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This Is England star Jo Hartley on her stellar rise and big hopes for new role in Swede Caroline

© Dan Rowley/BIFA/ShutterstockJo Hartley.
Jo Hartley.

As we settle down to chat, the sunlight bursts in the window behind Jo Hartley, which feels appropriate since the actor’s career is also shining brightly.

The bubbly and gracious star is celebrating her first leading role in a film – the comedy Swede Caroline, in cinemas now – as well as marking 20 years since she made her professional acting debut. In the years between, she has proved herself to be one of Britain’s best character actors with roles in productions as varied as This Is England, After Life and Eddie The Eagle.

She is where she hoped, as a kid, she would one day end up, but her road into acting wasn’t a straight one. Jo, 52, didn’t enter the business until she was in her 30s.

“I had an unconventional journey into acting. I always wanted to be one as a kid, and I did The Sound Of Music at school. I was obsessed with the Oscars and the glamour when I was young, then I got into 70s movies like The Godfather, Mean Streets and A Woman Under The Influence,” she explained.

“Being a working-class kid, and my dad had died, I thought it would be too expensive to be an actor. I became an air hostess, travelling the world working for Japanese Airlines.”

‘I watched a De Niro movie one night and decided I wanted to be an actor’

Once Upon A Time In America, Sergio Leone’s epic mobster movie starring Robert De Niro, is Jo’s favourite film, and as she watched it again one Sunday evening, she told herself she was finally going to become an actor.

“I’m kind of self-taught, like Paddy Considine,” she said. “I watched all the episodes of Inside The Actors’ Studio that James Lipton presented, and I’d go to classes and do all these methods by people like Stanislavsky and Meisner.”

Jo was at a party one night in Manchester when she got talking to a man who knew an agent that had recently worked with independent filmmaker Shane Meadows.

“The agent took me on and sent me to an audition for Dead Man’s Shoes, Shane’s new film, and I got the part. I was on a movie with all these great actors, and all my dreams had come true. It was about the persistence, the hard work, accepting the rejection and knowing inside, somehow, I could do this as a job, but having to hustle and work and make money in other ways, like doing promotions.

“I did Dead Man’s Shoes and developed a great relationship with Shane. I would stay with him and his wife. Two years later, he asked me to go to a workshop. There were 20 lads there, Jack O’Connell was one of them, and Shane asked me to do improv with them.

“Afterwards, we went for pizza and he said, ‘You’ve got the part’. I asked him what he meant, and he said he was making a film called This Is England and I was going to play the mum.”

Jo played Cynthia Fields, the widowed mother of Thomas Turgoose’s Shaun, in the acclaimed film about the skinhead subculture in England in the early 1980s. Also starring Vicky McClure and Stephen Graham, its success led to three sequel TV series, with Jo reprising her role in each.

“We didn’t know the outcome was going to be so epic while we were making it,” Jo recalled. “Everyone there loved it. We were a family and Shane put us in situations to improvise and made a safe space to be free. When Ricky Gervais cast me in David Brent: Life On The Road, I think he was a big fan of Shane’s work. When I did Ricky’s show After Life, Shane texted and said, ‘This is incredible. I love you in this’. He’s always very supportive. I don’t see him often but I don’t think I would have the career I have now if it wasn’t for Shane.

“He nurtured me with all that improvisation. Ricky loves improvising, too. It’s one of my strong points from years of doing it. It’s an artform, really.”

Swede Caroline

Jo has put those skills to good use in new film Swede Caroline, a mockumentary in which she not only plays the lead role for the first time but also executive produces.

Set in the eccentric world of competitive giant vegetable growing, she plays up-and-coming prospect Caroline, whose prized marrows are stolen. She turns to two private detectives to track the missing veg down, but when the PIs are kidnapped, she realises the corruption goes higher than she ever imagined.

Jo with Ricky Gervais in David Brent: Life on the Road.
Jo Hartley with Ricky Gervais in David Brent: Life on the Road.

“My agent rang and said we’ve had a script sent in for you to play the lead in a film about huge vegetables. I said it sounded perfect, send it over! I couldn’t stop reading the script, which doesn’t always happen, but this grabbed me.

“I spoke to Ricky about any tips he had for making a mockumentary and he told me not to be funny, to play the truth, and that’s what I did. The film’s directors, Finn Bruce and Brook Driver, said I was their first choice. I was flattered.”

It was because Jo was so taken with the story that she asked to be the movie’s executive producer.

“I thought I could attract some friends, like Aisling Bea and Celyn Jones. I wanted to help with the casting of my two co-stars and to take a look at the edit.

“Ricky and Shane let us go in and look at the edits and valued our feedback. I’ve always been objective and can instinctively feel when it is something that will speak to an audience.”

Jo admits she knew nothing about the world of competitive vegetable growing but soon discovered it’s a serious business for those taking part.

“I loved it. It was so extraordinary, like the vegetable Olympics! I don’t know how they do it. Brook and Finn organised a chat with a competition winner and we sat for a few hours and chatted. It’s a bizarre and wonderful world, and it was enlightening and magical to enter it.”

Jo takes the lead in Swede Caroline, a movie about vegetable growing. © Supplied
Jo takes the lead in Swede Caroline,<br />a movie about vegetable growing.

The film has also been given the seal of approval from Shane Meadows.

“I said to Finn, ‘Maybe we could get Shane to give a quote for the poster’. Shane is a god to them.

“Shane watched it and said to me that it was incredible, that it was so messy and wonderful and has a foot in every genre and I’m the glue that binds it together. He said it was hilarious and a beautiful story about friendships and madness in this incredible world.

“It’s lovely to see it come out now and hopefully everyone will embrace it – and Caroline. Who knew David Brent would become an icon? I think Swede Caroline has the potential to become a household love as well.”

Rise to success

Twenty years on from taking the leap and following her dream, so too is Jo becoming a household name.

She can currently be seen in ITV thriller Passenger and has recently reprised her role of Nicola in the sequel to Netflix’s Bank Of Dave.

She aspires to write a sitcom and has ideas she would like to get down, but so far the acting work hasn’t slowed up to give her the opportunity. It’s a good problem to have.

“To play my first lead, which Shane has given his love for, is pretty moving,” she added. “I’ve been thinking about my career, and I say to young actors going through constant knock-backs and rejection to never give up, because you never know.

“I’ve worked with so many great people and had wonderful experiences. I feel so grateful to have worked with people like Simon Pegg, Hugh Jackman, Taron Edgerton, Vicky McClure, Dexter Fletcher and Rory Kinnear. Just working with these great people and watching them has been a masterclass.

“I’ve worked on so many great things and I hope people will embrace Swede Caroline; she’s lightness and something we need right now.

“It’s been a busy time for me, and I think the best is yet to come. It’s been a great journey so far.”

Role-play is a deep joy for Jo Hartley

Creating a character with depth is one of Jo Hartley’s favourite parts of the job.

She can currently be seen in ITV’s six-part thriller series, Passenger, playing Linda Markel.

“My character is the chief constable but all she seems to be bothered about is the best kept village competition,” Jo said.

Jo as Linda Markel in Passenger. © MATT SQUIRE
Jo as Linda Markel in Passenger.

“She’s not too nice, which is different from the sweet and lovely and quirky characters I play.

“There wasn’t loads to the character on paper, but I managed to create something layered and complex. The writer of the series, Andrew Buchan, said that what I had made was incredible.

“It was something I did with In My Skin too, where I played a character who is bipolar.

“I learned a lot from watching Inside The Actors’ Studio about creating characters when it’s not a big part on the page and bringing something else to it.

“Hopefully, the series will go again and we can continue the story. You’re not supposed to know what’s going on.

“It’s a world set in another world that doesn’t exist and in a time that doesn’t really exist, and everyone is real at the same time.

“It was lovely to work with everyone at ITV and the cast, like Wunmi Mosaku and David Threlfall.”

Swede Caroline is in cinemas now