Jodie Whittaker: Rise of a venus with her feet on the ground

As one of the UK’s most prolific young actresses, Jodie Whittaker is omnipresent, a familiar face on the big screen and small. Now the lass from Huddersfield tells Phil Penfold about her latest role.

Jodie Whittaker and below in Broadchurch

It is a great compliment to her skills as an actress that a lot of her fans probably won’t recognise Jodie Whittaker in one of her up-coming films. She plays Ruth Hooley, the wife of record store owner Terri, a man immersed in punk rock music.

“It’s set in the seventies,” explains Jodie, “and it’s all based on a true story. Terri and his store and the rock label he founded are very much a part of real life. And…it all takes place in Belfast.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Which meant, of course, that the 30-year-old actress from Skelmanthorpe, near Huddersfield, had to spend a lot of time learning how to perfect a Northern Irish accent.

“Not the easiest accent to learn, I admit”, she says, “but I had the most wonderful dialect coach, and we worked on it for over a month. And shooting in Belfast, with the sound of it all around me, well that was a huge help.”

It seems that Whittaker is hardly far from our screens at the moment – both big and small. She stars opposite Ray Winstone in a new movie, Ashes. At the moment she is starring opposite David Tennant, Andrew Buchan, Pauline Quirke and Olivia Colman in ITV’s new eight-parter from the pen of award-winning playwright Chris Chibnall, Broadchurch. And she is also currently filming another film, called Hello Carter – shooting started in January.

She lives with her actor husband Christian Contreras in North London, but she believes that her roots are still “very much” in Yorkshire.

She decided that going straight to drama school wasn’t for her, and she spent a year travelling the world. “My darling dad dropped me off at the airport – I think it was Heathrow – and off I went. I didn’t turn a hair.

“What my parents must have thought about it all, I don’t know, they must have been worried sick. But my mind was made up. All my mates were going to university, and that wasn’t for me, so I decided that seeing other places, other cultures would broaden my mind a bit.

“And boy, it certainly did that! I certainly had no plan at all – I just pointed myself towards the US, and went.”

Returning to the UK, she studied at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

“I’d visited London when I was younger, and I always sort of felt that it was the place I wanted to be,” she says. After graduating in 2005 with the coveted Gold Medal, she went straight into The Storm at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

Since then her career has been filled with classy projects – everything from The Seagull at the Royal Court to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Cranford and starring alongside Peter O’Toole in Venus. Last year she played the eponymous role in the critically acclaimed Antigone at the National Theatre. But her talents aren’t restricted to “straight” theatre. She played Beverly in the two remakes of the St Trinian’s films.

However, in Broadchurch, it is back to the high drama.

Jodie plays Beth Latimer who works for the local tourist information service in a small town in Dorset. She’s married to a plumber, and they are very much part of the local community – they were born there. And then, one day, tragedy hits them, when their 11-year-old son is discovered murdered.

“We follow the family, their friends and neighbours, the police and the community, over the next five weeks, as they all try to discover who carried out the crime.

“It was – to say the least – a harrowing shoot to do, not least because we all read, at least once a year, of something like that happening in real life, and I really cannot imagine what hell parents must go through when it does. The news can be so very bleak, some days.”

She adds quietly: “I admit that I was very deeply and profoundly affected by Broadchurch. Chris Chibnall’s research was phenomenal, and we all had to read some very uncomfortable things, but, at the end of every day, however committed I was to it, I went back to a very nice and warm hotel bedroom, and I could talk about other things.

“When it happens for real, it must be a living nightmare, and it is with you 24/7 – forever.

“I could certainly relate to the idea of this small community – because that is the sort of place that I come from. Everyone knows everyone else. But, think about it, when something like this child’s death occurs, everyone becomes a suspect. Who do you trust, who do you believe?

“It was a very rewarding experience for all of us in the cast that Chris and the production people didn’t tell any of us the outcome of the action until we were many weeks into filming.

“Even now, I am sworn to secrecy about the plot, and how it unravels.

“I haven’t even discussed it with my husband, or 
my closest friends and family.”

She may be up there with A-list celebrities but when she comes home to Yorkshire she has her feet well and truly on the ground.

“I’m the lass who went to school around the corner, who used to queue up in the Co-op, and who, during her teens, worked in most of the local pubs. If I do get recognised ever, it is probably because people remember how bad I was at waiting at table.”

“I always wanted to be an actress, from as long back as I can remember – it was finding out how that perplexed me.

“But, look, I am part of an amazing profession, I love my job – even if it is pretty scary at times, walking out on a stage or on a set and knowing that you could make yourself look a total imbecile.

“However, I am, I have to confess, extraordinarily lucky.”

Making of a versatile film and TV star

Jodie Whittaker first came to prominence in the 2006 
Oscar-nominated comedy/drama Venus, starring 
opposite Peter O’Toole, pictured.

Numerous television roles followed – Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Cranford and in the last year alone, Jimmy McGovern’s anthology series The Accused, supernatural drama Marchlands and wartime romance The Night Watch.

Her film credits include St Trinians, Perrier’s Bounty, Attack The Block and current box office smash, One Day.

She is currently appearing in ITV drama Broadchurch.

Her latest film, Good Vibrations, is released next Friday. Good Vibrations, written by Glenn Patterson and Colin Carberry, tells the story of Godfather of Punk Terri Hooley and his one-man mission to reclaim his city through music.

Whittaker plays Ruth, Terri’s first wife. The film was financed by BBC Films, Bord Scannán na hÉireann/Irish Film Board and Northern Ireland Screen, and involved five weeks’ filming in Belfast and Dundalk.