When Joanna Scanlan arrives, she is hidden beneath a yellow raincoat, glasses steamed up, blown through the door as if the gathering storm outside has washed her ashore. “I am so sorry for dragging you out here,” she says, laughing slightly hysterically, as she sheds the layers. Scanlan is filming in rural Wales – she, her husband and their dog are renting a cottage nearby – and this cafe, also in the middle of nowhere, was her suggestion. Even the women who work in the cafe were surprised to be called in. We are the only customers, but there are pots of tea and welsh cakes, and Scanlan is great company, so all is well.
She grew up in Wales, so this job – filming The Light in the Hall, a psychological thriller, for which she has had to learn some Welsh – is something of a homecoming. Being here is also a detachment from London, and everything that goes with her job outside of being on set or stage – the bit, you sense, she could take or leave. And so she’s a bit distanced from the buzz around her Bafta nomination for best actress for her role in the extraordinary film After Love. “When you sit here in Tywi Valley, just learning your lines for tomorrow, it’s hard to take that in,” she says. “I feel very long in the tooth to be coming to this sort of prominence.”
Scanlan, who is 60, came to acting relatively late and her roles have largely been in comedy – she was the brilliantly awful civil servant Terri Coverley in The Thick of It, the bolshie DI Viv Deering in No Offence and Ma Larkin in The Larkins, ITV’s recent remake of The Darling Buds of May. Getting On, the comedy she wrote with her co-leads Vicki Pepperdine and Jo Brand, is still the funniest and most painful portrayal of the NHS. Although Scanlan has had smaller roles in films, to have her work recognised as the lead in a weighty film feels like a shift. The Baftas – “all that kind of cliched sort of Hollywood glamour” – doesn’t, says Scanlan, “feel like me at all. I feel like I’m just a working character actor. It’s lovely, of course, but it’s hard to place yourself inside that.” It feels, she says, “surprising”.
It won’t be a surprise to anyone who has seen Scanlan’s quietly devastating performance in After Love (the Guardian’s critic, Peter Bradshaw, called it “the best of her career so far”). The film has also picked up other nominations, including for its writer and director Aleem Khan, and has been winning awards on the festival circuit. Scanlan has a healthy attitude to the general absurdity of prizes – “you can’t quite put the model of sport on to the arts, this sort of runners and riders … it’s not a sport, because it’s about how it hits the heart, and the senses, and that is subjective” – but if the renewed focus on the film means than more people see it, then great.
Scanlan’s comedy career seems accidental, even if, alongside Getting On, she and Pepperdine wrote another comedy, Puppy Love, set in the world of dog training. Drama has always been her love. “I don’t want to diss comedy,” she laughs. “I’ve spent my career working in it and I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t appreciate it. But I guess what I like in comedy is when it is really truthful – and that’s not so far from drama.” For all that she’s warm, generous with her laughter and expressive – her face is beautiful and luminous, hands shooting up to emphasise a point – she is also thoughtful, and takes her work seriously. “I feel like I’m a serious person,” she says. “People laugh at me, but it’s always when I’m doing something that I didn’t intend to be funny. The more earnest I seem to be, the more people laugh at me. I’m not very light. I wish I was; I wish I could just relax.”
In After Love, Scanlan plays Mary who, in the midst of grief after her husband’s sudden death, discovers he has a second, secret family. Khan’s skill, making his first feature film, is in packing so much big stuff into a film with a tiny cast, and an almost entirely domestic setting – it covers love, grief, faith (Mary is a Muslim convert), identity, betrayal, class, motherhood. Ahmed, Mary’s husband, was a ferry captain and they appeared to have a happy life on the Kent coast – but when she goes through his things, after he dies, she discovers evidence of another woman, Genevieve (played by Nathalie Richard), who lives across the Channel in France. If Ahmed is not who Mary thinks he was – not committed to her, not committed to his faith – then, who, now, is she? Certainty crumbles, like her visions of the white cliffs of Dover collapsing into the sea.
Mary manages to inveigle her way into Genevieve’s life in a way that exposes the other woman’s prejudices around class, size and devout Muslim women. But Mary also betrays Genevieve’s trust. “She finds out she’s not as nice a person as she thought she was,” says Scanlan. “Confronting who you actually are, compared with who you want to think of yourself as being, that horrible tension inside her, that was quite tricky to negotiate.” She found the shoot, though short, very intense: “That state of betrayal, grief, misery.” She would plead, she says, half-smiling, with the producer, begging him to sack her. “And he would say, ‘I would sack you, it’s just that it does seem to be working.’” She does seem prone to moments of self-doubt: on the TV series she is filming, in which she plays a grieving mother, she found learning Welsh too hard and was about to pull out. Her husband – an accountant – sensibly talked her down, pointing out that the thing about acting she cared most about was stretching herself.
Khan has said that he was interested in bringing a character to the screen who is not often portrayed: “An older woman of a certain size, who wears the headscarf – we never get to see the full interior spectrum of a character like this on screen.” The story is fictional but Mary is inspired by Khan’s own mother, a white English convert to Islam, who Scanlan spent time with. “He adores his mum and she’s so worthy of that adoration – she’s a really special person. To him, she was this brilliantly rich, fully 4D person, and he wanted to put that on the screen.” Khan is not attached, she says, to received ideas about “what is cinema and what isn’t cinema”, and the idea of glamour and allure that goes along with it, although, she adds, Genevieve – blond, elegant, French – “does represent some of those qualities”. But still, Genevieve is a middle-aged woman who is allowed to be seen as sexy. Scanlan agrees: “To me, that doesn’t seem abnormal, because I’m old. It doesn’t seem abnormal to be sexual, because we still are,” she laughs. “But you forget that culture as a whole puts brackets around older women’s sexuality – and says that ‘this is surprising or aberrant’.”
Scanlan grew up in north Wales, where her parents ran a hotel. She had discovered acting at school and went to the University of Cambridge – not her first choice, she says, but she was rejected from everywhere else – because of its drama opportunities In 1980, she was one of her college’s first intake of women. What was that like? “It was,” she says, pausing while she searches for the word, “frankly, an ordeal. I had a few feminist teachers when I was at school who were really influential on me. The feeling [then] was about storming the parapets and getting into environments that we had previously been excluded from.” So she liked the thought of joining a pioneering group. “The reality was really different, and that was partly because I had been at a girls’ boarding school and did not know anything very much about how to deal with male culture.”
Men, she says, “would do things like come into the bar, stand on the table, pull down their flies, and piss into a beer glass that was on your table”. There was sexual harassment, and once a man climbed in through Scanlan’s bedroom window – she found him asleep on the floor. It felt, she says, unsafe. For almost the whole of her first year, she hid away. “I just stayed in my room, smoking, drinking, and avoiding everything, avoiding people completely.”
She didn’t want to be visible, or attract attention from men. “I remember thinking Andrea Dworkin dungarees suddenly seemed like a great idea in that environment,” she says. And it meant she didn’t put herself forward for drama auditions until nearly the end of that first year, in which she describes herself as being “almost in shock. I’m not sure everyone had my experience, but I was just very unprepared.” She had been sheltered and naive. “It took me until doing therapy in my 30s to actually understand and learn that …” She pauses. “You have to fight for yourself. It, perhaps, is a slight exaggeration, but that no one else is going to be the person who makes sure everything’s OK.”
Scanlan did join Footlights, the university’s comedy theatre club, but soon left it for a more serious drama club. “Don’t think I’m not aware of the levels of privilege we’re talking about here,” she glaughs. That choice of drama over comedy at that moment proved fairly momentous in terms of her career, which is to say that it stalled it.
She spent the rest of her 20s trying to get acting work and getting constantly rejected. In the meantime, she volunteered with community theatre projects, then went to the then Leicester Polytechnic to teach drama, until she had a breakdown. She went back to live with her parents, not able to do much except walk their dog when she felt up to it. “Because I had chronic fatigue syndrome, I had no energy. And that was mental energy, physical energy, emotional energy. It was like a complete battery drain. I remember being able to mark the distinction between the effort required to sit up as opposed to lie down.” It was her GP who, realising just how much acting meant toher, suggested she try to make a return to it. Even if she never made it, by conventional standards of success, she realised she would still be happier doing it.
She started working as an administrator for Arts Council England, while writing her own scripts, and was 34 when she got her first professional job, on the TV drama Peak Practice. She says she doesn’t look at other actors and feel envious: I had asked, jokingly, if there was a sense of relief when Olivia Colman didn’t also get nominated for a Bafta. Scanlan laughs, then says: “I thought her performance in The Lost Daughter was almost the best performance I’ve ever seen her give.” But, there are roles she wished she could have played as a younger actor: “I think theatre is probably where I missed out, and by the time I came back into it, when I started again in my mid- to late-30s, I hadn’t developed relationships with theatre directors, and I never really cracked it.” But, she says, even when she was 12, she was playing 40-year-olds. “I never had that ingenue quality, so maybe it’s a regretful dream that really is a fantasy.” Had she fit a more conventional image, “I would have played more drama than comedy, probably.” Instead, she says a few times, smiling, she brings her “dumpy real shtick”.
Scanlan seems to have very little vanity, particularly in her work. In After Love, especially, her face is raw and close up; there is one moment when she stands in the mirror in her underwear and surveys her body, grabbing her flesh. “The age on the face, and rolls of fat and stretch marks, that’s telling the story about this woman’s experience,” she says. “I do think that our lives are in our bodies, our experiences, and therefore, whatever that is, I try not to be judgmental about it myself. We get sold this idea that you’re totally unacceptable if you don’t fit a certain number of female role models – if you’re not slim enough, if you haven’t had your lips done or whatever. And, then, my experience constantly contradicts that, because when I see somebody, I’m not seeing what’s on the outside. Maybe for a fleeting few seconds, but very quickly, something else is happening that’s speaking so much louder than how they look.” She knows, she says, “the narratives around beauty and lovability are all around size in our society. It’s not that I’ve tried for it not to define me, because I haven’t, but I’ve had to hope that something else of me has spoken more.”
She remembers going to a group therapy session once, where all the other women were conventionally beautiful. “Every one of them spoke about how disempowered they felt, and I suddenly realised, if you get things because people think you’re beautiful, then what you think is: ‘They don’t like me for who I really am.’ That must be a very painful place to be.”
She is, though, operating within a notoriously sexist, sizeist industry. “I am, but you’ve got to buck the trend sometimes. I just think there is an appetite – forgive the pun – to look at a wider range of experiences. People are watching this film, they’re finding a story that they can relate to. The normative hasn’t prevailed in this case.” It’s real, she says, “it’s what other people are. People struggle with their weight, people struggle with their frailties. I’m lucky enough to be in an era where stories are told about people who are ordinary.”
Is she confident that there are enough of those roles? “No. But I honestly will take what I’m given.” She laughs. “If it doesn’t come, it doesn’t come. I can’t control it.” It seems unlikely, of course, that Scanlan won’t be in high demand – how gratifying, after everything, to have a career that is racing along – but there is a self-reliance to her. If roles don’t go her way, she’ll write something (she has a production company with Pepperdine), or work in community theatre or dance, or make videos with her phone. “It’s more of a real compulsion to be creative, and a huge part of me,” she says. “That’s why those years when I was not acting or writing, that’s why they were agony, and why my life just didn’t work.”
The Bafta film awards are on 13 March 2022; After Love is available to stream now
• This article was amended on 22 February 2022. Scanlan starred in Getting On, not Moving On as a previous subheading stated.