David Jenkins



Robin Goodwin

Joanna Scanlan: ‘I’ve usually done comedy but I’ve never felt that’s me’

The great comedy actor explains how she played it straight for Aleem Khan’s moving debut feature After Love.

She stole every episode of TV’s The Thick of It as the lovably bumbling Terri Coverley, and then went on to receive acclaim and awards with her own hospital-set sitcom Getting On. Her recent film roles have included a budgie-loving, cat hat-wearing outsider in Deborah Hayward’s Pin Cushion, and now the lead role Aleem Khan’s After Love, in which she plays Mary, an Islam convert who discovers her late husband has another family across the Channel in Calais.

LWLies: You’re known mainly for your comedy roles, particularly played in a deadpan mode, but After Love feels like something different for you in that it’s purely dramatic.

Scanlan: I always feel that, as an actor, when I approach any script, I look for the function of the character within the whole. What is that character bringing to the party? That’s where that knowing or winking thing comes in, because usually the characters I play want to make someone laugh, and I’ve usually been employed to do comedy. However, I’ve never felt that is me. I’ve just never been asked to let that drop. Of course, it’s a classic case of getting employed on what somebody’s seen of you before. ‘Oh I liked that, let’s have a bit more.’ I think I feel more at home not playing comedy.

It’s almost as if something falls away, and I can be myself. A lot of comedy is about cover. What’s funny is someone covering something up in themselves, whether it’s self-deception, or deception to others. That’s part of the comedy, and something we recognise about ourselves. But it’s the letting go of that covering, and being able to find a true emotional connection, something really raw, that I was able to do with Mary. That was a lovely, lovely thing to do. I’m quite a raw person. I cry every day. Things get to me. So it’s just nice to be in that place and just ‘be it’.

When you talk about that process of exploring the character, how do you actually do that? Was it something Aleem was involved in?

Yes. He was very clear about what he wanted. He was prescriptive in terms of how things would be played. In a way, part of the job was to meet that in every scene. But then there’s another job that only the actor can do, which is to be in a state of being that the camera is going to pick up, which is not really about where you’re standing or what you’re feeling. It’s something that’s a couple of layers back from that. In order to get into that place, a lot of the research really helped.

How deep did you go on the research front? It feels like you could’ve spent a long time prepping for this role.

I had to learn a lot about Islam. I didn’t have to learn about bereavement, but I had to think about it and go into memories of grieving. Then there was also a level of research I did with Aleem’s mum. As he’s said, it’s not strictly a story about his family, but he was inspired by them to write it. I found spending time with his mum the most profound kind of research. She was a white, working-class girl in Walthamstow who married a young Pakistani immigrant when they very young and she had to forge a life through the decades. She brought up six children. She was just the most the delightful person. And so inspiring. Cut to on set, in my inner toolbox, I had that presence of Aleem’s mum with me.

What kind of questions were you asking her? Were they related to the film?

No, nothing about the film. I was just curious about her life. Aleem had told me lots about his life and experiences. From the outside it wouldn’t have looked any different from friendly chatting. Somehow that makes an imprint. It’s solid. You can keep it with you. Then you have this kind of fusion with your own psyche, and you can create something new. It’s a mysterious process.

With Khan’s connection to the material, did you ever find that you were being asked to recreate a scene that actually happened?

There’s nothing in there that actually happened in life. It’s entirely fictionalised. There was never sense that it had to be like it was in his memory. But there was always a sense in which I was a sort of mannequin. Like a mannequin with flesh on. I was moved around. Placed. Which is something that happens a lot in cinema. There was a sense that Aleem was quite imagistic and cinematic. As an actor, you have to just throw yourself into that. You have to let it happen to you. Sometimes it doesn’t feel very nice, as if you don’t have very much control. It’s ultimately going to give you the best reward.

After Love is released in 4 June via BFI Distribution. Read the LWLies Recommends review.

Published 3 Jun 2021

Tags: After Love Aleem Khan Joanna Scanlan

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