NEW YORK — Forget the screen time, the red carpet and the reviews. For young British actress Jodie Whittaker, simply being given a shot at making her film debut in “Venus” was satisfaction enough, given her co-star would be Peter O’Toole.
“If I didn’t get the job, just to have that experience of reading with him in an audition, I’d probably put that on my CV: ‘Had an audition with Peter O’Toole,'” quips Whittaker, whose offbeat looks are a cross between Kirsten Dunst and Mischa Barton.
In “Venus,” out now, Whittaker plays Jessie, a damaged, crass teenager from northern England who comes to London to live with her great-uncle Ian (Leslie Phillips), an aging actor. The two mix about as well as oil and water, but Ian’s best, thespian friend, Maurice (Peter O’Toole), takes a romantic liking to Jessie, nicknames her Venus and makes it his mission to educate and entertain her, often in exchange for the odd erotic favor. Maurice and Jessie form a bond that oscillates between Lolita-esque teasings and grandfatherly affection.
“On the basic level of it, she’s a little shit and he’s a dirty old man. But I think the film acknowledges that, but then challenges everyone to kind of see that they’re just two people,” says Whittaker. “The thing with Jessie is she’s…had certain bad relationships with men and both me and [screenwriter] Hanif Kureishi agreed that her dad wasn’t around in her upbringing. It’s just that thing of having never been respected, so it builds up such a guard that Maurice is the first person she ever comes across who takes the time to knock it down and to get past it and to keep pursuing.”
Indeed, with Maurice’s help, Jessie gets an emotional makeover of sorts, though certainly not one that is manifested by any aesthetic change: She spends much of the film with trashy roots, sporting hideous pink tracksuits and skirts with street-walker hemlines. Even Whittaker, a northern girl and casual dresser herself, was appalled by her character’s style.
“On the last day, the costume designer, Natalie, was like, ‘Do you wanna keep any of them?’ I was like, ‘No!'” laughs Whittaker, 24. “She’s like, ‘Please, I don’t know what to do with them.’ I wouldn’t dare wear those skirts.”
This story first appeared in the December 28, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Now living in London, Whittaker grew up in Huddersfield, England, with acting ambitions and little interest in academics. After high school she took a vocational performance arts course, went backpacking and then entered drama school, from which she graduated in June 2005. “Venus” was only her third acting job. In the new year, she’ll star in a three-week run of Neil LaBute’s play “Bash” in London, and her next film role will be in “Good,” playing a Nazi opposite Viggo Mortensen. It is a part that requires considerably more research than that of Jessie.
“I bought about 20 books on the Nazi Party and I think the bookshop where I live just thinks I’m really weird,” says Whittaker. “I keep going there and saying, ‘Hi, can I order, um, the book about the Third Reich please?’ And they’re like, ‘Are you the girl that ordered ‘Mein Kampf?'”