Interview with Helen Baxendale: “Nobody asks me to do sex scenes now, which is a big relief”

Iit was during his time on Friends, playing Ross’ English wife, Emily, who Helen Baxendale realized she could never be famous for. A bit of compromise was fine, a few light looks in the street in exchange for a good acting job, but anything bigger than that felt overwhelming, even cruel. His family was at the door. His face was on the cover of Good morning!. She was always being asked inappropriate questions by reporters. Has she, like her character on ITV cold feet — brooding, glamorous, killed by a cement truck — also likes to have sex in store windows? That sort of thing.

“I think I’ve seen where all of this ultimately takes you,” the 51-year-old says today, surrounded by bookshelves and birdsong on Zoom. “Not that I was heading there at all. But I saw these people in Friends, for example, and I thought: I don’t think life is really what I want. They were hunted down. They couldn’t walk into a supermarket and buy something. She remains confused that some of that attention was shifted to her back then. “I didn’t think what I was doing warranted it,” she says. “It wasn’t about me, it was about this…” She places her hand to the side, as if drawing a separate entity with her fingers. “This thing…this program I was on for a few episodes. It was all crazy.

Baxendale was just 27 when she was chosen Friends in 1998, who had become a household name on British television a few years earlier. In contrast to the motherly warmth she brings to her later work – as a bullied mother on the Greg Davies sitcom Helloor a reluctant freedom fighter in the BBC’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s alternate history Tic Tac Toe, who returns this week — her early roles were defined by icy, sleek bobs and wry detachment. In 1994, just two years after graduating from acting, she played a cynical doctor in the television debut of Jed Mercurio. Heart attackand in 1999 a detective in over his head in the adaptation of PD James Unsuitable work for a woman. rachel on cold feet – famous for her on-and-off romance with James Nesbitt’s Adam – made her a star. However, she never felt comfortable. “I think you need a certain character to be able to deal with it.”

There’s a surreal lasciviousness to the questions he’s been asked in his past interviews, I tell him. “It was consistent!” she remembers. “‘And the sex scenes?’ [Headlines] would be torrid this, or torrid that. Or, in what should be heat magazineis at the lowest, “Fuck Monster”. There was also a fixation on her childcare arrangements. Shortly after his run Friendsshe had her first child, Nell – now an actor, who appeared in The iron Throne (in which she played the young Cersei Lannister) and Blinded by the light. She now has three children. “It was so sexist. All they said was, ‘How are you doing as a mother? ‘What do you do with your kids while you play?’ man. Jim Nesbitt was never asked how he raised his children. She sighs, pushing back her reading glasses from the tip of her nose. “It was extremely intense, hard and off-putting.”

Baxendale tells me how grateful she is not to have her current work entirely on her shoulders, or to present the kind of sexuality that fascinated journalists years ago. “Nobody asks me to do sex scenes now, which is a big relief,” she laughs. But I wonder if her experiences back then deterred her from pursuing a different kind of career – more starring roles, maybe more work in America. She thinks about it. “No, I don’t think it affected my choices.” She is silent, still humming at the question. “But I really liked being the leader,” she whispers, almost conspiratorially. Baxendale is a bit of a conversational swing, as if discovering its positions in real time and being aware of its own contradictions here and there. “The attention and the press still don’t sit well with me, but…” She winces. “I guess I was quite ready to deal with it to get some good plays.”

Tic Tac Toe is one of them. The show is the belated TV adaptation of a landmark early 2000s read, think of a proto-hunger gamesor Harry Potter without the contemporary cringe. Our heroes are Sephy (Masali Baduza) and Callum (Jack Rowan), teenagers who fall in love despite living on opposite sides of the color line. In this alternate world, a nation modeled after Africa – known here as Aprica – colonized England years ago, leaving white people a segregated group that continually faced racism and bigotry. Baxendale plays Callum’s mother, Meggie, a tough, resilient rock of a woman facing insurmountable loss as the series opens its second season: Callum is on the run after an act of protest puts a target on his chest. back, and her other son Jude (Josh Dylan) embeds himself in a militia that uses violence as a tool for change.

Helen Baxendale in “Noughts and Crosses”

(Mammoth Screen/BBC)

Baxendale has an incredible gravitas in the series, all quiet strength and private doubt. She says she found working on the series instructive. “I was obviously aware of the racism, but in truth I wasn’t affected by it at all. As a white person, how much do you really think about the consequences of that? The truth is you go on Being on the show gave me a better understanding of the oppression of racism and how unfair society can be.She thinks back to a scene from the start of the show, in which Callum is given a brown bandage for an injury – a “nude” color that matches a single skin tone. “I never thought about the fact that casts are always white,” Baxendale says. “You just take those things for granted.”

She admits that she struggles to talk about the show’s themes during interviews. “Because I’ve always been on the other end of this divide and inequality, I feel like I really should shut up because this isn’t my space to talk.” Instead, she chooses to sit in the discomfort it creates within her. “I feel a lot of embarrassment and guilt,” she said softly. “I just feel s*** for society to be like this.”

‘Friends’ and ‘Cold Feet’ now appear to be historical records

Society and the British class system were on his mind for most of his life, however. Baxendale’s parents were teachers at a comprehensive school, who instilled in him the importance of public education. “For a certain time, [politicians] says there’s no class, but I think that’s rubbish,” she said. “It’s very much alive, and I think it’s one of the most awful things about Britain. I love Britain, I think it’s wonderful and it’s my home, but I think it’s a shame that we’re still class riddled. She says it’s not helped by our monarchy. “I mean, I really like the Queen,” she laughs, “but I think that’s probably where it starts. And look at the wardrobe! How on earth is it that our leaders all come from such a small spectrum of society? Anyway…” She shakes her head, pausing as if she’s been walking that road a lot.

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Tic Tac Toe also made him think back to the shows that brought him early fame. As reusable as they are, Friends and cold feet were blindingly white programs that felt more comfortable reflecting middle-class fantasy than anything too honest. “They now look like historical documents,” she says. “Having six white people, or all-white couples.” She thinks she remembers working with only one actor of color during her time on cold feet. “I had Lennie James as a boyfriend, but he’s…you know, just one.” They feel a bit dated now. And probably reflections of the types of people in charge at the time, I suggest. “Definitely! They’re about who was commissioning them, who was writing them — because it’s not just an on-screen representation, is it? Again, that’s the whole question of ‘the establishment”, and only people from a certain stratum of society get those best jobs.

Baxendale as Emily, alongside David Schwimmer’s Ross, in ‘Friends’


When she finished filming Tic Tac Toe last year, Baxendale told her agent she had to try doing a comedy next. But acting, she admits, is also something she never thought she was very good at. “I feel like that’s not my thing at all,” she says, punctuating those last two words with verbal dots. “I’ve always felt insecure doing these things because other people are so good at them.” I admit that it is surprising – even after the success of Helloshe’s always afraid to be funny?

“Yeah, still not confident,” she said with a nervous laugh. “It’s so eye-opening to be an actor. In no other job do people comment on what you’ve done while you’re just walking down the street. I now think I can be good and I can be bad. But I’ll take it, whatever. I don’t really care anymore. She laughs again but then falls silent, as if thinking about what she just said. “But maybe it’s “Is that trust? I don’t care that much?”

There must be something that keeps bringing her back to acting, I say, despite that long history of perverse questions and the slight uneasiness it always gave her. “Well, I have to do something! In the end, I’m an actress, you know? Although I always say I’m very good at being out of work. I’m good at filling my day. But I also appreciate when I’m into something that I find good. And I’m good at it. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does…” She smiled gratefully. “It’s really wonderful.”

The second series ‘Noughts and Crosses’ starts Tuesday April 26 at 10:40 p.m. on BBC One

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