Jessica Raine is a busy woman. I know because we’ve been trying to meet for weeks. As emails flew and diaries were examined, dates came and went, and eventually we gave up attempting to meet face to face and instead we’re speaking on the phone. But even that isn’t straightforward.
To be clear, it isn’t that Raine is one of those actors loafing around pretending to be busy, she is properly bona fide up to her eyes in work. With two new shows about to arrive on TV – the eagerly awaited adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on BBC2 and the glossy thriller Fortitude on Sky Atlantic, you might think by now, she must have her feet up with a cuppa. But no, now that we are on the blower, she’s actually in a trailer on a lunch break while shooting an Agatha Christie six-parter called Partners in Crime with David Walliams for the BBC.
“I’m so glad I got to eat before we spoke,” she says cheerily, “because I get so grumpy when I’m hungry. I had a nice cottage pie.” I’m glad too because it turns out Raine is possibly the least grumpy person I’ve ever interviewed. Instead she is funny and open and really rather charming.
Raine is still best known for playing midwife, Jenny Lee, in the Sunday night behemoth, Call the Midwife, which returns for a fourth series without its breakout star tomorrow night. You may baulk at my choice of words for a gentle, cosy Sunday night drama, but don’t forget this post-war, Poplar-set programme regularly commands audiences of more than 11 million viewers and has been sold to 102 countries around the world.
For Raine, not quite fresh from drama school (there had already been well received performances in state of the nation plays including Harper Regan and Earthquakes at the National in London), but still, in televisual terms, a newbie, it was quite a debut. And as is so often the case, it proved to be double-edged.
On the one hand, she had landed the lead role in a massively successful prime time drama. On the other, she was given a rather sudden leg-up to a level of recognisability she’d not yet experienced, but also in the odd way that only that particular kind of drama at that time of the week seems to encourage, people (journalists as well as viewers) started to confuse Jessica with Jenny.
It’s not that Raine has a bad word to say about the role which brought her to mainstream public attention, she doesn’t; it’s just that she’s nothing like the prim and proper 1950s midwife on a bike.
“It’s incredibly flattering that people think you are like your character because it means you’ve done your job really well,” she says. “But before playing that part I was playing terrible people on stage.” She laughs. “Horrible teenagers and burlesque strippers, so suddenly to be associated with one job was quite odd. Then you realise the whole longevity of your career is always going to be boxing out of whatever people think that you are. You’ve got to enjoy that or you’ll become frustrated.”
One suspects that’s the last fate that’s going to befall Raine. She’s at the start of what looks as though it will shape up to be a rather fine career (that’s my word, not hers; she reckons actors just get one job after another, there’s no “career” about it) because not only is she talented, she is tenacious too.
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This is, after all, the woman who after university was knocked back from every drama school in the land only to audition again the following year, and face having to do the same thing the year after that, had RADA not offered her a place.
The fact is, Raine has known since she was about 13 that she wanted to act. She didn’t tell anyone that, of course. Why would she? One of two sisters growing up on a farm in Herefordshire, she was the quiet one. She liked reading books and was a bit awkward socially.
Her dad was a farmer, her mum a nurse. They didn’t know anyone who was an actor so it wasn’t a job that seemed like a viable choice. And yet, there was just something that Raine couldn’t quite explain, nor could she forget, that made her believe that acting was for her.
“I always wondered if I was wrong about wanting to be an actor because it wasn’t going very well and how do you know anyway?” she says. “I wondered if I was one of the hundreds of people who want to be actors and who think they can do it and are probably wrong. I possibly was wrong at some point because I don’t think I was nailing how to do it. But I just had this funny feeling. There was only one point [when she couldn’t get into drama school] when I thought, right, I’m giving it one more try and then I’m going to find something else to do. But I honestly couldn’t think of anything else. Acting was the one thing I really felt that I could excel at. I just knew. It’s weird.”
Raine is interesting because since she graduated from RADA, the five weeks she had off last summer is the longest period she’s spent not working. I can practically hear the desperate sighs of all those actors who would chew off their own arms for such a CV.
It is amazing I say. “Yeah,” she says, sounding sheepish. “It has been. Listen, some of that was when I was at the National in Rep so within that you get a couple of weeks off here and there.” She pauses. “I did not expect it to be like this. We were really, really prepped for unemployment and it was like, ok, I’m going to have to get a job in a shop and find ways to keep up the acting on the side.” She laughs. “I’ve been really, really lucky.”
Maybe there has been a bit of good fortune in there, there usually is in any career, but there’s always more to it than that too. And it’s not difficult to work it out when you hear Raine talk about what acting means to her. When she speaks about acting her love of it – the excitement of creating a character and telling a story – is obvious in every word.
There’s nothing pretentious in how she speaks, she’s just genuinely and utterly passionate about what she does. She sounds excited about her roles even when she’s just talking about them and she’s got plenty to be excited about.
Her plan to have a rest after finishing Call the Midwife (and the run of Arnold Wesker’s 1958 kitchen sink classic Roots in which she was starring at the Donmar Warehouse at the same time as filming her final series) went a little bit awry. It was during her holiday straight after that busy period that she got the call about Fortitude, a glossy new Iceland-set drama for Sky Atlantic. “To be honest, I just didn’t want to think about a script or anything like that,” she says. “But I think we had the first two episodes and I really loved it.”
The first thing she was attracted to was that it is contemporary, which people haven’t seen her do. Her character is in a difficult marriage, she’s got a child and things aren’t going well. “I quite liked the idea of playing someone a bit dowdy and in a shitty place. After the primness and properness I felt that would be right. I immediately regretted it when I walked out of the make-up truck with no make-up on.” She laughs.
With a cast including Christopher Eccleston and Michael Gambon, Sofie Gråbøl and Stanley Tucci, there are high expectations for Fortitude. But, happily for Raine, they’re not resting on her shoulders. “It’s kind of mind-blowing when you look at the list of names,” she says of the cast. “It’s a lovely ensemble piece. I am in no way the lead of that show and I’m quite happy to be part of something where everyone was pulling together rather than carrying a show on my shoulders.”
It seems a bit counter intuitive for an actor to celebrate not being the lead but it also makes sense too. Raine knows what that feels like. She knows the toll that it takes. It’s also just not what she’s interested in. “I’ve never been particularly vain about whether I’m the lead or not,” she says.
“I was just interested in playing interesting characters and that’s what this offered. Also, I wasn’t ready to play the lead again. I was tired from doing the play [Roots] and filming at the same time. I wanted the kind of job that would allow me to have a life too. I’d been taking everything so seriously and throwing everything into the work and suddenly it was like it’s time to have a life again and see your friends.”
Raine lives with her partner, Tom Goodman-Hill who is also an actor. He most recently had a role in The Imitation Game as well as a recurring part in ITV’s period offering, Mr Selfridge as Mr Grove.
They do talk about work, she says. But that’s not all that they talk about. “We’re both really passionate about what we do so it’s fun to talk about it,” she says. “But it’s not the only thing we talk about. It’s a job, that incorporates a lot of other stuff – politics, travel – it’s the other thing I love about this job that it allows you to dip into other worlds so the conversations it sparks off wheel off into lots of different things.”
And that suits Raine just fine, because what she wants is to try lots of different things. Maybe that’s why she’s enjoying filming with Walliams so much.
She hasn’t seen any of what they’re filming yet, but she’s having a lot of fun doing it. “It’s serious but it’s also very funny – I can’t wait to see the edit,” she says. “[David] is playing it incredibly straight and I worry that I’m the one who is massively over-acting.” She laughs. “But I’ve been playing these parts where you’re sitting on a lot of emotion. You know, you’re serious and pale and wan and this is... I grabbed this with both hands because she’s nothing like I’ve ever played. She’s really fun and front-footed and intensely curious and gets into trouble because of it. He’s much more cautious and doesn’t want to get involved. She’s bored and is like, ‘let’s just do it’. It’s so much fun.”
That’s not very Jenny Lee, is it? And it’s not very Lady Jane Rochford, either. Lady Jane, the wife of Anne Boleyn’s brother, is Raine’s character in Wolf Hall. “She’s a terrible person,” Raine says, sounding delighted. “She’s really bitter; she’s not had a great life.”
Caught up in the machinations of the Tudor court, Jane testified against her husband and his sister, helping to ensure their executions before she herself was executed along with Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. “She’s really pinched. I absolutely loved playing her. The Tudor clothes are so uncomfortable – and I wore a wig with a very unflattering centre parting. It was like this armour of stuff being put on – I was corseted up and my bosom pushed out. She looks like a spider, completely evil.”
She can’t wait to see it, she says, crediting Mark Rylance, who plays Thomas Cromwell, as being both warm and generous as well as possessing “other-wordly talent”. And yet again, it’s clear that’s what excites her most – acting. On stage, she says she feels “safe and in control”. “It’s instinctive,” she says, “like I know how to do this because it’s the framework of a story and I know where it’s going. It’s the most beautiful feeling in the world.”
And on camera too, she’s found her way, in no small part because of Call the Midwife. “Before that I was auditioning a lot for TV and I just couldn’t get the knack of it – the camera was this really big scary, black machine and it was like ‘oh my god, how do you act in front of that, it’s giving me nothing.’ I’ve learned to really love the crew, the camera team – it’s a whole new side of acting that I’m discovering. Suddenly it’s like, ‘what can I do?’ because I’ve relaxed. It’s really lovely.”
• Wolf Hall begins on BBC2 on Wednesday at 9pm, Fortitude is on Sky Atlantic from 29 January.
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