Jenna Coleman | We Are Not Interested in the Possibilities of Defeat. They Do Not Exist.
“New mothers are a silent tribe of warriors,” actress Jenna Coleman tells me, just a few minutes after her arrival for our meeting in London’s bohemian Soho neighborhood. She’s effortlessly pretty—deep brown eyes, a winning smile, chestnut hair and striking brows. The words, she explains, are not hers but those of a close friend: a new mother she spoke to ahead of filming her latest drama, The Cry. Whilst Coleman, a youthful 32-years-old, is not a mother herself, she already knows a thing or two about motherhood: playing the titular queen in television series Victoria, she’s already given birth on screen not one, but seven times. “Seven babies, nine altogether,” Coleman laughs. “Two more to go yet!”
Her role as new mother Joanna in The Cry is one of Coleman’s most controversial to date. A psychological thriller based on the novel by Australian author Helen Fitzgerald, the drama is already winning praise for its unflinching portrayal of motherhood. In the early episodes of the program, Coleman’s character struggles to adapt to the manifold challenges that motherhood brings. “She’s lost her identity,” Coleman says of Joanna, a new mum whose ideas of motherhood prove at odds with the reality. More truth is needed, Coleman says, about portrayals of mothers—and women—on our screens.
“There’s so much pressure on it being the most beautiful, precious, and special time of your life. If you don’t treasure every minute of it, then somehow you’re a failure. The reality is wildly different,” Coleman says, matter-of-factly. The two characters Coleman plays—Queen Victoria and new mum Joanna—couldn’t be further apart. Yet playing each emphasized to Coleman the differences in the way modern society treats new mothers compared to the past. “In the Victorian era if you had a baby, you had to go into confinement for a month to help your body to recover, and people helped you with the transition into motherhood. Now, you can literally be out of the hospital in six hours and you’re left to it. In our society, perhaps we need to be more open to how much of a challenge it can be…we need greater empathy.”
Fans of Coleman jumped to conclusions recently when a picture of the star pushing a pram was posted on social media. When I mention the story, Coleman turns scarlet with embarrassment. “I’m not insane, I promise… I was practicing,” she tells me, staring down at her white sneakers. Coleman hadn’t given birth—to help immerse herself in character, she took a pram out as she went shopping. The preparation didn’t end there either: she visited a midwife at a hospital, spent extensive time with children on set, and emailed all of her friends with children in the hope of garnering as many experiences as she could.
“Each of their experiences was so completely different,” Coleman says, explaining how nervous she was before filming began. “There’s this primal bond between a mother and a child. I emailed my friends and was like, ‘I’ve taken on this part and I really feel like I’m not…’” her voice trails off. “In the prep I definitely felt a growing pressure. The fact that I’d taken on a mountain hit home.” While her performance has been widely praised for its realism, Coleman tells me she had fears about authenticity, not being a mother herself. She reels off the questions she asked her friends: “What does it feel like? What are your hormones doing? What does the lack of sleep do to you? What’s the day-to-day like?”
We’re sitting alongside each other on a comfy sofa-seat inside a private members club in Soho on a sunny autumn afternoon. Dressed in a smart pinstriped dress and sneakers, Coleman often traverses the formal and the informal. Her answers are thoughtful and considered, and she’s exceedingly modest: when I mention how she is often described as “driven,” she angles her head away, turns scarlet once more and winces. “It feels like there’s something ruthless about it,” Coleman says of the term “driven”—her demeanor demonstrating that she’s anything but. “I used to balk at it.”
After we talk about it at length, Coleman concludes that the reason she is so uncomfortable with the term comes down to portrayals of women in the media. Just as her latest character Joanna is vilified by the media for being a “bad mother,” women who seem ambitious or career-driven still attract similar criticisms. “I don’t think being described as driven is anything that you should be ashamed of—that you love your job and want to keep doing it, that you really value it and want to explore it… yet for some reason, I always felt like being described as ‘driven’ or ‘determined’ was a dirty word.”
“I think I just perhaps need to own that, and not actually see it as a bad thing and be proud of the fact that I’m passionate about my job and that’s okay.” She looks down at the floor again, as if she only half believes it. “I shan’t apologize anymore,” she tells me, mimicking the regal voice of Queen Victoria. “I love how I’ve just said that in the most polite way possible…I need to stop apologizing.”
Part of the apologizing may come down – at least in part – to her working class background and education. Growing up in Blackpool, a seaside town in the north of England, Coleman began her first professional acting role aged just 18, in the long-running British soap opera Emmerdale. It was an inspirational drama teacher, Mr. Snell, who encouraged her to pursue acting, giving her practical advice and support through a self-funded theatre company run via her school. “Without him, I wouldn’t have known where to begin. We operated as a semi-professional theatre company in between school and holidays. We’d do all the props and set up ourselves…and travelled just anywhere it would take us; the shows would eventually pay for themselves. That kind of experience was invaluable. I’ve definitely not taken the traditional route, that’s for sure.”
Since then, she’s worked continuously in a number of increasingly high-profile roles, including as Doctor Who’s assistant on the long-running cult sci-fi television show and Lydia in the Pride and Prejudice spin-off Death Comes to Pemberley. But despite her rapid ascent, Coleman admits she still struggles with feeling unqualified, which she pins on her unorthodox path to acting. “I definitely feel a hole from having not been to drama school,” she tells me. “I still don’t feel qualified in any sense.” This is remarkable for an actress who is regularly acclaimed for her work.
Next year, for the first time since being a member of Mr. Snell’s theatre company, Coleman is heading back to theatre for a leading role in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, alongside Sally Field and Bill Pullman, in London’s West End. “It definitely doesn’t feel like a muscle I’ve flexed in a while,” Coleman says when I ask about her preparation and rehearsals. They’ll begin next year, after a rest and some time to stand still. “It’s an unknown, and I’ve got the fear,” Coleman says about the role. “But it’s a good fear,” she quantifies, laughing.
Coleman draws parallels between her role in The Cry and All My Sons, speaking about the depth and nuance of both roles. “There’s so much to play with under the veneer again…it’s like you’re playing chess but you’re playing chess with one of the most emotionally traumatic and scarring experiences that someone can go through,” she says of The Cry, after a dark secret is revealed mid-series. Is investing so much in characters with such emotional weight exhausting? Yes, she says, but she knows how to switch off. “Once you get into a filming schedule it takes over and you go home, you switch the lights off and you go to sleep… because the role was such an emotional marathon, I somehow trained myself to be light in between takes. Otherwise it would be like walking through mud all the time.”
Coleman tells me, through a deep sigh, that characters like this don’t come around very often. “It’s been really eye opening. I’ve realized there are not many places I can say I’ve seen it on television before,” she says of struggling mum Joanna. Scripts depicting age-old stereotypes of women are still more likely to land on her desk.
“I think there’s definitely a movement of people wanting to see everyday society reflected in film and television, and I definitely think there’s need for such a movement. But for every decent script that I’ve read, I’m still sent ten scripts that are very much ‘the girlfriend’ or ‘girl next door’ roles that revert to type. This is why The Cry felt really exciting. When you read a script and there’s so much going on between the lines, it’s invigorating.”
As a young actor auditioning for roles, Coleman made dozens of audition tapes, shifting between hundreds of identities, often feeling in a perpetual transient state. The idea of doing more film work soon is attractive to her, not least because it allows stability. “There’s something about a film where you can research it and immerse yourself for longer. There’s one director, one piece, one telling of a story. I think there’s something nice about that.”
We walk downstairs to the streets of Soho. Coleman dons a checked winter mac, stepping out into the strange autumnal sunshine. She tells me she is looking forward to standing still for a time and, crucially, not giving birth on-screen for a few months until Victoria has her next two. “No more babies. I’ll babysit my friends’ children for a little while, but then happily give the child back,” she beams, before walking off to her next audition.