You couldn't get a more demanding debut role than Cathy in The Runaway, so Joanna Vanderham has her work cut out for her when she takes the lead in Sky1's new adaptation (March 31, 9pm). We caught up with the up-and-coming actress to discuss her role in the Martina Cole remake, what it's like to work with Jack O'Connell and how the book will translate on screen...
This is your TV debut and you're playing the lead. That must feel amazing?
Honestly, just when you said it there I kind of got shivers through my body. It’s incredible. I just feel so lucky. I’ve seen some clips of the show from doing voice work so I know what to expect, but I have no idea how I'm going to actually react when it’s on TV for real. I am incredibly aware of how lucky I have been, how much this means to me and how much I am going to run with it. This has convinced me that acting is what I want to do and have to do for the rest of my life.
Cathy’s an incredibly complicated character, with a very traumatic life. How was that for you, emotionally?
As an actress I thought "this is brilliant; I get to explore these reactions and how someone would cope with this." Because that is essentially what Cathy does; she's a fighter and she deals with all these things with such strength and determination. Emotionally, I was just excited that I was getting to play her. I got relatively alright at just shaking it off at the end of the day.
It was more a case of "I hope that I can portray this well enough that if someone has actually been through this for real, that they don’t feel like I’m trivialising it." I really want people to see that--I want people to relate to it and to care about Cathy as a person.
Some scenes are particularly harrowing. Were there any that you found particularly difficult?
The way they were directed made that much easier for me to deal with. I was never really afraid of it because I’ve always known that it’s not real. Luckily, they shot this in a way that was quick. The technical things kind of took a back seat so that the emotion of the actors--so that Jack (O’Connell) and I--could feel as comfortable and as free as possible. I also had a lot of support from everyone on set.
Did having Jack O'Connell as your co-star make things easier? He seems very relaxed and fun-loving.
Yes! There's actually a bit when I open the door to him before a [tense, sex] scene and the two of us got the giggles because he was being so cheeky. I was like: "This is so inappropriate. Look at what we're just about to film." And the two of us couldn't stop laughing. It was lovely; I’ve really enjoyed working with Jack.
The whole time he would ask “Are you alright? Do you want me to move here or do that? Is it okay if I do this?” It got to the point in the end where I was like: “Jack, just touch me. You can touch me.” He was such a gentleman, so caring and so gentle. Yes, I think it must have been quite a difficult scene for him to film too.
Did he give you any tips, considering this was your TV debut?
Yes he did. He has been acting since he was 15 and even though we're the same age I kind of knew that if I was ever struggling--if ever I was having a stressful day or felt like it wasn’t going well --Jack would be the one I would turn to. It’s not a case of you trying to act and then they’re trying to act, it’s a passage of communication between two people. And when the other person that you’re acting with is so talented, strong and convincing it makes your job a lot easier.
You also work alongside Alan Cumming, who stars in drag as Desrae. Does his character bring an element of fun to the proceedings?
I'd say so. Desrae's been through a lot in her past as well but she is a happy character, she's a source of warmth and support for Cathy that she's never really had. Desrae thinks the world of Cathy and she’s almost like a mother figure. But I think when we first meet her that’s a bit ambiguous: we don’t know if she’s going to be nice or not, which is a lovely little twist.
Desrae brings lightness and a kind of musicality to the whole thing, because of the club that she works in, but they do live and work in Soho and she's a transsexual so that's not such a nice element. The stuff that Desrae has to go through is not light, it’s not cheery. But the relationship with Cathy is, I suppose, a bit lighter than the rest of the series because it’s a more genuine, real, loving and supportive relationship that she's never had from anyone else. It’s difficult with Martina Cole to actually find some joy.
A very good point! How much input does Martina actually have in the series?
Honestly I don’t know how much input she’s had; I just hope she likes it. She's a big person to try and please, to convince that you were right to portray the character that she has created.
I take it you’ve read the books then?
I have indeed. I read it between my first and my second audition because I thought "I need to be as prepared as possible." And then I went in for my second audition and David, the director, decided he would tell me the storyline and I didn’t get a chance to mention that I’d read it.
The storyline of the TV series does kind of change slightly from the book, but it’s still invaluable to have a character source like that.
How do you think fans of the books will react to these changes?
I hope they like it. That's what I was working for from day one: people have to be on Cathy’s side. It’s difficult because you know that everyone’s going to have an opinion and they will have read the book. They maybe thought she was different to how I’ve portrayed her so I hope they can appreciate the work that everyone’s put in and that it's a story. Diehard fans of Martina Cole will be incredibly aware of the differences in the storyline but I hope that they can just accept that we tried to do something special.