Jo Hartley: serving the story

Jo Hartley was inspired by the great method actors to play a bipolar character in her most recent role and now reprises her collaboration with Ricky Gervais in Netflix series After Life

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For the first few years of her career Jo Hartley’s friends and family kept asking her why she wasn’t being funnier.

“I am naturally a bit silly and that kind of big character… but I thought comedy wasn’t for real actors. I had this silly idea when I started out that I wanted to be Isabelle Huppert or Meryl Streep. I took myself far too seriously.”

Being cast in weighty roles served the Oldham-born actor well, however. She gained recognition in Shane Meadows’ This Is England in 2006, returning to her role of Cynth – the perma-permed depressed mum – for the film’s reprisals.

And, despite the heavy scenes, director Matt Morgan recognised her comedic potential. He cast her as Jean, the ditzy landlady and friend of the impressionist daydreamer in Channel 4’s 2013 series The Mimic.

She’s charming yet prickly. Loquacious yet guarded. Lighthearted, yet intense.

“I realise now that comedy is actually more difficult,” says Hartley, who nevertheless rose to the challenge enough to impress Ricky Gervais, who cast her
as Pauline Gray, timid colleague to his David Brent in 2017’s My Life on the Road. Now she’s returning to the collaboration for series two of Gervais’s Netflix series After Life, released this Friday.

“In life comedy and tragedy are very closely linked,” says the 48 year old. “They are in Shane Meadows’ movies, as they are in After Life. You have moments where things go from being hilariously funny to devastatingly upsetting. I don’t really put things in boxes. I follow the principle of intuition and imagination.”

Certainly Hartley is not a woman easily pegged. She’s charming yet prickly. She is loquacious yet guarded. Lighthearted, and yet intense. And her down-to-earth chatter sits at odds with her tendency to veer into spiritual contemplation.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the two series she’s currently starring in inhabit the shadowy recesses of the comedic spectrum. In addition to After Life – a series about a writer (Gervais) coming to terms with his wife’s untimely death – Hartley is also winding down after her role in BBC Three’s coming-of-age comedy-drama In My Skin.

“That has really challenged me – physically, emotionally, mentally. My character has bipolar and I’d never as an actor been somewhere as emotionally challenging as that. I’ve never experienced bipolar so it’s a whole new ball game of preparation, letting go of fear, having the confidence and totally letting go of expectations of yourself.”

Hartley plays Katrina, mother of Bethan (Gabrielle Creevy) – at the centre of the heartbreaking tale. Katrina has spent Bethan’s formative years in and out of institutions and, in a role reversal, is now being cared for by her daughter.

“It’s a beautiful love story about the two of them. It was a very challenging and cathartic experience and something I’ve never had the chance to do as an actor.”

Hartley says she took her “duty of care” towards sufferers of bipolar and their families very seriously and prepared for the role by speaking to charity Bipolar UK. More inwardly, she got into the headspace of her character by creating a playlist that included composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s soundtrack to TV series Chernobyl. But the actor didn’t initially approach it with such efficiency.

“When I got the role I was absolutely shitting myself – like, how am I ever going to do this? I am the sort of actor who wants to find the truth and be real so I had to use things outside of myself, plus my intuition and imagination – which is a divine gift – to remove all of the Jo and let in whatever needs to come through, to be the best version of that character within that script. I’m not playing everybody in the world who’s been bipolar – I’m playing a version of it in a fictional script.”

After Life
After Life

The actor credits director Lucy Forbes with taking her out of her comfort zone.

“I’d always looked at great method actors but it was the first time a director had said: ‘I’m going to take you away from everyone.’ She empowered me to actually to go there and it felt really liberating,” she says. “I was totally isolated from the whole cast and crew,
I didn’t wash my hair, I didn’t see anyone, I just stayed in character. There were a few times that I came out of character because I’m naturally very sociable, and Lucy would be like: ‘Stop it. Get back in your box.’ You can’t be having a chat with someone about a KitKat and what the weather’s like and then go into a full manic episode – it’s impossible.”

Hartley admits it was a “scary” and “disturbing” experience before pulling herself up. “I don’t want to make it about me and worthy – like, oh god, it was so hard. It wasn’t. It was an opportunity to be of service.”

She bats away the idea that she might have carried some of the burden of the role after the show had wrapped, although admits: “If I’m honest there was a little bit of a hangover for a couple of days because it was quite emotional and I’d experienced something on that set that I’d never experienced before. It was a moment of connection with my own father who passed away when I was 17 and it was an overwhelming moment.”

She believes her father was with her on set. “Whether that’s in my mind or not I don’t care – it’s my journey with spirit. Perhaps once we’re gone, we’re gone but I believe something else might be happening.”

It’s a theme explored, unsurprisingly, in After Life. Hartley plays June, initially written as a cameo appearance in season one but now a more rounded character.

“I’m shacked up with Lenny (Tony Way) and I have an interesting little journey. It’s a lot more fun. The character is more evolved and there are exciting opportunities ahead for her,” says Hartley, tight-lipped. “She’s such a beautiful character – she talks too much, a bit like me.” The acting experience was “totally different” to In My Skin.

“After Life was more learn the lines, find your timing and listen to your co-stars. Don’t overact. Don’t over-prepare. Don’t be impulsive.”

Nevertheless she says there’s great depth to the show.

“You think it’s just this lighthearted comedy but this is almost like a love letter from Ricky – an intimate journey for himself. But it’s this universal, poetic masterpiece because everybody goes through it, everyone experiences death and losing people – it’s the ordinary made extraordinary.”

Working with Gervais has been a great experience that has affected her as profoundly as working with Meadows.

“I love him – he’s a really good friend now. I really respect him as a creative. You think, oh, he’s just done that and it’s funny. No, no, no. This is unbelievably well thought through, intelligent comedy… And that’s what I love about TV at the moment – it’s opening up conversations about various things that in the past we have all shied away from.”

Hartley has heard from people claiming to have been helped through grief by watching After Life. Does she think it would have helped her, had it been available her when her own dad died?

“I can’t answer that accurately. My speculative answer would be yes but I was just 17. I was just discovering boyfriends, music, the Haçienda. I ran away from that grief but now it’s being dealt with through openheartedness and I’m healing in my forties. I think about my dad every day but I don’t sit around crying every day. I think the grief does subside.”

Hartley describes at length – but with cautious elusiveness – an “awakening” in this most recent decade of her life.

“I started to see how important, precious and fleeting life is, and I wanted to start to be of service rather than be a taker. There are times in my life where I’ve been all consuming and obsessive – the drama of always wanting to be someone else. But now I’m really happy to be who I am and I feel like the best is yet to come.

“So that’s what happens in your forties – you get a load of information you don’t need,” she laughs. “Life’s just a big old paradox and although we’ve had this big, lovely, deep conversation it is just a case of reading the script and serving the story – whether it’s a goody, a baddie or an ugly.”

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