Interview: The Crown actress Yolanda Kettle

Yolanda Kettle stars in The Crown Picture: Debra Hurford Brown, location, Clissold House, www.hackneyvenues.com
Yolanda Kettle stars in The Crown Picture: Debra Hurford Brown, location, Clissold House, www.hackneyvenues.com
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The rising star steams in Season Two of The Crown

Curled up in an armchair in her home in London, in Sweaty Betty yoga leggings and “a stripey jumper with a stain on it”, up and coming actor Yolanda Kettle is a far cry from her most recent screen embodiments, a hard-partying society hostess in Netflix series The Crown and an endearingly inappropriate Edwardian wife in BBC’s Howards End

She’s sitting pretty as one to watch with a roster of roles getting her noticed on prime time as online streaming giants Netflix and Amazon slug it out for UK viewers with big budget offerings. She’s in season two of the The Crown this week – Netflix’s most expensive commission to date – on the back of her outing in last year’s Amazon Prime Video post-war Paris fashion world crime drama The Collection, which was set in a cut-throat couture world where everyone had a skeleton in their catwalk closet. In Howards End – the BBC adaptation of EM Forster’s 1910 novel in which he skewered the British class system and attitudes to sex, money and power in a four-hour miniseries that filled the post-Downton Abbey Sunday night corset slot – she urged us all to “connect” with each other.

Last year also saw her feature alongside Helena Bonham Carter and Faye Marsay in BBC’s comedy drama Love, Nina and win praise for her ability to capture a character from the age of seven to 70, when she starred onstage opposite Anne-Marie Duff in Oil at the Almeida. Also in the can and due to air in spring is season two of ITV’s Marcella starring Anna Friel, a crime noir detective series from The Bridge’s Hans Rosenfeldt.

Just back from yoga, Kettle, 28, is relaxed and happy, settled in the home she shares in Hackney with boyfriend Patrick, a restaurant manager, and she laughs frequently in conversation about her career and roles. Take Dolly Wilcox, her character in Howards End, the pretty wife of a wealthy businessman, constantly with child and with a propensity to say the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. Golf-club wielding Dolly, loyal but slightly doolally, is the one everyone likes to poke fun at yet unwittingly delivers crucial dialogue despite herself.

“Dolly! Oh, Dolly,“ she laughs. “It says in the novel something like, ‘It was the custom to laugh at Dolly’ … yes, she plays golf very badly and she’s made fun of. It’s a shame for her,” she says. And sniggers again.

“It’s brilliant, isn’t it?” she says, referring to Howards End. “Beautifully acted by everyone and I felt watching it that it had a contemporary feel about it. I think that’s because the screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan, who did [Oscar-winning 2016 film] Manchester by the Sea, has stayed true to what EM Forster has written, but made it really accessible. Somehow he brought the relationships to life with pacy dialogue; brought out the wit.

“And also I thought from a female perspective it was interesting, with the sisters who want to discuss politics and ideas, and characters like Dolly who have a more traditional viewpoint, wanting men to take the important decisions. She very much wants to be a good mother and is ambitious for the family, but didn’t want to be involved in politics, art, culture like some of the other characters – she just wants the best for her children.

“But there’s a big change for her by the end of the story, although she still tries to keep a brightness about her. You get the sense that these are all real people.”

Kettle ramps up the verisimilitude playing a real person in The Crown, as Camilla Fry, wife of the chocolate company founder and friend of Princess Margaret. Season Two of the Golden Globe-winning series covers the period 1955 to 1964 and as well as the Suez Crisis, the assassination of JFK and the Profumo Affair, there is also Princess Margaret’s tumultuous love life to rattle the Queen’s pearls.

After Margaret’s doomed relationship with Second World War air ace Group Captain Peter Townsend, she marries handsome photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, who was on marriage created Earl of Snowdon. But far from being a happy ending, rumours of affairs abound, including those surrounding Snowdon and the Frys.

“Camilla’s very cool. Sophisticated and super cool; I want to be her,” says Kettle. “She and her husband, heir to the Fry’s chocolate fortune and an entrepreneur, lived in this amazing manor near Bath and had all these amazing parties – wild nights, scores of friends coming; they hung out with an artistic set. She has an affair with Lord Snowdon, but I don’t want to give too much more away…”

Playing a real person was a challenge for Kettle, not least because although Camilla is now dead, her children and grandchildren are alive.

“When I got the script I thought, ‘Wow, this is so interesting!’. You forget that these are real people, especially the Royal Family. There are a few things out there about Camilla, which were helpful and it was a collaborative process with the costume and hair and make-up department, putting a character together. So we had a look that we kept throughout. Then, as with Howards End, you don’t want to get too bogged down in trying to recreate something, you have to go on and do your own interpretation.

“Stepping onto something like The Crown was really daunting because it’s such a huge production – the scale and the ambition, and attention to detail are huge. But the rest of the cast are amazing and everyone is so down to earth that it was a complete joy. I loved that job! Watching Claire Foy, who is so warm and friendly, do this incredible transformation on camera – she’s a queen of the screen!” And Kettle laughs again.

Key to Foy’s award-winning transformation into the Queen was her accent, as no-one else talks like the royals, especially as they did back in the 1950s and 1960s – and their “set” possessed similarly distinctive diction that Kettle had to master.

“I had help with the accent because they wanted quite heightened RP, although not as sharp as the royals. So that was quite tricky, and it all kicked off from the tiniest little vowels or consonants. I’d think, ‘I’m doing that!’ but I wasn’t, so it was tricky.”

Much easier accent-wise were the Cornish tones we hear in West Country medical comedy drama Doc Martin, in which Kettle played an angry farmer suffering from orf (a viral skin disease caught from sheep and goats). With its sunny seaside vibe and slower pace of life, interrupted by the occasional use of a household drill to relieve a subdural haemorrhage, it’s now on its eighth series.

“Oh, have you seen it?” says Kettle. “That’s so funny. My yoga teacher liked it too; she told me last night she’d seen me in it and I was a bit sort of… coy.” She laughs. “My character in that was very feisty and it was fun. It’s the atmosphere – it’s in Cornwall, the sun’s shining, everyone’s really happy, you just get swept up in the whole enjoyment of it, which is just lovely.”

More recently, aside from The Crown, Kettle has been working on the return of ITV’s crime drama Marcella, with Anna Friel, but is circumspect about saying too much about her character Becky, the new girlfriend of Anna Friel’s ex-husband. It’s a crime drama, so is Becky’s fate gritty and grisly at all?

“I couldn’t possibly say too much,” says Kettle. “And we only get the scripts as they come out, so the cast don’t know while they’re filming it either. Nobody knew who the murderer was until the last script was released. I had guessed correctly! But I can’t say…” She laughs.

Kettle was born in Birmingham to a Spanish mother and English father and lived there until she left after school to train at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda). “There’s more happening In Birmingham workwise these days, and a lot more in Manchester, but I’ve fallen in love with London and it’s my home now,” she says.

Kettle discovered she loved acting at an early age when she staged plays for her family, casting younger siblings and cousins in supporting roles.

“I was always doing performances in the living room and making my family watch. We put on Macbeth and I made my brother and my sister – they were tiny – play the witches. I dressed them up and put black all around their eyes, and I played Lady Macbeth, of course, in my gran’s slip and clip-on earrings.”

After Kettle graduated from Lamda, the roles began to roll in. Her first major part was on stage as Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull with Geraldine James in 2011 and last year Anne-Marie Duff was her co-star and sparring partner.

On the subject of Duff, Kettle is effusive: “Oh my gosh, what a woman and what an actress! She’s really extraordinary, so generous as an actor. The play was bonkers, jumping all through time, and we played mother and daughter at all different ages.”

With a body of theatrical experience to her name, Kettle feels on a firm footing treading the boards, but she declares television to be still very much a learning experience.

“I’ll experiment and try different things with TV. With theatre I have a bit more of a way that I approach it, I sort of feel like I’ve carved a path for me. But for screen acting, I think the biggest thing is to remind myself always to listen. Listen, listen, listen, which is so hard when you’ve got so many distractions: cameras, lights, booms, and people moving around.

“I think you’ve got to really concentrate. Sometimes you’re so swept up in the moment because people are shouting ‘action’ and moving things, and you’ve got to open this door and hit this mark – you really have to focus, it’s terrifying. But Anna [Friel] told me to trust my instincts.”

If it did all become too terrifying, does Kettle have a Plan B that she could employ to earn a crust? She doesn’t sound like someone who ever wanted to do anything other than act.

“No, I don’t know what I’d do. I have no idea.” She laughs.

When she’s not working Kettle loves hanging out in London’s restaurant scene with her boyfriend, as he checks out the culinary competition.

“He really enjoys cooking and is so passionate about what he does. He loves food and wine so much and it just feeds into our down time. We go out for dinner and eat lovely food and drink nice wine,” she says. “He’s really good at cooking. He can make anything – and it all tastes delicious.”

And Kettle, does she cook, or have a signature dish at all?

“Ha, ha. My boyfriend will literally laugh because I haven’t made it in so long, but it’s Giorgio Locatelli’s Sicilian dish, pasta con le sarde. So sardines, pasta, fennel, saffron, pine nuts and sultanas. It’s delicious. And I can make that!”

Next up for Kettle is a holiday – Christmas with the family, then a trip to Sri Lanka, “and then I don’t know. That’s the acting world,” she says, “where you don’t know what you’re doing next. I hate that. I hate it! Can’t bear it! It’s horrible. Because I love being busy. So my boyfriend’s the pillar of stability in our relationship, not me.”

Not that Kettle sits around when she’s not acting. There’s the yoga, plus she takes weekly Italian classes, and also visits her elderly friend, Rachel, who she started visiting as a volunteer. “She’s become a very good friend and has improved my life immeasurably,” Kettle says. “She has amazing stories – she’s really funny and there’s something so… it just takes you out of yourself completely when you go and see someone and talk to them and listen for a few hours a week. It just really brings you back down to earth and grounds you, makes you remember what’s really, really important.”

Ultimately what’s really important to Kettle is to “connect”, to foster human relationships and explore connections in work and life – and have a little fun along the way. EM Forster would approve.

The Crown, Season Two – all ten episodes are available now at www.netflix.com. Howards End is on BBC iPlayer, www.bbc.co.uk