Why Helen’s got (really) cold feet again ...
One of Britain’s best-known TV actresses, Helen Baxendale tells Matthew McCreary of the challenges of making her new eco-comedy movie set in the freezing Arctic — and bringing it to the big screen in Belfast
Disarmingly charming are two words one might acquaint with Helen Baxendale upon first encountering the amiable English actress.
Since first bursting onto our television screens in 1994 as a bitchy junior doctor in the scathing medical drama Cardiac Arrest, the 39-year-old has portrayed a succession of ball-breaking female characters. In the dark 1996 drama Truth or Dare she was the formerly rebellious student caught up in a frightening encounter with her murderous fellow college chums, and she lit up the screen as Pandora Braithwaite, lust-object to Adrian Mole in the TV adaptation of The Cappuccino Years in 2001. She also played opposite Jimmy Nesbitt in the TV drama Cold Feet.
But the really big break came in hit US sitcom Friends, where she played the jealous and possessive girlfriend-then-wife of the hapless Ross.
Yet all these rather intimidating female leads are quite at odds with the person who is almost apologetic for being punctual to the second for our interview.
Perhaps her nerves aren't entirely unjustified, as the actress has recently turned her hand to film producing along with her partner David Williams. The couple are in the process of promoting their new movie, Beyond the Pole, a comedy romp with an ecological message which is showing a Belfast’s QFT this week.
“It's a buddy movie about two friends who decide to become the first vegetarian, organic, carbon neutral expedition to walk to the North Pole,” she says.
“It's about their humiliations and frustrations and joys and how they unwittingly become heroic in their own way.”
The film stars Stephen Mangan (Green Wing, I’m Alan Partridge) and Rhys Thomas (Bellamy's People, Tittybangbang) as the hapless adventurers, along with Swedish star Alexander Skarsgard (son of acclaimed actor Stellan) as a rival Norwegian team member. As well as a comedy tale, it also taps into that great British spirit of adventure in the vein of Shackleton and Scott.
“They are very much underdogs, very ill-prepared,” says Helen.
“The whole underdog aspect is where a lot of the comedy comes from. I read in an article that Scott and Oates were an extremely high-tech expedition for their time, with the most modern advances. It was Roald Amundsen who went to the Inuit people and learned from them and it was he who got there.”
The tale began life as a Radio 4 series which was then picked up by Helen and David, who is also the film's director. The challenges of getting a film onto local screens has been tough for the couple, in spite of their experience within the industry.
“It's very hard if you haven't got a distributor or big studio behind you,” says Helen.
“We're distributing it in a very unconventional way. Mainly people on Facebook and Twitter have asked their local cinemas to put it on. It's worked as it's getting quite a nice release through independent cinemas, which is revolutionary in its own way because the accepted way is to get a distributor who creams off most of the revenue.”
And the stresses and strains of living and working together are something Helen finds healthy for their relationship, rather than a hindrance.
“I like it, it's healthy to live in each other's pockets,” she says.
“We quite enjoy it and it's nice to be able to discuss what you are doing and have intimate knowledge of it. We have disagreements, but they are healthy disagreements!”
Such was the tightness of the budget — and the consideration for the carbon footprint of the shoot — that Helen was left behind when filming took place in Greenland.
As she explains, that in itself was something of an adventure for the cast and crew.
“We filmed it in a tiny Inuit village on the east of Greenland,” she says.
“It had only one shop — a gun shop — and one bar which opened every other Friday because of the shootings. It was like a Wild West frontier town. The crew had armed hunters with them because there are polar bears there. It was an extreme environment.”
Her small part in the film as a documentary maker did allow her to enjoy the slightly less dramatic shooting location of Staffordshire, where she grew up — and which provided a convenient source of labour.
“Lots of the extras are my friends, family and school teachers,” she laughs.
She describes her new producing career as very much additional to her acting (“more and more I like acting”), and she will always be instantly recognisable as the star of some of TV's biggest hits.
Among these was the grown-up ITV drama Cold Feet, in which she played one of the gang of friends sharing their thirtysomething woes and worries. Helen played opposite Ulster actor Jimmy Nesbitt as the love of his life Rachel who was cruelly snatched away in a horrific car accident. Her on-screen death led to one of television's most moving funeral sequences as a heartbroken Nesbitt delivered a tearful eulogy. Seeing her death (albeit aided by special effects) was a sobering experience for the mum-of-three.
“It was awful! Especially having lived with that part for so long,” she says. “And Jimmy is such a great actor so all that grief was just devastating.”
The friendship among the cast has meant Helen still keeps in touch with Nesbitt, who even treated her and her co-stars to a visit to Northern Ireland.
“I'm very fond of Jimmy, he's a fantastic actor,” says Helen warmly. “I have great memories of him — he brought us all to Coleraine and Portrush for one of the episodes; it was written into the story that we went to his old home and he took us there in triumph. I have great memories of that.”
But it was as a temporary cast member with another well-known gang of pals that Helen really hit the big time, starring as the second of Ross Gellar's three wives in the smash hit sitcom Friends in 1998.
Although her involvement only stretched to around a dozen episodes of the long-running show, it was nevertheless an intense experience.
“I found that period quite overwhelming,” she says. “Not really in terms of what happened on-screen, but more what went along with it and the amount of attention and press coverage it brought, which I really wasn't prepared for.
“Afterwards I needed to take a step backwards and regain my equilibrium — I prefer being a bit older and the parts aren't quite so leading. I'm delighted I did it, it was fantastic to have been in
something still much-loved and will always have some sort of presence. I think it will be like I Love Lucy for the 90s. I find children still come up to me and say ‘You're Emily from Friends’.”
Although also an accomplished stage actress, her film acting roles have been relatively few. She conspiratorially tells me she has been awarded a small role in an upcoming feature film, although because it is still in the early stages of coming together she won't tell me the name.
“I'm chuffed I got that; I get to be in period costume and be an Elizabethan Puritan,” she says.
“I've been and had my corset fitted, but I don't know if they have done the deal yet.”
Family life is also important to her, but she is hesitant about whether she might like any of her own kids to follow in her footsteps.
“It's hard to balance work-life commitments and sometimes you feel you're not doing anything particularly well,” she says.
“I hope they can make their own decisions — I don't want them to do it before they have had a good time at school and uni.”
She also confesses to a bit of celebrity-style indulgence when it came to naming the three children — Nell Marmalade, Eric Mustard and Vincent Mash.
“We were a bit daft,” she admits. “You know when you're on a bit of a high when you've just had a baby? But they like them, and they are middle names so they can choose to discard them if they wish.
“They don't get called them at school, but it's something they can proudly reveal as a bit of nonsense. We had a laugh with it really, that's all.”
Beyond the Pole screens at the QFT until Thursday. See www.queensfilmtheatre.com for details