find you. The universe sorts everything out. I just turn up and respond to things, that’s my attitude.

“At the beginning of my career I used to try and force things and take rejection personally but as I got more of it, I realised it’s not personal. Sometimes it’s not logistically possible and TV often has to go with the name, or someone who is similar to the character. Whereas people like Shane Meadows will just have the imagination to trust you, to let you create that character; they go with the gut.”

As someone who likes to do her research, Hartley has been immersing herself in documentaries about the strike, although she does confess she didn’t dig too deep on bigamy for Bliss.

“No, I’m meant to believe in him, so I didn’t really, but it seems to be quite a popular thing!” she says, voice rising in surprise. “Terrible. Although things are being outed now, and there’s nowhere to hide any more. It’s a powerful time for lots of issues,” she says.

For her part Hartley has signed up with UN Women UK for their Draw A Line campaign, alongside Benedict Cumberbatch, Joanne Froggatt and Billie Piper. Aimed at highlighting violence against women, it sees Jo “drawing a line” for the one in three girls whose first sexual experience is rape.

“I thought hard before taking the campaign on, because if I get involved I want it to be from an authentic place. Then when I did it, one of my male friends called me and said I’m absolutely in bits here because my mother was abused constantly by my alcoholic father and seeing you stand up and be a face and voice for people that don’t have one, I think it’s amazing. That really moved me.”

It’s clear Hartley has a thoughtful, spiritual side and she recommends I read Florence Scovel Shinn’s books, The Game of Life and How to Play It and The Complete Works.

“Everyone should read them,” she says, “about spiritual law and how we navigate our thinking. I listen to a lot of Alan Watts and Eckhart Tolle and do a lot of meditation and self care,” she says, and she does come across as someone who has worked through their issues and come out the other side.

“My dad passed away when I was 17 and it’s like yesterday, I miss him dreadfully. It’s horrible when you lose someone, but I guess it’s the cycle of life. You don’t think that at the time, but as life goes on, you know… my lucky number is 24, the number I hold close to my heart, and when I got Eddie the Eagle, he had it on his shirt. It’s my mum’s door number, my dad’s birthday, lots of special sorts of links for that number.” She’s a big believer in synchronicity, and was delighted when she arrived at The Crucible to rehearse Chicken Soup and found a production of The Wizard of Oz on the current bill. “How weird is that. It brought me back full circle. The universe is good to us if we’re kind to people.”

So with the universe being good to her, Hartley is very content with her life in her flat in Hackney Wick, an area that has elevated from “pretty run down to groovy” over the 16 or so years she has lived there.

“I’m single, or single and sensible as my mum says. She’s 84 and says ‘oh, stay single, have fun, go to New York, do your thing, don’t have kids!” She laughs.

“I seem to have come full circle and am starting to understand what that means, that journey that Dorothy went on in The Wizard of Oz, and how we are responsible for our own lives. Of course it depends on what and who is around you, but we are capable of change and shouldn’t be scared,” she says.

Looking ahead Hartley has projects on the go but can’t discuss them yet, although there is mention of a film and there may be some more Bliss in the form of a second series. She’s also working with writing partner Maria McIndoo, who is in New York.

“We write together everyday and do Skype and Google documents and Facebook. We’re writing something offbeat at the moment, but I don’t want to talk too much about it yet, until it’s cooked.

“And I love the work of people like Isabelle Huppert and Frances McDormand, that kind of stuff. I’d love to play those kind of roles. I think I’ve got that in me,” she says.

“I’m 45 now, quite a young, sorted 45-year-old, but I’m definitely embracing my age. I definitely believe and promote that life began at 40 for me, exactly. I had an amazing childhood and early 20s, then it got a bit confusing.

“But now I feel like I’m in the best years of my life if I’m honest, I feel like I’m just getting warmed up.”

Bliss continues on Wednesdays on Sky One at 10pm.