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Jo Hartley: An Actress With a Life Less Ordinary

27/08/2013 14:20 BST | Updated 26/10/2013 10:12 BST

There are two Jo Hartleys looking at me. We're sitting at the end of the bar and her reflection in the wall-length mirror seems to regard me with a degree of forensic keenness, while the actual Jo, perched before me on the red Bar Italia stool, is kinetic, words rushing from her.

'Look, isn't that Gary Oldman?' she asks suddenly, making me turn and look at the grey suit ordering an espresso at the bar.

But it isn't. It's a weary Robert Elms who looks in dire need of a coffee.

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'I like to play characters,' Jo continues, 'I like to work with decent people. I like a script to say something to me, but as a 41-year-old woman, it's tough to get the work you want. The further up you head into your career, the more competition there is. There are fewer good parts and more good people.' 

Amen to that. Hartley belongs to a tribe of working class British actors and directors who have formed a new wave of talent intent upon modernising British cinematic storytelling.

The new wave is here and hard at work: Neil Maskell, Ed Skrein, Paul Anderson, Vicky McClure, Michael Smiley, Johnny Harris, Martin Compston, Kieron Hawkes, Jacob Anderson, Matt Morgan and Shane Meadows are all people Hartley calls friends and collaborators.

The veracity of Berthold Brecht's maxim which states that 'art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it' is borne out by Hartley's slow-burn naturalism in films like Dead Man's Shoes (2004) and This Is England (2006). But only a life fully lived can furnish an actor with the experience necessary to elevate performances.

Hartley was born in Oldham, Lancashire and joined the Oldham Theatre Workshop as a kid, thus continuing the family's link to the acting world (her aunt Elizabeth Hartley worked for two decades as Otto Preminger's PA).

Then tragedy struck at 17 when her father died. 'I was full of anger,' she admits. Subsequently, she hit Manchester's Hacienda club scene full on. This period of decadence was her flight from trauma, and acting fell by the wayside.

She then moved to Amsterdam for a year before working for five years as an air hostess for Japan Airlines. 'I never stopped dreaming of being an actor. I'd write poems at the back of the aircraft mid-flight. But I got suspended for insulting the purser. I was the airline's September calender girl at this point,' she laughs. 'I was earning 35 grand a year at the age of 20 and I never saved a penny of it!'

After this experience equipped her with being able to ask 'Steak or fish?' in Japanese, she did the books for a recruitment agency, then made the decision to devote her energies to acting.

'I acted in a low-budget film with Chris Coghill [who wrote Spike Island], then I started making all these guerilla films and got a showreel together.' Her performances were steeped in an honesty that casting directors found compelling.

'Depending on my mood, I always mixed with different people. I've always been attracted to chaos and mayhem and been a free spirit,' she says.

The work of Martin Scorsese also captivated her, in particular Mean Streets - a film replete with unfettered acting talent - as did Leone's Once Upon A Time In America and The Wizard of Oz, all films which informed her later work.

'I'd watch the Oscars ceremony when I was in my 20s, but I didn't understand the craft of acting until I met Shane [Meadows] on Dead Man's Shoes.'

But what does she understand acting to be? 'Acting is about identification with the character you're playing and playing it truthfully. Preparation, listening, reacting, registering subtext, collaborating, and of course, learning your lines are essential. And it all comes together on set. In effect, you learn on set.'

Hartley invested Cynthia (Thomas Turgoose's mother in This Is England) with a muted tragedy that lent emotional ballast to the landmark film. 'This Is England changed everything for me. Following my instincts, self belief and persistence are what got me that role.'

A recent turn in The Mimic (2013, Channel 4) saw her doing comedy, which for a Lancastrian like Hartley is something that comes naturally, and for a woman who, by turns, has sofa-surfed and lived in an old folks home as she has felt her way through life, she admits to once having come across as 'a bit feral, a mad Manc'.

But things change. 'My life has changed over the past three and a half years. I feel like I've woken up. I'm writing now, and it's something I've been talking to my agent [Curtis Brown] about for the past couple of years,' she says.

'About four years ago, I co-wrote a Radio 4 play called Death Of A Pirate with Michael Smiley and John Hardwick. I realised there are few strong roles for women and that perhaps I should write one. I'm also collaborating on an idea with director Dominic Murphy and Peter Mann at the moment. 

'Scripts do land on my doormat and I'm very grateful, but sometimes they're not things that I want to repeat. I like a challenge, some variety. The complex roles go to men because there are more male writers. It's hard to nail a great role because they're like gold dust!'

An actor, therefore, is two people: one a citizen, the other a performer, and a duality pervades a life which is forever judged by the actor as self-critic, and the audience alike. It's a life, therefore, of emotional exposure.

'I've been acting for 11 years now, and I try to be open-minded and honest in my choices, while staying authentic by following my instincts. I'm not trying to be something I'm not. It took me a long time to be comfortable with myself, but acting is about risks and being challenged emotionally.

'And I don't want to work just for the sake of it,' she says. 'I have the power of choice, and like Stella Adler once said, the talent is in your choice. I want to play a strong role about spiritual awakening.

'But you can't take yourself too seriously. I remember going to the Rome Film Festival for This Is England and being on the red carpet next to Robert De Niro and Nicole Kidman, but come the Monday I was handing out KitKats in a promotion in Macclesfield!'

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She says the space between jobs is a creative space, a spiritual retreat. 'I'm inspired by all art, and I have to trust in something bigger for personal understanding and serenity.'

The truism is that Jo Hartley's key to happiness is 'acceptance of things I'm powerless over, and having a clear conscience. This gives me peace of mind to create, to be useful to others and a freedom from myself. But what I want and what I need are two very different things, so I believe that if you seek something, and invest energy and love in it, it will come to fruition.'

These are auspicious times in the film world as the Merchant-Ivory cardboard cut-outs of yesteryear fade from view.

'The underdog's time has come,' she says. 'It's our time. I don't think I'll ever give up on acting...unless people give up on me.'

But if what Sandford Meisner said is right, that 'an ounce of behaviour is worth a pound of words', then Jo Hartley has all the wealth any actor can ever need.

© Jason Holmes 2013 / jantholmes@yahoo.co.uk / @JasonAHolmes

For more information, visit: www.curtisbrown.co.uk/jo-hartley//works

Main portrait courtesy of Christopher Ball

Still from Dead Man's Shoes courtesy of Warp Films