Actor, writer and director Jessica Ellerby talks to Andrew Peters about her past projects and future creative aspirations.
ALL IMAGES Photo copyright: Joseph Sinclair Stylist: Holly Ounstead Hair AND Makeup: Samantha Cooper
Q Jessica, what made you want to become an actor?
A It was never a specific ‘eureka’ moment or anything – if I’m honest, I think it’s just the way I’m wired. I love telling stories, entertaining people – happiest in those moments of ‘boredom’ where I get to daydream into an imaginary world or scenario.
From a very young age I was always putting on little plays, dressing up my long suffering (extremely patient!) younger brother and roping him in as my ‘cast’ on a weekend morning to entertain my parents – cowboy, Geisha girl, ghost, rabbit to name but a few now family-famous characters! And if it wasn’t making a show, I was writing little stories, choreographing some dance, or sat cross-legged on the floor drawing – so I think I was always going to be a creative in some capacity: it’s just what makes me tick.
Q You graduated from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, a very famous institution, why did you decide to study acting there?
A I just loved the feel of the place the minute I stepped foot into the building. It was humble, focused and void of pretentiousness. It was an intuitive decision. I had actually applied to do musical theatre at several prestigious schools in the UK and been accepted. But my gut for some reason told me it wasn’t quite right – so late in the day I started applying for straight acting courses. Because of application deadline dates (and a fee each time you apply!) I had to be selective. I didn’t know much about drama schools at all, but on reading Bristol’s prospectus I knew it sounded like somewhere I could see myself.
Q Tell us a bit about the Noel Gallagher music video you were involved with.
A I’d filmed a small part in a brilliant British indie film called Svengali (written by and starring Jonny Owen). And it was directed by the lovely John Hardwick. We stayed in touch, I’d since filmed a short film with him, and then he called to ask if I’d like to play a part in Noel Gallagher’s new music video Ballad of the Mighty. It was playing a bit of a down and out which sounded fun – it’s always nice to break down the barriers of your perceived ‘casting’ as an actor. John is also one of the nicest people and I’d work with him again and again. And I’m a child of the 90s – Oasis were my music royalty so it was a no brainer! Noel was a sweetheart: as you’d expect, super down to earth. It was a freezing cold day in December and running barefoot in a vest in east London certainly had its challenges. But when you work with nice people and you’re all together, it makes it so much easier.
Q Would you like to do more music-related projects?
A Why not? I’m open to it for sure.
Q Growing up in the Middle East (and later moving to London), did the climate and culture influence you to want to become a qualified yoga instructor?
A Moving from a beach to a busy city was a big struggle for me. So the climate and the pace of London life led made me to search for something that kept me calm, warm and grounded. Yoga became my escapism – my walk on the beach, my swim in the sea, my gaze at the horizon. Yoga isn’t merely a physical practice, it’s a way of life, and it’s philosophies, daily routine and community have kept me sane. And I wanted to deepen my own understanding, but also pass that bit of magic (and I know it might sound silly, but it really IS magic!) on to other people. The acting profession can often be egocentric and I think it’s important to give back where you can.
Q Does being a yoga instructor help cope with the many demands of the acting industry?
A YES! Yes! And yes. How long have you got?
Q You speak three languages, one of which is Arabic from your childhood, has that helped in some roles?
A Wow, do I? This makes me sound super cultured, but is sadly not the case. I speak English well. I can order croissants in French (and even then, when I was in Paris last year, a waitress laughed so hard at my pronunciation I thought she might wet herself) and I can just about direct a taxi in Arabic. It was a legal requirement to learn Arabic up to GCSE level in my school, so once upon a time I could hold a conversation, but I’ve not lived there for 15 years so it’s not exactly fresh. I can, however, still read in Arabic (I just can’t tell you what it means!) So, in short, no. No roles for my mediocre language attempts.
Q You’ve had a varied acting career, in theatre, television and film, which do you prefer?
A They’re so different. Also, the grass is always greener – when I’m doing one I always crave the other. I love the camaraderie and community of theatre – creating a piece all together, using a pool of brilliant, creative brains and talent. I also enjoy rehearsals. You really get a chance to develop a character within a story properly: there is time to make mistakes, make bold choices and vibe off other people. Also a live audience...there’s nothing like that electricity!
But then I love the intimacy of performance in television – it feels so real, like you’re in that little bubble. And I’ve also been very lucky to film in some nice places and that appeals to the wanderlust in me.
Q You’ve recently written, directed, starred in and produced a short film The Hungry Games. Can you tell us a little more about this and why you decided to write it?
A Well, as an actor, I was feeling a bit frustrated with the stories and roles on offer – particularly as I slid out of the ‘ingénue’ bracket. I didn’t feel like life as a woman was being well represented on our screens. And I thought: “Well, if it’s not out there, then I’ll just make it myself.”
I also wanted to take back some control over my development and growth as a creative – and if the opportunities don’t seem to be presenting themselves then sometimes you’ve got to produce them yourself. And as a human, I was dumbfounded by the stories my friends were telling me about their ‘diets’. This obsession with the physical form. With conforming to a very media-driven ‘social norm’. Essentially, shrinking ourselves. And also being so competitive with one another about it. Each tale was more ridiculous than the first and as well as seeing the psychological damage of it, I couldn’t help see the comedy.
Q Do you have any plans to write and direct more personal projects?
A I have a few ideas washing around in my head and have started penning one new piece, though every time I sit down to write, the phone rings with an audition, or a job offer, and that puts it all on the back burner for a bit! But yes, I’d like to do more. I’m just not in any rush.
Profile: Jessica Ellerby
Jessica Ellerby is best known for her regular role as ‘Jane’ in Netflix hit Lovesick opposite Johnny Flynn. She will next star in the second series of Sky One’s Florida comedy Living The Dream, from the makers of Cold Feet, alongside Leslie Sharp, Philip Glenister and Rosie Day.
Jessica has also recently written, directed, produced and starred in her first short; a comedy titled The Hungry Games which is a female-led, satirical social observational comedy, focusing on the modern day obsessions and pressures surrounding women and image. The short premiered at the Women in Comedy festival in Boston and won the Honorable Mention at One-Reeler short film competition in LA. It most recently screened at Austin Comedy Short Film Festival this autumn.
Her further credits include Universal’s Get Him To The Greek with Jonah Hill, Jonny Owen’s Svengali with Martin Freeman and Vicky McClure, BBC’s In The Club with Katherine Parkinson and Hermione Norris, Inside No. 9 and Endeavour for ITV. Her theatre highlights include Trevor Nunn’s A Chorus of Disapproval with Rob Brydon
and Ashley Jensen at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Fanta Orange at Finborough Theatre, and Triptych at the Southwark Playhouse.
Q Comedy seems to feature quite heavily in your career. You obviously have a great natural sense of humour. Was that integral to landing the part in the new series of Living The Dream?
A It does, doesn’t it? I’m always surprised as I don’t think I’m very funny! I think it might be accidental comedy – I remember auditioning for a film once and the role was really sultry and sexy. I got a call from my agent saying that the team thought I was brilliant – “absolutely HILARIOUS”. They thought my ‘sexy’ was hilarious. Sure.
In terms of Living The Dream, it’s easier when the comedy is scripted. When it’s written down, I can see the arc of the joke, so you’re more guided to it. The sort of comedy I enjoy isn’t the straight up three jokes a page – it’s more real. A situation that’s funny rather than an out and out punch line. Maybe that’s it – finding the truth in it all.
Q I’ve just read Homo Sapiens by Yuval Noel Harari and his sequels. You read this book some time ago – do you think it should be essential reading for all?
A Excellent Instagram stalking! I did indeed! It’s a big, mind-blowing read and one I could probably do at least eight times to retain just a portion of the information packed in those pages. I haven’t read the sequels, but hear they’re equally good. For me, Sapiens was a brilliant, fascinating and educational read, so yes, I would certainly encourage others to partake!
Living The Dream is coming to Sky1 early in 2019.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee, though actually I’m trying to give it up!
Favourite current TV programme?
Just one? Killing Eve, Wanderlust, and Iliza Shlesinger in Elder Millennial. I hardly ever laugh out loud at comedy, but this lady is FUNNY.
Sleeping in. LATE.
My family. Their massive hearts, adventurous spirits and ridiculous work ethics.
Glass half full or half empty?
Half full. Always.