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Joanna Scanlan on ‘The Invisible Woman’ and the Unheralded Bravery of Catherine Dickens

Well known to British audiences for her work on ‘In The Thick of It’ and ‘Getting On,’ we speak to actress/writer Joanna Scanlan about her role in Ralph Fiennes’ ‘The Invisible Woman.’

Based on Claire Tomalin’s novel, The Invisible Woman is a captivating period drama that explores one of the very first literary scandals that went public, Charles Dickens’ (Ralph Fiennes) affair with Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), the muse and mistress of his later years. Joanna Scanlan plays Dickens’ long-suffering wife, Catherine, who bore him ten children over a long marriage.  Once Ternan enters Dickens’ life, he does not hesitate to desert and publicly denounce Catherine as well as denying her access to  their children, and leaving her virtually  penniless. Scanlan’s Catherine is a tragic figure, enduring her husband’s harsh treatment with stoic dignity. Her initial humorless façade changes as the film progress to reveal a deeply wounded woman who, though devastated, accepts her situation with quiet grace.

We spoke to the great Joanna Scanlan about her preparation for the role, her creative process and how television is a female-driven environment.

Tribeca: What initially drew you to The Invisible Woman? Were you previously a fan of Dickens’ remarkable body of work?

Joanna Scanlan: I love Dickens, but there were a number of things that jumped out at me immediately about the script. First, that it was about sensational events involving a very famous, hugely famous author in the 19th century and is a  statement of historical record in that sense. Thanks to Claire Tomalin’s book, we’re looking at this domestic tragedy from a completely different point of view from how it was perceived at the time. The film is from the point of view of the women in his life, specifically this very young girl whom he managed to have a secret relationship with for the last nine years of his life. It’s sort of extraordinary!  I loved the opportunity to play a role of Dickens’ wife and the mother of his ten children.

I studied 19th century British history at Cambridge and that was my degree. One of the things we were looking at there was the kind of injustices and hypocrisies that women faced during the time period. The film gave us a chance to just really nail one specific woman who got a pretty raw deal.  I guess it was a pretty amazing thing to be able to do that.

Tribeca: How did you prepare for the role of Catherine Dickens in The Invisible Woman? Did you consult Claire Tomalin’s book?

JS: It’s so mysterious isn’t it? To be honest, you could say you do the research the director wants you to do and you work with the other actors but in the end, for me, I’m pretty instinctual. I let what happens, happen on the day. That’s my approach. It’s to feel what’s going on and just play with that in the room.

I deliberately chose not to do any further research other than what I was given by Ralph to know about Catherine until I played the part. I knew that her situation was intolerable, but because the book is more about Nelly’s story and not Catherine’s story, it really doesn’t reveal much about Catherine. The last thing I wanted to feel on set was angry because actually Catherine wasn’t angry. She didn’t respond to this tragedy with any sense of self-righteousness or looking for justice or revenge—she had none of that. I allowed Ralph to guide me for the most part because this is not Catherine Dickens’ story; it’s Charles’ story but she has a part to play in that. 

After we finished filming, I read the book because then I knew I’d be safe.  Of course, it’s the most extraordinary book, which I highly, highly recommend to anybody who is interested in the position of women in history. It’s an amazing piece of detective work put together by Claire Tomalin. It’s gobsmacking. So now I’m an expert, I can tell you anything, but on set, I deliberately kept myself free of facts and just tried to immerse myself in her emotional truth.

If you think about it, Catherine Dickens is probably the founding member of "The First Wives Club."

Tribeca: The triangle between Charles, Catherine and Nelly seems almost like a cliché nowadays. How did you work as a team to keep the story feeling fresh? Was there any rehearsal period?

JS:  We did have a rehearsal period, which is rare in the feature film world.  Ralph is an actor himself, of course, so he understands the value of rehearsal.  We had a very nice little time to kind of dig in. To keep the dynamic fresh, Ralph urged me to be authentic in terms of Catherine’s emotional realities. Today, it’s an absolute cliché that successful men in middle age abandon their first wives. If you think about it, Catherine Dickens is probably the founding member of "The First Wives Club”[laughs].

Cases like the Dickens’ are so common now that we have to reminded that it was an extraordinary thing that he did at the time. Historically, it was unprecedented—that he would dismiss his wife publicly in the newspaper without telling her and then never allow her to see her children again and send her 600 pounds a year to live off. She, devoted as she was, kept her affection for him and insisted that some of the letters that he had written to her in their early lives be published because “I want the world to know that he loved me once.” It was a tragic, a tragic situation.

Tribeca: While the way that Charles treats Catherine makes you uneasy and makes you feel for her, you never quite pity her. Her eyes are completely open and she’s dealing with the situation as best she can. She’s incredibly brave. Were you at all surprised by the complexity of the character?

JS: Yes, I was surprised by her courage actually.  In many ways I think she was, if it doesn’t sound too pejorative—simple. But within that, there was tremendous courage. If you go and face your rival as openly and as freely as she did and accept that this is situation you are in—that is a very brave thing to do. Those are the things I discovered as we were telling the story. She wasn’t clever, she wasn’t special, she wasn’t beautiful particularly, but she had this quality of real dignity and courage. I grew to quite like her. It was lovely.

Tribeca: As you just mentioned, one of the most affecting scenes in the film is when Charles forces Catherine to come to Nelly’s birthday party to deliver his gift. How did you and Felicity Jones prepare for that moment?

JS: We were both a little bit nervous. We knew it was a key scene in the film and it required quite a lot of concentration and focus and space around it. I knew it was not going to be a scene that they were going to just put in the schedule at the end of the day. It needed to be given some weight.  I think both of us were anticipating that. We were given a whole day just for that one scene, and I knew we were going to discover each other as actresses and as characters. 

That’s really what happened. When Felicity walks into the room and I turn around and see her there, it was almost as if I was seeing her for the first time, as Catherine was seeing Nelly for the first time. A kind of complicity develops during the scene between the women because they both realize that they’re in the same boat; they’re just at opposite ends of it.

Tribeca: Is it nice to work with a director like Ralph Fiennes who is also a distinguished actor? What are the advantages of working with an actor/director?

JS: There were many times when I wish Ralph could have played Catherine Dickens because he’s so good. Part of me thinks, “You can do this a lot better than me so please be my guest!” [laughs] He knew the ins and outs of my character.  He’s got a tremendous sense of characters’ inner lives. I have to say I learned a lot from him about screen acting just by acting with him and also being directing by him.  It was a bit like a master class.

Tribeca: As you switch between film and television roles throughout your career, do you find yourself changing your creative process at all?

JS:  In my television work, generally I have a much more authorial position because I’ve written a lot of the material and have been in shows like The Thick of It for many years and gotten comfortable with my characters.  In those situations, I’m able to have more control and I really enjoy myself.

In the films I’ve done, I haven’t always helped to create the characters or the scripts, so I’ve really been allowed to lose myself within the projects without worrying about other responsibilities. I have enjoyed working with some fabulous, extraordinary crews on film and with extraordinary actors, stunt men, art directors, and the like. They take my breath away.

A kind of complicity develops during the scene between the women because they both realize that they’re in the same boat; they’re just at opposite ends of it.

Tribeca: You are obviously well known for your talents as a comedienne. Was it a nice change of pace to get to flex your dramatic chops?

JS: In this capacity, yes, though dramatic roles are not unfamiliar to me. I’ve been in the theater since I was young, not always on a professional level, but I’ve always played a lot of dramatic roles. I came into this industry late because I was a lecturer in drama at the university before I became a professional actor and writer.

When I started getting comedic roles, people began to associate me with them and asked me to do them again and again. I feel like the world strangely sees me as somebody who is primarily a comedienne, but I am no. I don’t feel funny at all [laughs]. It feels much more natural for me to be in a state of gloom and misery than it is for me to be a clown.

Tribeca: In your experience, do you feel like women are able to have more creative control in television than in the film world?

JS: That’s interesting; I think television has become quite a female environment actually. There are a lot of senior female players in television. I think because there’s something fundamentally domestic about television. It is broadcast into peoples’ homes, and women make up a tremendous part of the broadcast audience. 

Television tells the stories of ordinary lives in a very familiar way, which is the bread and butter the industry. I think because of that, women have gradually over the last twenty years taken on some very senior positions. That’s not to say that something similar has not happened in the film industry.  There are certainly more women directors and women producers throughout the industry than there were a few years ago. Film may be lagging behind a little bit, particularly with female directors; however, I have worked with a lot of incredibly talented women in my film endeavors. 

Tribeca: The HBO version of Getting On premiered last weekend. Have you watched the pilot? How does it feel to have the show you co-created on the BBC get Americanized?

JS: I’ve seen the pilot but I haven’t seen the series. I think the first two episodes have gone out now. I am really just quite amazed that a show that has my name on itin quite a remote way—is on HBO. I’ve spent countless hours of my life watching fabulous HBO television and to see my name moments after that incredible black and white monochrome HBO logo disappears… I’m walking on air for that. It’s just extraordinary and unexpected and a great honor to work with Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen and BBC Worldwide.  It’s been a very, very nice project to be a part of even from 5,000 miles away. 

The Invisible Woman opens in NY and LA on Christmas Day and will expand to other select cities in the following weeks.


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