With HBO’s Avenue 5 released earlier this year, Theresa Godly could be seen in the role of Zeke’s Mom and she has been working on an upcoming film release, Searching Malware, where she will be playing Teddy Black. Theresa has been involved in many commercials including for Hilton and during her time as an actress, has filmed for episodes of Law & Order and Outnumbered. In 2017, she was cast as Aaliyah in comedy film Finding Fatimah, and has also worked on a BBC documentary – Searching For Mum. We chatted with Theresa about playing Zeke’s Mom in Avenue 5, being involved with Searching For Mum and filming for Finding Fatimah.
How was it playing Zeke’s Mom in Avenue 5?
Armando Iannucci is one of those writers and directors you put on your bucket list, well I did anyway. So, when my agent called, I nearly fell off my chair! I adore Armando’s work and to be cast in one of his shows was goosebump stuff. From the moment I went to my wardrobe fitting, I got the feeling that he creates a working environment with people he has worked with for many years who are like a family, and it was an honour to be part of that. I love the character, she is a ballsy, fun-loving woman who prides herself on looking amazing and she is super proud of her very clever and astute son, Zeke.
What was it like working alongside the rest of the cast and being on set of the production?
Working with someone like Hugh Laurie was nothing short of amazing, I have loved him ever since watching him and my other favourite, Stephen Fry, in Fry & Laurie with my father. He is a magnificent actor and so down to earth and humble. His jazz and blues playlists were a treat on the hair and makeup wagon in the morning too. I didn’t really know much about Lenora Critchlow who plays Billie, but she is superb in the show and a lovely person too. I have to give a massive shoutout to Jairaj Varsani who plays Zeke, my on-screen son. He was only eleven when we filmed and he had already been nominated for a Children’s BAFTA for his role in Hetty Feather on CBBC, and filmed Armando Iannucci’s feature film The Personal History of David Copperfield playing a young David Copperfield. What an outstanding young actor who is representing all of us British Indians in the industry. Not only is Jairaj a talented actor, he is also so professional on-set and hilarious off-set. Just an adorable young man who was a joy to work with. We are hoping to be reunited for Series 2.
The sets were mind-blowing, you walk onto the main stage which is Avenue 5 and it’s all white and gold and so opulent, you’re immediately transported into the future and all its glory of space travel. Simon Bowles designed the sets, and he did a superb job. There were three stages at Leavesden Studios where we filmed, one being the CGI stage which is where I filmed one of my scenes with Jairaj and Ethan Phillips, who plays Spike, he was also such a pleasure to work with.
How did you find your time filming for Finding Fatimah?
Finding Fatimah was a joy to work on, it was lovely to be part of a well-funded British Indie film, and one which covered the topic of the British Muslim dating scene in a comedic and light-hearted way. We had great British Asian actors such as Guz Khan and Mandeep Dhillon in the cast, as well as Denise Welch and Dave Spikey from Phoenix Nights, who are respected comedy actors. We were lucky enough to have time for a day’s rehearsal which you don’t always get with screen acting, and it was the first outing for my Northern accent on-screen so I was grateful for the day’s rehearsal! We filmed in Docklands, although it is set in Manchester and it was a fabulous few days – hard work but when you love your job, it’s not actually like work at all, is it?
Can you tell us about playing Aaliyah?
Aaliyah is the lead character’s bossy, but huge-hearted, older sister. She has slight delusions of grandeur, but it’s all a show because deep down she is very lonely, despite her arranged marriage to Adam, the airline pilot! She loves her little sister and wants her to be truly happy, even if she doesn’t think Shahid (played by Danny Ashok) is good enough. She is a bit like me, in that she is very sarcastic and quick-witted, and tends to say what’s on her mind. I loved playing her.
With Searching Malware due for release at a later date, you play Teddy Black, what are you looking forward to for the release?
I am looking forward to people seeing a different type of character that I haven’t played before, it’s quite futuristic too. I like to push myself with different roles, and there isn’t much that I wouldn’t consider, just so long that the script is captivating, and engages me.
Can you tell us about your documentary Searching For Mum?
Searching For Mum was produced by the BBC with the amazing BAFTA award-winning Raw TV team, as part of the BBC’s Big British Asian Summer in 2018. It charts my journey back to Kolkata, India to find my birth family. I have always known I was adopted from India and that my biological father had died whilst my biological mother was pregnant with me, and that they already had a son and two other daughters. My family lived in a slum called Hatibagan, where I was born. Travelling back there was life-changing for me, but a privilege to see where I came from, my roots, and the amazing people who live there. I won’t give away the outcome, but the documentary can be viewed on my YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/c/terigodly. Being adopted, and being adopted as an only child, brings a whole set of pros and cons. Like most adoptees, I have abandonment issues, but being an only child I have tons of initiative, I lead my life, and I really only rely on myself to make things happen. I have found these excellent traits to have in this industry. I am proud of my Indian and European roots and eternally grateful to my birth mother – without her selflessness, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I aim to make her and my adoptive parents very proud of me.
How did this come about and how long did it take to film?
The documentary came about because when the trailer for the LION film (starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman) started running at the end of 2016, it was being discussed on the Facebook page for an amazing charity called The Hope Foundation. I made a comment that the story hit home with me because I was also adopted from Kolkata and grew up in a very different place. The (then) director of Hope, Karin Shulte, contacted me and was fascinated and wanted to talk more to me. We spoke the next day for hours, and Karin was keen to discuss my story with Hope Foundation ambassador and respected journalist and broadcaster Andrea Catherwood. Cutting a very long story short, Andrea interviewed me for The Daily Telegraph newspaper in January 2017, which was a half-page spread. She also interviewed me on BBC Woman’s Hour, which was another bucket list moment for me and such a huge honour. I sat in the same chair that Nicole Kidman had sat in a week before when she was interviewed about the film as it is a true story. That led to an even longer radio interview with the brilliant Nikki Bedi on BBC Radio London Live, and then a live TV interview on BBC World News Oscar special in February, as the LION film had been nominated for Best Film.
Fast forward six months, and when the BBC were planning programmes for British Asian Season, they wanted to cover the topic of British people adopted from South Asia. I was considered because the BBC already knew all about me from the various TV and radio interviews I had done previously, and they sent a producer from Raw TV to talk to me. I was one of four people chosen, and that then saw the start of a lot of prep work, interviews, talking on camera very naturally about my family life, being adopted, my need to know more, and my hopes about finding my birth family.
It took just over two weeks to film in India, I flew out by myself as the crew had to arrive beforehand to film establishing shots and talk to the team of fixers and researchers on the ground in Kolkata. The thirty-hour layover in Dubai wasn’t helpful, but thanks to a delayed outbound flight from London, we missed our connecting flight. I had also only come out of a traumatic, upsetting two-year family court process a week before I got on a plane, so I really wasn’t in a great place emotionally, and missing my son Luca tremendously. Condensing nearly 200 hours of footage into thirty-five minutes was no mean feat, and I applaud the editor and director, but the ending you see is not the real ending, there was more that happened after the documentary, but that is another story for another day.
What was Outnumbered like to work on and who was your character Alison?
Gosh, that seems like so long ago now, that was only a small role, playing a colleague of Claire Skinner’s character (Claire plays the mum). It was great working with comedy greats like Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, who are amazing writers. It was a lot of fun, this is why I love working on comedy, you have so much fun on set, and there is more room for improv and ad-libbing in places.
You’ve worked on Law & Order and Silk; can you tell us more about this?
Law & Order was great fun, it was only a few episodes filming at Longcross Studios near my home, and I played a CPS solicitor who was a rather maverick. I remember being so starstruck when I got to work with Helen Baxendale, who I absolutely loved in Cold Feet and Friends. Scenes always took slightly longer than they should have done whenever Bradley Walsh was filming, as he is such a joker, and had the cast and crew in stitches – although the director wasn’t massively impressed, time is money when filming anything, of course. I think if Bradley wasn’t Bradley, he wouldn’t have got away with entertaining us all, but we had so much fun.
Silk was filmed in a courthouse in West London and was a much more serious set – not so much fun, but of course, it was all an experience and one for the CV. I played a solicitor again (I am usually cast in these types of very professional roles).
Can you tell us about some of the other projects you’ve worked on?
I started acting when I was five years old, in commercials, on stage in musicals, and photographic work mainly, then when I joined Sylvia Young Theatre School in London and joined their agency, I began doing more high-profile TV commercials for big brands which I loved. I also began getting auditions for TV shows, and when I was eleven, I was cast in BBC’s Grange Hill, which was a cult kids’ TV show back in the 80s. Over the years I have had many smaller roles, including Critical on Sky, a film called Queenie, King of Crime with Mark Wingett and Claire King, and something I really enjoyed was voicing a very wicked, but sexy character, called Giselle, the Spider Witch in an animated film called Byzantium which had its premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. I love voice acting and hope to do much more of this. I also worked on a fantastic TV Pilot called Floodlight, which is a comedy filmed in the style of The Thick of It (Armando Iannucci) with slightly shaky camera angles. This is set in a dysfunctional sports marketing agency, and I play the big boss, whose character is based on Karen Brady. It was so brilliantly written by Andrew Ash, and we are hoping it will be picked up by one of the major channels. It can be found on my YouTube channel.
What’s it been like returning to an acting career?
To be honest, I am glad that my career got put on hold after drama school, I had to raise my daughter by myself when I was very young and took a job in advertising for The Sun and News of The World newspapers, which led on to a great and fruitful career in advertising in press and then digital media. I was a single mother and needed to provide for my daughter, that sense of responsibility overtook anything else. I was earning really good money and had a great lifestyle. In 2006, my wonderful father was diagnosed with cancer and died two months later, I helped my mum take care of him and supported her and my daughter who adored him too. A year later, my son came along, and when he was six weeks old I was a single mother again. The point is, sometimes life takes over and gets in the way. But I always knew that I would go back to my first love and my huge passion which was my acting. I always say that my acting career was in a little box, put on a shelf to be revisited one day when the universe deemed it the ‘right’ time. That right time was when I turned forty. I gave up the office job and threw myself into contacting people I knew in the industry, gaining more recent credits, finding an agent, getting back on Spotlight and networking like a crazy person. Having been through so much (good and bad) in my life it has helped me to develop more layers to my performances, to grow as a person and to have more confidence as an actor from a BAME background. I believe things happen when they are meant to and for the right reason.
You’ve filmed a number of commercials, what do you enjoy most about this work?
Well, what’s not to love about filming TVCs? The work is always fun, they take usually between one to three days to film and they pay very well. Of course, commercials are not what I would call ‘real acting’, often there is no dialogue, of course. But you still have to bring the energy and performance element because you are helping to sell a product, brand or service in a very short snap of time. I have got commercial castings fine-tuned now, and the great thing about doing as many as I do is that you become well-known to these casting professionals who then request to see you again and again, and many are not just casting TVCs, they also cast film and TV projects. I relish any opportunity to do work with great people that leads to networking and perpetuates more work for the future. They are also the gift that keeps on giving because often they are extended or re-run past the original usage period, which means an unexpected payment for another buyout fee. Without the commercials and corporates that I film, it would be very tricky to be a full-time actor and pay my bills and living expenses. I can’t wait to do more once things are back to normal and our industry starts to get back to work.
Did you always know you wanted to be an actor and how did you get into it?
I knew from when I was a little girl and saw Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz that I wanted to pretend to be someone else. I would stand in front of the TV (usually too close according to my parents), and mimic what the actors were saying and doing, and I would remember a lot of dialogue too which got my mum thinking. I enrolled at a local stage school called Gina Dyke Stage School when I was five years old. I then attended Sylvia Young Theatre School in London when I was eight and joined their acting agency which led to many TV roles, TV commercials and stills campaigns, I also did tons of musical theatre which I loved, having stage-fright was never something I suffered from, I think when I was very young I saw it as a good excuse to wear makeup and costumes and feel grown-up! Most of it is a blur, but certain jobs obviously stand out in my memory. It taught me about the casting process, dealing with rejection, not being bogged down with ‘competing’ and the ‘business’ side of this industry from a young age and for that, I am very grateful. I excelled at Tap and Jazz dance, I detested Ballet because it was too disciplined for me, but I respected the art and the fact that Ballet is the foundation of all dance styles. I am an only child, and to integrate with other like-minded kids who loved what I did too and found the joy and freedom in expressing themselves in a safe space, was a wonderful experience for me.
How do you like to spend your time away from your career?
My career is a huge part of my life, but it’s important not to take one’s self too seriously, so I do love to spend a lot of time exercising, I go to the gym five times a week more because of the mental health benefits, and keeping in shape is important especially as you get older. I also do a lot of mat and reformer Pilates. I’ve started tap dance classes again which is so much fun! Of course, catching up with my friends is cliché, but I have some fantastic friends who have supported me through a very difficult period in my life and spending time with them, usually involving good food and experimental cocktails on the South Bank somewhere or at Little Italy and then onto Ronnie Scott’s for some Jazz music is one of my favourite things to do. I consume a lot of Netflix and Amazon like most people, and try to see as much fringe theatre as I can fit in. I have a lot of actor-friends and will always go along and support them in whatever they are doing too, I think that is important.
We noticed you’ve been working on a few projects during lockdown, can you say about this?
I am really excited to soon be filming a TV pilot called ARGH, written and directed by Martin Gooch, who has directed Hollyoaks and Doctors. His fourth feature film Atomic Apocalypse is out in the USA and will be released in the UK soon. I have known Martin for years and have been dying to work with him for ages, so I am thrilled. It is a fantasy comedy, and the first draft was already VERY funny and really jumps off the page which is always a good sign, especially with comedy. The cast will be announced soon, but I know that Kevin McNally and Vincent Franklin are confirmed, and I’m a huge admirer of both these actors.
I recently made a short film called Recycled, from an LA writer called Soda Persi, which is a tale of frustrated and unrequited love. It was really a bit of lockdown fun, but I enjoyed experimenting with virtual filming.
I am going out to California next year to film a feature called Conviction (working title), playing the love interest of the protagonist who is a physical therapist working to get him rehabilitated after a dance injury, right now we are doing lots of rehearsals via Zoom, and table-reads of different drafts.
Most excitingly, I am in R&D stages of my own screenplay which I am writing, about a very important topic, which is a global issue that affects millions of families. I can’t say too much yet, but if you imagine a cross between Erin Brockovich/Spotlight and Kramer vs. Kramer that might give some clues. It will be a complex script to write, but it is based on my own experiences and that of others. It is factual with fictional elements, of course – but getting it right is of paramount importance as it could affect huge changes in justice systems. I shall post updates on my YouTube channel which is www.youtube.com/c/terigodly, so feel free to subscribe and learn more.
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