Jodie Whittaker: 'I've been lucky... perhaps I have one of those faces that looks good being upset'

Jodie Whittaker may have been acting less than five years, but she already has an armoury of stories to dine out on.

There was the time she spent drinking tea with Dame Judi Dench, the pair of them both in corsets. Before that she found herself the object of Peter O'Toole's affections and later ended up on an Irish road trip with a wild-eyed Jim Broadbent.

Like most of her fellow students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Whittaker graduated under no illusions. Acting had always been her ambition, even as a young child growing up near Huddersfield, but she knew the chances of failure were high and success often the result of luck rather than talent.

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Along with the rest of her peers in 2006 she did the usual rounds of auditions and secured a small role on the daytime soap Doctors. So far so normal, but within the year she had been cast opposite O'Toole in Venus, a film which catapulted her headlong into a string of sought after roles. It was then she found herself opposite Dame Judi in the much loved bonnets and bodice drama Cranford and alongside Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson and Cillian Murphy in Perrier's Bounty.

"You couldn't surround yourself with more phenomenal actors," admits Whittaker, who refreshingly has not felt the need to smooth off the flat vowels of her Yorkshire upbringing . "You learn from people like that. I try to be a sponge on set and just soak up everything I can. Working with someone like Jim, the entire time is a dream."

Whittaker's CV is now more packed than those of many actors twice her age and the plum roles just keep coming. She'll soon be seen on the big screen alongside Hollywood darling Anne Hathaway in the adaptation of David Nicholl's bestselling novel One Day. Whittaker plays Hathaway's friend Tilly and while she won't be the star of the show, it will be another chance to remind the American studios of her clearly obvious talent.

"It was a little daunting to make One Day because so many people loved the book," she says. "Fear does set in when you realise just how much people care about it. But it was fun, plus Anne is gorgeous and I'm in love with Anne's massive eyes. You can really lose yourself in them."

Despite the praise which has been heaped on her, Whittaker, who refuses to take herself or the businesses she's in too seriously, has remained remarkably untouched by the attention. Part of the reason, she says, is her upbringing. She grew up in Skelmanthorpe, a small village near Huddersfield. School wasn't somewhere she particularly excelled and while her parents encouraged her to pursue acting, she always said they would be the first to stamp out any diva-ish behaviour.

So far there has been no need for parental intervention, not even back in 2006 when Whittaker first came to popular attention, wowing critics and audiences alike in Venus. Roger Michell's touching drama about the friendship between a badly-behaved octogenarian, gloriously brought to life by O'Toole, and Whittaker as his friend's great niece. Venus netted the veteran actor his eighth Oscar nomination.

He lost out to Forrest Whitaker and The Last King of Scotland. However, as he was contemplating the dubious record of being the actor with the most nominations never to have received an award, Whittaker found herself hailed as the next big thing.

There was the inevitable round of red carpet events, meetings with directors keen to cast her in their latest project and photo-shoots for magazines. Whittaker took it all in her stride and even now when she looks back at what was a surreal time in her life, it's the experience on set not the peripherals which came with it she remembers most.

"Venus was an amazing experience," she says. "Once you've been in a few things you're more self-aware, but it was exactly because I was so new to everything that it worked out so well. Because I was naive, I just played it completely straight and its probably the most honest and real performance I have given."

While Whittaker undoubtedly takes her work seriously, she's not afraid to dip her toes into the popular mainstream, embracing the kind of movies most critics wish would disappear straight to DVD. Sandwiched in between Venus and the TV mini-series of Tess of the D'urbervilles came the remake of St Trinian's. It made enough money to warrant a sequel, but the reviews were unkind, one described it as a "classic slice of warmed-over, outdated Ealing comedy rubbish". You might expect Whittaker, who took the role not long after filming with O'Toole, would want to forget her portrayal of the perma-tanned secretary Beverly. Not a bit of it. She loved every minute working with an eclectic cast, which included Rupert Everett, the Kaiser Chiefs' Ricky Wilson and Sarah Harding from Girls Aloud.

"I was like a kid in a sweetshop," she says, admitting she never once hesitated about doing the second movie. "Life on set was a riot, it was so much fun all the original cast made sure they were available for the sequel. I've been lucky to work with some terrific people, but it's important to do fun stuff as well as more serious things."

By way of proof, alongside One Day, Whittaker has two other films in post-production. The first, A Thousand Kisses Deep is billed as a Kafkaesque romance involving a time travelling woman. The second, Atttack the Block, sees her alongside Nick Frost fighting an alien invasion.

However, when viewers next see her, Whittaker will be back on home turf in the supernatural ITV1 drama Marchlands. Set in a close-knit Yorkshire village and spanning more than five decades, Whittaker plays Ruth, a bereaved mother living in the 1960s who is haunted by the spirit of her eight-year-old daughter Alice. The hauntings effect all subsequent residents of the house, with the series moving through the 1980s to the present day.

"Paranormal activity taps into my ultimate fears," she says. "I watched Poltergeist and The Exorcist when I was about 10 and I really shouldn't have. When I was 16 I went to see The Blair Witch Project and it has traumatised me my entire life. I'm fine on my own in the day, but I'm scared of the dark and I couldn't be in my parents' house in Yorkshire by myself because it's right by open fields. I know, I am 28 years old and pathetic."

The series, which also stars Barnsley's Dean Andrews, who made his name on Life on Mars, pulls few punches and Whittaker, who filmed it at the same time as One Day, admits it was emotionally draining. "Ruth is frozen, it's like life has stopped in that moment and she can't get beyond it. Her husband Paul has shut down and every time he looks at her he is reminded of their child. I don't pretend to have any idea what it's like to lose a child, but I do understand unconditional love."

Whittaker, who also appeared in Jimmy McGovern's Accused season, is forging a reputation for taking on challenging roles, but she isn't one for dissecting why she gets offered certain parts.

"I must seem on the brink to people," she smiles. "Directors must see something in me. May be I have one of those faces that looks good being upset. I've been lucky, I'm very Yorkshire and I come across as quite definite and direct, but it doesn't seem to have hindered me."

Whittaker now lives in London with husband and fellow actor Christian Contreras, who she met at drama school. The couple tend to avoid the celebrity party circuit and when it comes to ambitions, it seems Whittaker has just one.

"I've got to work with people who have had really fantastic careers and who are still lovely people to be around," she says. "So, I suppose that's kind of a big inspiration for me – to work for as long as possible but to continue to enjoy it. I want to be a part of the process, rather than just wanting the rewards."

Marchlands, ITV1, February 3, 9pm.

She's been lusted after by Peter O'Toole and taken a road trip with Jim Broadbent. Now Jodie Whittaker is heading home to Yorkshire. Mark Butler reports.

ROLE PLAY: Jodie Whittaker, top, has appeared in projects as dissimilar as, above, from left, Venus, St Trinian's and her new TV drama Marchlands.