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Gemma Whelan: 'I'm out pushing my buggy around and I truly look like a bag lady... but it's fine'

As she stars in the festive hit Surviving Christmas With The Relatives, Gemma Whelan reveals what it was like to take her baby on to the set and how she believes things are changing in the industry. By Kerri-Ann Roper

Comedic drama: Gemma Whelan with Julian Ovenden in Surviving Christmas with the Relatives
Comedic drama: Gemma Whelan with Julian Ovenden in Surviving Christmas with the Relatives

British director James Dearden is the brains behind the screenplay of acclaimed 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction. While his latest project doesn't fall into the same category, it does focus on an annual event that can be a nightmare for some - Christmas.

The 69-year-old reveals the film, Surviving Christmas With The Relatives, has a few personal experiences woven into it.

He explains: "The story was an amalgam of my experiences of Christmas over the years. I used to have to go up and down to London and have two Christmas lunches. I've also experienced Polish builders and living in a building site, with everything going wrong, so I put it all together in one crazy Christmas."

Described as a "heart-warming, riotous take on the traditional festive family get-together", it sees two sisters and their families reunited at Christmas time at their recently deceased parents' dilapidated country home.

Sisters Miranda (played by Gemma Whelan) and Lyla (played by Joely Richardson) are forced to confront old sibling rivalries that threaten to derail the festive season. The film also stars Sally Phillips and Scottish actress Ronni Ancona (who plays a character called Vicky).

Signing up to the film was a no-brainer for Whelan.

The 37-year-old, best known for her turn as Yara Greyjoy in Sky Atlantic and HBO's gritty series Game Of Thrones, also gained critical acclaim for her 2017 role as Karen Matthews in BBC drama The Moorside.

She explains: "Well, what excited me about the part was that it was... James Dearden of Fatal Attraction fame, writing a comedy and directing it. I thought, 'That sounds juicy'. And then the other people who were on board with the project, and the script, I really thought it was great fun, a slightly different take on the sort of, disastrous Christmas movie".

Whelan says the film, which was shot in locations including Hertfordshire and Greenwich, has a "sort of sizzling drama at the heart of it".

"The house (left by their parents) is barely liveable because it's really, sort of, descended into wrack and ruin. There's no oven, no plumbing, everything's cold. So they are all just trying to do their best in this chaotic environment and have a nice Christmas," she says, adding: "Basically, (it is) any family Christmas, but with the volume on all the difficulties turned up".

Currently filming alongside Doctor Foster's Suranne Jones in upcoming BBC One drama series Gentleman Jack, she will also be seen on screen next year in ITV's six-part drama, the White House Farm Murders, based on the grisly murders that gripped the nation in the mid-1980s.

"I'm very, very fortunate to play a nice light-hearted comedy role, and lovely, serious gritty dramatic roles and everything in between," she says.

During filming, Whelan had her six-month old baby with her on set and credits the people around her for their support.

"I had my six-month-old in tow. I still breastfed - so I had her with me the whole time," she says.

"It was fine," she states. "It sounds much scarier than it actually is, popping off to feed your baby now and again, as long as everyone's willing to allow that, which invariably they have been."

"I think Claire Foy did a lot for it (working mums on set), Sally Phillips, who was on this film, she took her babies to work with her, a lot of mums do," Whelan muses, "so the more we do it, the more normal it can become."

Gemma Whelan
Gemma Whelan

Something she doesn't take home from set is her characters.

Explaining she is not a method actor, she says: "Now I find it very easy to come home and shake the day off.

"One of the jobs I did tend to come home (with) a little bit was when I did The Moorside. That was quite a heavy, heavy role, but nothing too difficult to shake off, have a bath, have a cup of tea."

The Leeds-born star is happy to fly under the radar as far as being recognised in public goes too.

"Some people can't place me, and I just say I've got one of those faces," she says, adding: "So it doesn't really happen, I'm very pleased to say - not that there's anything wrong with being recognised."

Having done her fair share of comedy work, including stand-up and roles in BBC sitcom Upstart Crow, her humorous streak creeps in mid-chat.

"I think it might be a different thing if you are hounded, you can't go out," she says laughing, "I mean I'm out, pushing my buggy around at the moment, and I truly, I look like a bag lady."

Expanding on this she says it's "because we leave in such a hurry in the morning".

"I can't describe what I put on in the morning, but I get to walk around my home area dressed as a bag lady and it's fine."

Asked about there being more roles of substance for woman of late, she begins: "In writers' minds as they write now that stuff is more likely to be made if they've got a strong... I mean, I hate using the word 'strong, female character' because by default women are strong."

So, are women are feeling more empowered at the moment?

"Yes, the movement is happening, isn't it? We are doing very well."

  • Surviving Christmas With The Relatives is out now

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