Northern Soul

30 minutes with ‘This is England’ actress Jo Hartley

It’s funny who you bump into at a petrol station…I was mundanely filling up my car, watching the pump drain the money from my purse with every squeeze of the trigger, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a lady walk across the forecourt who looked more than a little familiar to me. Now, I know we often have these ‘déjà vu’ moments but I had to ask myself ‘where did I know her from and why did I have an overwhelming urge to say hello?’

I closed my eyes…think Michelle!! Then, like a flurry of new balls from Wimbledon, it hit me…the lady handing her card over to the cashier was Oldham born actress Jo Hartley who had starred in one of mine (and millions of other viewers) favourite drama series of 2010 This is England 86.

As a rule, I don’t do the ‘are you so and so?’ thing (I’m far too cool for school for that) but this time I found myself picking up pace and getting over to where she was before I missed my moment. It was worth it. Jo was lovely, she oozed Northern charm and in the short time we chatted I found out she had been more than a little busy acting in a number of high profile projects. Well, not one to miss an opportunity to bag an interview with one of Britain’s hottest new stars, I asked her for 30 minutes to share with Manchester’s Finest readers, and here it is…

So, firstly I have to ask, what made you want to get into acting Jo?

The first time I got the buzz for it was when I was at school, about 10/11 years old. I got the part of Gretel, one of the Von Trapp children in The Sound of Music. I remember performing for the first time onstage in front of all these people and I really got the taste for it, so I guess it was early on. I also loved movies and spent a lot of my teens watching Scorsese films like Mean Streets and seeing some great actors at work like De Niro and Meryl Streep. Along with that I was acting at my school, North Chadderton, where there was a really good drama group which at the time included William Ash, Nicola Stephenson, and Matthew Dunster – all of whom have gone on to do fantastically well.

How do you go from being a young girl from Chadderton with a passion for drama, to now ‘living the dream’?

I actually didn’t think it was possible. I was brought up in a working class family, with a great upbringing and childhood. In those days though it was the ‘norm’ to get a job and work as soon as you left school…going to drama school to train was unheard of. I thought ‘how am I going to do this’ as it all seemed so out of reach.

Did that make you want to give up?

Well, a major turning point for me was when I was seventeen – my Dad died and I just decided to give up the dream and go to work because it seemed my hopes of attending places like RADA and Mountview were just out of the question. Instead I started clubbing, going to the Hacienda and getting involved with lots of people from the music industry. I just left acting to one side and concentrated on working. I used to get drama school applications from time to time and when they would come I would look at them and think ‘who am I kidding, I can’t afford that’ and put them in the bin, so I never trained. I actually didn’t act for 5 years. I went away and became an Air Hostess with Japanese Airlines and travelled the world to get away from everything. It was only afterwards, near the end of my time as an Air Hostess, I decided to get some one-on-one acting lessons where we looked at method acting and Stanislavsky. It interested me as it was a style preferred by actors I admired, the rest I learnt on the job. I’ve been professionally acting now since I was 29. In my opinion you can either act or you can’t – it’s instinct, it’s being able to be ‘in the moment’ and most importantly listen, react to other actors and be able to tell a story.

Do you think your life experience is what makes you able to give ‘reality’ to the roles you play?

I think so. The thing is if I would have got my break say at 18/19 years old I wouldn’t have had the depth I have now in my performances. I don’t mean that in an egotistical way but I have been through things like losing my father…difficult times, heartbreak. My friends say to me I have had 10 lives and I think that’s true, I have dealt with a lot and come through the other side. I have always had that strong dream of being an actress and I think that’s what has carried me through. I am an artist, success comes if you are good at something, fame doesn’t interest me. I’m a late starter to this industry but I think it is good sometimes to not be ‘polished’ and instead to have that ‘edge’. How can you play a heroin addict without having something to relate it to? No, I have never taken heroin myself but I have experienced pain which I can call upon to give truth to a character like that. When I play a role lots of things are important me; the clothes need to be right, I need to know the back story of the character – even if I am in something for 10 minutes I actually write a whole back story. The details are important, I always do my homework.

You worked with Shane Meadows who obviously has the same ethos for getting that realism across – what was that like?

I met Shane when I was 30 years old. My agent rang me up and asked me to go for a casting for a commercial. I didn’t want to do that sort of thing at the time but I had heard about Shane and he was the one doing the commercial, so I though I’d go along and give it a shot. I actually got the job and during the shoot Shane asked me to go to a workshop for a film he was doing, it went well. A week later he sent me a script in the post which ended up being for Dead Man’s Shoes – my first movie. It was when we did that together he said ‘there’s something about you that’s very real and natural-you have the ability to listen’. He really wanted us to work together again, so Shane gave me my first break and for that I’ll be eternally grateful…he’s a genius.

How did you get onboard with him for ‘This is England’ then?

We kept in touch and Shane started talking about this film he wanted to make and he wanted me to help out with the audition process. So, I went down to Nottingham, where they were auditioning for the young lads role of Shaun and I worked alongside them doing the read-throughs. When I came out Shane said ‘you’re Cynth’ (the Mum), and that was it really. The good thing about Shane is he sees something in you – he doesn’t necessarily go for established stars, he goes for people who fit the character like Joe Gilgun (Woody) and Vicky McLure (Lol). He takes a long time to cast a film, he picks up on people’s abilities and puts them in a ring together so he can see the chemistry and let them fly. It’s inspirational really as he gives you the opportunity as an actor to create a character. Shane’s very organic, he will describe the scene to us as actors and then we improvise around it which might mean around 6 or 7 takes to get it just right. It takes a long time, but it gets that realism and it feels good to not just turn up on set and say the words. That’s what Shane likes and I was very lucky to have that masterclass in just ‘being’.

Did you ever imagine ‘This is England’ would have the impact it has?

Not at all, if I’m honest, we never really thought that far ahead. I was cast first and then me and Shane went around to help find the rest of the cast, primarily the boy who was to play my son Shaun. We found a great little lad called Tomo (Turgoose)who was perfect but he was a bit of a handful when we started shooting, so much so we had to lie and say to him in the second week if he didn’t behave we would get someone else in and I think that worked! It was a hard film to make, it was very emotional, dark and risky. This is England was all filmed in Nottingham and we had no idea what the response would be to the story that Shane wanted to tell. I remember it wasn’t until I went along to the world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival that I really thought this might be something – the film got a standing ovation and people loved it, which was something we had been intially worried about as the content was so heavy. After the film Tomo’s mum died which was really sad and we all seemed to have a hard time throughout that film with things happening to a lot of the cast. We became like a family and got each other through the bad times, that’s what was great about being able to do This is England 86. Now we’ve just finished This is England 88 which moves the story along again, it’s out soon that’s all I can say, I can’t discuss it or Shane will kill me!

Now this Sunday night (3rd July) you are on the box again, this time in BBC1 drama ‘Stolen’, tell me about it.

It’s several stories intertwined about human trafficking children, which is heavy but a really relevant story to things happening today that people just don’t know about. It has a great writer behind it, Stephen Butchard, and Justin Chadwick directs who previously worked on The Other Boleyn Girl. I’ve seen it and it looks amazing, Damian Lewis, the lead, is great as the detective on the case and it’s all set in Manchester which is a first for me. I did six days of filming on Stolen and I play a woman called April Harris who looks after the children who have been trafficked in a ‘safe house’, so it’s a key character and was a great role to play.

I’m listening to you now Jo and one thing that’s crossed my mind is that all the parts you have played are very downbeat and grim. Don’t you ever want to do a role that makes you laugh? I’m worried you’ll get depressed playing all these heavy roles…

(Laughs) Funny you should say that, I am actually starting filming my first comedy in August – Channel 4 commissioned it after seeing the pilot we had done for them. It’s called The Mimic and is written by Matt Morgan, directed by Kieron Hawkes. The show is set around two friends, Martin and Jean – I play Jean and Terry Mynott from The Morgana Show plays Martin – he’s great we just clicked. I’ve also starred in a horror movie called Inbred which I just heard is having it’s premiere at London’s Empire Leicester Square at the end of August and headlining Frightfest… to be honest that has some dark humour in it too. Inbred is like nothing I have ever done before, it’s blood, gore and madness. The story is about a couple of care workers who take five naughty kids to a retreat for a week to do a project and then spooky things start to happen. It’s my first lead role and I get to kill people and kick ass which I’ve loved!

If you could choose any role that’s out there or has been out there, what would it be then?

I think the part I’d have loved to play was Elisabeth Shue’s role in Leaving Las Vegas, it’s my favourite and I love her. There are so many parts though…I think the close runners up would be Juliette Binoche’s role in Three Colours Blue and Julie Walters part in Educating Rita. Also, there’s so many people I’d like to work with…my dream would be to star alongside an acting idol of mine, Daniel Day Lewis and I would liked to have been in a film directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski but unfortunately he has passed away now. At the moment though, I’d love to do a love story, not a cheesy one just a good beautiful love story.

Would you ever be tempted to go across the pond and try to break Hollywood?

I would, only when I’m invited though! I’d love to do a ‘big ass movie’, something weird maybe with Tim Burton and the lovely Johnny Depp. I may leave Lancashire for a wee while but Lancashire will never leave me. I love my home and I love being Northern…so take note all you casting directors out there, I’m ambitious, I can do a good accent and I’m coming to get you.

I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life and can certainly say my dreams are only just beginning to come true. Never give up the faith…miracles are amongst us!

Future projects featuring Jo Hartley are :
Peter Morgans 5 part ITV courtroom drama The Jury 2 starring Julie Walters.
Plan B’s directorial debut feature film Ill Manors starring Riz Ahmed.
Plus the eagerly awaited This is England 88 by Shane Meadows for Channel 4.

Interview by Michelle Eagleton, if you’d like to contact Michelle please email on michelle@manchestersfinest.com

Image by Christopher Ball

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