With its pop soundtrack and cast of bright young 20-somethings, ITV’s reboot of costume drama classic Vanity Fair is set to send its star Claudia Jessie into the stratosphere. So how’s this social-media-hating devout Buddhist going to cope? Keep calm and carry on chanting, she tells Kerry Potter.
She’s a vegan, a devout Buddhist and her downtime involves picking flowers on long country walks. She’s prone to pronouncements such as, ‘Each day I’m trying to figure out how I can be more courageous, kinder and compassionate.’ And every person she mentions during our conversation – from her mum Dawn to actress Thandie Newton – is described as ‘beautiful’. All of which makes Claudia Jessie, the 28-year-old breakout star of ITV’s adaptation of Vanity Fair, sound like she could be rather earnest company.
However, despite sitting serenely cross-legged as if she’s about to lead a meditation class, she’s irreverent (she’s best known as a comedy actress), quick to giggle and intriguingly quirky. You might recognise her from series four of the compelling BBC One police drama Line of Duty – last year she played bent detective Thandie Newton’s bespectacled, supercilious sidekick Jodie. Or maybe you know her as deluded nurse Lucy in hospital sitcom Porters on Dave. But it’s her plum role in Vanity Fair, this autumn’s Sunday night TV costume drama behemoth, that will be the game-changer for Claudia’s fledging career.
‘I feel as though I’m still coming to terms with it. I had to pinch myself when I got the part,’ she says, marvelling at her top billing as Amelia Sedley, naive friend to the scheming protagonist Becky Sharp, literature’s foremost social climber. ‘But once we started filming it quickly became quite normal to be wearing a corset and sitting between takes in a private members’ club in London that I probably wouldn’t be allowed into usually!’
In the seven-part adaptation of Thackeray’s 1848 novel, Becky is played by Olivia Cooke, 24, the Oldham actress turned Hollywood star of Steven Spielberg’s recent sci-fi blockbuster Ready Player One. ‘I became very close with Olivia. She’s over in the States but we speak frequently. If I look at her career, I feel immense joy for her,’ she says. They kept themselves amused during the six-month shoot with handclapping games (think pat-a-cake but fiendishly fast and complicated) and the odd karaoke night out. ‘There was a good one in Budapest when Olivia did a sterling duet of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” with David Fynn [who plays Amelia’s brother Jos Sedley].’
Vanity Fair intends to fill a Poldark-shaped hole in our viewing schedules, not least because it’s made by Mammoth Screen, the same production company. Filmed in Budapest and London, it’s a lavish, gorgeously shot drama, offsetting early 19th-century social mores, settings and costumes with a pulsating pop soundtrack. The cast is illustrious, including TV drama heavyweights such as Suranne Jones and Martin Clunes. Rising star and sometime singer-songwriter Johnny Flynn plays William Dobbin, who loves Amelia from afar. Claudia and Johnny have acted together before in a very different beast, bawdy Netflix/Channel 4 comedy Lovesick. ‘I kicked him in the nuts in that, so it wasn’t quite the same,’ she smiles. ‘But still, another difficult relationship. I remember saying to him on the Vanity Fair set, “Do you think we’ll ever play a happy couple one day?” I love Johnny and I was so happy to see his name on the cast list.’
One of the reasons she thinks Vanity Fair chimes with modern audiences is the enduring desire to better ourselves and gain approval from others. ‘The difference is that back then you would have gone to banquets and operas or tried to mix with certain families. Whereas now we equate approval with “likes” and how many followers you have on social media. It’s that same human hunger but with Vanity Fair it’s just a dreamier backdrop, isn’t it?’
Claudia and Olivia bonded over the fact that they’re both social media refuseniks. Claudia has a Twitter account but it’s run by her mother. ‘It’s just not for me. I’m not very attached to my phone and am naturally quite an introvert – and I’m OK with that. I do miss out on quite a few barbecue invitations from friends but that’s fine.’
The length of the shoot allowed Claudia to really get under the skin of Amelia. ‘In some ways we’re similar. We’re both sensitive and we both feel deeply. But there’s a resilience in her I can relate to as well.’ No spoilers here, but let’s just say Amelia, who comes from a stable, wealthy background, thinks she has her life perfectly mapped out. We all know, however, what happens to best-laid plans. And while marriage (to her childhood sweetheart George Osborne) is Amelia’s life goal, it’s not something that resonates with Claudia. ‘Not at all. The idea of marriage and children isn’t at the front of my mind. I’ve never wanted anything other than to be happy and I just follow my nose as to what that means,’ she says. Right now it means a contented, quiet life with her partner of four years Joseph, a sound engineer. The couple are renovating a houseboat so that they can glide up and down the canal network of their hometown, Birmingham. They met in a Brum pub when Claudia was on a night out with her mum. ‘She was a great wingman and told me to go and chat to the handsome young man,’ she says.
Although she was born in Birmingham, Claudia lived in London for much of her childhood and early 20s but is now happily ensconced back in Moseley. There’s no trace of a Midlands accent though. ‘It wasn’t a conscious thing. Maybe work drilled it out of me, and I have spent a lot of my life in London. But get a Guinness in me and I’ll start calling you “Bab”!’ She’s intensely proud of her roots: ‘We’ve been the butt of the country’s jokes but Birmingham has a lovable, unassuming quality that I adore. I root for the underdog so I love my city. It’s also a very creative place and I’m excited about its future.’
While Claudia says she discovered the power of comedy at the age of eight – ‘I made my entire family laugh at a wedding. I can’t remember what I said but I remember that feeling of great happiness. I thought, Oh, I’m a clown, OK’ – she isn’t keen to dwell on her childhood and I get the sense that it wasn’t the easiest time, with her parents splitting up. Jessie is her middle name, deployed because, she says, ‘I have no connection with my surname. My dad is not around.’ As for school, ‘I struggled and never really felt as though
I fitted in. Growing up is tough, isn’t it?’ She left at the age of 14 to be home-schooled by her bohemian singing-teacher mother and didn’t sit her GCSEs, let alone undertake any formal acting training. ‘I was so much happier being educated one-on-one by my mum. I felt really safe and nurtured, and that I could be myself.’
Claudia is far happier talking about Nichiren Buddhism, a Japanese branch of the religion. Some of her earliest memories are of attending meetings with her mother and aunt and being mesmerised by the chanting. ‘When I was growing up, if I was struggling with something internally I would chant and I’d feel better,’ she says. Today she still chants every morning and evening, for anything from five minutes to two hours (as does Joseph, who decided to join in three months into their relationship). Her spirituality has a clear bearing on her demeanour – she’s one of the stillest, least neurotic actresses I’ve ever met. ‘I don’t think I would have been an actress had I not practised Buddhism,’ she says. ‘I can be deeply sensitive, so Buddhism being the centre of my life has given me the courage to go for the things I want without fear holding me back.’
She got her break thanks to Birmingham School of Acting playwright/director Hannah Phillips,who spotted teenage Claudia in an amateur dramatics production. ‘For some reason, she saw something in me and then put me in every play she made.’ After a few years of working in bars, Claudia eventually landed an agent and then a trickle of TV jobs, including a recurring role in BBC daytime drama Doctors and playing comedian Josh Widdicombe’s love interest in his BBC Three sitcom Josh. He’s something of a cult sex symbol – could she see that? ‘Humour is the way into my heart most definitely,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t matter what you look like, but if you can make me laugh we’ll have a drink together.’
Comedy is, she says, ‘where I feel most confident and comfortable. But I’ve managed to make the transition into drama and when I get a serious role I’m so grateful. I’m very lucky to get to do both.’ And never more so than with Line of Duty – she burst into tears when she heard she’d got the role. Her character Jodie’s puppyish, misguided loyalty to Thandie Newton’s dodgy detective boss sees the pair repeatedly clash with the show’s heroes, the AC-12 police anti-corruption unit, of which Vicky McClure’s character is a key player. ‘I was so happy to work with Vicky. I idolised her because This is England was such a huge thing for me and my pals from the Midlands.’
She remains close to both Vicky and Thandie. ‘Thandie and I still text each other, she’s very supportive. And Vicky is so funny and relatable. They’re the kind of women I lean towards because they’ve stayed true to themselves,’ she says. ‘We’d talk about deep things, such as how no matter how bad a situation is, it will pass. And the next minute we’d be howling with laughter because Thandie would be singing a song between takes and getting the lyrics wrong.’ Claudia played another policewoman in WPC 56, a Midlands-set BBC One daytime drama about female police officers in the 1950s. Could she see herself as a real-life cop? ‘Oh my goodness, no. I’d come home crying every day because of the things I’d seen. I’m far too sensitive.’
Over the summer, Claudia has returned to Porters to film a new series. ‘I get to have a laugh with my mates for six weeks – I’m a lucky girl.’ She’s also writing her own comedy and drama scripts. So all is going swimmingly, except that the glitzy, look-at-me side of her industry strikes terror into her introverted heart. She’s managed to swerve walking a red carpet so far. ‘But I’ll have to do one soon, won’t I?’ she smiles. ‘I was very insecure at first, I felt as though I didn’t deserve to be here, among people who’d trained so hard. But I really wanted to make people laugh and be creative so I just chanced it.
As any Buddhist worth their salt will tell you, sometimes you just have to go with the flow.
How Claudia gets her kicks
Favourite classic novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It reminds me of my childhood, my mum, my aunt and my nan.
Fashion picks I like Monki on the high street, but I mainly buy vintage. I don’t come from a wealthy background so my mum and I would often go charity shopping.
Best beauty product Crazy Rumors vegan lip balms. They come in fun flavours.
Breakfast of choice A Linda McCartney vegan sausage sandwich with brown sauce.
Guilty pleasure Binge-watching vegan YouTubers Lauren Toyota and Sweet Potato Soul. They do these ‘what I ate in a day’ videos. They’re inane but I can’t stop.
Most treasured possession My Gohonzon – the Buddhist scroll I chant towards. I have it in a mini cupboard in my room.
Top tipple I’m not a massive drinker but I do love a Guinness. I’ll happily nurse a pint in an old man’s pub for a couple of hours.
Perfect weekend Cruising on my canal boat and stopping off at the pub at sunset.
In three words, you’re… Apologetic, sincere, silly.
Vanity Fair begins next Sunday at 9pm on ITV