Jodie Whittaker: 'I work a lot and no one knows who I am'

At just 28, she's the queen of prime-time drama, yet has somehow kept a low profile. Now two major literary adaptations are about to change that. Gerard Gilbert meets Jodie Whittaker

From Cranford to Marchlands by way of Abi Morgan's Royal Wedding and Jimmy McGovern's The Accused, and even in the recent aliens-versus-hoodies sci-fi comedy Attack the Block, Jodie Whittaker is so often such a serious, mournful screen presence. Her eyes are watchful when they are not downcast (which is a lot of the time), ruminating on some secret sorrow – so that meeting her is a genuinely surprising experience. In the flesh, or rather, "dressed head-to-toe in Topshop", she is a bright, chatty, funny and down-to-earth 28-year-old who claims that, at school near Huddersfield, where she only really took to PE and drama ("not really what the government is looking for"), she was an intolerable show-off.

"I was the attention-seeking child in class who needed everyone to look at meee..." she laughs. But then perhaps her characters' way of saying "Don't look at me" is really a clever way of saying "Actually, look at me" – and while she may be dressed head-to-toe in Topshop, she also carries a Vivienne Westwood handbag. "You can get one where it's more subtle," she says, referring to the Westwood logo. "But I went for the one where it's massive."

Ordinary and extraordinary, then, and things are just about to get even grimmer for this busy actress. In BBC2's upcoming The Night Watch, an excellent adaptation of Fingersmith/Tipping the Velvet author Sarah Waters' Second World War novel, she plays Viv – the only non-Sapphic leading female character – who throws herself downstairs after she is made pregnant by her spivvy married lover, before getting a back-street abortion.

She's in good company in The Night Watch, the central lesbian ménage-à-trois of Kay, an androgynous volunteer ambulance driver during the Blitz, Kay's girlfriend Helen, and novelist Julia (an ex-lover of Kay's, who steals Helen from her) being played respectively by Anna Maxwell Martin, Claire Foy and Anna Wilson-Jones. "It's so wonderfully about women in a non-victim way," says Whittaker. "It's not about how women make out... it's about relationships and that's what's beautiful about it."

Things take a turn for the lighter in late August, with the release of the much-anticipated rom-com of David Nicholls' One Day, in which, dressed throughout in a "curly red Molly Ringwald wig", Whittaker plays Tilly, the best friend from university of central character Emma (Anne Hathaway). "There's a lot of pressure because everyone I meet says, 'Oh my God, it's one of my favourite books'. Terrifying. It's like taking on Atonement... everyone loves Atonement."

After One Day, it's back to the gloomy stuff, playing Dougray Scott's abused lover in A Thousand Kisses Deep (the title comes from a Leonard Cohen poem, which should tell you something about it) and – currently filming on the Isle of Man – Ashes, a road trip featuring a bloke with early-onset Alzheimer's. It's a CV that, if you also include playing an idealistic Nazi opposite Viggo Mortensen in Good, is totally at odds with the breezy actress in front of me. It's also a great testament to her acting abilities.

She's full of good humour. When I announce that I want to write an all-round profile piece about her life, she quips: "My whole 28 years so far". Footballers and Katie Price have written an autobiography or three by that age, I suggest. "Oh my God, can you imagine. I wouldn't know what to say. Er... 'Went out with my mates...'." And Whittaker has a long-standing set of friends, she calls her "lifers", all of whom grew up in and around the village of Skelmanthorpe, nine miles out of Huddersfield, where her older brother, Kris, still lives, working for their father, Adrian, in the family business, supplying and fitting protective film for windows.

The family was sporty, her brother and father being cricket-mad – Adrian sending her daughter's Venus co-star, Peter O'Toole, a set of official Huddersfield Cricket Club balls. "And Viggo [Mortensen] got a Huddersfield Town football shirt so everyone gets indoctrinated into the ways of Yorkshire by my family," she says. But the young Jodie also had a rich fantasy life that included imagining animals could talk to her. "I role-played all the time. I was such a weird kid."

Whittaker says she never once suffered negativity from her family. "The only discouragement I got was from a career adviser when I was 15 who told me it [acting] was a stupid idea. She said you need a back-up plan, and thank God, my mum and dad are completely adamant that that's the wrong way to go. They said, 'You're only 15, you don't need a back-up plan. Get a back-up plan if it all goes pear-shaped at 30. Just go do it'. I went 'Yeah!'."

No back-up plan has been required. After a year's backpacking, Whittaker was accepted by the Guildhall drama school, winning the gold medal in her final year. "I got it for most improved, which basically means I was shit when I started and left not embarrassing the school."

Barely hatched as a professional actress, with just an episode of daytime drama Doctors under her belt, Whittaker had an outrageous piece of good fortune, being chosen to play the chavvy Lolita Jessie in Venus, Notting Hill director Roger Michell's film of Hanif Kureishi's book. She plays the Vicky Pollard-esque teenager who forms an unusual bond with her great-uncle's dying friend, Maurice (Peter O'Toole). "I was really scared because I felt I could be the thing that lets everyone down," she says. "But it's a weird life; there's no other job in the world when someone with no experience just walks in and has all that responsibility." Did she have any reservations about the sex scenes with the 74-year-old O'Toole? "Yes, but I also think that, because it was a unique story, it justified everything in the way it was written."

After Venus, Whittaker played the documentary-maker shadowing Egg in the 2007 This Life reunion, This Life Plus Ten, did the two corset jobs, Cranford and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and played Rupert Everett's dappy secretary in the St Trinian's franchise (Whittaker was far more impressed having Girls Aloud as her co-stars, than sharing on-set catering with Colin Firth). She also stood in, at three hours' notice, for Carey Mulligan in the Royal Court's production of The Seagull. "My agent said, you need to get in a taxi, and I'd not had my dinner and I'd got tickets for the next night, so my flatmate had to watch me with an empty seat beside her."

As far as stardom is concerned, Whittaker will be happy if that never really happens. "I feel, maybe naïvely or arrogantly, that I've got a best-case scenario that I work a lot and no one knows who the fuck I am. I couldn't imagine sitting in a restaurant and someone on the next table being interested in the crap I was spouting. If you're instantly recognisable you must be of interest to people all the time."

Perhaps what helps Whittaker stay grounded is the fact that she's been married, since 2008 – having met her future husband, the Hispanic-American actor Christian Contreras, way back at drama school. But although she describes herself as "having absolutely zero filter – I don't know when to shut up", her relationship with Christian is one area that does come filtered.

"I don't really want to talk about relationships because it lets people into stuff. I'm not on Facebook for that reason. I find it a bit odd that acting comes with people knowing things about you that sometimes only your best mates know. I find it strange that you're expected to share it with millions of people you've never met.

"I can totally understand how that comes across as arsey, but, yuh, so I'm married to Christian – have been for two years – a fact that is probably on Wikipedia anyway. And I'm not going to deny I'm married, I wear a bloody wedding ring after all. We had a big wedding in Arizona – very attention-seeking, big dress, big guest-list kind of wedding. It was obviously in my top five days..."

This deadpan humour is probably the most "Yorkshire" thing about Whittaker, although she says she couldn't wait to leave to come to London. "Huddersfield's great – and I'm absolutely from there and I've not made any attempt to hide it," she says. "But I was adamant from an early age that I needed somewhere faster to live, I wanted to live inside a city – a capital city."

And anyway, she still has her "lifers" from home, although the actor's life can make it hard to keep in touch. "You have to drop your social life. That's the hardest thing I find about acting – you can't commit to stuff, say 'Yes, I'll be there on your birthday' or whatever. You become a bit of a bad mate. But if that's the only downside, then, bloody hell..."

'The Night Watch' is on BBC2 in late July

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