Jenna Coleman on Wilderness, dancing in Vegas and going beyond right and wrong

Jenna Coleman on Wilderness, dancing in Vegas and going beyond right and wrong

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Friday, 16th February 2024
Jenna Coleman stands in front of a canyon
Wilderness (credit: Amazon Studios)

If you can’t see the variety in Jenna Coleman’s career, you can hear it. 

Extensive use of accents means the versatility of the actor’s work is obvious even if you watched it blindfolded. She is French-Canadian in The Serpent, cockney in The Sandman, Geordie in this year’s action thriller movie Jackdaw and Welsh in revenge tale Wilderness.

The latter, a Prime Video series, was released in September last year, when both the Writers’ Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA were on strike. Now that agreements have been signed and ironic protest signs hung up, the Wilderness cast are finally able, and eager, to talk about the show. 

“All the characters are right and wrong, and flawed and ugly,” Coleman enthuses.

Unlike with a lot of TV projects, the actor was sent the scripts for every episode, allowing her to get a sense of her character Liv’s arc. When Liv finds out that husband Will (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has been cheating, she sets out for revenge, leading her down a path of murder and delirium.

Getting the audience to empathise with a killer was an interesting task to take on for Coleman. Emoting the simmering resentment that Liv initially tries to keep bottled up was “so challenging, because it was so constant,” she says.

“It was such an anxiety rollercoaster.” 

The façade eventually melts away, in spectacular fashion. The show starts by presenting Liv and Will as the perfect couple living a dream life in New York. “All of that gets degraded,” she notes. “It becomes primitive. It’s about survival, really: survival within a marriage.”

Coleman is particularly proud of the fact that “I don’t think we shied away from the ugliness of Liv”.

Things get particularly hairy in the fourth episode, which features a trip to Las Vegas. Many a protagonist has tried, and failed, to find a reason to keep going, in amongst the city’s clubs and neon-soaked streets. There, Liv finds her own way to deal with the collapse of her marriage, and grip on reason.

“I was dancing like I had an electric shock,” Coleman recalls. Liv exorcises her anxiety by literally “shaking it outside of her body”. 

This is far from Coleman’s first time playing a moral grey area. The Serpent presented the opportunity of playing Marie-Andrée Leclerc, the girlfriend and accomplice to serial killer Charles Sobhraj. The show drew from real-life events, which Coleman describes as a privilege.

“You can go into really deep research, which I love.”

The trick was not to condemn Leclerc or let her off the hook: instead, Coleman tried simply to understand her.

“A lot of people saw her as a victim, and some people thought she was completely evil,” she says. “As I was playing her, all I knew was why she was behaving in the way she was. I was never actually judging her.”

Actors are often asked if they like their characters, says Coleman, but she counters that “liking or not liking them is up to the audience. As long as you understand them, then, in a way, you’re within them.”

The expectation of perfection is a dangerous thing, she continues.

“That’s something that [Doctor Who co-star] Peter Capaldi really instilled in me, about there not being about right and wrong: it’s about options.”

“As soon as it’s about options, it frees you up creatively, because you’re not trying to hit a perfect version of how you’ve read it.”

Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi stand side-by-side, in character as Clara Oswald and the Doctor, in front of the TARDIS, outdoors in London
Coleman with Doctor Who co-star Peter Capaldi (credit: BBC)

More important than trying to get it ‘right’ is turning up to set with “lots of ideas in your pocket”, Coleman says.

“You can do a performance that you think is the perfect performance, but ultimately they’re going to go into an edit and do what they want, and put some music in and steal a shot from another scene which is completely unrelated,” she laughs.

As Martin Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker put it, the editor has the power to “shape […] the performances”. Some actors may find this disconcerting, but not Coleman.

“Often, what’s important is giving options for an edit, and that in a way is letting go of control, which I think is something I’ve learnt too,” she says. “Letting go of control and going to work and trying to be present is probably the most important thing.”

Coleman has also worked in theatre, where performances can’t be tweaked in the edit. She was Ann in the 2019 Old Vic production of All My Sons, and last year played one half of a couple in two-hander Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons. Coleman laughs about how awkward it was to tell people the name of that one. 

Across different mediums, she says it’s her collaborators who make the difference. During All My Sons, she got to enjoy working with actors with very different processes. She is as full of praise for the spontaneity of Bill Pullman (Independence Day) as she is the meticulousness of Sally Field (Forrest Gump).

Jenna Coleman sits outside, leaning her head on her hand
Coleman in Wilderness (credit: Amazon Studios)

The question of ‘what next?’ seems a little obvious for Coleman, who seems positively allergic to resting on her laurels.

“I’m shooting on Sandman at the moment, so I’m getting a dose of my Gothic, dark fantasy genre.”

She plays Johanna Constantine, a detective-for-hire specialising in matters of the occult. As you might expect, it’s a part that lends itself to some killer lines, like when she tells a demon in the first series to “run along and fuck off back to Hell”. Coleman also plays Johanna’s ancestor, the Lady Constantine. A release date for the second series is yet to be announced, but soon after the show’s debut in 2022, there were calls for a Constantine spin-off.

This year, she will also star in BBC One crime thriller The Jetty. Coleman resisted playing a detective for years, she tells me. To her, cops tend to be “the cog that turns the story”, whereas she was holding out for something “that feels nuanced and complex and human”. Now, it seems her prayers have been answered.

“The scripts have been b-eau-tiful,” she says.

“There’s a lot based on women and water and echoes, memories, retrospect, past”, as well being choc-a-bloc with “really beautiful character studies.”

Looking further ahead, Coleman tells me “I’d love to look for another play, I’d love to do some comedy, I’d love to look for indie film projects.”

She has been toying with the idea of turning her hand to writing or directing “a little bit”. Her first project, if one were ever to materialise, would likely be an adaptation of some kind. For now, though, “I think I’m happy to be a jobbing actor.”

The idea of being tied to something for two to three years doesn’t appeal to Coleman in the same way as jumping from project to project.

“I love the adventure of chopping and changing and meeting different people,” she says. “That part is hard to not do.”

To hear more about Wilderness, watch the RTS Q&A with the cast and writer Marnie Dickens here.

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If you can’t see the variety in Jenna Coleman’s career, you can hear it.