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Jodie Whittaker - The Night Watch interview

Jodie Whittaker in The Night Watch

Interview by Tim Carson

We talk to Jodie Whittaker about her role as Viv in the BBC dramatisation of Sarah Waters 1940s set novel The Night Watch. The drama centres on the story of four women and their lives before, during and after the war

Can you tell us a bit about The Night Watch and your character Viv?
Jodie Whittaker:
The script is backwards as it goes from 1947 to 1944 to 1941. And at the start you meet these battered and bruised people and you don’t know why. You slowly discover what the events where that got them to that state.

All the characters are connected by Kay (Anna Maxwell Martin) and she doesn’t really realise the effect she’s had on everyone. Kay (Anna) and Helen (Claire Foy) and Julia (Anna Wilson-Jones) have a relationship with each other whereas my character knows Claire’s character but we don’t really know anything about each other. We’ve known each other for years, but keep our lives completely private.

Viv was really interesting to play because she has that faux confidence where she uses her sexuality with men but it’s to hide a complete vulnerability, a sadness and a loss of youth because of the things that happened to her during the war. Her relationship with her brother has been hard too – he lives a life she doesn’t really want to talk about or admit so it’s a really complex character.

It’s a really ambitious period too because often when you do Forties you do war, you don’t often do mid-war, end of war and pre-war. So to play that kind of female liberation where you go from being told: “You’ve got to go be an ambulance driver and you’ve got to go work in the Home Office,” to when the men come home and go: “Sorry can you just go back to being at home again.” We can’t appreciate what that’s like and that was only 1947. So two years after the euphoria of the end of the war, if you’re female, you’re on rations and you’ve been kicked out of whatever jobs you were doing and are back to being the little woman. And that’s a really interesting thing to tackle.

Was it a difficult part to play and was it difficult to film?
It was difficult because of what goes with filming, you know, weather conditions – things that you can’t do anything about like the cold. It does really affect you – when it’s freezing it’s always difficult. Things had to be done very quickly but that’s the way it is you get an amount of time and you’ve got to do it. Filming in the run up to Christmas means you’ve got no leeway to run over.

From an actor’s point of view it’s an absolute dream because you’re given so much material and your homework’s done as you’ve got an entire novel’ So if in the script it says: “Viv looked out the window with an air of sadness.” That’s one little direction, but I have two chapters on why I’m like that in a book. The whole description of the the brother and sister relationship between Viv and Duncan – played by Harry Treadwell – means you’ve got that much work all ready done for you before you even start shooting. It’s really lovely to be in pieces like that.

What was it like filming in Bath?
It was wonderful and perfect for period dramas. Larkrise to Candleford and Tess of the D’Urbervilles were done there. And even though this is much more modern than those it’s still London. In London you can’t film a street and not have something out of the 20th century just popping out whereas Bath has all those beautiful crescents that work for things like that. Although it’s a nightmare at Christmas because you spend so much money – with all those Christmas markets!

It was just very, very cold. Particularly, for Claire and Anna Maxwell Martin who did a lot of work outside with an ambulance and at a lot with bombsites in London. They were outside a lot at four o’clock in the morning in three feet of snow – because it was so wintery when we filmed last December. The studio was so cold it felt almost real – it was a bit method without meaning to be! It’s a beautiful group of people and we had such a good laugh. It’s quite a heavy piece and what’s required of each girl’s journey is quite epic so it was really lovely to have the camaraderie on set and a sense of humour.

And how long were you in Bath for?
The shoot was just three and a half weeks, which is really quick for a ninety minute show, and we were pretty much all there the whole time. That was lovely as you can sort of immerse yourself in the whole thing.

When you are in a cast like this – and I was one of the last ones cast I think, so I already knew that Claire and Anna were doing it – it’s so exciting. I was like: “I’m going to be in something with Claire Foy and Anna Maxwell Martin!” We’re so aware of each other’s work and it’s exciting to be in something together because most things have just got one girl in them and to be in something with your peers is wonderful.

So are you aware of the work Claire and Anna are doing?
Oh God, yeah. But half the time it’s because you’ve auditioned for it and not got it! You’re very aware. Especially Anna – she’s won two Baftas and if you’re not aware of someone like her then you’re not doing your research. And Anna Wilson Jones, to work with someone like her, who’s just that little bit older than us and so has done that much more, was brilliant.

It’s just exciting because you all go away from home and you’re thrust into something very quickly and you all become like a group of friends. I was lucky as well as a lot of my scenes were with Liam Garrigan (who plays Reggie) and he was in the third year when I was in the first year at drama school. And I’ve played Harry Treadaway’s sister before. We must look like each other or something which means I look like his twin brother Luke, too. I’ve got a whole family! Luke’s in Attack The Block with me and Harry was in The Shooting of Thomas Hurndell and I played his sister in that. It’ll be we weird though if we get cast as love interests!

Did you like the Forties outfits?
I did really well! My character’s quite vain, although in a vulnerable sense. She hides behind her full face of make-up and the pencil skirt. It was particularly brilliant when we worked in the office because Claire’s character wore a lot of cardigans and I’m walking round going: “Hi, sorry look at my costume!” But then again if you’ve got Claire’s face you don’t need a costume!

I never play parts like that I’m always in a tracksuit or crying. They go: “You’re playing someone really upset so I don’t think you’d wear make-up.” On this one I have a full hair-do and a different hair-do for every scene and I’m like: “Yeeeesss!”

My sole reason for becoming an actress was there’s a scene in The Goonies where they slide done a waterslide and I’m like: “They got paid for that! That’s their job!” When I was a kid I actually thought if you had a bike and ET sat in the front you’d fly. It was that that got me into acting. But as I got older and realised the parts I was playing lacked any good costumes it’s become more important. You know: “Let’s talk about the amount of mascara I’m allowed to wear!”

Did you read the book before filming The Night Watch?
Yes, I got the part and then I read the book. Obviously some things you have to leave because you have to shortcut when you transfer from a 300 page novel to a 90 minute drama. Some relationships you have to shortcut and some of the dialogue between Viv and Duncan had to be left out which covered some of the underlying tensions. There was just too much for it to be in the screenplay but it was helpful for us to know. I’d understand if someone said they weren’t going to read the book as they were playing the character from the screenplay but I was too nervous. I didn’t want to miss anything, like if she’d twitched her hands and that was a major thing in the book but not in the screenplay I’d hate to miss that.

You’ve said that you and your co-stars in this often go for the same parts – do you think women in the industry are short changed for roles?
It’s difficult for me to say – and in no way do I want to shy away from having a political opinion because I’d hate to be bland – but I’ve had no experience of being restricted for roles. I can see that there’s a certain age range of women that don’t get written for, but I’m 28 and I’m in that absolute box where there are parts and I’ve lucky enough to have not played the same part over and over again. I’ve been so lucky and I feel I can’t really comment on it as I’ve not experienced it.

How are you enjoying working in film and TV?
I’m enjoying both. Obviously, there’s much more speed with telly. Part wise I’ve equally enjoyed the roles I’ve had for TV as well as film. Not in any way to sound arrogant but I’ve done about 12 or 13 films, most of which most people will never see, whereas you can do Marchlands and everyone sees it. So there’s a stigma with telly that somehow it’s not as good as film, but it is. I thought Downtonwas brilliant and some of the other ITV stuff and the BBC do these one-off dramas that are brilliant too and whether that’s like The Accused on BBC1 or on BBC2 you always think it’s going to be good.

The Night Watch is on BBC2 on Tuesday, 12 July at 9pm

Next interview: Claire Foy, who plays Helen in The Night Watch