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I TALK TO Jo Hartley

"I had a dodgy nighty on and my (on-screen) son was around. It wasn't the most glamorous love scene!"

One of the biggest TV shows of 2019 was Ricky Gervais' After Life on Netflix in which he plays Tony, a local newspaper writer coming to terms with the death of his wife of 25 years, Lisa.

Series one saw Tony contemplate taking his own life, before deciding that he would punish the world by saying and doing whatever he likes from now on because the worst thing that could ever happen to him already has.

But as After Life returns for a second series, whilst Tony continues to struggle with his grief he tries to become a better friend to those around him, realising that they each have their own problems.

Jo Hartley, best-known for roles in This Is England and more recently In My Skin, made a small cameo in series one as single mother June whose son's talents playing the double nostril recorder caught the attention of Tambury Gazette.

But it was June herself who caught the attention of newspaper photographer Lenny, played by Tony Way, who asked her out on a date. Fast forward to series two and the pair are now living together with June's son James, played by Ethan Lawrence.

So with a bigger part to play in After Life, I caught up with Jo Hartley earlier this week to discuss her strong reaction to watching the series, what it's like being back and having more to do and why a certain love scene between her character and Lenny took more than one take...

First things first, it's great to see June back, because she wasn't a major character in the first series. How did your involvement come about?

How it all began, was Ricky (Gervais) had text me saying that he was going to send me the scripts to After Life because he had a cameo he wanted me to do. Bear in mind I did Life on the Road with him and it was the best time, so I read the script, obviously great.

Everything Ricky touches turns to gold. He's a genius. It's brilliant, you get to the read-through with some amazing actors, it's fun, there's a great energy and then you get on set and I was in and out.

I did episode one and episode five of the first season, we did quite a lot of improv and Ricky was in hysterics and text me after and I think it was from there that he saw the seed of June and said he was going to create more for this character and James and really build on it for season two because he loved Lenny and June together.

Let's talk about the reaction to series one. Did that take you by surprise?

It did. My first reaction to it was when I watched it in the flat on my own just before it came out and I was projectile crying. I was laughing one minute and crying the next.

I remember taking a picture and sending it to Ricky, I thought it was a bit vein but I needed to show him how it's affected me because he wasn't there to experience it and I want him to know the extent of how the show affected me. He just sent me a message back saying "Oh Jo! Hahahaha, are you OK?" - "I was like, I'm just blown away." That's when I knew it was a masterpiece, a really clever show.

It was when I was in San Francisco about two months after it came out, that people were coming up to me and saying "Please tell Ricky that this is the best show. I identified with it so much. It helped me so much." - This could be two or three years after someone's mother or father or partner had died.

Do you think the show's portrayal of grief is what really resonated with people then?

It's very grounded isn't it? It's grounded in reality and not glamourised which is why people do resonate with it. It's a true depiction of this character going through the loss of his best friend and his life partner. And how really if it wasn't for the dog, he possibly wouldn't have still been with us.

I lost a parent when I was 17 and I couldn't comprehend it. I didn't know how to deal with it, I went out partying with friends and it's only later in life that you realise and I now think about my father every day.

I don't always cry, I have fond memories and those live on but people do have a journey with grief spiritually. When you watch After Life it does bring up things with regards to other relationships in our lives and our own emotional journeys when we've lost somebody.

People talk about the seven stages and Ricky's character Tony goes through that with season two looking at the hope. He still has his challenges, but it's much less about himself and more about how he can help the people that help him.

The whole show is so understated in its simplicity. I describe After Life as an extraordinary show about ordinary lives. It's very much grounded in reality.

Where do we find June at the start of series two?

She's in a very interesting triangle with Lenny and James! June is innocent and open and loving and very very chuffed to bits that Lenny is now in her life and living with her. So they're shacked up together. She's no longer just got James to fuss about but Lenny too.

We reveal slightly more of James and June's backstory this season. They go on a journey and we find out how they got where they are together. James is in the office with Lenny and has this little job and then ropes me in to the community show which is later on in the series.

That was really good fun. There's a little bit of humiliation for June and Lenny... there's a romantic scene!

Let's talk about THAT bed scene then where Lenny and June are interrupted by James. What was that like to shoot? I imagine that wasn't a one-take wonder...

No it wasn't! It was so awkward. It was the morning and we were in this studio in Pinewood and Ricky was just giggling and laughing and going "Why did I write this?" and I was telling myself that I would do it in one take but you just couldn't help but laugh.

It took us about four or five takes, everyone was in hysterics. It's not glamorous you know! It was a safe environment and it was loving but it was just hilarious. We managed to get through it. I had a dodgy nighty on and my (on-screen) son was around. It wasn't the most glamorous love scene!

Another brilliant scene was when June sings with her son James, what was that like to film?

Well I don't want to give away what they sing, but that was just so exciting for me. There were two songs actually that Ricky had in mind and we went for this one in the end and it was just so much fun, belting it out, tone deaf, doing the things that are really not called for.

There were a couple of moments in that routine that are just so awkward. In the end Ricky said to me that I looked like a little Tamagotchi, so cute with my outfit on and my hair! I'm excited that my West End career will be over once this comes out.

Any other favourite scenes?

All of them really. The sillier the better for me! I remember the monologue I give to the receptionist in season two. Ricky emailed me that after a rehearsal session and I burst out laughing!

Then when it came to doing it I had to not overthink it. You can't try to be funny. You just have to say it and June has no filter, she just says what she wants. That's the key for me, the principal that I follow for that character. She's so beautiful and open and innocent but she just says what she shouldn't really say.

I love the stuff in the office. I love scenes with the gang because I get to see them all working and it's quite a joy to see them all working together.

What is it about Lenny do you think that has made June fall in love with him?

I think she really taps into his awkwardness, as does Tony, Ricky's character. We tease him a little bit. She's oblivious to that and just loves him because he's a simple man that loves her. She loves pampering him, she gets on with him and they're both quite chilled.

She was flattered when he asked her out, he's a bit of a ladies man isn't he? I think June's definitely tamed him now. He's moved in and I think he likes her cooking. That's what it is! Lenny loves a bit of food and June loves to fuss and make food for him.

Also, me and Tony (Way, who plays Lenny) get on really really well. He's an unbelievable actor. It's a bit like this with Ricky, but when you're on set with someone and they start doing a scene, it takes you by surprise that they've started because their performance is so real. There's no acting. Although Tony isn't Lenny, there's something about the tiny details he brought to the role that's so lovely.

All the characters feel less separated this series. Was it nice to work with some actors you didn't get that many scenes with in series one?

It was wonderful. I was just excited to working with them all again so when Ricky sent out the scripts and I found out I was in all the episodes and there was a proper story for me, I was over the moon.

I love all the actors in the show, I watch all their work. I think Ricky is just so brilliant and so watchable in all the stories he's told over the years and the all the things that he's done. He's so engaging and to be around that as an actor and a human being is quite inspiring.

It's so good to be back and part of a beautiful ensemble of talented comedians and actors!

Where would you like to see June in a potential third series?

I'd love June to find some moments of depth and weight if we go forward, that would be nice. At the moment, I think it's great that James, Lenny and June bring this light relief! If Lenny and June are a successful couple then that's really nice.

It's a lovely feeling of lightness because simultaneously in the show there's always a lot going on. That's what Ricky does so brilliantly.

Ricky Gervais is very good at supporting good talent and inviting them back for multiple projects. Do you feel that?

Oh I feel so included by everybody on After Life. It's such a beautiful atmosphere. I'd not seen all of Ricky's work before I met him for Life on the Road and when I had my first audition he just laughed at me, then I got a call for a second audition and in that time I'd watched all his work and realised how much of a genius he was.

What I think he does, is he sees the potential in someone as an actor or in their personality and then brings that out and lets you run with it. Although he's got very specific ideas for each character, he allows you to bring your own thing to it.

We improvised a lot in season one. We did a lot of workshops before we got on set, but the scripts are so good.

How did you react when you watched series two? Did you cry again?

I did! Everyone makes fun of me, Netflix put my reaction out on Twitter which I'd sent to Tony Way because I sat in on a Sunday and watched the whole lot and cried my eyes out!

First time I watched it was with Tony Way in the edit, we watched the first three episodes and within a minute-and-a-half of the show starting, the montage and the music - I was already crying. The song that's used is one of my favourite songs and there are some songs in this that I cried to just because of the memories they brought up for me.

I think that's what he's done. The whole thing is like a poke! It pushes you "Remember this?" "Remember how important this is?" - we take things for granted, we take people for granted and ourselves for granted - even now in this time of lockdown, we're starting to sit still and seeing what's really important.

After Life is such a profound, brilliant show which opened my heart. I'm laughing one minute and crying my eyes out the next. It's come at a time in my life where I'm ready to receive the beauty of it. I empathise. I see that people struggle. We're all in this together and all trying to do our best. We all need to connect and death is something that's going to come to all of us.

All episodes will available to watch in one go. How do you think people should watch it? All in one go? Save it?

I want people to watch it however they want to watch it. I want them to enjoy it. I want them to sit and connect to it with something nice to eat - sit with your friends on Zoom if you have to! (Laughs) Just enjoy it!

I'm going to be on my own, because I'm locked down on my own with my budgie. We're going to watch it together and have some popcorn and cake!

After Life returns Friday from 8am on Netflix with series one available now


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