Joanna Vanderham stars in BBC One's new Glasgow-set thriller, The Control Room

Joanna Vanderham stars in BBC One's new Glasgow-set thriller, The Control Room

Joanna Vanderham, who stars in The Control Room, BBC One. Pic: David Reiss
Joanna Vanderham, who stars in The Control Room, BBC One. Pic: David Reiss

Joanna Vanderham is at home in London, a rare occurrence for the Scottish actor who has been away working solidly for the past few months.

“I’ve been all over the shop so it’s nice to be in one place for a bit,” she says, relaxed and keen to talk about her lead role in the BBC’s must-see thriller drama series The Control Room, which was filmed in and around Glasgow it will air this week.

“It was just such a dream to be back in Glasgow and filming in Scotland as well. And it’s just a dream to be back on the BBC.”

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    Viewers will recognise Perthshire-born and raised Vanderham from last year’s Crime, the adaptation of the Irvine Welsh best-selling novel, in which she played Dougray Scott’s detective sidekick DS Amanda Drummond. Always planning to be an actor, she was just 17 when she began studying at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and in her second year was spotted for her first role in The Runaway, for which she was nominated for an International Emmy Award.

    “I was determined to leave school and study acting but I wasn’t getting in so my mother phoned up and asked ‘why is my daughter not getting a place?” She laughs. “They said we want her to go and live a little bit first,” but I was adamant then I got in and got a role in my second year so I felt vindicated.”

    Film, TV, and theatre work followed, with Stephen Poliakoff's Dancing on the Edge, Retribution, Richard Greenberg's The Dazzle alongside Andrew Scott, Desdemona in Othello and Lady Anne in Richard III with Hugh Quarshie and Ralph Fiennes. More recently the 30-year-old has been working on the films Eddie & Sunny, with Gabriel Luna, and Selkie, a short film with Steven Cree, as well as The Control Room.

    Starring Vanderham and Iain De Caestecker (BBC’s Roadkill and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D), The Control Room is full of familiar faces including Sharon Rooney, Line of Duty's Taj Atwal and Stuart Bowman, who played Roy Lynch in the second season of Guilt. Directed by Trust Me's Amy Neil, the drama begins when Gabe, an emergency call handler for the Scottish Ambulance Service, recognises the anonymous voice on the line - someone with more than just a medical emergency to worry about.

    Joanna Vanderham as Sam with Iain De Caestecker as Gabe in BBC One's The Control Room. Pic: BBC/Hartswood Films/Jamie Simpson

    The BBC One three-parter is one of those edge of the seat shows where you tread carefully in an interview for fear of giving away spoilers, in addition to which Vanderham’s character Samantha is surrounded by mystery.

    “Samantha is a tricky character and I want so much to talk about her, but there’s a lot that I’m not allowed to say,” says Vanderham

    An intriguing figure from the outset, with her past, present, mindset and motivations unclear, for Vanderham this made her all the more fun to play.

    “What’s really interesting for me about Sam is that she is really struggling to figure out how to live her life. She’s had a really painful childhood. Her mum left without telling her she was leaving so she’s always had this sense that if she ever trusts someone, the people that she gets closest to, there is a possibility that they could leave her, so she doesn’t really let anyone get close. How do you play someone who doesn’t want to have a connection, who doesn’t want to let you see all of themselves?

    Joanna Vanderham with Iain De Caestecker in BBC One's The Control Room, which was filmed in and around Glasgow. Pic: Jamie Simpson

    “She’s this incredible dichotomy of she puts up a front which says don’t come near me and actually what that does is make people want to lean in; they want to know more about her because of that. I found that really fascinating and it was quite a challenge to play, which is good.”

    “She’s also in over her head so she’s worried about money, about how she’s gonna keep the lifestyle she wants, how she envisioned herself, and I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to nowadays with social media. It’s that thing of what are you projecting? You’ve got this kind of public persona and then you’ve got your private life and that was something I really related to because I shied away from social media for quite a long time and I’m quite a private person so the idea that you’re supposed to let people into your home and your life and it’s expected, I find that tricky. It really has made me think about well, what kind of person am I? What kind of things am I projecting to the world? How am I coming across? And sometimes I think you get up your own butt. Just stop thinking about yourself so much,” she laughs. “So I think there’s something about her that people will relate to.”

    With De Caestecker’s character, Gabe, an open book, and the viewer with him every frantic step of the way as he reacts to his world being turned upside down - think not all heroes wear capes - some wear hoodies and have panic attacks - Sam’s reticence speaks volumes.

    One thing is certain though, she would definitely stand out in a line up.

    Dougray Scott and Joanna Vanderham in Crime. Pic: Britbox

    What kind of person who is on the run is wearing a bright leopard print coat and pink trousers?” she laughs. “She’s quite easy to spot and what’s fun about that is it raises the stakes again, because oh my god, this girl, she’s a whirlwind that comes out of nowhere and has such impact on Gabe’s life. He’s kind of on a track and not really thinking about where it’s going and what he’s doing - and she just comes in like a wrecking ball. She’s ‘Nah, we’re doing something else now’, and then they have this kind of Bonnie and Clyde week so yeah, it was a fun one. It’s kind of True Romance meets Trainspotting.

    “What I found most fun about that was imagining all the different people she’d met in her life and all the relationships she’d had. For example she’s wearing lots of jewellery - rings and necklaces - and we decided she’s just pinched them from folk in her life and is just wearing them. How brazen is that as a character? Like ‘yeah, I’ve stolen this signet ring from you and I’m just gonna wear it every day with your initials on it’. She’s also pinched someone’s diamond engagement ring. I just thought that kind of personality was so engaging to play.”

    If viewers are unsure whether or not Sam is to be trusted, Vanderham reckons even the character herself doesn’t know the answer. Neither did she, as filming had an organic feel.

    “I think she’s surprised by what she is capable of and that was a really fun part of the portrayal, that we didn’t want her to come across like she’d already decided what to do. So she’s battling with ‘can I go through with what I want to do?’ There are so many moments where I’m on the cusp of telling him [Gabe] the truth, or telling him to stop, or telling him to carry on, and then changing my mind, it’s really nice is that the director kept a lot of those bits in and that was all kind of added as we rehearsed and in the moment, that wasn’t necessary scripted. So I think Sam doesn’t necessarily know what she’s going to do at any given point and again hopefully I think that’s what makes it a kind of interesting watch.

    “Nick Leather [the writer] didn’t want the characters to seem like they knew they were in a thriller because that’s his pet peeve with TV shows or films, when your average guy is suddenly loading a gun and knows exactly how to run from the cops. He wanted it really to look and feel like normal people who are in an extraordinary situation and I think Iain played that INCREDIBLY well. Gabe is just so flummoxed and on the back foot at every turn, which really opened up some space for Sam to make it work, playing the cards, with a little bit of a Lady Macbeth kind of vibe in there.”

    Speaking of Lady Macbeth, with her background in theatre, is that a role she aspires to play?

    Joanna Vanderham as Sam and Iain De Caestecker as Gabe in The Control Room, BBC One. Pic: BBC/Hartswood Films/Jamie Simpson

    “I would LOVE to play Lady M,” she says. “I’ve been telling my agent that for a very long time. And it’s fun as well because when I started acting I was often cast as a sort of very sweet person who didn’t really know what they were doing, characters who were trying to figure out how to assert themselves, and I think it’s maybe a bit of a jump for casting directors to think oh actually Jo Vanderham, she’d be a really good Lady M. So this is a nice kind of addition to the showreel to say, hey, think of me in a slightly different way everybody. There’s a lot more that I’ve got to give and a lot more that I can offer.”

    Just as The Control Room turns the tradition of ordinary joe suddenly becomes gun-toting all-action hero on its head, it also subverts the expectations of gender roles.

    “Yeah, definitely,” says Vanderham. “I think that was potentially related to having Amy as the director. There was that kind of feminine touch about this is what I want it to play like and this is what I want it to look like and I think visually it is incredibly engaging. She’s taken inspiration from the likes of Hitchock and David Lynch and is using that to suggest this is a thriller, and then the acting and the characters are kind of much more based in reality and what you would actually do if you found yourself in that situation.

    With rows and rows of identical fir trees at a Christmas tree plantation, hidden houses in woods, disembodied yet familiar voices from the past, characters hiding in single rooms and even wardrobes, the locations are key to adding to the unsettling vibe.

    “Yes the trees were an incredible location. We were filming in October so it wasn’t that cold and you’re just surrounded by all these Christmas trees and it was very surreal. Then on the last night we were filming a night shoot and mist had settled on the trees and they were all glittering. It was so eerie and magical, and what’s wonderful is that’s captured in the final episode. Also Kelvingrove Museum happened to have the Floating Heads installation while we were filming so that was written into the script, and it was just perfect for it, with all those different faces and expressions.”

    With a new series of Crime having been announced by ITV - season one was released on BritBox last year and will premiere on ITVX ahead of the second series launch - what can Vanderham tell us about any part she may be playing in the Edinburgh filmed crime drama?

    The answer is nothing but she can talk about season one which was a hit with viewers, and she credits Dougray Scott, who was an executive producer on the show as well as playing DI Ray Lennox, as one of the driving forces behind including a female perspective.

    “He was on that,” she says. Their screen characters’ relationship, however, didn’t get off to such a positive start.

    “Amanda Drummond thought she was going to head up an all-female unit but then was told that wasn’t happening and she was being paired with him, so they got off on the wrong foot,” she says. “Like when he tells her to drive because he has to think, as if she’s just going to be his driver, she’s not impressed. But then she does begin to pull him up about the kind of things it’s not OK to say any more, and also gets to have a go at [the flagrantly unreconstructed] Dougie Gillman. So she’s a character who maybe eye-rolled at the start, but by the end she’s speaking up. So she’s good for him and he’s good for her too.”

    Looking ahead, aside from a desire to play Lady Macbeth, Hedda Gabler is another role she’d love, while she’s turned her attention to producing too. Keen for variety in roles as her career progresses, she welcomes something of an acknowledgment that, as she puts it, ‘women don’t just disappear once we are over 25.’

    “I used to get the ingenue, the person who doesn’t know what’s happening. Now I feel in a completely different place in my career. I’m getting more interesting roles and I’m loving it.”

    The Control Room airs from Sunday 17 July at 9pm on BBC One. All episodes will be available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

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