Helen Baxendale

Published April 17, 2008

Theatre was where she started, telly thrust her into the limelight, but home is where the heart is for Helen Baxendale. As she prepares to open opposite Christian Slater in Swimming With Sharks, Baxendale tells Caroline Bishop about the work-life balance that makes her happy and why being on the London stage suits her right now – as long as she can conquer her nerves…

“Acting, you know. I do it and I enjoy it, and that’s all I’ve got to say about it!” She isn’t being unfriendly or obstructive, but Helen Baxendale simply doesn’t get the point of talking about her profession. “It’s peculiar isn’t it? All these bloody interviews about really, basically, nothing. Wouldn’t it be much more interesting to go and interview a scientist, don’t you think? I don’t really want to know about Hollywood stars and actors, because it’s all the same. There’s not that much mystery about it really.”

She may not be interested in what other actors have to say, but there is plenty of interest in her, judging by the number of interviews with Baxendale floating in cyberspace. Most of them are from the period when the actress’s star was in the ascendant, thanks to roles in television series Cold Feet and Friends. Since then though, her career choices have made it clear that her job is not her main priority in life – for the past few years Baxendale’s life has centred around her three young children, with acting jobs interspersed as and when.

But now she is back on stage for the first time in two years – during which time she had her youngest child, now 18 months – in an adaptation of George Huang’s cult film Swimming With Sharks, which delves into the murky, cut-throat world of Hollywood movie making. Starring alongside Christian Slater at the Vaudeville, a bigger theatre than any she has played to since her early career at Glasgow Citizens, the production was bound to thrust Baxendale back into the limelight, and prompt more “bloody interviews about nothing”.

"Wouldn’t it be much more interesting to go and interview a scientist, don’t you think?"

Still, she is enjoying rehearsing for the play, she tells me brightly, when we meet at the rehearsal rooms in Southwark where they are currently stationed, and she does have a thing or two to say about it. She wanted to do Swimming With Sharks, she says, “because the script is fantastic, it’s really fast moving and it’s really full of energy and it’s funny, and you know the minute you read it that it’s excellent.” Baxendale’s character, Dawn Lockard, is a ballsy, high powered, film producer in Hollywood who knows the game of movie-making and gets drawn into a deal by her idealistic boyfriend Guy (Matt Smith of TV’s Party Animals), who is serving as general dogsbody to Slater’s ball-breaking producer Buddy Ackerman. The role couldn’t be further from Baxendale as she seems today; wearing a casual striped jumper and jogging bottoms, without a scrap of make-up, and eating home-made sandwiches as we talk, she appears very much the busy mum, not the glamorous career woman.

She doesn’t seem particularly ballsy either. As someone who doesn’t thrive on adrenaline, she is nervous about taking to the stage again. “Each time I go through the same sort of panic and just think why have I done this? I’m just an idiot, it’s so frightening. But I think it’s probably good for you. I’m thinking it might make me live longer.” She pauses and laughs. “Or it could kill me actually. I might have a heart attack!”

Hopefully she can control her nerves, because working on stage suits Baxendale’s child-orientated lifestyle right now. Though she spent her early career in regional theatre, after training at Bristol Old Vic drama school Baxendale spent much of her 20s in television, getting her big break in sharp-tongued hospital drama Cardiac Arrest and going on to star in the highly popular long-running serial Cold Feet and dramas like The Investigator and PD James’s An Unsuitable Job For A Woman. “And then I had my kids, and you can’t go away as much whilst your children are at school. So theatre starts to become more attractive again, in terms of your life. You’re at home, and once rehearsals are finished you are going off at tea time, so you can take to school, pick up.”

Even so, her forays into theatre have been sporadic – the most recent being The Woman Before at the Royal Court in 2005 and After Miss Julie at the Donmar Warehouse in 2003. Though family remains the priority, “it’s important to flex your creative muscles a bit as well,” she says, not to mention it is nice to have a break from the kids for a while, with her parents on hand to help out.

It seems that Baxendale has got her work-life balance perfected. Now 38, she has had chances in her career that could have taken her life down a different path, but she made a conscious choice not to go there. The most obvious crossroads was after her high-profile stint in US sitcom Friends, in which she played Ross’s girlfriend Emily. She was pregnant with her first child, Nell, now nine, at the time. Surely offers of more work in the States must have come on the back of Friends? “Yes, definitely,” she says without hesitation, before reflecting: “I think I didn’t want that. I didn’t actually turn down anything but I think mentally I made a choice about what I wanted for my life. Because I had my child at the same time and I just…I’m much happier with what I do in my life at this point than actually I was then. You know, some people love it and thrive off it, but it wasn’t what I wanted. Also,” she continues, “it’s about where you want to be, who you’re with.”

For Baxendale that meant in Britain, with her parents, partner David L Williams and kids. Living in the US was never something she wanted. “I feel very British, very European. This is definitely my home and I don’t want to go to the other side of the world. I like it here. I like knowing a culture intimately and having a history.”

However, reports that Baxendale hated the experience of being on Friends were exaggerated. Or, at least, she is tactful when talking about it now. It was, she says, “very exciting, it was eye-opening, it was surreal. But it was kind of more than I bargained for.”

It was the media attention surrounding the show that Baxendale found hard to deal with. She speaks in a harried tone when talking about the “peculiar and very intrusive” media circus, which she obviously found frustrating. “People asking you ridiculous questions that you want to go ‘No it’s not like that!’ All I did was a guest appearance – all these ridiculous questions, like ‘are they your best friends now?’ No!”

"I’m much happier with what I do in my life at this point than actually I was then"

Watching Baxendale’s episodes in the series, it always seemed like she was slightly out of place in this most American of shows. Certainly, the experience of being on set was a world away from the sedate arena of a British theatre. “You go onto it and it’s really bonkers,” she says, her choice of vocabulary just emphasising how her Britishness must have set her apart. “It’s surreal. It’s also very different from anything I’d done before. It had a live studio audience who were not like a theatre audience, they were like a football crowd! And they’d been worked up into this sort of hysteria, they were stamping their feet and cheering, oh!” she gives a little gasp of exhaustion at the thought. “It was bonkers!”

It is not surprising that for someone who didn’t buy into the hysteria surrounding the show (famously, Baxendale hadn’t even watched Friends before getting the part), misunderstandings between her and the media were inevitable. “I think probably I just said the opposite of things, to interest myself,” she smiles.

What she finds much more interesting to talk about, rather than her career, is the environment. Who would she interview if she had the chance? After a ponderous pause she opts decisively, and unusually, for James Lovelock (the NASA scientist who, in the 1960s, devised the Gaia Theory, which, in short, states that the Earth and all its components are one single living organism). “He’s got loads of very sort of apocalyptical ideas about what might happen to the world in the next hundred years. People should listen to him a bit.” Then she laughs: “and I’d love to have interviewed Freddie Mercury! Now he was a genius.”

Freddie aside, the state of the environment is the one thing that Baxendale is happy to expand upon. She tells me about her attempts to be green at home, about the solar panels her sister has which she is envious of, and she is more talkative on the future of the planet than she has been on any other subject: “I just don’t understand why we’re not doing anything about it. It’s like we’re all trundling along thinking, huh, it’s not going to happen. And unless we find some amazing way of eating carbon out of the atmosphere, it IS going to happen! We all just think of now. But it’s our kids who are going to have a completely different world, and if you read James Lovelock we’re going to be in bloody great trouble, as a species we’ll be in trouble. Oh I don’t know, it’s maddening. People seem to [have] a lack of care. ‘We need 10 television sets in the house’, it’s just balls isn’t it?”

She has found something of an outlet for her interest in green issues through the latest film produced by Shooting Pictures, the production company she and her partner, creative director David, set up together. The film – tentatively titled Beyond The Pole – is a comedy about two men – played by Green Wing’s Stephen Mangan and The Fast Show’s Rhys Thomas – who walk to the North Pole to raise awareness of the environment. Baxendale has a small part in it and lends Williams a hand with the producing duties by “looking over his shoulder going ‘oh that’s rubbish’!”

The film will be out next year, by which time Baxendale will have finished Swimming With Sharks and be back where she belongs, with her family. “I’ll definitely want to be at home again after this because it’s four months.” But, she adds, six months down the line and she will be on the lookout for another acting job. That’s just how life works for Baxendale – a balancing act between work and family that she seems to have down to a fine art. Some things do cross between the two though. Nine-year-old Nell wants to come and see her mum in Swimming With Sharks, but isn’t allowed. “The language is really filthy,” laughs Baxendale. “I have to say, I go home with filthy language as well now. It just kind of seeps into you I think!”

Swimming With Sharks opens on 16 October after previews from 5 October.

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