Just standing in Queen Victoria’s bed chamber in Kensington Palace, two centuries after she was born here, I feel swept back in time – little seems to have changed. The floor-to-ceiling windows still look out over green fields and water as far as the eye can see; the floral wallpaper, while not the original, was chosen by Queen Mary to reflect it.
Oddest of all, in this same building, a clutch of dukes, duchesses and princesses, not to mention Prince William and his young family, are co-existing more or less happily in what must surely be the world’s most aristocratic apartment block. A Jacobean mansion, originally extended by Christopher Wren for William and Mary, it is conveniently located a stone’s throw from the buses and boutiques of Kensington High Street.
This was, most famously, the home of Diana, Princess of Wales, becoming a place of pilgrimage after her fatal car crash in 1997, with mourners coming from around the globe to add their tributes to the sea of bouquets piled up before its gates. (Subsequently, her apartment was stripped of its furnishings and left as a shell for years; no wonder when Prince William decided to make his own home there, he chose Princess Margaret’s former apartments instead.)
At the moment, however, my attention is focused on the young woman who has just entered the room, escorted by a retinue of security guards, dressers and ladies-in-waiting. She’s tiny as a fairy and exquisitely dressed in full-length brocade and twinkling diamonds… Only the trace of Lancashire in Jenna Coleman’s low voice dispels the illusion that the monarch has returned in person to her childhood home.
These are difficult times for ardent republicans, with both The Crown and Victoria drawing huge audiences across the globe. In the case of Victoria, the series’ appeal is down to a combination of Coleman’s beguiling portrayal and Daisy Goodwin’s lively script, which have together comprehensively recast the Queen’s image. Rather than the dour, repressive widow whose matronly form is immortalised in municipal statuary across her former empire, we are admitted into the presence of a youthful, beautiful and deliciously impulsive creature, whose struggles to ‘have it all’ – an all-consuming job, time with her young family and a meaningful relationship with a spouse whose own ego is threatened by her status – seem utterly contemporary.
This appealing interpretation is no mere populist fantasy, though with her wide hazel eyes, dramatic brows and delicate features, Coleman is a good deal prettier than Victoria ever was. She is impressively dedicated to portraying the role as accurately as possible, goes to Kensington Palace “whenever I can”, and obsessively scours biographies and the Queen’s own diaries for clues to her personality. Queen Victoria’s own drawings are her favourite
source of inspiration. “You really feel that you are seeing the world through her eyes. Everything else has been edited – even her diaries, which were cut by her daughter.“
During our shoot, Coleman asks to be shown the exact route that the 18-year-old Princess, clad in her dressing gown, walked from her bedroom to the King’s Gallery to be formally notified by Lord Conyngham and the Archbishop of Canterbury of her accession to the throne. “One day, she’s not trusted to walk down the stairs by herself, the next day she’s the most powerful woman in the world,” she marvels.
It has undoubtedly assisted the realism of the actress’ performance that she is a dainty 5’2” (although that’s still three inches taller than Victoria was) – and thus accustomed to being the shortest adult in the room. “Daisy did say that was why they cast me,” she says, laughing self-deprecatingly. “I can empathise with that feeling of it being harder to project power. For the first series, I was put into cream dresses and bonnets – and I hated wearing a bonnet! I felt really young and girlie. Then I realised that was exactly how Victoria must have felt, surrounded by men in black suits, and having to lead.“
So what is the secret of projecting regal authority? “What I’ve learnt about playing power is, you don’t have to,” she says, wisely. “We had a royal adviser in for a few days, and he didn’t give any notes to me. He just said to the others, ‘You have to imagine there’s an aura round this person.’ That’s the only way you can ever capture it, I suppose.“
Despite her dedication and all the critical acclaim, Coleman appears convinced that Victoria would not have been amused by her interpretation. ‘She’d say that everything I did was wrong, and I’d get a pamphlet full of notes,’ she says. The last time she was in Victoria’s bedchamber, filming an interview for ITV News, she mentions she ‘had a funny turn’ and ended up having to lie with her legs above her head to recover, which she jokes was down to the Queen’s disapproving spirit urging her to be gone.
The new series begins in 1848, as turbulent an era for Europe as our own. Indeed, it may be some consolation, as the torturous Brexit process unfolds, to be reminded of a time when France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Denmark and Poland were all rocked by popular revolutions, and only Britain remained relatively stable. The fear, however, was that the working-class Chartist movement, which called for democratic reforms including universal male suffrage (at the time, only property-owning men could vote, and it would be 70 years before any woman was given the right), would spark similar political violence and social upheaval.
In this febrile atmosphere, the arrival in England of the newly deposed King Louis Philippe of France, seeking refuge at Buckingham Palace, was seen as dangerously provocative by Victoria’s advisers. “I’ve read her diaries from her perspective of seeing him, and thinking, “Wow, this could be me.” She had a bit of an identity crisis,” says Coleman. “Her attitude had always been: this is my path, this is my life, this is what I’ve been born into.” Here, by contrast, was proof that destiny could be overthrown.
Then as now, the monarchy’s popularity peaked and troughed, with a royal baby bringing a reliable boost to approval ratings. Then as now, too, there were scandals about press invasion of privacy. In Victoria’s case, a collection of private etchings, drawn by herself and Prince Albert and showing the Queen in what she feared was an unsuitably homely role with her children, was acquired by a reporter – another episode explored in the forthcoming series. “She was mortified, and thought it would damage the image she cultivated of a person to be taken seriously,” says Coleman.
In fact, the reverse was true. After the scandals of the preceding eras – Victoria’s immediate predecessor, William IV, had 10 illegitimate children with the actress Dorothea Jordan – it was seen as a refreshing novelty to have a monarch who was an exemplary model of uxorious fidelity. “The Victorian era being strait-laced and buttoned-up is the first thing anyone thinks about, but really that was Albert. He came from a broken home, and it was he who was keen on the morals, and because Victoria was so in love with him she would go along with him – but only up to a certain point,” says Coleman, who describes the Queen as ‘passionate and romantic’, and an open-minded, surprisingly un-hierarchical person.
“She was always curious. When she was younger, on one of her summer holidays, she met a family of gypsies and drew them all and was fascinated by the way they looked, and the way they were a family unit; and then again, there was her friendship with Abdul Karim, and with John Brown,” she goes on, referring to the Queen’s close relationships with two of her male attendants, which were scandalous at the time. “She wasn’t a snob; she was very human and craved anything that really touched her.” The People’s Princess of her day? “I think she was; and very much the Mother of the Nation.“
A few weeks after our shoot, we meet again, this time in a buzzy Sloane Square café. Today, Coleman looks like a different creature entirely: tousle-haired and glowing, wearing an up-to-the-minute ensemble of Blazé Milano tweed coat and Simone Rocha oral dress. She’s just off the plane from Mexico, where she has been taking a well-deserved break, following last year’s intensive schedule, which involved back-to-back filming for Victoria and BBC One’s tense thriller The Cry, in which she played a mother coping with the mysterious abduction of her baby.
It occurs to me that I’ve never seen Coleman with a tan before, since a porcelain complexion is naturally required for Victoria, and she sported a weary pallor as Joanna, The Cry’s postnatally depressed protagonist. “I’ve become a master of swim-suits with polonecks and long arms,” she agrees. “Otherwise you have to spend an extra half an hour in make-up being air-brushed.” Clearly, there are upsides to throwing off the corset, at least temporarily.
April sees Coleman turn her talents to a very different role, as she takes to the stage (appropriately, at the Old Vic) to perform alongside Sally Field and Bill Pullman in
Arthur Miller’s searing drama All My Sons. Hers is the supporting role of Ann Deever, a young woman hiding a dark truth about her deceased fiancé. “I went for the part because of the nuance,” says Coleman. “Things appear a certain way, but underneath, there are politics and family dynamics and push and pull… I think that’s actually why I love period drama so much – because it’s about humanity versus social conventions, and beneath the surface there are all these secrets and lies.“
It will be her first time on stage since appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe 18 years ago. “I’ve definitely got the fear. But it’s the good fear you get when you’re excited by something, and not quite sure you can do it.” The relentlessness of the nightly performance schedule does not daunt her in the least. “People keep saying it’s really tough, but after doing 14-hour days for 10 months absolutely straight…“
Following that, Coleman plans to fly to LA in the hope of securing new film roles. “I’d really love to do some shorter jobs, and move between different periods.” She would also like to try her hand at writing or adapting a more personal story, based on her grandfather, who was born in Edinburgh but came to Blackpool in his twenties to run a hoop-la stall on the promenade – which he still does today.
Coleman’s career seems to have been a seamless progression of hits, starting when she was a teenager with a long-running role in the rustic soap Emmerdale, then as companion to the 11th and 12th Doctors in the Doctor Who series, before she embarked on Victoria. And aside from the time that she was asked to attend an audition in a bikini – ‘so I just didn’t go’ – she seems to have escaped the objectification and belittlement highlighted by the #MeToo campaign. “I’ve never had that experience,” she says.
“But I love the fact that there’s this feeling of sisterhood now, and people are talking, it feels like a lot more of an open forum. Daisy Goodwin on Victoria and Claire Mundell on The Cry have both been amazing, supportive figures in my life. And from his first day [as the Doctor], Peter Capaldi made me feel completely equal – he’s such an incredible man. I felt so enabled by him.“
Her workload would leave Coleman little time for conducting a personal life, were it not for the fact that, fortunately and serendipitously, her long-term partner is the handsome Tom Hughes, who plays Prince Albert, so they are able to spend a good deal of time together on set.
Thus far, their relationship has been conducted with positively Victorian discretion; they never talk about one another, and when I ask Coleman if she’s engaged, she simply waves her ringless fingers at me in response. (The following week, I meet them both at the gala opening of the Dior exhibition, and have the somewhat surreal experience of talking to Victoria and Albert at the Victoria and Albert. It does not escape my notice that they politely, yet firmly, refuse to be photographed together… “I think it’s been very wise not to speak about it,” Coleman tells me.)
Meanwhile, she has moved into a new home in Islington, and is revelling in doing it up. “I’m very nesty,” she says. “I like patterns and textures and velvets. Books make me feel grounded. And just walking out of the door to get a coffee in the morning – the luxury of free time.
“I love touching base with normal life. I worked out that last year, I literally spent more time in other people’s clothes than in my own, but you’ve got to look after your own life, too, so you can come to work and bring some sense of reality to it.“
Having worn multiple pregnancy bumps of different sizes, screamed through several labour scenes and devastatingly interpreted the exhaustion and loneliness of new motherhood in recent months, she is understandably in no hurry to experience it off-screen.
“That’s probably opened up my mind to the realities,” she says. “Half of my friends have babies, and half don’t, so it doesn’t feel like a pressure. I want to take my time. There’s a whole lot more of the world for me to see first. I’d love to have children one day. But not nine of them,” she concludes, with a distinctly un-regal grin. “I can tell you that as a fact.“
‘Victoria’ returns to ITV later this year. ‘All My Sons’ is at the Old Vic from 13 April to 8 June, and will be broadcast live to cinemas around the UK on 14 May as part of National Theatre Live.
Billy Howle and Ellie Bamber have also joined the eight-part drama, starring Tahar Rahim as one of the most elusive criminals of the 20th century.
Jenna Coleman (Victoria, Doctor Who), Billy Howle (MotherFatherSon, Dunkirk) and Ellie Bamber (Les Misérables, Nocturnal Animals) have been cast in lead roles in the upcoming Netflix/BBC crime drama The Serpent.
Filming has begun on the Mammoth Screen-produced series, which will see Tahar Rahim play Charles Sobhraj, one of the most elusive criminals of the 20th century.
Coleman will play Marie-Andrée Leclerc, Sobhraj’s partner and frequent accomplice, with Howle and Bamber cast as Herman and Angela Knippenberg.
Charles Sobhraj (Rahim) was the chief suspect in the unsolved murders of up to 20 young Western travelers across India, Thailand and Nepal’s “Hippie Trail” in 1975 and 1976. Psychopath, con man, thief and master of disguise, having slipped repeatedly from the grasp of authorities worldwide, by 1976 serial killer Sobhraj was Interpol’s most wanted man and had arrest warrants on three different continents.
When Herman Knippenberg (Howle), a junior diplomat at the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok, unwittingly walks into Sobhraj’s intricate web of crime, he sets off an extraordinary chain of events that will see Knippenberg seek to bring Sobhraj to justice for his terrible crimes.
Also among the cast are Alice Englert (Top of the Lake), Mathilde Warnier (The Widow), Gregoire Isvarine (The Inside Game), Sahajak Boonthanakit (Only God Forgives), Fabien Frankel (Last Christmas), Chicha Amatayakul (Girl From Nowhere), Surasak Chaiyaat (Love Destiny), Ruby Ashbourne-Serkis (National Treasure), Armand Rosbak (De Slet van 6 vwo), Ellie de Lange (Keizersvrouwen), Ilker Kaleli (Poyraz Karayel) and screen newcomer Amesh Edireweera in key roles across the series.
The Serpent is an eight-part limited series. Commissioned by BBC One, it is produced by Mammoth Screen and is a co-production between BBC One and Netflix. It is written by Richard Warlow and Toby Finlay, directed by Tom Shankland and Hans Herbots and executive produced by Richard Warlow, Tom Shankland, Preethi Mavahalli and Damien Timmer for Mammoth Screen, Lucy Richer for the BBC and will be handled by Carolyn Newman for Netflix. Mammoth Screen is part of ITV Studios.
The series is filming on location in Thailand and will premiere on BBC One in the U.K. and on Netflix outside of the U.K. and Ireland.
THE TIMES – “I have no idea what I’m doing,” says Jenna Coleman of making her belated professional stage debut in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. OK, in part this is self- deprecation: the 33-year-old star of three seasons of Victoria, three seasons of Doctor Who and all sorts of other acclaimed television shows over the past ten years is chuckling as she says it. She knows the reviews have been good, knows the show gets standing ovations at the Old Vic every night.
It’s also a sincere suggestion that she feels as if she has been winging it all her professional life. When she was in her teens in Blackpool, beavering away in a touring theatre company set up by an enterprising teacher at her school, she thought she knew how her career would go. Drama school, small parts here and there, a steadily growing confidence and profile to match it. Instead, first she was rejected by drama schools, then she was scooped up for a role in Emmerdale. And Emmerdale led to pretty much uninterrupted, high-profile television work for the next 15 years.
STELLA MAGAZINE – As Jenna Coleman returns to our screens as Queen Victoria, she talks to Guy Kelly about setting up home with her on- and off-screen consort, extending her realm to the London stage, and why she loves playing pregnant
It’s hardly surprising – after playing her through seven children, three prime ministers, a war, a famine, a cholera outbreak, an assassination attempt and a coronation – that occasionally, as Jenna Coleman goes about modern life, she finds herself thinking, ‘What would Queen Victoria do?’
‘I really do. She was very up on everyone else’s business. When she was young, she kept a journal knowing it would be read, and some of the entries are literally just, “Woke up at nine, dinner…
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The actor on Emmerdale and wanting to be a swan
THE LAST MAGAZINE – It’s December, a week before Christmas, and the English actress Jenna Coleman finally has some time to herself. “We just wrapped another season of Victoria, which is amazing because I’m home,” she exhales, referring to the PBS series on which she plays the eponymous queen so momentous she had an entire era named after her. “I’m literally cutting up vegetables as I speak to you—in my own clothes for probably the first time this year.”
Coleman has been acting since she was eighteen years old, when she landed a part in the long-running British soap opera Emmerdale. This experience proved more useful than drama school, offering her the opportunity to work with a range of different actors and directors during her four years on the show. Over the course of the last decade, her career has continued to blossom, first as the companion of the eleventh doctor (played by Matt Smith) on the classic series Doctor Who and now as the sex-loving, perennially pregnant young queen in Victoria, which returns for its third season this week. None of this, however, prepared her for her latest role as Joanna.
In the new Sundance Now miniseries The Cry, Coleman’s Joanna is a schoolteacher who falls for Alistair (Ewen Leslie), a media savant with a commanding presence and a way with words that clearly overpower her. After losing their infant son to unforeseen circumstances, the couple face the insatiable media, relentless and untrusting detectives, concerned relatives, and even agitated exes.“I felt like she was the last person in the world who would ever want that kind of attention, especially when we first meet her,” explains Coleman. “She’s kind of small and wearing this gray sweater and wants to curl up into a ball.”
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Flaunt Magazine – “New mothers are a silent tribe of warriors,” actress Jenna Coleman tells me, just a few minutes after her arrival for our meeting in London’s bohemian Soho neighborhood. She’s effortlessly pretty—deep brown eyes, a winning smile, chestnut hair and striking brows. The words, she explains, are not hers but those of a close friend: a new mother she spoke to ahead of filming her latest drama, The Cry. Whilst Coleman, a youthful 32-years-old, is not a mother herself, she already knows a thing or two about motherhood: playing the titular queen in television series Victoria, she’s already given birth on screen not one, but seven times. “Seven babies, nine altogether,” Coleman laughs. “Two more to go yet!”
Her role as new mother Joanna in The Cry is one of Coleman’s most controversial to date. A psychological thriller based on the novel by Australian author Helen Fitzgerald, the drama is already winning praise for its unflinching portrayal of motherhood. In the early episodes of the program, Coleman’s character struggles to adapt to the manifold challenges that motherhood brings. “She’s lost her identity,” Coleman says of Joanna, a new mum whose ideas of motherhood prove at odds with the reality. More truth is needed, Coleman says, about portrayals of mothers—and women—on our screens.
“There’s so much pressure on it being the most beautiful, precious, and special time of your life. If you don’t treasure every minute of it, then somehow you’re a failure. The reality is wildly different,” Coleman says, matter-of-factly. The two characters Coleman plays—Queen Victoria and new mum Joanna—couldn’t be further apart. Yet playing each emphasized to Coleman the differences in the way modern society treats new mothers compared to the past. “In the Victorian era if you had a baby, you had to go into confinement for a month to help your body to recover, and people helped you with the transition into motherhood. Now, you can literally be out of the hospital in six hours and you’re left to it. In our society, perhaps we need to be more open to how much of a challenge it can be…we need greater empathy.”
Fans of Coleman jumped to conclusions recently when a picture of the star pushing a pram was posted on social media. When I mention the story, Coleman turns scarlet with embarrassment. “I’m not insane, I promise… I was practicing,” she tells me, staring down at her white sneakers. Coleman hadn’t given birth—to help immerse herself in character, she took a pram out as she went shopping. The preparation didn’t end there either: she visited a midwife at a hospital, spent extensive time with children on set, and emailed all of her friends with children in the hope of garnering as many experiences as she could.
“Each of their experiences was so completely different,” Coleman says, explaining how nervous she was before filming began. “There’s this primal bond between a mother and a child. I emailed my friends and was like, ‘I’ve taken on this part and I really feel like I’m not…’” her voice trails off. “In the prep I definitely felt a growing pressure. The fact that I’d taken on a mountain hit home.” While her performance has been widely praised for its realism, Coleman tells me she had fears about authenticity, not being a mother herself. She reels off the questions she asked her friends: “What does it feel like? What are your hormones doing? What does the lack of sleep do to you? What’s the day-to-day like?”
We’re sitting alongside each other on a comfy sofa-seat inside a private members club in Soho on a sunny autumn afternoon. Dressed in a smart pinstriped dress and sneakers, Coleman often traverses the formal and the informal. Her answers are thoughtful and considered, and she’s exceedingly modest: when I mention how she is often described as “driven,” she angles her head away, turns scarlet once more and winces. “It feels like there’s something ruthless about it,” Coleman says of the term “driven”—her demeanor demonstrating that she’s anything but. “I used to balk at it.”
After we talk about it at length, Coleman concludes that the reason she is so uncomfortable with the term comes down to portrayals of women in the media. Just as her latest character Joanna is vilified by the media for being a “bad mother,” women who seem ambitious or career-driven still attract similar criticisms. “I don’t think being described as driven is anything that you should be ashamed of—that you love your job and want to keep doing it, that you really value it and want to explore it… yet for some reason, I always felt like being described as ‘driven’ or ‘determined’ was a dirty word.”
“I think I just perhaps need to own that, and not actually see it as a bad thing and be proud of the fact that I’m passionate about my job and that’s okay.” She looks down at the floor again, as if she only half believes it. “I shan’t apologize anymore,” she tells me, mimicking the regal voice of Queen Victoria. “I love how I’ve just said that in the most polite way possible…I need to stop apologizing.”
Part of the apologizing may come down – at least in part – to her working class background and education. Growing up in Blackpool, a seaside town in the north of England, Coleman began her first professional acting role aged just 18, in the long-running British soap opera Emmerdale. It was an inspirational drama teacher, Mr. Snell, who encouraged her to pursue acting, giving her practical advice and support through a self-funded theatre company run via her school. “Without him, I wouldn’t have known where to begin. We operated as a semi-professional theatre company in between school and holidays. We’d do all the props and set up ourselves…and travelled just anywhere it would take us; the shows would eventually pay for themselves. That kind of experience was invaluable. I’ve definitely not taken the traditional route, that’s for sure.”
Since then, she’s worked continuously in a number of increasingly high-profile roles, including as Doctor Who’s assistant on the long-running cult sci-fi television show and Lydia in the Pride and Prejudice spin-off Death Comes to Pemberley. But despite her rapid ascent, Coleman admits she still struggles with feeling unqualified, which she pins on her unorthodox path to acting. “I definitely feel a hole from having not been to drama school,” she tells me. “I still don’t feel qualified in any sense.” This is remarkable for an actress who is regularly acclaimed for her work.
Next year, for the first time since being a member of Mr. Snell’s theatre company, Coleman is heading back to theatre for a leading role in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, alongside Sally Field and Bill Pullman, in London’s West End. “It definitely doesn’t feel like a muscle I’ve flexed in a while,” Coleman says when I ask about her preparation and rehearsals. They’ll begin next year, after a rest and some time to stand still. “It’s an unknown, and I’ve got the fear,” Coleman says about the role. “But it’s a good fear,” she quantifies, laughing.
Coleman draws parallels between her role in The Cry and All My Sons, speaking about the depth and nuance of both roles. “There’s so much to play with under the veneer again…it’s like you’re playing chess but you’re playing chess with one of the most emotionally traumatic and scarring experiences that someone can go through,” she says of The Cry, after a dark secret is revealed mid-series. Is investing so much in characters with such emotional weight exhausting? Yes, she says, but she knows how to switch off. “Once you get into a filming schedule it takes over and you go home, you switch the lights off and you go to sleep… because the role was such an emotional marathon, I somehow trained myself to be light in between takes. Otherwise it would be like walking through mud all the time.”
Coleman tells me, through a deep sigh, that characters like this don’t come around very often. “It’s been really eye opening. I’ve realized there are not many places I can say I’ve seen it on television before,” she says of struggling mum Joanna. Scripts depicting age-old stereotypes of women are still more likely to land on her desk.
“I think there’s definitely a movement of people wanting to see everyday society reflected in film and television, and I definitely think there’s need for such a movement. But for every decent script that I’ve read, I’m still sent ten scripts that are very much ‘the girlfriend’ or ‘girl next door’ roles that revert to type. This is why The Cry felt really exciting. When you read a script and there’s so much going on between the lines, it’s invigorating.”
As a young actor auditioning for roles, Coleman made dozens of audition tapes, shifting between hundreds of identities, often feeling in a perpetual transient state. The idea of doing more film work soon is attractive to her, not least because it allows stability. “There’s something about a film where you can research it and immerse yourself for longer. There’s one director, one piece, one telling of a story. I think there’s something nice about that.”
We walk downstairs to the streets of Soho. Coleman dons a checked winter mac, stepping out into the strange autumnal sunshine. She tells me she is looking forward to standing still for a time and, crucially, not giving birth on-screen for a few months until Victoria has her next two. “No more babies. I’ll babysit my friends’ children for a little while, but then happily give the child back,” she beams, before walking off to her next audition.
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