It would be an understatement to say that Adult Life Skills is personal for Jodie Whittaker. The actress’ latest film – a sharp, good-natured comedy about a bereaved twin living in her mum’s shed – was shot in her hometown, written and directed by her best friend Rachel Tunnard, and sees her character Anna’s best friend Fiona played by her other best friend Rachael Deering. The inspiration, meanwhile, came from a holiday the trio took together in 2009, where they commiserated over how rarely they saw women like them believably represented on screen. Jodie’s enthusiasm for their passion project is evident, but perhaps most telling is her description of what happened when she learned she was pregnant, six weeks before the start of shooting. The idea of postponing for eighteen months was raised, then promptly dismissed: “Fuck it,” she concluded, “put me in a baggy tee-shirt and let’s go.”
The film takes Anna’s grief seriously but she isn’t consumed by it at all times. What was appealing about that approach?
Anywhere else this story would probably be a kitchen sink drama, but instead it’s a heightened, bizarre comedy. That’s important because if something terrible happens you’re not a different person. It changes you but you’re not fundamentally different. Even in the darkest times you still laugh, you still find things funny. There’s humour in the process of mourning – it doesn’t go away forever. You’re still you.
A consequence of that is she’s often terrible to those around her.
The thing I love about Anna is sometimes she’s a pain in the arse, particularly with her mum, but no-one gives up on her. The people that get you through these things are your friends and your family, so it was lovely that it was about that rather than her being saved by some huge love story. The sisterhood between her and Fiona was particularly great to play. I can’t think of another film I’ve been in where my character has even had a best friend. In other things I have scenes with girls where we’re talking about boys. We don’t get to just prat about.
What was it like filming in the area of Yorkshire where you grew up?
It was strange and funny. I’ve known Rachael Deering since we were five and it was the first time since 18 that we were living back at home. There was one night when it was really cold so I went to hers, sat in front of the fire, ate a chocolate orange and watched Frozen. We’d been to the shop to buy matching pyjamas because we didn’t have any and I slept over. We just reverted back. On one occasion an old mate walked past the end of the drive of the house we were shooting in, and we asked her to come back the next day to be an extra. That was her day off – she’s a solicitor, she’s got a proper job – but she dressed as a paramedic for us. We roped in everyone we knew. If you keep watching the credits at least three Whittakers show up. People couldn’t say it was too far to travel: “No it isn’t, we’re at the bottom of your road.”
Is making a low-budget independent film liberating or challenging?
Within those constraints it was an incredibly free environment. There was a huge learning curve for everyone because it was Rachel’s first feature as director, Rachael Deering’s first feature, my first time as an executive producer, but that meant it was a baby for all of us. We had lots of obstacles – losing the light, child hours, horrific weather, I was starting to show, and there wasn’t even a heater in the shed – and we overcame them together. By the end I was coming up to five months pregnant, so it was a precarious time. It felt like the start of a new part in my life. I was cold and tired and excited.
At this point you’ve been a working actress for eleven years. What has been the most important thing you’ve learned?
You’ve got to move forward. It’s all about pushing yourself and discovering new things and not putting up any guards. I would be devastated if I suddenly relied on a tried-and-tested performance. But then I’m lucky because I get to work a lot with totally different material. I could name five jobs I’ve done which are the polar opposite of each other. You’ve got to throw yourself in and trust the director. That in itself is exciting! To put your fate in someone’s hands. It’s quite scary, and can be frustrating, but it’s so rewarding because someone sees you in a way you can’t see yourself. You need to be aware enough to give yourself over to the process. I think I’ve got a good instinct. I’ve said yes to the right things. There’s loads of stuff that I’m sure in hindsight I’d say I’m a dickhead for not going in for, but then I wouldn’t have got those jobs anyway because they wouldn’t have seen what they needed to see.
Is that because ultimately your job has to start with you being passionate about something?
Yes, but that’s only because I’m in a fortunate position. It’d be very different if I hadn’t worked for a couple of years. At this stage if I get sent something and I don’t want to do it I don’t have to, and that might not always be the case. I’m very aware of my age, I’m very aware of my sex. I understand that the industry in its limited, frustrating way means that I will get to a point where I’m too old and have the wrong genitals to be in things, which is ridiculous. That’s a part of it sadly, but at this moment in time I feel properly in my skin, and I’m playing parts that I can really care about.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-One.