When it comes to her characters, actress Joanna Vanderham intertwines herself in the roles she inhabits. Growing up in a town in Scotland where “on Sundays, one train would come every two hours”, Vanderham’s desire to explore and immerse herself in the lives of others began. Over the past decade she’s built a sterling acting career on stage and screen- with leading roles in dramas spanning crime, period, romance and everything in between. Now, she stars in BBC1’s The Control Room - a nerve-wracking drama thriller about an emergency services call gone wrong. Vanderham speaks to 5’ELEVEN” about her acting process, her own sense of identity as an actor, and how she views style as a relationship alongside personal histories and values.
Stylist assistant, Mia Yates.
You were born and raised in Scotland - and your career has crossed the UK, the US and, with projects like The Control Room, parts of Scotland too. What is your relationship to “home”?
I left Scotland when I was 17, having grown up wanting to get out and explore the world. I lived in a town where on a Sunday, one train would come every two hours. Watching a lot of American TV made me feel like everyone was out there “doing things”. Seeing teenagers my own age in the shows I watched, I felt such a strong desire to act. I started auditioning for drama schools and was lucky enough to study acting in Wales. It felt like a stepping stone: it was bigger than where I grew up but didn’t feel as big and scary as London.
By now, after so many years of living and working in London, this city feels like my home. I live in East London and feel like I’ve found my forever home here. My dad visited this week and we went to the Tower of London. It was so nice seeing it through his eyes. My dad turned to me and said: “It’s the best city in the world, isn’t it?” And I said: “Yah, I think it might be.”
Your character in The Control Room is Sam and she is so intriguing. We see quite a lot of her in the series, but we still feel like we don’t know very much about her. How did you understand this character and approach playing her?
I find human nature fascinating. Understanding why someone does something is what I spend most of my time on in my preparation for a role. What has Sam been through in her life that means she behaves the way she does when we meet her? Doing this preparation made me fall in love with Sam. She doesn’t always behave well, but I feel protective of her. I justified her actions by diving deeply into her past and history.
Before filming, I spent a lot of time doing daily walks and visualising each day through Sam’s eyes. I know Glasgow [where the show is set] quite well, so I’d imagine her life there – her house, where she would sleep, how she’d spend her time – and listened to music that resonated with her character. Knowing all these little things meant that when I got on set, I felt like I knew her.
What was one way that you fleshed out the character of Sam to better understand her?
Sam wears a lot of jewellery - layered necklaces, and rings on pretty much every finger. The costume designer and I came up with the theory that she’s taken them from people she’s met in her life. She’s got a signet ring with someone else’s initials on it. She wants tokens and symbols of people, as she doesn’t wait for relationships to go bad – she walks out before anyone has the chance to walk out on her.
Tell me about the way Sam presents herself through her clothing. What does her unique style say about her?
Sam is technically in hiding throughout the show yet wears bright colours like pink and green, and a particularly ostentatious leopard print jacket whilst running around town. She only sees the short-term and doesn’t really think about the future. She probably wasn’t thinking: I’m going to be hiding and need to be incognito in the shadows. Her clothes reflect that she lives life to the fullest: she’s a magpie; she loves attention; she loves the thrill of being looked at and causing a scene.
The show is a heavy watch at times. What was it like being part of this world as an actor and human?
It was kind of exhausting – when we wrapped, I think I got ill for two weeks. You’re on tenterhooks for the whole duration of filming these adrenaline-filled scenes, and your body doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and fake. When I act, I do everything in my power to believe the story is real, whether that’s through the prep beforehand, the set that we’re in or my imagination. I’m really bad at letting myself off the hook at the end of it all. I forget that I need to spend almost as much time afterwards cooling down and letting it all go.
How do you approach identity when your job is to play other people? How do you centre yourself when your job is to inhabit someone else?
That’s such an interesting question. I actually had this existential conversation with myself during the lockdown. I questioned who I would be if I wasn’t an actor. I also questioned what I bring to the world when I’m not in a show. My identity was totally wrapped up in what I was working on at the time or whether I was in something.
I ended up getting some therapy to help me come to appreciate myself as a human being rather than as an actor – it ended up being kind of a wonderful thing. I’m not saying that I necessarily have it figured out now, but I do slightly put less pressure on myself so I am not always working. Now when I work on something, I think of it as an added bonus to being a contributing member of society. Like, cool! I get to go and act in something!
You’ve done an amazing range of TV/film and crime and thriller genres. What do you want to achieve from the characters you portray or what do you look for in the projects you want to take going forward?
Going forward I want to be challenged as an actor. There are some fantastic roles out there and I think it’s a really exciting time for women. We’re seeing a departure from the “virgin whore” stereotype.
What draws me to a role tends to be - do I think that this will challenge me? Have I done this before? What’s becoming clearer to me as I spend more time in the business is that the best acting feels like it’s you in that situation. Being brave enough not to hide behind your character, but let the reactions and emotions come from you and your own truth. At the end of the day, it’s a gut instinct.
How do you personally view and approach style? How do you feel most expressive in what you’re choosing to portray in your style?
I’m trying not to buy anything new. Unless it’s got incredible eco credentials and hasn’t harmed a single thing, I’m going to buy second-hand. It can be more complicated to find your own style that way. But I think it’s something that we need to move towards, as well as learning to fix stuff and not throw things out so easily.
Sometimes I get the best of both worlds though -getting styled for events and borrowing clothes for those. I feel most expressive picking a piece that makes me feel amazing. That’s often something bright, colourful and well-fitting, with luxurious fabric and a lot of intention behind how it sits on your body.
My own wardrobe is quite eclectic. Some days I want to look chic and really well put together, and other days I’m like: it’s my downtime, I have a mucky puppy, and I’m going to wear dungarees. I also like expressing myself with jewellery, like wearing little things my boyfriend has given me that make me feel special. I think style is whatever makes you feel good, and whatever allows you to do what you’ve got to do that day. That’s stylish.