The star of blood-spattered hits such as ‘Wilderness’ maps out her (much funnier) future
It’s unusual for such a well-known actor but some of Jenna Coleman’s self-taped auditions are available on YouTube. Looking back with the benefit of more than a decade’s hindsight, you can see that Coleman would always have been hard to ignore. Filming in plain rooms with a friend – not a casting director – behind the camera, she commands attention; cries at the drop of a hat; she is someone you would want to spend time with. She looks like ‘making it’ was always inevitable.
Although the 37-year-old’s ascent was bumpier than this, she is now a reliable presence on our screens, and her auditions are either unnecessary or performed to famous directors. You’re most likely to know her cherubic face and big eyes from Doctor Who, in which Coleman played Matt Smith’s ‘companion’ Clara Oswald – or more recently, hit streaming shows The Sandman and Wilderness. If you’re an Emmerdale devotee, you’ll know that she did a long stint on the soap as Jasmine Thomas, starting at the age of 19 and hanging on until she was 24 – about 180 years in soap time.
Coleman has been grafting for a long while. Putting in the hours is in her blood. Her grandfather, who lives in her home town of Blackpool, still goes every day to the promenade, where he takes charge of the hoopla and darts. He’s 86 years old. If Coleman has worked hard to get to where she is, it’s easy to see why.
“I’ve done a lot of brooding, interior, tense anxiety pieces”
She can’t remember when her last interview was, she says as she sits down in a café in Islington Green, north London, wearing a chunky navy jumper on a sunny but cold day. Free now from the restrictions of the actors strike that forbade any self-promotion, she can talk about Jackdaw, her latest film. At the moment her hair is ombre – brown gradually giving way to blonde at the bottom – though everything about her is usually dark: her hair and her eyebrows and her eyes. She is fantastic company and there’s a toughness to her answers. At the end of her sentences a slightly guarded pause often hangs, rather than the padding or laughter with which we sometimes try to fill silences when we are excitable and nervous.
In Jackdaw, her character Bo is a street-wise leader of an all-girl biker gang. She doesn’t have a huge deal of screen time but she is central to the life of Jack Dawson (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, also her co-star in Wilderness), the protagonist who races around in almost every frame of the film trying to find his kidnapped brother. A remnant of Jack’s life before he joined the army, Bo is a lifeline, an old flame, and a reminder of who Jack was. Although Coleman has forgotten, Bo wields a shotgun in the film, shooting someone’s testicles through a letterbox – not something you could say of either Clara Oswald or Queen Victoria (whom Coleman played in the ITV series Victoria).
As Jackdaw is set in the north-east of England, Bo – full first name Boudicea – was also a chance for Coleman to flex her Geordie twang. Her accents have confidently toured the British Isles over the last couple of decades and many of her YouTube self-tapes feature an American accent – Coleman went to LA for their pilot seasons many years ago and impressed casting directors but didn’t land a show. (She did, however, manage to play an American character in Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011.) She had just been speaking in a Welsh accent for the Prime Video’s Wilderness when she joined Jackdaw. To nail the Geordie accent, Coleman’s dialect coach Daniele Lydon advised she focus on the phrase “Jean Paul Gaultier’s photocopier” to practise. The phrase doesn’t crop up in the film, which is a shame.
Jackdaw is written and directed by Jamie Childs, whom Coleman met when he directed some of The Sandman, the Netflix fantasy series based on Neil Gaiman’s comic book. Bo is another serious, pretty dark character for her to have inhabited, leaving precious room for laughs. In a similar vein tonally there is The Jetty, a four-part drama series coming to the BBC in September, in which she plays a detective looking back at her life through the prism of a case. In Wilderness she played a woman planning to kill her husband, and in The Cry – a four-episode BBC One show from 2018 – she played someone whose baby disappears. “I feel like I’ve definitely done my time of thrillers and murderers,” Coleman says. “My time of murdering and… thrilling? is done.”
She may be feeling a frustration similar to that which she felt before she landed Victoria, when people only saw her in northern and soap-shaped boxes. “Sometimes it can take a bit of time for people to see you in a different light,” she says, pointing out that before playing a queen she was only ever considered for the below-stairs roles in Downton Abbey. In recent years she has played a spate of characters who are “very held and very introspective”. She looks to actors like Emily Watson, Ruth Wilson and Andrea Riseborough for inspiration; these are women who have played rich, varied and complex parts. She is on the lookout for “emotionally liberated” characters. “I kind of want someone who’s a bit more immediate, I think. I’ve done a lot of brooding, interior, tense anxiety pieces.” The irony is that the more of these she does, the more of them she’s sent. Why? Because she’s good.
Perhaps she might like to do more comedy? Coleman lights up. “I keep telling my agent I’m really funny. But I don’t think she’s quite taken it on board yet. I would love to do some more comedy. I love dark comedy.” Though no one would call it a comedy, The Sandman gives her the chance to have a bit more fun, playing a Cockney exorcist whose voice, she says, is basically a Ray Winstone impression. (“I seem to have arrived at that decision. I’m not quite sure where that came from, but I committed.”) She was recently in the (very) dark comedy-thriller Klokkenluider, which made for a welcome change. Her friend is taking comedy improv classes in London and it has clearly got her cogs whirring.
“I keep telling my agent I’m really funny. But I don’t think she’s quite taken it on board yet”
Coleman has known for about 25 years that acting is the life for her but her first forays were a little eccentric. At Arnold School in Blackpool she was taught drama by Colin Snell, the director of the department, who encouraged the students to perform productions on tour and for three weeks consecutively at the Edinburgh Fringe, where they would essentially be singing for their supper. “I’m not sure she would have gone into acting had we not done what we had done at school,” Snell tells NME. The department put on mounted six to eight shows a year. For one, in which Coleman played someone who couldn’t see, Snell suggested that she volunteer in a home for blind people. “She was quite focused and serious about what she was doing,” he says. At 14 she “chose a lane” and stopped dancing because theatre was taking over, and because she could see that dancers had shorter careers.
Snell remembers her being one of many committed students. (The school has also produced actors like Heartstopper’s Joe Locke and Jonas Armstong, who played Robin Hood in the mid-noughties BBC series). “I don’t think she ever really believed in herself when we first started,” he says. “She was never one that was boastful or talked of ever wanting to be famous. She didn’t have star quality. Star quality is a media invention. She worked hard. She still is quite modest, I think. You never see pictures of her in the papers, falling out of taxis, legs akimbo at four o’clock in the morning.”
Any illusion that Coleman was on a fast track to success was dispelled when she didn’t get into drama school. She worked for a year in a pub. Then, when she was with an extras agency called Scream Management, she remembers getting two pieces of potential work: an audition for Irn Bru and a workshop for the character that would go on to become Emmerdale’s Jasmine Thomas. For the next five years she didn’t need to worry about work. Three years after Jasmine, Coleman became Clara. “Your life’s gonna change, your life’s gonna change,” Matt Smith told her. She had become a central face in one of the world’s most popular TV shows.
Much as her life did change, Coleman is currently at a level of fame that sits comfortably with her. Cabbies always recognise her. When people stop her for selfies it tends to be for Doctor Who, Victoria or The Serpent, a massive hit during lockdown. There was a bit of an “unreality” to the hysterical Comic Con level of recognition she encountered with Doctor Who, and she doesn’t seem itching to chase it. If there were some kind of superhero call she’d be open to the possibility but acknowledges that it’s often hard to find a sufficiently “complex, nuanced character” in the heightened world of comic-book films – which is why she loves The Sandman, the second series of which she is filming now. Last year she also clearly loved performing Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, the Sam Steiner two-hander in which she and Aidan Turner live in a world whose citizens are forced to speak no more than 140 words every day.
So in Jenna Coleman’s future there may be more theatre, and perhaps there will be more comedy, if her agent can be convinced. If it’s Geordie, American, Welsh or regal you want, look no further. She can wear a crown, she can fire a gun. She can do it all. She’s made it, and it was always inevitable.
‘Jackdaw’ is in UK cinemas from January 26