Katherine Parkinson: ‘I find it easy to tune into weirdos’

‘I find it easy to tune into weirdos’ says Katherine Parkinson. ‘Playing someone who is “normal” – now, that is hard for me.’

After just a few minutes in her company, I can see why she might gravitate towards less conventional roles (her previous hits include Channel 4’s Humans – in which she plays a harried working mother who has a robot running her household – and The IT Crowd, in which her pitch-perfect portrayal of hapless IT manager Jen Barber earned her a Bafta and a British Comedy Award).

Refreshingly offbeat, Katherine, 40, is as raw and funny in person as she is on-screen – for instance, on the subject of her distinctive hair (which, she insists, is red, not ginger): ‘I was born looking like an orangutan. I had it all over my body, too.’

Rachell Smith

I am not quite sure whether or not to believe her until she erupts in giggles. Katherine – whose TV credits also include roles in Sherlock, Doc Martin and The Kennedys – is set to appear as the eccentric Isola Pribby in the highly anticipated film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, based on the novel of the same name and directed by Mike (Four Weddings and a Funeral) Newell.

‘The script is so rich – historical and romantic and a character comedy at the same time,’ Katherine says. Set during the German occupation of Guernsey in the Second World War, it also stars Downton Abbey alumni Lily James, Jessica Brown Findlay, Matthew Goode and Penelope Wilton. ‘I am possibly the only person in the universe who hasn’t seen a single episode of Downton,’ says Katherine. ‘But thankfully they were all lovely and none of them held that against me. It was that thing where something becomes such a mega-hit and if you haven’t been there since the beginning you sort of have to drop out.’

She describes Lily as ‘gorgeous, very easy to feel warm towards’ and admits to having ‘a bit of an obsession’ with acting veteran Penelope. ‘I can’t stop talking about her. I feel like a stalker, but she is so clever and witty. I desperately want to be friends with her. She recommended a book to me by a very funny writer called Barbara Pym. I bought it straight away and it’s on my bedside table – that’s how much I love her. She did give me her email address, though, so it’s not like she’s going, “Someone please take this woman away!”’

Rachell Smith

Katherine’s character Isola is an eccentric Guernsey native who becomes part of a book club that forms whena group of islanders are caught out after curfew by the Nazis and have to come up with an ‘innocent’ explanation on the spot. She makes gin and herbal tinctures, which she transports to a local market on her donkey.

In short, she seems kooky enough for Katherine, who ‘did a lot of gardening’ and learned to make gin – ‘I was surprised by how much juniper goes into it’ – to get into character. ‘I’d like to say that I am far more serious than Isola and that I can’t relate to her bohemian side, but since I am sitting here dressed like this’ –she gestures to the oversized, multi-patterned, chunky-knit waistcoat that she is wearing – ‘I’d have to say yes, I relate to her totally. I love how emotionally available Isola is, how she has this great imagination and believes in the healing power of tinctures and that her life can be changed by literature. She’s not cynical at all.’

Katherine is happily married to actor Harry Peacock. The two met doing a workshop production of the play Heart of a Dog, directed by their mutual friend Nina Raine, at the National Theatre, with her now husband in the lead role…as the dog. ‘I know it sounds silly, but he was so good at being a dog; he was an extraordinary dog. And I found that attractive’ – that and the fact that he can ‘play his teeth’ like a piano: ‘He can tap out “William Tell” and “Flight of the Bumblebee”. That pretty much sealed it.’

STUDIOCANAL

The pair now live in Southeast London with daughters Dora, five, and Gwen, three, taking turns working so one of them can be at home. When that fails, Katherine’s mother and father – the Northern Irish historian Alan Parkinson – go up from Devon, where they have retired, to lend a hand.

‘When I first got into acting, a director told me, “This works really well with children,” and I was, like, “Huh? Who cares?” But now I can see how right he was. I see mums at the school gates going off every day to work the same hours, and I feel so grateful that’s not me.’ Katherine does admit, though, to finding motherhood quite stressful. ‘It takes me about six drinks to get through bedtime!’ she jokes. She says theatre work is appealing because ‘you get the day with your kids, but then you have to leave the house by 6pm!’ Katherine will be playing a 1950s housewife at the National Theatre this summer in Home, I’m Darling.

‘I definitely suffer working-mum’s guilt,’ Katherine says. ‘I was manic about breastfeeding the girls – I managed about ten months with both by expressing my milk while I was at work. I thought, “If they’re still getting breast milk, they won’t know I’m not at home.” I would go on set with breast pumps, which I would strap on to my boobs in front of handsome young men who had not bred yet. I can’t imagine that it was a turn-on!’

But staying at home full-time would never have been an option for Katherine, who was raised in a household with two working parents. ‘My dad still writes and my mum was an English teacher. My brothers [one is a journalist, the other a civil engineer] and I were brought up to believe we would go out and work hard. I know as an actor you’re meant to say, “I could never be anything else,” but that’s always seemed odd to me when your job is to portray people with different jobs. There are lots of other things I would have loved to do, such as being a lawyer or a diplomat. I think and hope, though, that I’ve found the thing I’m best at.’

Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo

Fiercely bright, Katherine, who grew up in Tolworth, Southwest London, read classics at Oxford. ‘At school I had ability, but I struggled to be conscientious. I wanted to get the As without doing the work. I kept hoping it might somehow magically happen while I sat around watching daytime telly. My ambition was to go to Oxford, because I knew I would be able to do lots of theatre there.’ Sure enough, she began appearing in university productions alongside contemporaries such as Rory Kinnear and Rosamund Pike. ‘And because they were planning to go into acting professionally, I dared to dream that I might do the same.’

As a litmus test, she applied to just one drama school, the prestigious London Academy of Music and Drama (Lamda) and, as these stories so often go, was accepted and given a scholarship. ‘I didn’t want to do it so much that I was going to apply to 20 schools. But when I got that phone call with the good news, I took it as a sign. I loved every minute at Lamda. To go from Oxford, where I was often in my room, chain-smoking and reading ancient texts, to an environment where we were laughing, drinking and doing tap-dancing lessons was exhilarating.’

She has since crossed paths with Rosamund, most recently, working with her on the upcoming film Radioactive, a biopic of Marie Curie. ‘I had to slap her across the face during filming and I really went for it. But she was very gracious about it – and it was justice because she stole my husband in a play we did at Oxford! I loved working with Rosamund again.’

Katherine is clearly a girls’ girl. ‘I went to an all-girls school from the age of 11 and my daughters go to one. To each his own, but I believe that when you take gender out of the equation, girls, especially, are able to be fuller versions of themselves without conforming to a role. I’m not anti-boy at all, but I do think there’s an atavistic thing where girls adapt socially when they have to and adhere to gender stereotypes. I was in a mixed environment up to age 11 and it affected me. I still remember trying to be a certain way. It was liberating academically to get away from boys. I even went to an all-female college at Oxford [St Hilda’s, now mixed], but I shared a house with four Etonians because I love male company, too.’

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Friendship is important to Katherine. ‘I’ve kept my friends from my student days as well as picking up people along the way, mainly from work. What I haven’t done is that thing of [making a point of] being friends with other mums, which seems a bit boring. Quite a few of my friends have chosen not to have children and I love going out with them and vicariously living through their more exciting lives. I flock to people who make me laugh, and besides my husband, the people I laugh with most are my girlfriends. When I’m laughing with men, I slightly feel like I’m flirting with them – and, to be honest, I probably am!’

One man she has laughed with a lot is actor Chris O’Dowd. The two were at Lamda together and Chris put her name forward for The IT Crowd, in which he had already been cast. ‘Chris was a large part of why I enjoyed drama school so much and the two of
us were often in hysterics on set when we worked together. He lives in Los Angeles now, so sadly I don’t see him very often.’ Katherine is in the rare position of being an actor who has never set foot in LA. ‘I’ve been asked to go various times, but have always said no. I can’t say why, but I don’t think it’s for me.’

The experience of filming The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in Devon and Cornwall was much more her scene. ‘It was too difficult and expensive to get everything to Guernsey as it’s an island, but the Southwest was a perfect stand-in. We stayed in a hotel in Bude and had dinners together with lots of wine. It’s great being away from your family because you can have a legit night out.’ One of Katherine’s brothers lives nearby, ‘so my nephews got to be extras in the evacuation scene. It was too sweet seeing them dressed up in 1940s clothing.’

Katherine loved delving into this chapter of history. ‘Despite the fact that about 50 per cent of my history A-level was about the Third Reich, I knew nothing about the occupation of Guernsey. I became so intrigued by it that I took my family on holiday to Guernsey and Sark, the island next door, once we finished filming. It was enchanting, the nicest holiday. We took the girls cycling along the narrow streets.’ And, in an extraordinary coincidence mirroring a plotline in the film, ‘we were told that a German had lived in the cottage next to the one we had rented and had an affair with a local woman’.

Although she has never been in a book club, letter-writing – also a big theme in Guernsey, where Lily James’s character, a journalist, exchanges letters with one of the islanders, and, thus, goes to Guernsey to write about the book club – is something Katherine embraces. ‘Emails are so ephemeral. You can be so much more expressive and creative writing a letter. My father wrote letters to my daughters when they were born, and they are so special.

‘It’s quite ironic that there’s been this tech theme to my work, given how old-school I am. I’ve spent a huge amount of time filming a show about artificial intelligence [Humans], which couldn’t be less “me”. Though in the third season my character has a very attractive male robot running the house – that’s something I wouldn’t mind in my life! I totally related to Jen in The IT Crowd, the way she has to lie and bluff because she’s technologically inept.’ Katherine eschews all forms of social media.

‘I don’t do any of it because I’m old enough for it to feel like a choice. That said, I am on my iPhone all the time, mainly keeping up with people on WhatsApp – the only app I like using, because I like having groups of friends. Things like Snapchat terrify me – I am already worried about helping my daughters to negotiate it all when they get older. I’m hoping there will be a backlash, where this younger generation, who seem very savvy, will step back and do yoga and listen to albums on vinyl and only have set times when they allow themselves to be on their phones.’ Spoken like a true free spirit. And with that, she’s off to meet her husband for ‘an almost-extinct night on the town’.

CRAZY FOR KATHERINE

Watching: My husband and I watch one episode of a boxset every night. Right now it’s Mad Men – I always come to a series eight years too late. Jon Hamm is bloody amazing.

Reading: Jane Eyre. I reacted against my mum being an English teacher by not reading many classics, but recently I thought that’s a bit sad and I am loving discovering them.

Motto: Here for a good time, not for a long time.

Exercise:  My coccyx is too sore after my rapid second labour to do much, but I loved running along the dramatic coastline while filming Guernsey.

Describe your style: Awful, hectic and quite theatrical.

Fashion fail-safes: I love Zimmermann and Victoria Beckham’s belted dresses. I have an addiction to buying Yves Saint Laurent vintage from Vestiaire Collective – I’ve got some very dramatic jackets for all the nights out I don’t have.

Perfect weekend: Harry and I take the girls around National Trust properties as often as we can.

Dream job: To be in a play that transfers to Broadway and to get to spend the summer holidays in New York with my family while acting in it.

Most like to work with?  Am I allowed to say Penelope Wilton again

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie’s Society will be in cinemas nationwide on Friday. The tie-in edition of the book by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer is published by Bloomsbury, price £7.99.