Jessica Hynes: 'I'm ready to fall flat on my face again, but at least I'll do so on my own terms'
All the main players of cult 1990s sitcom 'Spaced' went on to Hollywood careers – except one. Jessica Hynes reveals how she's playing catch-up with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost
Sunday 06 April 2008
Jessica Hynes is in a good mood. Hynes – who was Jessica Stevenson until last year, when she decided she'd had enough of having a different surname from her husband and children – is pleased to be in a swanky hotel room, drinking a cappuccino and talking, talking, talking.
"I love getting out of the house," she says with a booming laugh. More than that, she's pleased to be promoting a film, Son of Rambow, which she adores. Written, directed and produced by the team behind The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy movie, Son of Rambow tells the irresistible story of two schoolmates who shoot their own remake of Sylvester Stallone's First Blood in the early 1980s, even though one of them, as a member of the Christian group Plymouth Brethren, has never been allowed in a cinema in his life.
Hynes, 35, plays the hero's mother, and although she's keen to emphasise that it's not a central role, it was one she relished. "Something like Son of Rambow doesn't come along twice, in terms of getting to play a really sweet part in an amazingly brilliant film. When I saw it, I felt so proud to be part of it. I just felt, that's the best film I've ever been in and probably will ever be in."
But the reason for Hynes' positivity isn't just her cappuccino or Son of Rambow. "I'm at my most sorted, my most happy and the most organised I ever have been," she says.
As heart-warming as this is – and Hynes is sunny, vivacious company – it's also an acknowledgement that things haven't always been quite so rosy, that she's "stumbled and fumbled a bit" in the years since she played the scene-stealing neighbour, Cheryl, in The Royle Family, and co-wrote and co-starred in the cult sitcom, Spaced. Until then, her career had gone smoothly, right from the moment when a teacher complimented her performance in a school play. "She had an incredible impact on my life," says Hynes. "I was seven or eight, and she made me think, 'I can do acting. Phew! That's that sorted!'"
And so it was, more or less. Stevenson, as she was in those days, had had a complicated early childhood ever since her hippie parents moved from south London to Brighton when she was a toddler. "My mother sat at home reading Germaine Greer while my dad took it upon himself to sleep with everyone in Brighton," she says. When her parents split up, she and her sister were shuttled between England and San Francisco, grandparents and parents, before they settled in Brighton again with their mother, and the family began taking in lodgers "who ranged from Afghan chemistry students to American jazz musicians".
Hynes now says she feels "lucky and proud to have had that childhood which, by white, middle-class girl standards, was a bit rough, but by global standards was pig in shit".
All the same, she admits that the straight path she took into acting was a blessed contrast with her rollercoaster home life. Starting with school plays, she progressed to a Saturday-morning drama club in Hove Town Hall, and from there to the National Youth Theatre, where she was given the lead role in a musical, and was subsequently greeted by six agents at the stage door. "As soon as I turned 18," she says, "I got a job at Cranks vegetarian restaurant, earning £110 a week, cash. I started a flatshare in Brixton, with people from the Youth Theatre, I had an agent, and I was going to auditions. As far as I was concerned, at that point, my life was a success story."
Her two big breaks came one after the other. In 1995, she was cast in a TV series, Six Pairs of Pants, alongside Simon Pegg, and the following year, when Pegg went on to make a surreal sitcom, Asylum, with Edgar Wright the director, they invited her on board. The three of them dreamt up Spaced together, with Hynes creating most of the initial characters and situations: in it she and Pegg were friends who pretended to be a couple in order to secure a flat rental.
Meanwhile, she had appeared in a nursing drama, where she was spotted by Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne, who offered her the role of Cheryl in The Royle Family. It was a double whammy. Between 1998 and 1999, television audiences got to know a character actress who could disappear into the role of a Northern, working- class doormat, and a peppy leading lady who had co-written her own Zeitgeist-grabbing sitcom.
Spaced is currently being remade in America, although Hynes, Pegg and Wright, who signed away their rights to the programme a decade ago, haven't been consulted. "They developed our show for nearly a year without our knowledge or blessing," says Hynes. "It's unforgivable." But Pegg and Wright, perhaps, have fewer grounds for resentment than Hynes does. After two series, they took the Spaced formula to the big screen with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. It was the other third of the trio who didn't fare quite so well. She was never short of theatre, film or television work – and she appeared in Shaun of the Dead – but until last year, Hynes' most high-profile post-Spaced role was in the short-lived Channel 4 sitcom, According to Bex, which she doesn't remember fondly.
"After Spaced I naively expected a slew of parts where I could be a goof," says Hynes, "but people don't write goof roles for women. You're expected to be 'the girl' with 'the hair' [I've never seen such aggressive air quotes] standing with your hand on your hip going, 'You guys!' I have done those roles, but I find it really hard. Sometimes every single fibre of my being is screaming out, 'When do I get to trip over? When do I get my laugh?' But what can you do, apart from write your own stuff?"
The obvious question is, why didn't she write her own stuff? "There's been a few things that I've started," she says, "and they've meandered, or I've lost my nerve. It's hard to organise yourself when you have small children. The months go by and you realise you haven't had time to have a shower, let alone write."
Hynes got together with her husband-to-be when she was 18. They had their first child 10 years ago, so when she made Spaced she was "filming 14 hours a day and then breastfeeding through the night". They've since had two more children, and balancing motherhood and comedy writing hasn't been easy.
But now, she says, she's prepared to generate her own roles again, and is the most motivated she has been since Spaced. "I've begun to have the confidence that the only real responsibility you have to the people who love you is to be happy. And what makes me happy, among other things, is to write and perform. It's taken me quite a long time to get that right. But OK. Got it now."
So that means we can expect great things from now on? There's another booming laugh. "It just means I'm ready to fall flat on my face again, but at least I'll do so on my own terms, and love the whole experience."
'Son of Rambow' is out now
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