Glass speaks to British actor Jenna Coleman on what she learned from her early career days to her latest endeavour, starring in the BBC’s The Serpent alongside Glass Man cover star Tahar Rahim
Jenna Coleman loves a challenge. Blessed with thick brown hair, piercing dark eyes and a fearless attitude, the 34-year-old British actor has taken on some of the biggest roles in television. Not afraid of the weight that some of her characters carry, Coleman has continually transformed herself, gradually cementing her place as one of this country’s best acting talents.
Her latest adventure transported her halfway across the world for the BBC’s new hit drama series, The Serpent. Depicting the true story of serial killer Charles Sobhraj (played by Tahar Rahim), Coleman took on the role of his besotted lover, Marie-Andrée Leclerc.
Her haunting performance came even more of a shock to me when she picked up my Zoom call and I was met with a smiling Northerner.
Born in Blackpool in the northwest of England, Coleman knew from the age of 10 that acting was all she wanted to do. “I am kind of one of those annoying people who was lucky because I knew [that] from a really young age,” she reminiscences, remembering how she fell in love with the craft on her first and only professional job she did as a kid in theatre. “And in a way it made it quite simple because I had that focus.”
Shortly after leaving school, she accepted the offer of playing Jasmine Thomas in the ITV soap, Emmerdale. After four years, she left the part to pick up a new one in the BBC’s drama series, Waterloo Road. “I suppose they were like my university,” she replies when I ask what she learnt from the fast-paced shows. “You work a lot quicker; you are running through loads of scripts all the time and you’re with different actors and different directors. So, in a way, it was a good way to start as since then it has been like working backwards.”
Although grateful for those hectic call-times and quick turnarounds, nothing could prepare her for what came next. “It felt like a long shot anyway because I was thinking that they would probably go for someone really famous,” she admits. Yet, in 2012, it was revealed that Coleman had been cast as the companion of the 11th Doctor (played by Matt Smith) in the iconic series, Doctor Who – a role that would inevitably catapult her into the public eye.
“It really felt like I knew that Doctor Who was never just a job, it was a definite road to go down. I had been at the point where I was enjoying the anonymity of just being the jobbing actor,” she recalls. “It felt like a really big thing to consider.” Nonetheless, citing Smith’s “mercurial” way of acting and Stephen Moffat’s writing, the actor accepted the challenge and entered the Tardis.
Upon coming back down to earth, Coleman hit another milestone. Playing the role of Queen Victoria in ITV’s Victoria gained her critical acclaim for the way she brought the monarch back to life. “I didn’t know a lot about Queen Victoria to begin with and felt like I didn’t know how to crack her open,” says Coleman, explaining how the veiled portraits of Victoria depict a dour woman and not the one she discovered when reading her diaries.
“The excitement really came from changing the preconceptions about her because she was so curious about life, so vivacious. There was something so human about her that I didn’t know or had ever really seen explored before.” After three seasons, the production was put on pause as the actor packed her bags and flew to Bangkok to start filming The Serpent.
For those who haven’t watched the eight-part series, it follows the crimes of French serial killer Charles Sobhraj, who would drug and subsequently kill back-packing tourists in 1970s Thailand. Coleman proceeded to effortlessly swap her charming Northern accent for a thick French-Canadian one as she took on her biggest job to date.
“Voice is usually the first thing that comes to me. But with her [Marie-Andrée Leclerc] it is really specific as I had all her voice notes to listen to from when she was in prison,” she says in response to my question about the difficulty of acting with an accent, in this case Quebecois French.
She admits that it “was absolutely torturous” having daily sessions learning how to pronounce words like ‘trés’ correctly.
If that wasn’t challenging enough, her character was layered with complexities. On the one hand, she was naïve and yearning for affection, on the other, she was cold and arguably evil. “I found Marie-Andrée, her psychology and her story, her complexities, her darkness, depth and light really transfixing,” states Coleman. “She is living in the reality that she has constructed so that she can feel safe.”
I ask Coleman whether she was able to understand Leclerc’s motives about staying with Sobhraj despite his awful crimes: “I think her life before she met him was so banal and boring … that suddenly to live in the polar opposite of life, being in such danger, on the run with this violent, dangerous man and being on the precipice made her feel alive.”
The process of telling this story came with its own real-life nightmares. “It was the most cursed shoot ever to the point our crew were going to the temple to get rid of the ‘Serpent curse,’” she reveals. “We had many freak accidents, tricky things with filming, changes with schedule and then Kanit House, which we were shooting in, was [due to be] knocked down, so I had to fly back to Bangkok before [that happened].”
Coleman admits she thrives on the unpredictability of her job. “I love the adventure of not knowing where in the world you will be, who you will be with, meet and what stories you’re going to be telling,” she says, adding in something of an understatement, “I really like change”.
With the theme of this issue being breakthrough, she defines it as: “To be seen. To shatter walls that surround you.” In this case, Jenna Coleman has the spotlight shining on her and she’s doing a remarkable job of ensuring there is no wall too high that she won’t climb.
First published in the Spring 2021 issue of Glass