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  /  Film & TV   /  Petticoats to Trenchcoats: A Career of Comedy and Tragedy with Gemma Whelan
Interview with Gemma Whelan at the Essential Journal

Petticoats to Trenchcoats: A Career of Comedy and Tragedy with Gemma Whelan


On a quiet Thursday morning in the middle of filming the third season of crime drama hit The Tower, Gemma Whelan invited us to her rental flat along the foggy Liverpool docks to get frank about her career so far. Known for her steps in Game Of Thrones, Killing Eve, and Gentleman Jack — to name just a few — Gemma doesn’t let that impose at all, rather making her one of the loveliest people to have tea, biscuits, and a natter with. We were also joined by her son, Freddie, who preoccupied himself with videos of ambulance sirens and diggers be fore giving me a helping hand with some portrait photos.

Essential Journal: Did you ever think you’d be spending so much time watching videos of diggers?

Gemma Whelan: You know, I thought it might be a possibility but we never pushed it. With my daughter, we were all about raising her really gender-neutral and letting her be whoever she wants to be. Let’s get dinosaurs. Let’s get diggers. But she’s all about the princesses and rainbows and unicorns. And this little guy, he’s just obsessed with vehicles.

EJ: So there’ll be monster trucks in your future then?

GW: Actually we went to the beach the other day and saw these quad bikes which blew his mind. And a helicopter too. 

EJ: Maybe he’ll get really into stunts like Tom Cruise in the latest Mission Impossible. 

GW: Oh it’s so interesting, stuff like that. How it’s all engineered, seeing the work and time that goes into these stunts. The respect I have for the crew that plan it all so meticulously for, in some instances, years and all the work they put into those finite details…

EJ: Would you ever do your own stunts like that?

GW: I think I used to be quite hung ho about it like ‘Of course, I’ll try anything’ whereas now I’m very much appreciative of the help from the stunt doubles. I’m fit, I love running, I think there are a few I definitely could but it’s not my job. There are people properly trained to do all the extreme stuff, I think I’ll leave it to them. 

EJ: Is it easy for you to share a role like that? Obviously, the stunt doubles aren’t doing the character acting to the level that you are but I’ve heard some actors can be quite protective of their roles, the more method they are. 

GW: Oh not at all. As I said, it’s a necessity and they’re expertly trained. I’m not a method actor by any stretch, I leave work at work. There have been some roles that are quite consuming and then a lot to get over but  I’ve never really been at the point where I couldn’t shake them off. I’d think I’d be concerned if that was the case.

Sometimes with accents, in between takes, it’s easier to keep in them, it’s what makes them feel more lived in — I always think of Martin Freeman in The Responder especially being in Liverpool at the moment, he’s not doing an impersonation of a Scouser, it’s really authentic. 

EJ: How was it for you working in historical dramas, or fantasy historical dramas, like Gentleman Jack and Game of Thrones? Did you find you had to adopt a certain way to behave between takes to feel you were presenting a bit more authentic?

GW: Honestly, no. For period dramas, the costumes and the words do a lot of the heavy lifting. When the writing is so good but also so much different than the modern way of speaking, and then these costumes that are perfectly engineered to fit you in this setting, the character feels more natural than anything.

Not to undermine the role of the actor, of course, but there’s a playful enjoyment that comes with the pantomime of those kinds of things that, for me at least, end up being more authentic when I’m not caught up trying to overthink it. 

Interview with Gemma Whelan at the Essential Journal

EJ: Would you say they were some of your favourite roles then?

GW: Oh I’ve loved them all for different reasons, they’re all a part of me but I do always miss going to Game of Thrones because the rhythm of my year became such as going to Belfast and meeting up with the—we were like a family, so meeting up with them over there. And Gentleman Jack as well, I was really sorry that didn’t go ahead for a third season.

It just had such a fantastic community of brilliant, largely brilliant women. And Marian was such a great character to play with because of how it would move between comedy and drama; there was a great fun to her but also a gentle tragedy. It was also fun to play a real person for once. Ultimately though, I miss all jobs immediately, to be honest — you never expect them to continue so when they do, you get into a routine with the community of it and then…it’s just over one day. 

EJ: Did you expect The Tower to come back for its, recently aired, second season? And even now, you’re filming the third — were you shocked or more quietly confident in it?

GW: I suppose, with things in this industry, you never hope too loudly but with the quality of the writing and having Patrick Harbinson as an executive, I thought we were in with a pretty decent chance. And the book series that the show is quite long, there’s quite a bit of story there still left to bring to life. So, looking at it and how well the first season was received, we thought we stood a chance.

But for the third season, we snagged an early renewal which is pretty much unheard of these days — ITV’s slate was overpopulated — and so by the time season two was released a few weeks ago, we were halfway through filming the third season.

And I don’t think there’s been any doubt really. We were up against a new show on the BBC with Ruth Wilson, The Woman In The Wall, which is truly a fantastic, terrifying series; but we were still getting a good amount of viewership too which proves that the want for the material is there. 

EJ: What’s interesting is that the British police detective drama is pretty much a staple of our television experience but they don’t often translate or export all that well over to other countries, whereas The Tower was really, really well received in The States, Canada, Australia. Why do you think that is?

GW: I don’t really know. I suppose I’m a familiar face from Game of Thrones and Patrick’s obviously well-known from Homeland and 24. Maybe it’s those familiar names that provide the jumping-off points for people and then when they’re watching it, they’re realising ‘Oh this is good’. 

Interview with Gemma Whelan at the Essential Journal
Interview with Gemma Whelan at the Essential Journal
Interview with Gemma Whelan at the Essential Journal

EJ: It’s quite a small story too, isn’t it? Comparable to Line of Duty which was a big complicated corruption series, The Tower really concerns itself with these actual detectives much more and it’s more of a day-to-day presentation.

GW: Yeah, I think it’s the questions that it brings up as well about right and wrong and greater morality. Every character within the series has a really valid point. My character, Sarah, is very down the line with her moral compass, she’s as straight as an arrow. But then Hadley is much more about acting first than dealing with the questions later – he’s not going to wait for paperwork to break down a door and save someone’s life.

Every character has a point. So I think there’s a truth in The Tower that allows it to have a greater international appeal, it’s not concerned with finding an answer to these complicated questions but showing the arguments that can surround them. You can understand why someone does something, and it’s almost an exercise in your own morality at that moment, about whether you do what is right or do what is good. The audience is able to engage in questions in a world that they wouldn’t usually have access to. 

I remember we were having a tour of some former holding cells that are now mostly used for filming and we were being shown around by someone who used to train new police officers. He explained that one of the scenarios they use is: there’s a woman called in, and she’s said that she’s been in attacked by a man in her own home but she’s been able to escape and gives you her address.

Obviously, as a police trainee, you go in, hopefully, find the man still there, and arrest him. And it made me think about the cognitive distance when you’re watching shows like The Tower at home, versus what the characters or the actual police do in these situations. 

EJ: A bit like watching a horror movie?

GW: Exactly. I used to think that if anyone ever broke into my room, I’d whack them over the head with a rolling pin or hit them with a pair of scissors or something. But in reality, one night when I was younger, my brother climbed up to my bedroom window once and all I did was sit up and quietly say ‘Go away, go away’. Like none of the screaming and attacking I thought I’d do.

EJ: But after all these years of acting and in being police dramas and violent bloody shows, do you think you’d have a different reaction?

GW: Well, I’m a mum now too so I think I’d have a bit of protectiveness about my children but I can’t say for sure. Maybe I’ll remember some sword tricks. [laughs]. 

Gemma will be starring in the play “Underdog: The Other Other Brontë” at the National Theatre starting from 27th March next year. Get your tickets here.