Jodie Whittaker: A film star in the making

In her first film, Jodie Whittaker stars opposite Oscar nominee Peter O'Toole. Not bad for a start, she tells Nicola Christie
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The Independent Culture

She slopes on to the screen in a pink velour tracksuit, one size too small; blonde hair scraped back into a scrunchie; face thick with slap. She calls herself Jessie but she will go on to become Venus as the film progresses. The name is given to her by Peter O'Toole - the legendary leading man in films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Lord Jim, and now Oscar nominated for Venus, written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Roger Michell. It's a variation on the Eliza Doolittle/Henry Higgins theme; ageing posh man finds himself amused by coarse, common hussy who he attempts to tame. Only things get far darker and a little muckier than they did in My Fair Lady.

Venus was filmed in Kentish Town, north London, last spring. For a few weeks locals got to check out Leslie Phillips, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Griffiths and Peter O'Toole as they ambled about the neighbourhood. And among the famous faces was Jodie Whittaker, a 24-year-old from Huddersfield, recently graduated from Guildhall School of Music and Dance, who plays leading lady to O'Toole, 50 years her senior.

"We were on set and I was doing an interview," Whittaker recalls, "and I was sat next to Peter. I was saying, 'It's like a love story'. And he butted in and said: 'It's not a love story. You're a little chav and I'm a dirty old man - that's basically what it's about.'"

The two actors are both from Yorkshire. O'Toole was brought up in Leeds, the son of a bookie. Whittaker grew up in Huddersfield. "We would spend a lot of time when we weren't filming talking about Yorkshire," Whittaker says. "Peter loved it there, and he knows the area so well." But whereas O'Toole's speaking voice never gives away his roots, Whittaker's accent, in part, won her the role. Come as you are, her agent told her. And so she did. Rocked up - in Whittaker speak - to the audition and delivered the part in full-throttle Huddersfield speak. Where Kureishi found the dialogue for her character - "me chuffs and bumps" for instance, which is Yorkshire speak for womanly curves - Whittaker found the sound. "My normal accent isn't as strong as this but I find it easy to go back to the broader accent I had growing up," she says.

At the audition Whittaker feared she wouldn't be understood. Producer Kevin Loader had invited American executives from Buena Vista and Miramax to Whittaker's third reading - the first time she had to sit down and read with O'Toole - and she was a bit concerned. "Everything hit at that point. I had thought of the film as this very small, low-budget project and then I looked around at this whole room of people, I just hadn't comprehended the number of people involved. And then I notice the American guys. I could just hear them thinking to themselves 'Who let her in?'."

They didn't think that. O'Toole gave her a hug as he said goodbye and a phone call followed two weeks later to say she had got the part. Six weeks of filming then began, and the film received its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last September. A US release opened last month to strong reviews: "A relationship unlike any we've seen" said the LA Times of the O'Toole/Whittaker pairing; "an unalloyed delight" declared the New York Times of Peter O'Toole's performance.

Venus is a moving and funny meditation on old age. Peter O'Toole, Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths play three ageing thesps who meet regularly in the local greasy spoon to check out the obituary page of the paper. It's a shocking film, too; as a relationship strikes up between O'Toole's once-famous Maurice and Jessie, the stroppy, foul-mouthed niece of his friend Ian - played by Leslie Phillips - the audience watches with growing discomfort at the increasingly sinister and sexual tone their relationship takes on; the one revelling in her youthful power and sexuality; the other aching to feel, and act on, desire again.

"Jessie's just horrible!" says Whittaker. "But she's never been taught how to respect and she's never been respected herself. That's why she doesn't know how to treat these ageing thespians - it means nothing to her, what they have done in their life. The challenge for me was to soften the character enough so that by the end of the film the audience feels some sort of affection towards her. Because at the beginning she's just so obnoxious and rude. That's why it was such fun to play."

Sharing the screen with some of the country's finest actors - there are some particularly poignant exchanges between Whittaker and Redgrave, too - is no easy thing. "It was an emotional experience," says Whittaker. "For a lot of the time I wouldn't feel it - I mean, Peter's 74 but he acts like 25. And while he was unwell for a time and we had to stop filming [he broke his hip], that was an injury and not an illness. But yes, everyone's saying that this is his last lead performance. The closing scenes of the movie on the beach at Whitstable were very painful to do. And it was just so freezing. I cried for days after that."

For most of the time, though, the two actors, separated by 50 years, were running about the city of London having the time of their lives. Maurice takes Jessie to the National Gallery and the Royal Court Theatre to introduce her to culture. She takes him clubbing and to Topshop.

"It was hilarious when we were shooting that scene," Whittaker says. "Maurice has come to buy her a dress and he realises he has no money. I have to rush out in a strop and then - when he runs out after me - I shove him and run off. And there were all these people on the street - nobody could see the camera - and people were running after me saying 'Oy, you don't treat an old person like that!'"

"A brave, very self-assured, tough little girl," is how O'Toole describes his young co-star. "He's hilarious, a very funny man," says Whittaker. "I would just sit and listen to his stories." And observe his approach to his craft. "His detail is fantastic. He's very specific about everything, the way he wants his tie put on, say. 'This is Maurice,' he'll explain - he didn't just rock up and say 'I'll just do this' - his script had scribblings all over it. Everything was a real choice."

The choice is Whittaker's now. Having kept up with O'Toole, Redgrave, Phillips and Griffiths, and currently appearing in Neil LaBute's Bash at Trafalgar Studios in London, she will soon be able to get whatever projects she wants. "George Clooney's doing really interesting films. I'd like to work with him. No, scrap that, I want to be in one of Will Ferrell's comedies."

She also wants to get stuck into Shakespeare. Even if it means abandoning her Huddersfield accent. "There's no way Juliet is ever going to be from Yorkshire. Or Miranda. And I do want to play those parts. Unfortunately, unless you're playing a country bumpkin, you're not northern." Bring on the country bumpkins.

'Venus' is released on Friday

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