In the two years since graduating from drama school, Jodie Whittaker has already notched up an impressive list of stage and film credits with diverse roles including a prostitute, a prim college girl and a bolshy teenager. Now playing a Jewish New Yorker in Depression-era America in Awake And Sing! at the Almeida, Whittaker tells Caroline Bishop that so far, acting has been an education…
“I can’t sing. I can hear if I’m out of tune – that’s what I consider singing – I’m singing flat but I know I am!” Lucky then, that Awake And Sing! does not, in fact, have any singing in it at all. If there were, then I would not be sitting in the Green Room of Islington’s Almeida theatre with Jodie Whittaker, rising star of the (non-musical) acting profession, discussing her role in this new production of Clifford Odets’s 1935 play.
The title is a biblical reference, Whittaker tells me, confessing in a likeable, conspiratorial way: “Yeah, I didn’t know that either”. Set in 1933 in New York, the play follows a year in the life of the Bergers, a three-generation Jewish family headed by matriarch Bessie (Stockard Channing), living in the Bronx and struggling to cope with the constant economic hardship after four years of the Depression. Whittaker plays Hennie Berger, a feisty 25-year-old who, in spite of the grim realties of the era, is, in Whittaker’s words “still grabbing at stars”.
“She’s a very strong minded kind of person but she’s very weighted down as well with regret and missed opportunity,” the actress says. “It makes her, during the middle of the piece, quite angry and numb to life, which is not what you want when you’re only 25, you want to be optimistic, but she’s lost that.”
Hennie’s life of missed opportunity is a world away from that of fellow 25-year-old Whittaker, who has every reason to be optimistic. Just two years out of drama school, she already has several London stage credits under her belt, plus a major hit film in the shape of Venus, in which she shared screen space with film legend Peter O’Toole, and two more high-profile movies – Good and St Trinian’s – soon to be released. Hennie maybe grabbing at stars but Whittaker has them within reach.
"I was like a rabbit in headlights on the whole thing"
Despite her ascending star, the actress’s feet seem to be firmly on the ground. Cradling a cup of tea, she chats openly in her broad Yorkshire accent about feeling sick with nerves during the audition for Awake And Sing! and her anxious excitement at tackling a role that is so alien to her own life experiences. “In a way it’s scary to think, God, I could do this all wrong, because I’ve got no prior knowledge of this kind of lifestyle or this kind of struggle,” she says. “It’s a really fascinating journey to go on, but it’s quite heavy. It’s fantastic, and really different from other parts I’ve played, which is all you can really hope for.”
The parts she has played since graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama include a prostitute in The Storm at Shakespeare’s Globe (a role she left the Guildhall six weeks early for), Nadya in Gorky’s Enemies in her Almeida debut last year, a puritanical American college girl in Neil LaBute’s harrowing triptych Bash at Trafalgar Studios, and, in her first ever film, wayward teenager Jessie, who strikes up an unlikely friendship with O’Toole’s Maurice in Venus.
It has been one big learning curve for Whittaker. Filming Venus, for example, which also saw her sharing the credits with Vanessa Redgrave, Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths, was a sink-or-swim introduction to the movie world. “I was like a rabbit in headlights on the whole thing. I really had no sort of technique for filming on camera, so what a way to learn, you know. You’re learning off people like that, people pay thousands for that opportunity.”
Now, back at the Almeida, she already feels more experienced than the first time she was here, over a year ago, in a cast that included Jack Davenport and Amanda Drew. “Enemies was my second theatre job. I was in a company of 21 people and I was playing the baby of everyone, so it was great because I was asking all these questions and everyone’s got such vast experience,” she says. “Here, obviously I feel like I’m learning, but I suppose I don’t feel like the baby of the group anymore. It’s nice, because there’s a sense of confidence, I think, on a day when a read-through isn’t so alien anymore.”
Whittaker has certainly made rapid progress since embarking on her chosen career, which she set her heart on as a child. Growing up in Huddersfield, her desire to act was weaned on Ken Loach films and “gritty working-class northern drama” (even though, she says, her comfortable background was nothing like that) and fuelled by her discovery in school that acting won her the plaudits that academia didn’t. “I was just loud and attention-seeking and annoying,” she grins. “Academically I was s**t, everything went over my head. So to never be patted on the back for anything that you’re writing because it’s so appalling, and they have to get your parents in because you’re not doing anything right, to then be in a school play and all of a sudden everyone really likes you… That’s awful, but at [aged] five to 10 that was my understanding of what being an actor was – it was something I was good at and people respected me.”
Now, she finds acting gives her the education that passed her by at school. She speaks enthusiastically about the “eye-opening experience” of researching and filming her role in the soon-to-be-released Good, which focuses on the lives of ordinary people living in pre-war Nazi Germany. “This is absolutely my education,” she says. “That’s what’s so exciting about this job, you’re continually learning, if you want to.”
But there is no risk of her getting too highbrow: “My flatmate will be laughing because she knows how much huffing and puffing I do when I have to do any reading,” she flashes her wide grin. “I am interested, but there is a part of me that goes a bit stroppy teenager. Like, is there a DVD of it, shall we get it out?!”
"I was just loud and attention-seeking and annoying"
It is comments like these that show success isn’t likely to go to Whittaker’s head anytime soon. Grounded and without pretensions, she seems perfectly capable of dealing with the trappings of fame that could come her way in the next few years. She had a taster of it at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2006, where Venus premiered. It was the first time Whittaker had seen the final cut herself, and the next day she found herself facing the press for a day of interviews – another learning experience for this first-time film actress. “I was like, God, this is such a bizarre thing. I realised that that is as much a part of your job as the rehearsal room or the filming because that’s a skill in itself, being able to articulate how you felt about something and getting it across, and not antagonising anyone in the process.” She adds: “I suppose when you’re an idealist at drama school you just want to be an actor, you don’t realise there’s all those other things you need to be able to do.”
She may think she is an idealist, but she seems to have a realistic sense of how the industry works, to the point that she feels her healthy workload since graduating has left her with a false sense of security. “I don’t think that’s necessarily great for me either, because I will be unemployed, there are gonna be times where I’ll go for a year and I’ll get one job and then I’ll be unemployed for 11 months. That happens to nearly everyone in this industry, and I haven’t had that yet.”
She acknowledges that she owes a lot of this early success to Almeida Artistic Director Michael Attenborough, who cast her first in Enemies and now, in Awake And Sing! For a young actress with a strong Yorkshire accent, being offered a classical, received pronunciation part in Enemies was, she says, a confidence boost. “He gave me, without hardly any experience and just an audition, a part in a classical piece. Something like Venus is amazing, and of course I was going to keep my accent for those opportunities, but the other ones aren’t necessarily as easy to get if you’re known for being very northern. So [Attenborough] was absolutely fantastic like that, I really feel so indebted to him for the opportunities he’s given me in that sense.”
Now playing a Jewish New Yorker in Awake And Sing!, Whittaker again feels grateful to Attenborough for an opportunity that doesn’t naturally present itself to a Yorkshire lass. As for mastering the accent this time: “There’s a real sense of learning in the room, you’re not expected to get it on day one. So I don’t mind throwing in a few northern sounds every so often – no one notices!”
What does she think Attenborough saw in her that made him think she was right for the part of Hennie? “There’s a real sense of longing and sense of loss in a lot of her storylines, especially with one of the characters – there’s a strong attraction between them,” she says. “I am with someone who’s on the opposite side of the world at this moment in time and that sense of ‘Oh God!’, reaching out and that person’s not there. Whether you use it or not, I know what those feelings feel like and I know what it feels like to think you’re about to have your heart broken. I think because I understood that in the audition, maybe that’s why…” she trails off, looking uncomfortable. “But I thought I had a rubbish audition!” she laughs it off.
She is referring to her relationship with her American actor boyfriend, whom she met at the Guildhall, where he was also a student. Perhaps, I wonder, this could mean she will gravitate towards the US in the future. “I love America. I want to live loads of places and with this job you can,” she says non-committally.
She is well-aware of the need to balance her career ambitions with a private life, something she learnt from working with her veteran co-stars on Venus. “It’s nice to work with actors who go home to a lovely family life. You don’t have to sacrifice everything to do it,” she says. “I think that’s a really big lesson to learn when you’re a young actor, because you can become desperate – which I am, I am desperate to keep working and all that. But, at 50, your CV isn’t going to talk to you.”
"I know what it feels like to think you’re about to have your heart broken"
Right now Whittaker is balancing her work schedule with training for the New York marathon, which she will run shortly after Awake And Sing! finishes, on 4 November. Though naturally sporty, she has never run a marathon before and is squeezing in training runs around rehearsals. “I have to keep telling people,” she says. “It’s really self-indulgent but I need the motivation at six in the morning when I’m getting up!”
No doubt she will rise to the challenge and complete the marathon, because Whittaker seems like a girl who can do anything if she wants to (except, perhaps, sing). Young, talented and with her career ahead of her, she seems to be enjoying the sense of freedom and opportunity that currently surrounds her. “I don’t have a reputation to live up to, I don’t have any media pressure, I don’t have a lifestyle to sustain,” she says happily at one point. With the credits accumulating, it won’t be long.
Awake And Sing! opens at the Almeida on 6 September.