Actress Jessica Ellerby’s first day (ever) on a film set included a sex scene in a bathroom stall with Jonah Hill. That was the first shot, at 8 am. “They had to reshuffle things and I ended up having to do said bathroom scene first. First up in the day, first day on a new job.” Ellerby’s character in the hit-comedy “Get Him To The Greek” (alongside comedy legends Russell Brand and Rose Byrne) was mostly edited out – except for that steamy scene – so we can be sure her prosperous acting success is all her own doing. Ellerby’s screen curriculum is far-flung and flavored. Aptly demonstrating her versatility in the new Epix Batman prequel “Pennyworth”, her character, Queen Elizabeth, required research and study of regal jargon and culture. In the Netflix series “Lovesick” she plays a sexually-permissive and overly reactive Jane.
Her most adventurous project to date isn’t the sex in a bathroom stall scene, but a self-directed, written and produced short-film in which she got crafty and hands-on. With close to no budget she managed to conceive “The Hungry Games.” “I had two massive bags of pound coins to feed the parking meter for our sound recordists car, two industrial storage boxes full of props, a fridge full of home cooked meals and two suitcases full of costumes,” she told us. The comedic short touches on the insane “health” marketing campaigns and brands that continue to inundate the 21st century woman.
Delving into the epidemic, Ellerby shows how the “not-so” healthy diet, fasting, and extreme measures in the name of skinny adversely affects the modern female. “I’d been hearing a LOT of chat from women about diets and ‘health regimes’ and ‘fasting’ and basically a litany of quite frankly mental self flagellation and it got to a point where the stuff I was hearing was getting comical, so ridiculous it sounded made up.”
Check out our exclusive interview with the actress (and now producer, director, and writer!) below.
What was your first role as an actress?
It was a play at Southwark Playhouse. An amazing three hander written by prolific novelist Edna O’Brian and directed by Sean Matthias. The play is all set around a man (who we never actually physically see) and the repercussions he has on the three women in his life: his wife, daughter, and mistress. I played his troubled, substance abusing daughter Brandy. It was an awesome first job! I remember Alan Rickman came to our press night and bought us a drink in the bar after and I thought ‘I’ve made it!’
Hilariously, years later, in between jobs I used to temp for a friend’s families GP surgery, and the writer (Edna) was coincidentally a patient. She used to come in for her appointment and give me looks of ‘poor thing’. I wanted to shout ‘it’s ok! I’m only here temporarily!’
You play Queen Elizabeth II in the new TV series “Pennyworth.” How did you prepare to play a royal?
To be honest, in the same way that I’d prepare any other character really. I often start with dialect as I think the muscularity of an accent can really inform the energy of a character. You start to get a flavour of how they move and occupy a space through the energy of their speech. And obviously the Queen has an extremely iconic and unmistakable way of talking. So I did lots of research on a young Elizabeth, but also a young Princess Margaret as Pennyworth is set in an alternative universe, so the Queen isn’t a direct representation of our Queen. It felt like she had a flavour of Margaret so tried to weave that through too. And then really, it’s about understanding the world you’re occupying and the role that you play within telling the story. So for me in this particular show for example I felt I really needed to get a grip on the two conflicting parties – The Raven Society and The No Name League. Which I’ll be honest for a while I was like “who’s in charge of those guys? And they work for who?!” But that’s all part of the fun, putting all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together.
Side note, if the show were to go again I might do some Buckingham Palace/Windsor Castle jaunts to get me in the regal mood!
How does the show “Pennyworth” add to the Batman mythos? We understand its a prequel for Batman. Can you explain the plot?
That’s right. It’s an origins story about Batman’s Butler Alfred (Pennyworth).
We’re going right back to London in the 60’s – Alfred has just returned from war, still a very young man, in a landscape of political unrest. It’s about him trying to find his place back in society. It expands the world around Batman that audiences won’t have seen or thought of. Taking a lesser, but well known character, and delving into their backstory. It also takes the Batman story out of Gotham and puts it in the UK which is very different and cool.
In the Netflix series “Lovesick” you play Jane Ansell, a short-term, sexually-permissive former girlfriend of the main character. Can you fill us in on that character and the experience working on the show?
Ah Jane, she’s pretty unpleasant isn’t she?! I think as a character she’s extremely complex – her detachment and promiscuity definitely comes from some complicated place of insecurity and fear. She’s irritable, reactive and has zero filter. There’s no holding back and that was really fun/liberating to play! Though I was glad to shake her off at the end of the day. Working on the show was amazing – one of my favourite jobs.
I remember a few days before shooting the pilot I got sent the cast list and realizing loads of my friends were also in the show. We filmed up in Glasgow (SUCH a cool city), in the summer and had an absolute ball.
You’ve added “producer” role to your curriculum with the 2018 comedy short “The Hungry Games.” Can you take us through the steps of coming up with this project?
Two main catalysts really. Firstly, I was also feeling a bit frustrated with work and also the creative input I had. I thought; I can either sit here waiting for the phone to ring feeling hard done by or I can write something and put myself in it. So I thought I’d have a stab at making something. My attitude was: ’it’ll either be total shit (in which case no one has to see it), or it won’t be. But I’ll never know if I don’t try’. Nothing ever happens if you’re just scared of looking like a tit. Sometimes looking like a tit is good. It forces you out of your comfort zone to make mistakes and learn from them. So I pulled up my big boy pants and got on with it.
Secondly; I’d been hearing a LOT of chat from women about diets and ‘health regimes’ and ‘fasting’ and basically a litany of quite frankly mental self flagellation all in the name of ‘health’. It got to a point where the stuff I was hearing was getting comical, so ridiculous it sounded made up. And it was coming from every which direction: friends, family, acquaintances, women I’d overhear chatting on the tube – it felt like an epidemic. They say ‘write what you know’. I feel like I know comedy, and I definitely know the world of women and they’re weird, competitive body issues. So I wrote that.
We understand you were very hands-on with your short film – acting as the make-up artist and costume designer. Did you have experience on those things? Why did you decide to take on different hats?
I had nooooooooooo experience in any of it (apart from the acting bit obviously)
And I took on all the hats out of sheer necessity – no other reason! There was no budget, so the whole thing was very much guerrilla filming – people all mucking in for the love of it. Make up was one of the few things I actually didn’t do (well, I did my own!) but to give you a little chink into my living room the night before the shoot, I had two massive bags of pound coins to feed the parking meter for our sound recordists car, two industrial storage boxes full of props, a fridge full of home cooked meals and two suitcases full of costumes. The check list was monstrous, and although there was a huge sense of pride when we wrapped I think more than one film and I might have had a nervous breakdown!
Does comedy come natural to you? Is it your favourite acting genre?
Interesting question. I’m not sure if I’m all that funny to be honest.
I think I understand comedy, I get the rhythm of it, the punch lines etc. But I’m also almost always the ‘straight man’ in the comedy and their job is often to facilitates all that, so maybe that’s where I reside best? Weirdly (despite my CV) it’s not my favourite genre to act. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something joyful and fun about being on a comedy set – the content is jubilant and it attracts a certain type of person so they can be great sets to be on. But I’m more naturally drawn to drama – grittier, darker, rawer.
That said, there’s been a real boom in more comedy/drama of late, and I love me a bit of that. It marry’s the two. Light and shade. Funny, but with heart. More of that please!
Where in the U.K. are you from, and what are your thoughts on America/ American comedy?
Well, I was actually born abroad and only moved to the UK when I was 17. Both my parents are English, but as they both still live in the Middle East I’m not really ‘from’ anywhere. I say London now because it’s where I now live and a much easier answer. So: London. I really like the States! (the bits I’ve been to) I grew up on the beach, so going over the the West Coast, especially LA always feels vey familiar – laid back sunshine, surf, beach. I’d never say never about living that way for a bit if the opportunity arose. New York is obviously awesome, and I visited Boston last year which I really liked too. I’ve loved some of the comedy shows to come out of America recently. I was OBSESSED with ‘Friends From College’, like, obsessed. I laughed out loud hard to all of that and thought it was pure genius. Some other faves include Girls (obviously), Casual, The Good Place, and also Iliza Shlesinger Elder Millennial for some stand up.
In the TV series “Living the Dream” you play all-American apple pie baking Stacee). How do you prepare to play an American?
My school was pretty international so I’ve always had a lot of American friends so references aplenty to draw from there. But more specifically, when the audition came up I’d just spent 2 weeks intensive with an incredible American lady who was SO like Stacee it was weird. I got sent the script, read the part and was like ‘amazing. I know this person. I’ve just done a 2 week character study on her’. I had to email her when I got the job to basically say “hi, I’m about to do a cheap imitation of you on National Television, do you mind?!’
What is/was your favorite comedy sitcom (as a kid or as a grown-up)?
I mean I’m a kid of the 90’s so growing up it was Friends – all day long.
That and South Park.
You were in the hit comedy “Get Him To The Greek.” How was working with Jonah Hill and Russel Brand?
It was my first ever job on screen so mostly I too busy was pinching myself and/or trying not to throw up to really pay much attention to anything else!
As with a lot of Judd Apatow productions, they write more than they’ll need, and then pair it all back in the edit. So my character was meant to be in a lot more but the sum of my role ends up basically being just having sex with Jonah in a toilet (classy).
But when we came to film I had a whole shoot schedule of various different scenes, however on my first day they had to reshuffle things and I ended up having to do said bathroom scene first. First up in the day (like 8am on set), first day on a new job, FIRST DAY ON A FILM SET EVER.
Do you have anything have coming up next year we should keep on our radar?
I’m in a short film with Timothy Spall that will be doing some US film festival rounds soon. It’s a beautiful and touching sci fi film by up and coming film maker Magali Barbe about grief, kindness and finding your way home.
Keep your eyes peeled for that!
Interview by The Untitled Magazine