BAZ BAMIGBOYE: Why Joanna Scanlan's new role is no laughing matter

BAZ BAMIGBOYE: Why Joanna Scanlan’s new role is no laughing matter

Joanna Scanlan is usually fine about disrobing on screen but when she had to do so for her latest film, she was ‘a little bit nervous’.

We know Scanlan best for playing vivacious Detective Inspector Viv Deering in No Offence; or maybe ward sister Den Flixter in Getting On; or Terri Coverley, the hapless government Press Officer in The Thick Of It.

But Mary, the woman she inhabits in director Aleem Khan’s picture After Love, doesn’t come out of any box we’ve seen before.

She’s an Islamic convert, living a comfortable life in Dover with her husband Ahmed, a ferry captain, until he dies suddenly — within the opening frames of the film.

And then Mary discovers that the man she’d been in love with from the age of 14 was leading a double life with another woman in Calais.

And so she sets sail across the Channel to discover the truth.

Joanna Scanlan at the Bridget Jones’ Baby World Premiere in London in 2016. We know Scanlan best for playing vivacious Detective Inspector Viv Deering in No Offence; or maybe ward sister Den Flixter in Getting On

Mary (pictured), the woman she inhabits in director Aleem Khan’s picture After Love, doesn’t come out of any box we’ve seen before 

In Calais, she finds Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) who, seeing Mary in her hijab, assumes she’s a cleaner responding to a job advert. ‘You know, that French hauteur,’ Scanlan said. ‘Mary feels diminished by that.’

She’s hired by Genevieve, who doesn’t know her true identity. The two women — the secular Republican and the Muslim woman of faith — are polar opposites in almost every respect. ‘There’s the tall blonde and the short brunette; the thin one and the fat one,’ Scanlan said.

There’s a moment when Mary examines herself in the mirror. ‘We’re looking at her stretch marks, and the way her body tells a story. The body bears the scars of our lives. We’re looking at the naked and the clothed, and she’s trying to protect herself from the threat — and the threat at that point in the story is the other woman.’

Scanlan said she’s asked to take her clothes off quite frequently for roles; and usually she’s comfortable doing so. But not this time. ‘I was a little bit nervous about really inviting someone to scrutinise your physical flaws,’ she said.’

Scanlan knows where to look for vulnerability, as was proved by her scene-stealing moment in The Invisible Woman, in which she portrayed Charles Dickens’s wife Catherine (pictured), opposite Ralph Fiennes

Steve Coogan with Scanlan In The Loop in 2009. Scanlan, 59, came to professional acting late, because ‘it took me a long time to grow up’

Scarlett Johansson with Scanlan in Girl With a Pearl Earring in 2003

The Thick Of It with Scanlan as Terri Coverley

Mary and Genevieve have to overcome their prejudices towards each other, and how they do that plays out against the backdrop of Brexit and the plight of refugees. Neither subject is mentioned directly; but they’re there, in the stunning visuals… right down to shots of the White Cliffs Of Dover, crumbling into the sea.

Aleem Khan, whose debut feature film this is, developed the picture with the British Film Institute and BBC Film. And even though Scanlan has become one of our most celebrated stars, she still had to go through a rigorous audition process.

As soon as she was selected, she went into homework mode. Khan gave her a crash course in Islamic doctrines, while his mother offered tips on how to dress for the role.

She went walkabout in London for a few days in a hijab and salwar kameez, to see if people treated her differently. No one did. ‘You could be dressed in a ballgown in Oxford Street and people wouldn’t care,’ she said drily. ‘Although I did feel differently in myself. I felt very comfortable; and felt that I was not going to be subject to unwanted attention, strangely.’

Aleem Khan, whose debut feature film this is, developed the picture with the British Film Institute and BBC Film. And even though Scanlan has become one of our most celebrated stars, she still had to go through a rigorous audition process. Pictured, Scanlan as Mary

As soon as she was selected, she went into homework mode. Khan gave her a crash course in Islamic doctrines, while his mother offered tips on how to dress for the role

She went walkabout in London for a few days in a hijab and salwar kameez, to see if people treated her differently

Scanlan’s parents are strict Roman Catholics, and she grew up saying prayers morning, noon and night. So the devout practices Mary engages in were familiar

She also visited the central Mosque in Regent’s Park, and observed various ceremonies. Scanlan’s parents are strict Roman Catholics, and she grew up saying prayers morning, noon and night. So the devout practices Mary engages in were familiar

Scanlan, 59, came to professional acting late, because ‘it took me a long time to grow up’, even though acting had been a passion from an early age. ‘I had to work on myself, in terms of confidence,’ she told me. It took me four years to get to the point where I could launch myself — to a place where there could be no safety net.’

But those tough years were invaluable. She knows where to look for vulnerability, as was proved by her scene-stealing moment in The Invisible Woman, in which she portrayed Charles Dickens’s wife Catherine, opposite Ralph Fiennes.

She credits Fiennes with teaching her ‘the art of the close-up’, a secret she said is not hers to divulge.

Sarah Alexander, Michelle Pfeiffer and Scanlan in Stardust 

Scanlan as Terri Coverley in The Thick Of It

She’s currently playing Ma Larkin in a television adaptation of H.E. Bates’s The Larkins novels. Before each take, ‘I had to say to myself: ‘She’s a happy woman! How many stories do we get about happy women?!’

There are plans to adapt the Puppy Love series she starred in (and wrote) with Vicki Pepperdine, possibly for Netflix. The pair are also adapting Lisa Evans’s book Old Baggage for American TV, and she hopes to star in that.

Scanlan categorised herself as going ‘under the radar’ for much of her career — though not in my book. She said when she goes shopping, no one ever says: ‘Are you Viv from No Offence? Or Terri from The Thick Of It?’ And she wasn’t surprised. ‘Short dumpy woman, no make-up, in old anorak, doesn’t get much attention.’

But in fact, she added happily, under the radar ‘is the right place to be’.

  • After Love opens in cinemas next Friday.

Watch out for… 

Kate Winslett, who’s giving a vanity-free performance for the ages in the nail-biting, cliff-hanging murder series Mare Of Easttown. 

The Oscar-winning actress plays the title character, Mare Sheehan, a beer-guzzling, hotdog-chugging, perpetually PO’d small-town homicide detective.

Mare of Easttown. Mare Sheehan (pictured) questions suspects in a grisly murder case and gives an icy welcome to Colin Zabel, a county detective called in to assist

There have been unfounded rumours of a second season. But alas, my information is that more Mare is not happening

Mare (pictured) is a beer-guzzling, hotdog-chugging, perpetually PO’d small-town homicide detective

The seventh and final episode broadcasts on Sky and NOWTV on Monday. I have seen all of the thrillingly intense show, and I can attest that it’s A+, not-to-be-missed TV. 

I don’t think it’s a spoiler if I quote a line uttered by one character: ‘It’s Mare! She knows!!’

There have been unfounded rumours of a second season. But alas, my information is that more Mare is not happening. 

Still, like the show itself, life is full of unexpected twists and turns. Now, if only Kate and writer Brad Ingelsby could be persuaded… 

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