Ambika Mod turned down several requests to audition for the part of Emma Morley in Netflix series “One Day,” adapted from David Nicholls’ beloved and bestselling romance novel.
As she freely admits, there was a lot going on at the time. Her first major TV project, AMC’s dark comedy-drama “This Is Going to Hurt” — based on Adam Kay’s brutally insightful memoir about working for the U.K.’s beleaguered National Health Service — had just come out, sparking both critical acclaim and widespread debate. While Ben Whishaw was the lead, much of the noise was centered on Mod’s turn as Shruti Acharya, the exhausted, overworked and unsupported junior doctor whose tragic story arc became one of the show’s key talking points.
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The actress, just 27 at the time and a self-confessed introvert, had started getting several messages a day from people “pouring their hearts out,” telling her how Shruti had tapped into their own experiences with depression or struggles as a key worker. While she acknowledges that it was “such a privilege that people want to confide in you in that way,” it was also “a lot to wrap your head around” and something that “no amount of media training can prepare you for.”
And so, overwhelmed by the experience of “This Is Going to Hurt,” she said no to “One Day.”
There was also the fact that Mod, like hundreds of thousands of others, was a massive fan of the 2009 novel. “I just didn’t see myself as Emma,” she explains to Variety. “I just thought it would be a waste of everyone’s time if I taped for this.”
A no-nonsense and bookish girl from the English county of Yorkshire, Emma Morley is “One Day’s” central figure alongside the more confident and outgoing Dexter Mayhew. The story catches up with the pair on the same day over 14 years in a will-they-won’t-they romance that begins at university in the late ’80s, traverses the thrills and spills of the ’90s and ends in the early ’00s.
Mod’s epiphany came a few weeks after having turned the latest audition request down. “Literally one night I was lying in bed, my eyes snapped open and I was like, ‘I’ve made a terrible mistake.’” Thankfully, this lightbulb moment came just in time: a week before casting director Rachel Sheridan, who had been chasing Mod’s agent, was recalling potentials.
Two years on and “One Day” — with Mod as Emma and “The White Lotus” breakout Leo Woodall as Dexter — launches on Netflix on Thursday. The eight-month production was, the actress claims, “by far and away the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” not simply because of its length, but the amount of material she had to contend with. “It was very relentless, but a real learning curve.”
Any fears she had about playing Morley were simmered by Nicholls himself, as the author exec-produced the series, was a regular presence on set and even penned one episode. As part of her research, she spoke to him at length about how he came up with the character and every choice he made for her. On the first day of the shoot, he presented both his leads with hard copies of “One Day” with handwritten postcards inside. For Mod, he wrote that “there was no character more beloved to me than Emma Morley and I can’t think of anyone better to play her.” As she notes, “I just died inside.”
Of course, Netflix’s “One Day” isn’t the book’s first on-screen rodeo.
Focus Features’ 2011 feature adaptation, from director Lone Scherfig and starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess as Emma and Dexter, wasn’t met too kindly by critics, who said it lacked the emotional depth of the source material. Much of the immediate — and more comical — backlash was leveled at Hathaway’s supposed Yorkshire accent, which was said to have gone on something of an erratic tour of the U.K.
From the trailer alone, it’s clear that Mod — who, to be fair, benefits from not being American — has conquered this one small yet vital element of Morley’s description, offering just enough of a Yorkshire twang without going cartoonishly overboard. “I did work very hard on it,” she says (and, given that she’s from Hertfordshire, much further south and with a very different dialect, it’s obvious that she did).
Mod also says that everyone involved in the series was “really intentional about being as faithful to the book as possible,” which should appease “One Day” purists for whom there was more to dislike about the film adaptation than just Hathaway’s voice.
“One Day” may be Mod’s biggest role and biggest production to date, but it’s also only her second major credit in a remarkable steep — and still remarkably short — trajectory.
Starting out doing live sketch comedy at university, she would go on to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (her first time in 2015 with a show called “Cirque du Silly,” and later in 2019 with “Children of the Quorn”). Eventually, she landed an agent and a few small TV gigs, including one episode of short-lived satirical news show “The Mash Report.”
“I was auditioning for very small things and then in 2020 ‘This Is Going to Hurt’ came out of absolutely fucking nowhere,” she says. “I think they’d literally gone through every single South Asian actress in the country.” (Mod is the daughter of Indian immigrants).
Although she still admits to finding her largely limelight-shunning personality “at odds with so much about this industry,” starring in two major back-to-back series has helped Mod — much like Morley as her story in Nicholls’ book progresses — grow in confidence. “I sort of feel like, now I’ve done ‘One Day,’ I can do anything, although I don’t want to jinx it. But I’m finding my feet for sure,” she says.
Having taken a detour away from comedy (for all the laughs in “This Is Going to Hurt,” few belong to Shruti), Mod says she hopes to return to those roots.
“I still think of myself as a comedian, and just always felt that I would go back to doing that at some point,” she says, adding that she likes the idea of writing something for herself to star in — a more traditional career path for comics than starting out in a thought-provoking medical drama. “This hasn’t quite happened the way I would expect, but I’m very thankful and grateful.”
Next up for Mod is a supporting role in the upcoming five-part Disney+ thriller “Playdate,” about a woman whose young daughter is kidnapped at a sleepover. Coincidentally, the show also stars the film “One Day’s” Sturgess.
“He was so excited about watching the series, and so supportive,” she says. “I remember at the read-through I was sat next to him and I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s Emma and Dexter!'”
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