David and Georgia Tennant, Michael Sheen and Anna Lundberg on what is and isn’t 'Staged' on their Zoom drama
The Staged stars spoke exclusively to Radio Times about the challenges of filming the Zoom comedy drama at home during lockdown.
Georgia Tennant has been married to David Tennant for nearly a decade, but it took until last year for the actors to finally work together. It’s not been for a lack of trying.
“Nobody seemed to want to let me do it,” explains Georgia. “For one part I was told by a casting director that I wasn’t a convincing partner for him… I was like, ‘But we’re married. With quite a few kids!’ So, basically, every actor who could possibly play the part would have to be eliminated in order for me to be allowed to play his wife…”
It’s taken a global pandemic for those stringent criteria to be met – and now, thanks to Staged, Tennant and Michael Sheen’s BBC comedy drama about the two stars trying to rehearse a play in lockdown via Zoom, Mr and Mrs Tennant have finally got to play Mr and Mrs Tennant.
“I don’t think this is something we would have imagined we’d have done,” says David, 49, who is sporting a moustache that Georgia calls “slightly creepy”. “But then suddenly in March, Around the World in 80 Days is closed down and I’m airlifted out of South Africa [he was filming a new TV adaptation currently in production] and nothing's happening, all bets are off. And then, well, the only thing we can do has to be from our house. And this idea presented itself.”
No other actor could enter the Tennants’ west-London home, so if anyone was going to play David’s wife, it would have to be David’s wife. “And anyway, imagine having to tell my wife that she was being played by someone else,” laughs David.
Except that that is precisely the big joke that kicks off Staged series two. America, it is imagined, has seen the first series of Staged and wants to make their own version. It’s a word-for-word rewrite of the UK version but with “David Tennant” and “Michael Sheen” recast with other players. So begins six more 15-minute vignettes of paranoid actors, lockdown delirium and blurred faces (and their partners) shouting at laptops.
Funnily enough, say both Tennants as we talk on Zoom, they experienced similar low points last year, particularly with home-schooling.
“It was the worst,” says Georgia, 36. “It brought out the worst in us as parents.”
“Awful,” says David. “And the worst in our children.”
“There was one point,” says Georgia, “in something like week two, where I went, ‘I’m sorry. I just have to…’ and I climbed out the window and sat on our roof. It was the only place I could go where I knew that no one would think to look for me, because why would Mummy be sat on the roof?”
David looks mildly concerned at this statement.
“I wasn’t going to throw myself off the roof,” says Georgia. “It was the only place I could find to sit! And also, at that point we had no idea how long it was going to last for. And the idea that this could be until the children were 18… I thought, ‘I can’t do this. I’ve had so many kids – no one told me there was gonna be a pandemic.’”
The pair have five children at home: Ty, 18, Olive, nine, Wilfred, seven, Doris, five, and baby Birdie, who was born in October 2019. To add to the fun, both parents thought that they had contracted the virus early on. “We’d both been sick, presumably with COVID although it was back in the days when you couldn’t get tested,” says David.
“It wasn’t long after you got better that we started filming,” says Georgia. “So the whole thing with Staged was, ‘We need to make this easy as possible’. And if we can make those characters really easy to get into, because we’ve only got 20 minutes to film a scene between childcare, then let’s tweak it so we’re not having to sit there going, ‘What would my motivation be?’ Because at that time our motivation was really just to stay awake.”
It meant that Staged offered a teasing insight in to the Tennants and their home life, albeit one that they stress has always been under their full control.
“It’s not like we’re letting a crew in,” says David, “it’s just us with our laptops and our mobile phones filming each other.”
The fact remains, however, that Staged is their first shared screen appearance since they met while filming an episode of Doctor Who, which aired in 2008. He was the Doctor, and she – then Georgia Moffett – was the daughter of fifth Doctor, Peter Davison. We all cooed at how sweet it was that together they’d jumped through a heart-shaped hole in the space-time continuum. But the same Whovian circle of love meant their marriage attracted the interest of the tabloids, and they became wary.
“At the beginning of our relationship it felt like people were trying to get in and get information we didn’t want to give them,” says Georgia. “Actually, when people started caring less, it felt like we let our guard down slightly.”
“We’ve definitely been on a bit of a journey towards being more comfortable with sharing bits of ourselves, haven’t we?” says David. “But we’re probably more guarded than doing something like this would make us appear.”
Staged is just one part of the Tennants relaxing their guard in public – Georgia now acts under the name Georgia Tennant rather than Georgia Moffett and there is a growing Tennant presence on social media. But it’s Georgia, not David, who is active on Instagram.
“The social media explosion happened at a moment in my life where I was losing my anonymity,” explains David. “So it felt like that was the last thing I wanted to get involved in. Now I can see that if you use it well and confidently it can work, but I feel like I’m so far away from catching that bus that I’m just gonna enjoy being the person who’s not on it.”
By contrast, Georgia regularly posts pictures of David and the children (albeit not their faces). “For me, it’s the opposite. Social media came at a time when I felt slightly like I didn’t have an identity. In that world [entertainment and acting], you don’t want to be just somebody’s wife. So this has given me an identity that I felt like I had slightly lost a grip of.”
David sanctions any posts with him in them, which means that Staged plus Instagram has had them working together on two fronts.
“I think exclusively now I will only work with David,” says Georgia, which sounds like a joke until David says that they do in fact have another his-and-hers project in the works.
“Before, I thought husbands and wives working together was really cringey,” says Georgia. “Then I listened to Judi Dench – actually on your podcast [David looks astonished that his wife knows he has a podcast] – talking about working with her husband Michael Williams.
“She said, ‘Why would I not? I get on really well with him. And he’s my best friend.’ And I thought, that’s exactly how to think about it.
“We enjoy it, and I feel like Staged has proved it’s possible. I’d like to go back to that casting director and say, “See? I can play his wife!”
Michael Sheen and Anna Lundberg
Ten minutes into a Zoom call with Michael Sheen and his actor partner Anna Lundberg, a gentle mewling is heard off-screen. The couple exchange a few “I’ll go”s, before Anna apologises and pops upstairs to try to get their one-year-old back to sleep.
“That’s why there aren’t many scenes in Staged with just the two of us,” says 51-year-old Sheen. “We had to wait until she was having a nap to do any filming. If the baby wakes up, one of us has to go off.”
“That’s why I’m in more scenes with Georgia [Tennant] than Michael and I together,” says Anna when she comes back in front of the computer, the baby successfully placated. “Those have been filmed when she’s been asleep.”
This is not how television programmes are normally made, but then Staged is not a normal television programme. With both the Tennants and the Sheens having to fit filming in their own homes around childcare and lockdown restrictions, it’s all been cobbled together, fitted in, done on the hoof. Understandably, perhaps, the scenes where the two couples finally get to sit down together as a four are their favourites, because they offer some respite.
“They tend to happen in the night because of the babies being asleep and there tends to be alcohol involved as well,” says Sheen. “So they’re a bit… looser.”
It’s somehow pleasing to think of the two couples sharing a glass of wine and a spot of chitchat, even if it is on camera. Anna Lundberg hadn’t met Georgia Tennant until the London premiere of Good Omens, the show that pitched their two partners together as an angel and a demon. That was in May 2019 – aeons ago in lockdown time.
“I’ve only met her once or twice after that,” says Anna, “but she’s lovely. We were following each other on Instagram and messaging back and forth because we both had babies at the same time. I think we soon discovered that we do have quite a lot in common.”
Lyra and Birdie, their daughters, were born in September and October 2019 respectively.
“I mean, David and Georgia are old hands, obviously – they’ve got about 20 of them,” says Sheen, who has a grown-up daughter of his own (Lily, 21) with Kate Beckinsale. “But the fact that we did have babies so close to each other, that has been a big bonding thing as well.”
The two newest arrivals have now met, Sheen says, and as you’d expect, are a regular topic of conversation (“The experience of changing a baby’s nappy at three in the morning never really leaves you”). Lyra has finally been able to meet her Swedish grandparents (“They missed out on her entire first year really. So I’m just very glad that they were able to come for her birthday,” Anna says) and the Tennants and Sheen/Lundbergs now count themselves as friends.
It’s a friendship that is now close enough to allow room for some gentle (and not so gentle) mockery. This has formed the backbone for writer Simon Evans’s best scenes, turning David, Michael, Georgia and Anna into sitcom characters in their own right, making jokes at one another’s expense.
"The more near the knuckle it gets, the funnier that we find it,” says Sheen. “In fact, that’s been an issue a couple of times – we’ll be doing a scene and improvising and David has said things that have made me laugh so much that it’s ruined the scene. When it does get very, very close to the truth, then that just makes it much funnier.”
That said, even as they sit in front of the brick fireplace that’s become so familiar as a backdrop in Staged, trying to get their baby to sleep, both Sheen and Lundberg are keen to stress that there’s a gap between their on-screen and off-screen personas.
“I don’t think that I would have coped with you, if you were the version that you are in the show,” says Anna.
“We are very careful to try and make it seem as natural as possible when we’re doing it, but it’s scripted,” says Sheen. “A lot of people go, ‘Oh, did you just improvise the whole thing?’ That really annoys Simon [Evans] because Simon wrote it. And Simon has no idea what our relationship is like. I mean, none of us had ever met Simon before we started filming it. Actually, he’s written and directed two series of this – and we still haven’t met him.”
If you’re a Staged fan it’s a little uncanny to do a Zoom call with Michael Sheen and Anna Lundberg and talk to them about a show that consists entirely of Zoom calls when both of them are “on location”.
“I’ve come to quite enjoy the fact that whenever I do Zoom calls with anybody who’s seen Staged, they think they’re in Staged because they look like they’re on the set,” says Sheen.
The brick fireplace is real; the house is their home in south Wales.
“You are seeing our house,” he continues, “but in our case, people see literally one square of it because that’s all we show. That’s partly a conscious choice because we don’t want people seeing around our house.”
David and Georgia Tennant film in multiple rooms of their home but that, Sheen says, is because they had no choice. “They were sort of forced into it because they’ve got a house full of children, so there are only certain places they can be at a certain time. I wouldn’t be as comfortable with filming stuff all around the house.”
Nonetheless, the Lundberg/Sheen partnership has become a key relationship in Staged, with Anna the stern Swede with the encyclopaedic knowledge and the tossed-off Viking references set against Michael, the slightly shambolic curmudgeon with the unstoppable facial hair.
“I didn’t even know that I was going to be in Staged until just before you were about to start filming the pilot script,” says Anna. “You said to me, ‘Oh, and by the way, you’re in it.’ I didn’t have much time to think about it.”
“Well, just from a practical point of view the only people who could be in it are people who are in the house because you are in lockdown. That meant us,” answers Sheen. “So it was very handy that we’re both actors.”
The complication was that they were actors with a new baby who couldn’t leave the house. [When we speak, Wales is back in full lockdown.] But Michael and Anna say that in their case lockdown with a baby has been a blessing.
“We’re very fortunate to be able to say this, but the arrival of the baby has had a bigger impact than the coronavirus on our lives,” says Sheen. “The plan when Lyra was born was just to spend time together as a family at home. We’ve got a garden and the weather was good in the spring and summer in Wales, so for us it has all been rather lovely.”
“And the luxury of Michael just being at home has really been amazing and Lyra has certainly loved it,” Anna adds. “Otherwise Michael’s always sort of popping in and out and now you’ve really been able to fully be here. We’ve been able to connect together as a family, and that routine has kept us sane.”
Staged season two continues Monday at 9:45pm on BBC One. While you wait for the next episode to air, check out our TV Guide.
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.