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King's High Welcomes Old Girl Gemma Whelan

Comedian, actor and Old Girl Gemma Whelan’s Landor Association Lecture in January was a delicious ramble through the uncertainties of thespian life.

Gemma Whelan was deemed ‘shy and retiring’ by the Headmistress at her King’s High interview, but she soon willingly embraced the mantle of ‘class clown’. She came to the attention of her Head of English, Miss Mary Clark (KHS 1976 – 2005), a guest of honour in the front row at the Lecture. Miss Clark encouraged Gemma’s dramatic talent, urging her to take the title role in Daisy Pulls it Off. Memories of other teachers, some of whom were present, delighted the Old Girls in the audience; it had been easy to distract Mrs Sherren in Maths lessons by asking her to talk about marathon running. Mrs Thornton had clamped down on Gemma’s clowning while secretly admiring it.

Gemma’s Landor Lecture was endearing, but also forthright and candid. She did not hold back over her health issues which foreshortened her King’s High years. She gave credit to her mother for urging her to take her A levels to have something to fall back on in case her career as a performer did not materialise, for Gemma trained as a dancer before she dipped her toes into acting.

A degree in Musical Theatre followed, in addition to training at the London Studio Centre, but then began the precarious path to acting success. Gemma amused us with her tales of a less-than-wonderful agent named Brian, auditions leading to acting work as third woman on the left, alongside several waitressing jobs to pay the bills, and excursions to the Edinburgh Fringe as her comedic alter ego, Chastity Butterworth. While nurturing her dramatic talent, Gemma cast her employment net widely, once even dancing around coffins in a funeral parlour! In addition to her obvious talent, it was clear that dogged persistence played a great part in achieving the success she enjoys today.

Members of the Landor community had sent in their questions for Gemma, and a Q&A session was skilfully chaired by Landor prefect Charlotte. It allowed Gemma to elaborate more on the vagaries of her chosen profession. Her most challenging role, and in many ways the most rewarding, had been Karen Matthews, the real-life child kidnapper from a northern council estate in The Moorside; playing a character from a different social background proved as big an obstacle as the accent – although Gemma overcame both with apparent ease.

While growing and developing as an actor, Gemma’s key inspirations were her family, historical characters, other actors like Olivia Coleman and Suranne Jones, and herself. Self belief was a prime motivator. Once, Gemma saw a role at National Theatre Live, which she knew would be touring soon. She knew she could play that role, and knew also that if she could be in the same room as the director, she would get it. She wasn’t being cocky, but she believed in herself, and she won the role. Her idol in her formative years had been the American comedy actor Lucille Ball, whom Gemma used to watch on loop. Olivia Coleman, Kate Dickie and Hal Holbrook were others worthy of Gemma’s adoration.

Had Gemma ever turned down a role? She joked that actors’ ego are so fragile, they seldom turn down anything. However, once she turned down a role because she, laudably, didn’t want to leave her infant son to go on location. On another occasion, Covid had struck on Day One of filming, so she had withdrawn from the role, which had to be recast.

Did Gemma have any tips for drama school auditions? Although Gemma hadn’t gone to drama school per se, she knew that the key to such events was to relax and be yourself. Show who you really are. Do your homework. Be prepared. Prep is key. Oh, and someone at musical theatre college said ‘Don’t wear perfume in case they don’t like the way you smell’!

Although Gemma often played strong female characters, she thought the term ‘strong woman’ was a horrible one. Women ARE strong, she reiterated, and applauded the fact that more women writers these days ensured that women were better represented in drama.

Alas, her acting career had not yet afforded her many dazzling and glamorous trips to the Caribbean, although a single and secretive trip to Spain for Games of Thrones provided a pleasant change from the quirky Belfast landscape where the series was primarily filmed. Metaphorical slapped wrists were meted out to Ben Elton, writer of Upstart Crow, who, although a genius writer, had an annoying habit of writing a whole page of script to learn, just before it was due to be delivered.

Gemma was not sure what her favourite Shakespeare role was and apologised for letting Miss Clark down! She had enjoyed playing Helena, and also ‘all those women who were dressed as men’, with a slight nod to her character Kate in Upstart Crow. She recalled a school trip to Twelfth Night, but only wished she could remember the name of the actor playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek! His actions on stage showed how an actor could use his whole body as a vehicle for performance. The body can be funny in different ways. Gemma said, ‘His legs were hilarious. He was hilarious. This showed how an actor could incorporate their whole body in the role’, something that appealed to her dance training.

Did any King’s High staff or pupils informed the way she played her characters? No, replied Gemma, but it was a great idea and she might do so now!

Gemma had enjoyed playing Yara Greyjoy in Games of Thrones the most of all her TV roles, partly because the show’s budget was so huge! She recalled that instead of their usual filming location of Belfast, the whole cast had been flown out to Spain in order to film during one hour of perfect light. Not everyone had been needed on set, so the rest of the cast had to be ‘decoy characters’ and were seen around Seville to confuse the media. It had been exciting and grand for Gemma, and so special because Yara only went to Belfast, and outstandingly beautiful place though it was. Starring in Game of Thrones was a revelation. ‘They drive you place, they sit you down, they dress you, put your make up on, sit you down again. You’re like a baby’, she mused.

A former Governor had asked what Gemma had taken away from playing a Pinter role, and she jokingly replied, ‘Don’t dry in Pinter’! Although the rambling scripts and long silences that categorised Harold Pinter’s writing would appear to make his work easy to improvise, Gemma urged the audience never to try this.

What other roles had she enjoyed playing? She had loved acting in Killing Eve; her character had been useless but she enjoyed hanging out with Fiona Shaw and also Jodie Comer! She had also loved working with Patrick Malahide who played her father in Game of Thrones, and with Sheridan Smith who had cried with her on set even when it wasn’t her scene, to make her tears authentic, which was so helpful. Gemma recalled ‘there was a lot of snotty crying in The Moorside’!

Finally, what did Gemma think was the hardest things about acting. That was easy, she quipped. ‘It’s the bit in between jobs when you think you’re never going to work again. You have to trust that it will be OK.’

A vote of thanks to Gemma was given by Landor President David Stevens on behalf of an enraptured audience, and Landor prefect Charlotte presented her with a bouquet with the gratitude of the whole Landor community.