Joanna Vanderham on New BBC Thriller, The Control Room

By Ellie Smith

2 years ago

'I loved playing Sam because she has so many layers'

If you loved Bodyguard and The Tourist, you’re in for a treat. The BBC has released a brand-new three-part drama, The Control Room, which tells the story of an emergency call handler called Gabe (Iain De Caestecker), whose life is turned upside down when he receives a life-or-death call from a woman who claims to know him. Playing the caller is Scottish star Joanna Vanderham, who you’ll recognise from Crime, the TV adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s bestselling novel. She’s here to tell us all about the new show.

Q&A with Joanna Vanderham

Joanna Vanderham

Photo by Aldo Filiberto

What can you tell us about The Control Room?

The Control Room is a thriller about two people pushed to their extremes. What would happen if a call handler working for the emergency services was dragged into the emergency? It makes you wonder, what would I do for love? It’s like a modern day Bonnie and Clyde. I loved playing Sam because she has so many layers. She often doesn’t know what she really wants, so we get to watch her battling with her decisions and emotions in real time as events unfold. She’s a very guarded person, who’s lived a life without any close relationships, so we meet her at a turning point, a moment in her life when she starts to question how she wants to live and, by default, forces Gabe to do the same. 

Any funny stories from rehearsals?

We had to learn a dance routine and making it up was probably the funniest day in rehearsals, all the adults jumping around like children and then teaching it to the actual children. It was so awkward and sweet watching them drop their boundaries around each other. You so want to be ‘cool’ at that age (like 10 and 12). The dance routine was definitely Not Cool.

Favourite person you’ve worked with on The Control Room?

Oh this is so unfair! I loved the whole process, but Iain was an absolute dream to work with. At one point I actually asked myself if he was faking how lovely he is. He’s not. 

Favourite role to date and why?

One of my favourite roles was Cathy in The Runaway. The story follows her from age 14 to 27, through drug addiction, abuse, becoming a mother, falling in love… Also, it was set during the 60’s and 70’s in London’s Soho, so the costumes, hair and makeup were incredible. 

Role you’d cut your right arm off to get?

I have a long list. Most of them are plays: Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Mary in Mary Stuart, Lady Macbeth, Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I love roles that challenge the traditional stereotypes of ‘virgin’ and ‘whore’. 

Joanna Vanderham in The Control Room

What demands do you have during rehearsals?

Oh I’m very demanding… To be honest, all I expect is that everyone is open to making mistakes, that it doesn’t have to be perfect, that we can laugh and discuss our choices. I love rehearsals because they’re a safe place to fail. What a privilege.  

What qualities do you think have made you successful? 

Honestly, if I knew that, I’d bottle it and sell it. It’s a very subjective profession, so I suppose it has more to do with what others see. I could think I’m the best actor in the world, but if no one else agrees, I wouldn’t be successful. I suppose I strive for the truth of everything my character says and does. If I don’t believe myself, why would anyone else?

Film you think everyone in the world should see?

This changes on a monthly basis. I am obsessed with good films. There’s so much content out there that, when you find that incredible film that speaks to you in the moment, it’s really magical. I would say Parasite, Amour, Spirited Away, Tyrannosaur… 

What’s your relationship with social media like? 

It’s love-hate. Sometimes I love it, when I am working on a show, but when I’m working on my own writing or taking a holiday it’s like this dementor hanging over me – and actually, at those times, I need to be alone. I need to recharge my batteries to be able to bring genuinely good content out into the world. Surely people don’t care what I ate for breakfast, surely they don’t want to see my face every day (although apparently the algorithm would disagree!).

What did you want to be when you were a little girl?

I always wanted to act. I was cast as The Witch in Tam O Shanter when I was six or seven – it was just with the local kids’ drama club, but I loved every minute of it. I really saw her hair flowing, her torn white dress trailing as she chased after Tam, catching his horse’s tail just as they jumped over the river. It brought storytelling to life for me in a way I had never experienced before.

If you could give advice to your 15-year-old self, what would it be? 

You’re capable of more than you think. Just say yes to every opportunity that comes your way. You can learn on the job. 

Three books you’d take to a desert island and why? 

Number one would be ‘how to survive alone on a desert island’. I like to think I’m pretty handy but that’s a whole other kettle of fish. For real though I’d take Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath to encourage me to keep going , Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, and Bossypants by Tina Fey because, presumably, being alone on a desert island, you’d either want to laugh or cry.

How can we all live a little bit better?

Become vegan. It’s better for the planet, for the animals and for your health. 

Joanna Vanderham in The Control Room

What’s your interior design style?

I’d say sort of modern eclectic. I wish I could be a minimalist person. Especially during lockdown, I kept thinking, ‘why have I got so much stuff?!’ But I have a lot of hobbies, and I love design and colour and plants, so I just have to accept it and try not to let the chaos overflow too much. I want people to feel welcome in my home, and that they want to stay forever. 

What is your current beauty regime? 

I’ve had a real journey with my skin. I had lovely skin as a teenager, and then really bad acne when I was in my early twenties. I was trying too much stuff, scrubbing twice a day, different products on set, at shoots, for events… Not ideal. So now I keep it really simple: cleanse with Cetaphil and then use a hyaluronic acid and oil-free moisturiser, and occasionally a retinol serum, depending on how much sun I’m likely to get the following day. And I wear factor 100 sunscreen.

What are your indulgences? 

This is a tough one. It really got me thinking about what I actually do for myself. It’s easy to feel like if you’re not ‘doing something’ you’ve wasted time, and I’m really guilty of that. I create stressful scenarios so that I always have something to do. So it’d have to be ordering take-out – when I’m busy or super hungry, I will very quickly dial food. I like to think I’m supporting local businesses.

What would your best friend say about you? 

My sister would say I’m chaos personified. But I think my best friends would probably say they could talk to me about anything, and that they know I love them even though we might not see each other all the time. 

How do you relax?

I love to read, I love a nice bath with some salts in there, I treat myself to a massage every now and then. I love to cook and, if I have time, making up new recipes is a real happy place for me. As long as they taste good. One tip I have is don’t microwave your tahini dressing!

If we’re coming to your area for a visit, what should we do?

I live in east London and I love it – there are so many cool spots. Eat at Facing Heaven, drink at Sager & Wilde, walk along the canal in the summer, and check out local designers and food stalls at Broadway Market on the weekend. 

Are you a rule breaker or a rule taker?

I suppose it depends on the situation… I like to think I’m right a lot of the time, so if the rule feels wrong to me then yeah, I’ll break it. When it comes to acting, I love trying something unexpected, as long as it feels truthful for the character.

Imagery from BBC Pictures


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