Joanna Page might be best known as one half of the loveable Gavin and Stacey, but Matthew Hemley finds that the actor, currently starring in Sky1′s new comedy series Gates, has a fierce passion for her profession and is not afraid to speak her mind
Many things surprise you about Joanna Page when spending a little time with her.
There’s the fact that she’s smaller than you imagine her to be, or that she narrowly missed out on being cast as Baby in the West End production of Dirty Dancing, a move that could have altered her whole career – two weeks later she got the lead in the BBC comedy Gavin and Stacey (more of which below).
But the real eye-opener is just how fiery she is.
Yes, Page is giggly and talks ten to the dozen, as you might expect from seeing her interviewed on television. But what you don’t get to see so often is how fierce and opinionated she can be.
For example, get her talking about TV talent shows, as I do towards the end of a 20-minute chat with the actor, and she’s unlikely to stop. Or, to be more specific, musical theatre TV talent shows such as ITV’s Superstar, which recently cast the lead in a new production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
And let’s be clear. These shows don’t irritate her just slightly. She really doesn’t like them.
“There are actors and musical theatre performers who have given their whole lives to the profession because it is their passion, and then you have some bloody van driver on a show [like Superstar] saying, ‘I didn’t do this when I was 12, I wish I had done but I didn’t have the guts’,” she says. “Well, that’s your problem, because you obviously didn’t have the passion, spirit, drive and the determination to dedicate your whole life to it.”
She adds she wishes the audition process was kept secret a bit more. “How am I going to believe in the Jesus I am watching when I have seen him in some video with his mum and dad, with his mum showing us baby photos and the contestant messing around with his niece?” she says. “I could not give a shit if he loves his niece. I just want to see Jesus.”
There is more – much more – and I could fill up the entire feature with her opinions on the subject. But I won’t, except to note what happened when The Stage reported her comments in a separate news story recently. Not only was the story retweeted on social networking site Twitter more than 300 times, but Page also won a lot of support from other people in the industry, perhaps because she vocalised what other performers closer to the world of musical theatre want to say, but can’t.
There were critics too, of course, but Page handled them in her own way. “Thanks to all who have agreed and supported me about the utter shit that is the TV audition show,” she tweeted. “And to the ones that don’t, you can kiss my arse.”
As I said, fiery.
There is much more that winds the actor up too, including noisy theatregoers and Cheryl Cole. But we’ll come to some of that later, because to pile it all in now would risk painting an unfair picture of Page as a moaner. She’s not, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, she’s amiable, humorous and, as mentioned above, giggly.
We meet in a central London hotel to discuss her latest television project, Gates, a Sky1 comedy in which Page stars alongside Tom Ellis. They play parents Mark and Helen, who have recently moved to south-east London, where their nine year-old daughter has started at a new primary school. Page’s character, Helen, would prefer not to get involved with the other parents, though her husband seems to find this unavoidable.
The programme, says the Sky promotion, “casts an eye on how relationships with parents formed during 15 minutes of a school drop-off and pick-up can so easily take over your life”.
For Page, who has no children of her own, the world of parents at the school gates was new to her before making the comedy.
“Mums, kids, the school world, I don’t know anything about it all,” she says. “But what’s funny is I think I am exactly the same as my character is. I don’t want to get involved with anyone. ‘Don’t talk to parents’, ‘don’t invite anyone round’ – these are things I’ve said to my own husband [actor James Thornton] about other things, so I am very similar in that way.”
Page landed the part after being invited to come in and audition. Although it was a success, the actor reveals that she loathes auditions. “I hate them, absolutely hate them,” she says.
“Imogen Stubbs once told me she has a friend who gets really nervous at auditions,” she adds. “She would go in and audition, but when the moment would come for the panel to say ‘thank you’, she would end up blabbing and losing her cool.
“So Imogen told her to pretend she had a motorbike, and go in to auditions with a helmet. She told her to walk in, put the helmet down and do everything as she normally would. And at the moment she felt like she was going to lose it, say, ‘I am awfully sorry, I have to go. I can’t stay any longer,’ then put the helmet on and get out of the door. Since then she has got loads of parts.”
Aha – so Page must have bought herself a helmet, too?
“No,” she laughs. “But if it gets really awful then I will be buying one. I just don’t like auditions. I don’t think anyone likes them. They are horrible.”
Her main issue is, she says, the fact that actors are always asked to read the most dramatic scene from the programme they are going up for.
These scenes, she adds, usually involve a “two-page monologue where the character has slit her wrists and is hanging off a cliff because her husband has murdered their child”.
“And you have to do that behind a desk, sat on a chair,” she sighs. “I just can’t bear it. But I go in and think, ‘Fuck it, I will never see them again, unless I get the job’.”
Perhaps her attitude towards auditions results from bad experiences in the past. In one particular case, she made it down to the last two for the role of Baby in the West End production of Dirty Dancing. When she finished her “brutal” audition, she knew she had not got the part, and held back the tears until she got outside. Then, not wanting to go home, she found herself walking across the road and checking into the Savoy Hotel.
“They said they only had a suite that was 300 quid,” she recalls. “But I was like, ‘That’s fine’. And two weeks later I got the audition for Gavin and Stacey. If I had got the part in Dirty Dancing, I would not have got Gavin and Stacey.”
The latter BBC sitcom, first screened in 2007, is, it’s fair to say, what most people know Page from. But having graduated from RADA in the mid-1990s, her CV was already packed prior to the hit show, and most of her work had not been in comedy. “People think I am just a comedy actress, which is really quite frustrating,” she says. “I left RADA and went to work at the National Theatre, the Almeida and the Royal Shakespeare Company. I have done loads of costume dramas. Gavin and Stacey is the first comedy I have done, but now people say, ‘She’s a comedy actress’.”
Not that she’s really complaining. Gavin and Stacey was a huge success. And for Page, it was one job where she was not required to change her natural Welsh accent. Up until then, she says, most jobs had required her to disguise her natural voice.
“All the way through RADA, they wanted me to speak RP all the time,” she reveals. “And when I came out, I was not allowed to be Welsh at all. I did loads of costume dramas but I had to be English in everything.”
She explains why this was. “Before Gavin and Stacey, I think they thought we were all sheep shaggers and backward,” she laughs.
This is something that also crops up in relation to a story Page tells me about Cheryl Cole. Before discussing that, however, the actor tells me about her gripes with noisy theatregoers, who should beware – ruin her experience by talking or rustling sweet wrappers, and you’re likely to encounter a frosty glance or stern word. Because this is something she cannot abide.
“It’s so rude,” she complains. “When the overture starts or the lights go down, as far as I am concerned the magic is starting. Just because no one is onstage yet doesn’t mean you can talk. Just shut up. I can’t stand it. In the theatre I will give a few evil looks and say, ‘Shh’. But I won’t in the cinema, because I might get stabbed. But I love the stories about actors who turn round and say, ‘Turn your phone off’.”
So what about Cole? What did she say about the singer that prompted someone on Twitter to refer to Page as a “sheep shagger”.
“I have been quite vocal, on and off, about Cheryl Cole,” she laughs. “She was on something like The X Factor, and I tweeted, ‘I really enjoyed her live performance there. The way she sang that one line live was amazing’. I got about 300 messages, most agreeing with me, but one woman wrote back, ‘You sheep shagging cunt, get back to Wales and die’.”
And how did she handle this? In true Page style, of course.
“I just retweeted it so everyone could read it,” she says. “And then she got loads of messages from people saying she was going to be taken off Twitter, so she had to apologise.”
* Gates continues on Tuesdays at 8.30pm