Ricky Gervais’ sentimental yet totally dark comedy After Life has returned to Netflix for its highly anticipated second season.
The series continues to follow the story of Tony (Gervais), a widower coming to terms with life after his wife’s death (played by Kerry Godliman), and his neighbours and co-workers in the fictional town of Tanbury, who – intentionally or not – make him a better person.
Read more: Netflix UK’s new arrivals in May 2020
For the second season of the black comedy drama, Jo Hartley, most recently seen in another dark comedy, as a mother with bipolar disorder in last month’s BBC series In My Skin, but also known for 2016’s Eddie the Eagle, and the This Is England series, has had her role of June expanded to have her own plot – as well as giving us more detail on her and her son James’s backstory.
Yahoo Movies UK spoke to Hartley about her expanded role, the moment that had her in tears on set, the upcoming new TV show she’s working on in lockdown, and why she wants to work with Ricky Gervais for the rest of her life...
Yahoo Movies UK: Not only have you returned to After Life for it second season, but you're a regular Ricky Gervais collaborator. What's your favourite thing about working with him?
Jo Hartley: As an actor, you're really included in the process. He's such a lovely, funny, humble human being, and he's very clever - he doesn't miss anything. He's an interesting man and he's very kind. You also have a laugh, he doesn't take himself too seriously, so the energy on set's always fun, and he always seems to find something really special about you as a person to put into a character. It's really nice. He writes for people. You feel valued.
Every single show that he's created, they’re all very different, and I find that fascinating and engaging as an actor. You want to be part of that world - a world that's going to challenge and inspire you and help you grow. I'd love to work with him for the rest of my life. I would! Working with and meeting him has changed my life in lots of positive ways.
When you say that Ricky takes something special about you as a person and puts it into the character, what elements of the character come from that in terms of your role of June in After Life?
Maybe not ‘special’, maybe I’ve used the wrong word! But something personal to them. What made me laugh is when I got the brief for June, it said, “She's a lovely person. She fusses over her son too much, and she definitely overshares.” It’s almost like Ricky's psychic, because when I was little, my teacher said in my school report, “Jo's a lovely young girl, but she does talk a lot!” I thought that was so funny when I saw that Ricky had pulled that element out for June. I do have a filter, but June doesn’t. June's got a really big heart, and she's really fun-loving and innocent, and I think there's an element of honesty to me like that sometimes, too.
On that same note, After Life is such an emotional, character-driven story. Did you bring any of your own experiences into this role?
There’s elements of yourself that you always bring when you’re playing any character. I just kept it simple and kept June very innocent and open-hearted. I chose strange outfits that would change the character, visually. For me, that's a big one in creation of character: Hair and makeup, the way someone stands, little nuances like the way I pull my face. For me it's about not acting, trying to be present, and not trying to be funny - to actually believe that what she's saying, she thinks is OK to say.
Do you have a favourite one of those lines which she thinks it's totally OK to say but actually isn’t?
Yeah. I don't want to give away the line, because I want people to see it, but there's a funny monologue that I do to the receptionist in the office, played by Michelle Greenidge. And there's a moment when June’s tucking her son's shirt in his trousers. Also, when we're doing the Tanbury show - oh gosh! - when she's dancing in that. It's really not very OK, is it, for a mum and a son to be behaving like that? It's just odd. I pushed that out a bit more, to enhance the madness.
What was the second season’s Tanbury Show like to film?
The intimate scene when we're together was really awkward. There was a lot of embarrassed laughter on set, and we had to keep doing it again because everyone kept laughing. There's a beautiful moment in this season between Ricky and Mandeep Dhilon, who plays Sandy: I've been in the office, just before we go to the show, and we're talking about James and our backstory, then I leave. I stopped by the monitor to watch Ricky and Mandeep performing together, and the set went from raucous laughter, to this intimate scene of them talking, and I was so moved. I remember watching that and starting to cry and then Ricky just burst out laughing at me. They all make fun of me because I cry a lot, but I'm in touch with my emotions.
Even more people than ever are at home right now, streaming series. How are you coping with lockdown and what have you been doing in your extra time at home?
I’m taking it one day at a time, and I'm using the principle of discipline. I'm trying to be useful to others through Zoom and through phones. And I've started re-watching The Office. I‘ve been literally crying in the house at it. I watched it after I got the part in David Brent: Life On The Road, but I didn't see the series the first time round because I think I was out raving somewhere.
I’ve just realised how special of an artist Ricky is, to create the polar opposites of Derek, and to create David Brent, and Tony, it's quite powerful. And I’ve been doing some writing, because I'm writing my own shows.
Could you tell us about the shows you’re writing at the moment?
Well, it’s not secret, but it's in the early stages. I've been working on it for a few years, and we've got two production companies which have optioned two different ideas. I work with my writing partner, and she lives in New York, so we connect on Skype or Zoom and we write every day.
They’re two different comedy dramas. I only started writing about three years ago - I think I was frightened of people reading my stuff. When I got into my 40s, I just cared less, and I was like, ‘Right, it is what it is!’ We sent it out and people loved it, and now we're very close to sending it out to commissioners, so that's been really exciting. I’ve just been keeping active and trying to use my time well.
Lockdown will be impacting actors and production, and the whole industry in general. Are you already seeing any effects of that?
Yeah, it is absolutely having an impact on everybody. I was going to be filming a movie, and another series, and actually, that is postponed until further notice. As an actor, I've been used to not working, so you just utilise your talents elsewhere, by learning monologues or writing or watching movies. And I do quite a lot of voiceovers, so I've set up a studio in a cupboard. I'm like Harry Potter, under the stairs. But there are more important things going on.
The NHS, they're the real workers. Somebody got in touch with me on Twitter the other day to say, ‘Thank you so much for the shows while we're all in lockdown,’ so I guess we're contributing in some way. It’s nice to be able to entertain people for the time that they sit down and watch the TV, especially with topics that are relevant, like mental health and grief.
Season 2 of After Life is available to watch on Netflix now.