It’s been a busy few years for Jessica Hynes – from starring in Russell T Davies’ Years and Years, to winning a BAFTA for her performance in comedy-drama There She Goes – and it doesn’t look like the pandemic has slowed her down.
The Spaced star portrays the mother of children’s author Roald Dahl in Sky One’s Christmas Eve special, Roald and Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse – a comedy-drama about the real-life meeting of Dahl and his literary hero Beatrix Potter.
“From the minute I read the script, I knew it was something that I really wanted to do,” Hynes tells me over the phone. “It was such a lovely story and it was written so beautifully – and the character Sofie was such a lovely and interesting mum. I was really hoping I would get the job.”
It’s midday on a Monday when I phone Hynes, who I expect to sound just like her iconic Spaced character Daisy Steiner – fast-paced and bubbly, with a tendency to rattle on. However, I couldn’t be more wrong. Hynes decisively answers my questions at a cautious speed, regularly pausing to mull over what she wants to say – in a similar manner to her character in Roald & Beatrix: Roald’s recently-widowed pregnant mother Sofie.
The uplifting 90-minute film introduces Sofie, who is trying to stay strong for Roald’s sake as she processes her husband’s death, just weeks after her daughter Astri died from appendicitis aged seven. How did Hynes get in the right mindset to portray someone dealing with intense bereavement?
“I think by really focusing on what Roald was going through and just really, kind of knowing the more I’ve read about her, that she wasn’t a so-called dramatic or an over-emotional person,” Hynes says. “It seems like she was strong and quite straightforward, and kind and good but practical.”
“I thought about those traits and just tried to play them and really focused on what Roald was going through, because that is what the story is ultimately about. It’s about this moment in his life, where he’s in a childlike way trying to deal with these massive things, massive tragedy and doing it in the way that only a child does – which is to, in this case, go and visit his favourite author’s house.”
In the run-up to filming, Hynes hit the books to get a feel for Sofie’s character. She read Roald Dahl’s autobiography Boy, chatted to vocal coach Majella Hurley over Zoom and watched many interviews with Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann – (“I learnt a lot about [her former partner] Ingmar Bergman and Ullmann’s work for UNICEF”) – to get a feel for the accent, which sounds Scandinavian with a hint of Welsh.
“Um, I think the Welsh bit was accidental,” Hynes laughs. “I just tried my best to sound Norwegian and actually I realised that Welsh and Norwegian have similar notes, there’s something melodic about both. And it’s easy to slip from one into the other if you’re thinking about both of them simultaneously.”
With Roald & Beatrix being one of the first projects to be both filmed and broadcast during the pandemic, Hynes auditioned for the role of Sofie over Zoom. “A new thing for me – to actually sort of audition live on Zoom” she says.
With no clear end in sight when it comes to the coronavirus, does Hynes think Zoom auditions could be the new normal in the acting world? “Well, I actually did a COVID-spaced live audition the other day. I did actually travel and do a socially-distanced in-person audition so no, I don’t.”
“I don’t think it’s the only way people are going to audition,” she adds. “I think people tape [auditions] any way, that’s quite commonplace and has been for a long time. But equally I think there are directors who like to meet actors in person and vice versa, and that will continue as well. Based on my experiences, no – it’s not going to be like that forever.”
Filming on Roald & Beatrix took place in August, with the crew shooting a variety of snowy scenes featuring Beatrix Potter’s Cumbria farm on a sweltering Welsh set filled with foam. “[It was] really really hot,” Hynes says, “You’re sweating and you need to look like you’re shivering, but you’re literally boiling up inside. And I had pregnancy padding as well so it was very hot. Probably better than being in the freezing cold though.”
Being several months into the pandemic at that point, the production team took various precautions to ensure the set was a COVID-safe working environment from mandating safety training videos to regular coronavirus testing of cast and crew throughout and prior to the shoot. “Everyone who was not an actor wore protective masks and a visor if they worked in close contact with an actor – so for example, the sound guy would have a visor and a mask, [as would] make-up and designers.”
“The camera was remote controlled to prevent too many people being in too close proximity, there was a COVID supervisor there monitoring – all the precautions that it was possible to take were taken,” Hynes continues.
“A film set always has a set of challenges of one kind or another and this was just another set of challenges on top of that set of challenges – but I think the crew and production were incredible,” she adds. “We were pleased to be working – pleased to be working on such a lovely script as well.”
“I was always aware of just how lucky we were really, but we did manage to have fun. It’s such as sweet, fun script and the characters are so lovely. I didn’t get to film with Dawn French or Rob Brydon but I’ve seen the film and they’re so lovely in it, and Nina Sosanya was hilarious and brilliant. My scenes were with Harry (Tayler) and Alison Steadman and it was a lot of fun really.”
Hynes spends most of the festive film acting opposite nine-year-old newcomer Harry Tayler, who stars in the Roald and Beatrix cast as the six-year-old Roald Dahl and whose adorable acting is a highlight of the Sky One special. “Children are very civilising, I think,” she says on working with Tayler. “They really make everyone behave themselves and he was such a professional.”
“He raised everybody’s game and he set the tone, set the bar very high and we just tried to be as professional and well-behaved as he was. He kept us all in line.”
With one COVID-safe production under her belt already, Hynes is ready for another, revealing that she’d love to do a third series of There She Goes – Shaun Pye’s BBC One comedy-drama in which she plays Emily, the mother of a non-verbal child with learning disabilities.
“It’s a show that you know, really opened my eyes to what parents and carers of children with learning disabilities are coping with – particularly now,” Hynes says.
“I’m doing a charity concert for a charity called Soundabout which supports carers and parents of children with learning disabilities by doing music workshops, obviously online at the moment, but they’re one of the many charities and nonprofits that exists to support this incredible community,” she adds. “They reached out to me and invited me to host a Christmas concert which was an incredible honour and lovely way to end this year for me.”
“That’s a wonderful thing that has come out of the show for me, but also the show itself. The script is an absolute dream to perform for any actor. It is a gift and I loved every minute of it. So I would love to work for them again and do it again, but as of yet, I haven’t heard anything.”
In the meantime, Hynes will be navigating the COVID-stricken world we live in as various lockdowns of varying degrees are imposed across the country. On how she’s spent the last few months, Hynes says: “Just taking everyday as it comes.” A sentiment shared by all of us, not to mention her Roald & Beatrix character (I imagine).