Vanity Fair's Claudia Jessie: I never want anything to do with that corset again
Claudia Jessie is captivating audiences as Vanity Fair's Amelia Sedley. She tells Samuel Fishwick about 'edgy' period drama and what's next for a rising star like her
"On paper I'm incredibly annoying," says Claudia Jessie (28), sitting cross-legged at The Hospital Club in Covent Garden, toying with her own pink, reusable bamboo cup of tea.
"I'm vegan, Buddhist, minimalist, an actor. I'm very friendly, though. If I wasn't I think it would be easier to be, like, 'You're a bit of a knob'."
Jessie has good knob radar: Amelia Sedley, the character she can be seen playing adroitly in ITV's Vanity Fair on Sundays, is one - or, perhaps more accurately, a wannabe noble, a social climber. Sedley wears corsets, curtseys and titters about boys in four-poster beds with 'frenemy' Becky Sharp, played superbly by Olivia Cooke.
Jessie, sporting a GRL PWR T-shirt, has just bought a £34,000 houseboat in Birmingham (she was born in Birmingham and grew up on a barge), says "bab" a lot and, in a "very friendly" way of course, requests "alternative milk but not soya" when we sit down. "I didn't get etiquette classes," she says, "which is a shame because someone like me needs them."
But she's refreshing. "I watch myself back on Sundays, absolutely. I know that the common reaction [from actors] is to be like 'Oh no, I can't stand seeing myself on TV', but I love it because I'm so proud of it. I get dead excited."
William Makepeace Thackeray's 19th-century satire has had regular remake treatment, a fact Jessie puts down to it being about "two women making mistakes in a world they didn't create".
"What's beautiful about this - from what my pals have told me - is that it's the period drama for people who don't watch period dramas, which is fab, because that's most of my friends. There's something that's a bit - I don't want to say the word, but I'm going to - edgy about it."
It's also easy, she says, to feel like you're friends with the cast. "And that's partly because the cast were friends."
There was karaoke in Budapest, where Vanity Fair was filmed on location (as well as in London), until 4am.
"Tom Bateman and Olivia Cooke did a cover of Jolene, Olivia and David Flynn did Total Eclipse of the Heart, I sang Superstition. Then we all had a sauna together, a steam room."
During night shoots in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Johnny Flynn "had a car full of games because he has children, so Twister, Connect Four and a football came out".
There were stiffer challenges. Jessie says stately homes make her nervous. "There were some rooms where you couldn't open the curtains until sunset because it would bleach everything."
And she "never wants anything to do with that corset again, thank you very much". "I ripped through my corset. By the end it was falling to bits. There was wire sticking out everywhere."
After a few hours she'd become used to it, "But every now and then me and Livs would have a scene when it was just a nightdress, nipple stickers and nude underwear and that was like - urghhhh. And we'd eat all of the lunch. Because when you're in a corset you can eat about two mouthfuls".
Jessie had no formal training. "My family were so poor," she says. "My mum would clean houses to maybe get me to a ballet class, bless her. My dad - when he was still about - I don't think he worked. We were fighting off bailiffs at the door."
It all took its toll. She's endured panic attacks and extreme anxiety since childhood. "I had something called depersonalisation, which comes as an effect of living for a long time with anxiety and trauma".
DPD is common but frequently undiagnosed, manifesting often as a feeling of being fundamentally wrong in your own body. "It's just hyper-depression."
She has found chanting helpful. She practises meditation for at least an hour, usually from about 4.30am. Jessie, her brother David (a musician), mother Dawn (now a singing teacher) and partner Robert (a sound engineer) practise Nichiren Buddhism, a Japanese branch of the religion.
"It's supported me no end," says Jessie. "The more I resisted those feelings, the worse it would feel. The more I sat with them, meditating, the more easily they passed."
It's one of the reasons she doesn't use social media: no Twitter, no Facebook. "Social media provokes more anxiety in me, looking at images of other people, and at comments about myself, and I've got a natural propensity to not be very nice to myself. That's common among us all. But mine feels particularly dangerous. My inner monologue - she can be quite mean," Jessie says.
So mean that she left school at 14 to be home-schooled by her mother. And Jessie worked, singing in pubs, compering for cabaret and drag nights, dog-walking, doing promo work for Capital FM in Birmingham. "I'd go out in my tracksuit, saying, 'Do you wanna go see JLS?' I'd never listened to JLS. All these 14-year-old girls thought I was such an idiot."
At 21 she joined Pink Space, an LGBTQ+ theatre company run by director Hannah Phillips. "I felt like I belonged there," she says. After putting on a play, Heterophobia, at Rada with her theatre group, she decided to move to London and find an agent. "And, of course, I was rejected by everyone."
She lived on her aunt's sofa and later found her own accommodation as a property guardian at an old NHS Trust building in Balham. She walked dogs in Chelsea from 4am, taking double bar shifts at the Black Sheep pub in Camberwell (now The Kennington) during weekdays, and worked more shifts at Capital FM (now in London) on weekends - all interspersed with market research phone calls for shampoo brands and the BN Biscuit brand.
Then work - and good work. She was Thandie Newton's sidekick Jodie in series four of the BBC's Line of Duty, and nurse Lucy in the hospital sitcom Porters on Dave (Jessie has a natural flair for comedy). And next? "Really, I'm okay whatever comes my way. I'm just enjoying being happy." Not a lot of vanity here. But quite the climb.
Vanity Fair, Sunday, ITV, 9pm
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