Leeds-born actor Gemma Whelan talks shooting a festive flick with her baby in tow
Whelan speaks of her time on set for Surviving Christmas With The Relatives and how things are changing in the TV and film industry. Grace Hammond reports.
She gained critical acclaim for her 2017 portrayal of Karen Matthews in BBC drama The Moorside and is best known for her role as Yara Greyjoy in Sky Atlantic and HBO’s fantasy series Game of Thrones.
But despite starring in some of the biggest shows in television, Leeds-born actor Gemma Whelan is content to fly under the radar.
“Some people can’t place me, and I don’t ever disclose the TV darling, I just say I’ve got one of those faces,” she says. “It doesn’t really happen, I’m very pleased to say – not that there’s anything wrong with being recognised, I think it’s a nice thing to be recognised for your work.”
Having done her fair share of comedy work, including stand-up and roles in BBC sitcom Upstart Crow, her humorous streak creeps in.
“I think it might be a different thing if you are hounded, you can’t go out,” she says laughing. “I mean I’m out, pushing my buggy around at the moment, and I truly, I look like a bag lady.”
“I can’t describe what I put on in the morning, but nothing goes,” she adds. “I get to walk around my home area dressed as a bag lady and it’s fine.”
The 37-year-old was best known as a comedian when she first auditioned for Game of Thrones in 2011 – and it is in festive comedy Surviving Christmas With The Relatives that she has landed her latest film role.
Described as a “heart-warming, riotous take on the traditional festive family get-together”, the movie sees two sisters and their families reunited at Christmas time at their recently deceased parents’ dilapidated country home.
Miranda (played by Whelan) and Lyla (played by Joely Richardson) are forced to confront old sibling rivalries that threaten to derail the festive season.
“The house (left by their parents) is barely liveable because it’s really, sort of, descended into wreck and ruins. There’s no oven, no plumbing, everything’s cold.
“So they are all just trying to do their best in this chaotic environment and have a nice Christmas,” she says. “Basically, [it is] any family Christmas, but with the volume on all the difficulties turned up.”
Signing up to the film, by British director James Dearden, the man behind the screenplay of acclaimed 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction, was a no-brainer for Whelan.
“What excited me about the part was that it was... James Dearden of Fatal Attraction fame, writing a comedy and directing it. I thought, ‘That sounds juicy’. And then the other people who were on board with the project, and the script, I really thought it was great fun, a slightly different take on the sort of, disastrous Christmas movie.”
The film, which was shot in locations including Hertfordshire and Greenwich, has a “sort of sizzling drama at the heart of it”, she says. And it is woven with personal experiences from Dearden.
“The story was an amalgam of my experiences of Christmas over the years,” the 69-year-old explains. “I used to have to go up and down to London and have two Christmas lunches. I’ve also experienced Polish builders and living in a building site, with everything going wrong so I put it all together in one crazy Christmas.”
During filming, Whelan had her baby daughter with her on set and credits the people around her for their support.
“I had my, what was she then, six-month-old in tow, so I had a baby with me as well. I still breastfed – so I had her with me the whole time,” she says.
“It was fine,” she states, “With the right support, it is all possible, isn’t it? It always sounds much scarier than it actually is, popping off to feed your baby now and again, as long as everyone’s willing to allow that to happen, which invariably they have been.
“I think Claire Foy did a lot for it (working mums on set), Sally Phillips, who was on this film, she took her babies to work with her, a lot of mums do,” Whelan muses, “so I think the more we do it, the more normal it can become.”
Something she doesn’t take home from set is her characters. Explaining she is not a method actor, she says: “Now I find it very easy to come home and shake the day off. One of the jobs I did tend to come home (with) a little bit was when I did The Moorside. That was quite a heavy, heavy role, but nothing too difficult to shake off, have a bath, have a cup of tea.”
Whelan is currently filming alongside Doctor Foster’s Suranne Jones in Halifax-set upcoming BBC One drama series Gentleman Jack and will also be seen on screen next year in ITV’s six-part drama, the White House Farm Murders, based on the grisly killings that gripped the nation in the mid-1980s.
Her career has certainly been varied. In September 2010, Whelan won the Funny Women Variety Act Award in September 2010 with her character Chastity Butterworth, which also saw her appear at the Edinburgh Fringe and have her own Radio 4 chat show.
She is also a trained dancer specialising in tap and jazz and is a member of the dance troupe The Beaux Belles, who are based in London.
She nearly went to the Royal Ballet School before finding herself attracted to more dramatic roles, including in West End smash hit farce, One Man, Two Guvnors.
“It’s always nice to do lots of diverse things I suppose. I’m very, very fortunate to play a nice light-hearted comedy role, and lovely, serious gritty dramatic roles as well, and fancy roles and everything in between,” she says.
Asked about there being more roles of substance for woman of late, she begins: “In writers’ minds as they write now that stuff is more likely to be made if they’ve got a strong...I mean, I hate using the word ‘strong, female character’ because by default women are strong.”
“It shouldn’t be a thing to be a strong woman any more,” Whelan said in a previous interview last year after several seasons playing fierce warrior Yara in Games of Thrones. “Wouldn’t it be more exciting to ask a man what’s it like to play a weak and vulnerable man?”
“It’s not insulting but we as women are very strong and independent and to be able to reflect that in a role is not difficult because that’s what we are,” she continued. “Yes, you turn the volume up on some aspects of your personality for a certain character.
“And sometimes it’s a real privilege to play someone broken and vulnerable because there’s still a great strength in that. It shouldn’t be a question because women are strong. I just think it’s such a fascinating thing to discuss because it shouldn’t be a question any more.”
So, are women are feeling more empowered at the moment? “Yes, the movement is happening, isn’t it? We are doing very well.”
Surviving Christmas With The Relatives is in UK cinemas from November 30.