this article was first published in 2010 on myfilms. the original can be found here
The first time I speak with Jo Hartley is to confirm the time of our interview…the conversation lasts little more than three minutes but in that time I found out everything I needed to know about her as she managed to squeeze in mentions of sit-ups, deep fried Mars Bars, her work schedule and then tell me that she would be happy to come in and visit my local high schools media studies class the next time she was in Edinburgh.
For an actress who is starring in the first wave of post-Big Brother Channel Four drama she is remarkably humble, warm and generous as well as being genuinely funny, interesting and thoughtful. She is the opposite of many people in her line of work and it is no surprise that the equally unaffected Shane Meadows holds her in such high esteem.
Because I am not a “real” journalist (truth be told I’m not sure I’m even a real person) I had to try and speak with Jo through the hands free kit in my car while holding a dictaphone up to the speakers…it’s a far cry from James Lipton and the actors studio but what she had to say means that the recording of that conversation is something I will hold onto forever.
Over the top?
I don’t think so, I think I’m just a sucker for people who do remarkable things and who don’t really see how remarkable that makes them…but if it’s easier for you to see me as Kiss Ass then fine!
Jo has appeared in “Dead Mans Shoes”, “This is England”, “This is England ’86”, the soon to be released “Soul Boy” and an appearance in “Casualty 1909” as well as several other films, which all sounds very glamorous but when one considers what being in the public eye entails; the carping, the bitching, the focus on how you look, the sniping, the hard work, the insecurity the obvious question has to be…why would anyone choose this as a career, why not just a nice office job?
“Yeah, why not! I think it’s as simple as the fact that I’ve always been someone who has followed their instincts. From a really early age I felt like I had a connection with acting through film. Even as a kid I was aware that film could take you away from the reality of life but that it could also put you in the middle of it and that through film you could identify with characters and lose yourself from reality. I’ve always wanted to act but I did try the office job, I left acting when I was seventeen after my dad passed away and I thought, at that time, “This is a dream” it wasn’t for someone like me, it was for people who had the money to go to RADA and not for a working class girl from Oldham”
This is said without any hint of “poor me”, Hartley isn’t the sort of person to use her class or her own personal struggles for anything other than her art. What it does reveal is the fact that she, like so many of us, is “normal” (whatever that might mean) and that what sets her aside, if not apart, from us is her desire and her passion to do something creative and that she loves.
“I don’t see being an actress as something glamorous, it’s definitely not, for me it’s a bit of an illness really. It’s in your blood or in your bones…maybe I like the struggle and the challenge, I don’t know but I just love it. I haven’t ever wanted to act for fame or any of that nonsense, I only wanted to act because I couldn’t get rid of that desire. I worked for British Aerospace for four years, I had the office job and I loved it, it was a great experience but all through that I was aware of wanting to act. I had ten years away from it…maybe it’s like true love, you try to forget it but you can’t, it’s always there, gnawing away at you”
Some people see acting as simply entertainment and nothing more, there is no difference between an actor and a “turn” on the Royal Variety Show but Jo sees things very differently; “I was watching Sean Penn on the actors studio and he said that entertainment is two prostitutes and an eightball but acting is about something more than that…there’s a real craft there. During my time away from acting I was an air hostess for Japan Airlines, I learnt Japanese, I lived in Japan and went travelling. When I finished with that, at the age of twenty seven, I went to London to study at “Questors” in Ealing, not RADA but a well known and respected school, and I was studying method and Stanislavski and I could see then that acting was something that you had to commit to and that you had to work at. I was there for six months before leaving with everything I owned in a van to come back North to act in a guerilla film That said it is a stupid job! Well, it’s not “stupid” it can be hard and difficult but you have to accept it for what it is. It’s just not like a “real” job…I’m a character actress and I get paid to do something I love. For all that it can be difficult I love it and feel really glad to be doing what I’m doing”
When I was a kid I did the amateur dramatic thing, the school shows, some musical theatre and even now friends and family will say “You should be on the stage” when I’m behaving like a loon at a party. The difference between someone like me who enjoys “entertaining” people and someone like Jo Hartley is that there isn’t anything inside of me driving me to turn my back on the security of my job, my mortgage, my home and, bleurgh, my career.
One of the things that has always intrigued me about actors is the choices they make. You can see an actor appear in something wonderful, something powerful and moving and then appear in something absolutely hideous…for evidence of what I’m talking about please rent “The Pianist” and marvel at Adrian Brody and then watch him in the, frankly, vulgar “HIGH School”. When you look at the character that Jo plays in “This is England”, Cynthia, you are struck by the poverty of her life; her husband is dead, she has no money, she has a teenage son to raise and she lives in a bleak house in an even bleaker part of town. How does someone choose that role and prepare for it?
“When I worked with Shane (Meadows) on “Dead Mans Shoes” he was really nice and said that he thought I had talent and that I would get better as I got older. He also said that he would like to work with me again. When I was working on that we explored a character called Mary who was a heroin addict and a prostitute but that idea never came to anything because “Dead Mans Shoes” didn’t do very well at the cinema and the idea of doing an even darker set of characters just didn’t work. Cynthia came from some workshops that Shane carried out with some of the people who would later form the cast of “This is England”. Basically Cynthia was the result of a series of improvisations I did with some of the other actors and at the end of that Shane said; “I’m doing a film called “This is England” and you’re going to play the mum” and he cast me on the spot”
One of the key relationships in “This is England” is the one between Cynthia and Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) and the chemistry between Jo and Tomo (as everyone associated with the film calls him) was so convincing that it is difficult to imagine how that evolved artificially.
“We found Tomo just before the filming began and initially Cynthia was going to be a much more prominent character, there was going to be a rape scene between her and Combo, there wasn’t any of the stuff involving Milky but slowly that began to make more sense. When I met Tomo I had a connection with him that so was powerful that it changed the character that I had created, she was an alcoholic, a waste of space but because of that relationship between Tomo and I then the relationship between Cynthia and Shaun also changed. Cynthia became a different person, she is a good person but she does struggle with her role as a mother and that’s part of the reason for Shaun reaching out to Woody and the gang”
“As far as building the character I did all of the things that Cynthia would have done; I didn’t mix with the kids in the film, I sat alone in a flat in Nottingham for four weeks, smoking, drinking and watching really depressing films just to influence my mood and to make that life real for me so that Cynthia became real.”
It’s clear to see that Jo is drawn to the type of realism and darkness that is the hallmark of so much great British cinema from Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to Meadows himself. As an actress its obvious what the rewards are for being involved in films like those and there must be a great sense of achievement in creating a character like Cynthia but Jo will next be seen on the big screen in the British comedy “Soul Boy which tries to tell the story of the Northern Soul scene. It’s a flawed film and one that, despite great subject matter and references to working class culture, never really convinces as anything other than romcom with dance moves. How do you move from one to the other?
“I read that script and expected it to be a very different film and I don’t think I was alone in feeling that way. I saw it as being close in spirit to “This is England” and the script was very dark and gritty. I also thought that it was a time and era the Northern Soul era was so iconic that I couldn’t not do it. As with a lot of films though a lot of stuff ends up on the cutting room floor and I think that there were stories in the original script that could have been told and that would have made a very different film. It could have been…well, a different film. But I wanted to work with the director and I loved the story. I went in and did my best, gave my all and then I had to let it go…all the other stuff after that; the edit, the music, you have to let go of.”
We’ve covered a lot of quite heavy stuff here Jo so I want to ask you something a bit lighter…in “Inferno” Dante describes the layers of Hell and leaves us with the image of Judas trapped, for all eternity, in ice…awake and aware of the magnitude of his sin. If you were in charge of Hell what film would you force Judas and his fellow sinners to watch in order to punish them? Without missing a beat Jo gives the best answer to this question I have ever received, because she doesn’t choose a “bad” film but rather she chooses a film that would be painful for them; “Jacobs Ladder”
On the other side of the coin what film would you choose to give to the residents of Heaven as a reward for their good deeds what would it be? This isn’t your “favourite” film but the film that you love and that you would see as being a reward for good deeds. “I haven’t seen it for a long time but I suppose it would “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “The Wizard of Oz” which is my favourite ever film…along with “Once Upon a Time in America. Oh, and “Arthur”. There aren’t many people you can travel that distance with…from “Jacobs Ladder” to “Arthur” without pausing for breath!
With that my time with Jo Hartley comes to an end and I’m left feeling slightly breathless. It’s rare to talk with someone in showbiz who isn’t slightly affected but Hartley is honest, forthright, sweet and passionate. Truth be told I think I’ve fallen in love with a woman who I last saw looking like a faded Princess Diana. I’m pleased too that other people feel the same way as she has a diary that is full…with “Crying with Laughter” (another dark piece) already in the can, Pat Holden (director of “Awaydays”) new project “Speak No Evil”, a horror, currently being filmed, a British horror-comedy called “INBRED” (which is her first lead in a horror) and work on Ben Drews (of Plan B fame) feature called “Ill Manors” to come. The only downside is that all of this means that many others will soon see past the stone washed denim and big glasses of “Cynthia” and my chances of eloping to Gretna Green to make Jo Mrs J. Hartley Laird will become slimmer than they are at present.