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Interview: Joanna Scanlan on 'The Invisible Woman' and Working with Icons

Photo via Beige PlusThere's a wonderful little moment in Notes on a Scandal (2006) in which a well meaning but unwelcome teacher by the name of Sue Hodge advises her fellow schoolteachers (played by Dami Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett), who are struggling with their students to "concern yourself with the gems". I'm shamelessly borrowing that line right now to talk about the British actress who utters it, because she is one.

Joanna Scanlan co-wrote and starred in the BBC series Getting On (now enjoying an American remake) and has played witches, nurses, schoolteachers, and more yet she's largely unknown to American audiences. She's got her best cinematic showcase yet in The Invisible Woman as Catherine Dickens, the neglected depressed wife of the famous writer Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes). Her husband may neglect her and the Oscar conversation did, too (despite its ostensible purpose being to, well, concern itself with the gems) so we're picking up their slack.

She's remarkable in the movie and though the title does not literally refer to her character, we like to think it has a double meaning. The movie business is not a meritocracy but it there's any justice Joanna Scanlan won't be an 'invisible woman' much longer but will be popping up in more roles worthy of her. I eagerly telephoned her to discuss her role in this Oscar nominated picture (Best Costume Design) and her nifty habit of acting opposite true icons like Dench, Fiennes, Pfeiffer, and Blanchett. 

Our conversation is after the jump...


NATHANIEL R: You leave such a strong impression in this movie. Mrs. Dickens lingers so much in scenes she's not in - it's a real testament to your work. 

JOANNA SCANLAN: That's so kind. It's a role that has -- in a way all the misfortune lands on her head, you know, so she's the dramatic pivot in the film which I can't honestly take credit for because that's the structure and that's the drama. But in the end it means that yes, it does stay in your mind, her position. 

Well given that you have so little screen time... You should take a little credit is what I'm saying. MVP for me. 

Bless you. I take some. Bits of it. [Laughter]  I'm very aware of the bits I'm not responsible for.

I just want you to take it in because, as a moviegoer, one of the great pleasures is that moment when a character actor's talent is suddenly very visible and impossible to deny, though supporting players spend most of their career making other people look good. Here in America we've only ever seen you in these tiny parts - Girl with a Pearl Earring, Notes on a Scandal.  I know you've done plenty of TV work in Britain. 

With Scarlett Johansson in "The Girl With The Pearl Earring"

JOANNA SCANLAN: You mentioned Girl and Notes which are two reasonably successful films. In a way the roles don't come frequently, necessarily .But then there are all the ones you do that don't work out which might be equally  interesting projects in the initial stages and those performances don't get seen. Occasionally it's like a beautiful fruit machine, you know, you get three in a row: the film works, the performance works and the story works with an audience. It's lovely to be part of that.

NATHANIEL R: Do you feel that early on the set when you're acting, like, 'This one is special'?

I think you know a little bit when you read the script initially. I think you can tell an awful lot at that point. But you often have high hopes that don't always come to fruition for whatever reason. By the time you're on set and you're immersed in it -- I, personally, lose all sense of which way is up. I'm totally lost at the point. I'm in the story or the emotions of my character and I have no idea whether it's any good or not and that's also the last thing you'd be thinking about as all. If you were thinking 'gosh, is this film going to work?' I think you'd just start screaming and run back to the dressing room!

That would be hard to do in your costumes from The Invisible Woman

Catherine Dickens "human sofa", practically immobile in The Invisible Woman

JOANNA SCANLAN: And indeed! You couldn't move if you were Mrs Dickens. She is a sort of human sofa in that costume. 

NATHANIEL: I was going to compliment you on the beautiful stillness of the performance until I was speaking with your costume designer...

The wonderful Michael O'Connor

...and then i was thinking 'Oh, She probably couldn't move!' [Laughter]

Yes, he constricted me to such an extent! It's a strange thing because I look at the other costumes and the other women and they don't have the upholstered bourgeousie layers of fabric. The poorer women seem to have a ittle more room to maneuver.

Well, they're more nomadic.

They have to be. Whereas Catherine is almost beached by the success of Charles. They were very wealthy.

How did you prepare for the role. You have important scenes but not a lot of them. So how much ground work do you have to do in studying the character to get there in those moments.

Coincidentally my degree from Cambridge University was in 19th century british social history so I have a kind of background to the whole historical aspect of the film. But I... I just made a decision to do nothing further than what i was given by Ralph Fiennes in terms of my knowledge of who Catherine was in historical fact so that I can work within this fiction. I felt that if i knew it -- because it's not her story and it's not from her point of view -- that I'd start being very angry on set and start demanding things on my character's behalf that I wasn't going to be able to get. And then my real job was to immerse myself in the feelings that Catherine would be going through given the situation that their relationship with Nellie was putting her in. 

So for me it was all about the emotional state and very little to do with the historical fact. After we completed the filming I gave myself a treat of looking her up. That's when I read the brilliant book The Invisible Woman" which I cannot recommend highly enough. 

Did you have any 'oh no, I could have incorporated that into the performance' regrets? Is there more of her in the book? 

No, there wasn't actually. It wasn't going to be any help to me as an actress on the day. I thought 'Oh thank god. I made the right decision.' Because it's all about Nellie and the condition of women of her economic fragility, and the awful choice that they really had to make to proceed in life and what a huge difference it would make that Charles Dickens, old moneybags, turned up to save them.  Catherine's life is very different.

The one thing i did know about her -- it's a very important thing about her -- is that she had nine children. Ten children. One of them died and she was nearly dead herself from the grief over the one who died. That was very important. To put myself in her physical sense-memory. She'd been pregnant for most of her adult life. She was like a cow on a farm just breeding as an adult and she'd probably lost a lot of connection to who she was as an individual through that. Those were things I thought about.

Well, beautiful work. Really. Can we talk about Notes on a Scandal? You have a great little scene. "Concern yourself with the gems". Judi Dench is SO mean to you. What's it like to work with powerhouse actresses in a situation where your character is so obviously the third wheel.

JOANNA SCANLAN: [laughter] Yes, yes. Um, well, of course you wander in -- little old me -- trying to do your best. I guess you're serving a story again. In the moment you've got to put it out of your mind that these are the most sublime actresses that you're working with. I had to force myself to stop thinking about that and also being dazzled by the beauty of Cate Blanchett in the flesh and all of that. Put it out of one's mind and get on with telling the story and be the character.

The fact that Judi's character has nicknamed her "Fatty Hodge" and is so unpleasant to her and so cruel, that was really all I could -- again it was about immersing myself in the dynamics of the story and playing the character and having to forget, between action and cut, that you're working with icons. Just knuckle under really. 

NATHANIEL R: And you worked with Michelle Pfeiffer in Stardust

I know, well, you see, there is another -- to be up close to Michelle Pfeiffer like that is quite something. Luckily for most of the time we were working together we all had our prosthetics on.

Sarah Alexander, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Joanna Scanlan in "Stardust"

Her beauty was covered up.

It was like working with a masked person. I could happily chat away and 'blah blah blah' and then a couple of days when it was Michelle Pfeiffer's face I was dumbstruck and didn't know what to say. But as soon as she put her prosthetics back on we were all equal. [Laughter]

Your TV work -- you cowrote and starred in "Getting On" (which has been remade in America) -- is mostly comedy. Do you prefer comedy? 

I actually prefer drama to be honest with you. I always feel like I fell into comedy by accident. I can't see what I do or am that is remotely funny. In my mind I'm quite serious and I'm more comfortable in that world. I've always felt like a fish out of water in comedy because i don't know why it's funny. That's a mystery!

Maybe that's the key. To not try to be funny. Since people aren't that familiar with your work, but The Invisible Woman is such a great showcase, what would you like to play next? 

Yes, nice question. I think I've always enjoyed playing women who have a huge inner life that is somehow -- that they're unable to allow into the world for one reason or another. Ordinary women or women who are overlooked by society and yet have something very special inside them and stories which tell that. For me it's all about trying to find roles where there's a great deal going in on the inside and it's not allowed to come out, by whatever means of constriction. That's what I'd be looking for!

Dramas about inner life? Love 'em. Sign me up. 

It's so easy in our society to be overlooked if you don't have those external qualities that everyone thinks are so important like being young, or beautiful or showy. It's as if only those people deserve to be heard and only those people have the opportunity to speak. We just lose out so much by judging people by the outside. 

Since you are a writer as well, it's time to write your own vehicle.

There's the answer.

Create your own perfect role. 

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Reader Comments (11)

You can't imagine how I enjoy these interviews with little known actresses, like this one or the one with the great Ann Dowd.

January 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

peggy sue -- thank you thank you. I enjoy doing them a lot too.

January 28, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

She holds a place of honor in the heart of this American audience member as Terri Coverly on the beyond brilliant BBC series The Thick of It.

January 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Cusumano

Michael - i guess i should watch that. I love the American version of Getting On so i must seek out her version

January 28, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Fun interview-I'm headed to this movie tonight, and I cannot wait to see this after what has been a near parade of raves for Scanlon (and the Costumes).

January 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

It all depends on how big a fan you are of In the Loop (in which Scanlon had a small role) since The Thick of It is the show that inspired that movie. I am a fanatic for both.

January 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Cusumano

Nathaniel - Joanna is a goddamn gem in Getting On (alongside her other genius collaborators) and in The Thick of It. Seriously good television. You should definitely watch! I love how she doesn't think she is funny - this has to be the recipe for her scarily real hilarity.

January 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercolin

Saw the film last week here and it immediately made it onto my top 10. A true supporting role, and sad that awards bodies didn't take more notice.

January 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJordan

Also, I just love the way Fiennes introduces her in that scene. She's the last one he takes notice of, and the reaction on her face is so perfect. You instantly see all the intricacies of their relationship.

January 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJordan

Interesting interview. She's a very good versatile actress, comedy or drama comes easy to her. Liked her in The Thick Of It, even a scene of her running across the room in the background is amusing.

January 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commentersuzy

This is a lovely interview! She was basically my favourite thing about The Thick of It; she bounces off other actors so well, and I was struggling to breathe during her turn at the inquest in the series finale.

January 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPJ

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