Jessica Raine talks about her new role in The Last Post, new projects and more.  

Jessica Raine has just finished watching The Handmaid’s Tale, and is incensed because, she tells me, she got there first. ‘I had the idea to bring The Handmaid’s Tale to TV a couple of years ago and I brought it to a producer and they were like, “Oh my God, that’s such a great idea.” And then we discovered it had been snapped up [by Elisabeth Moss]. It’s amazing, but how annoying!’

She may have missed out on the chance to bring Margaret Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece to the small screen, but the 35-year-old British actress isn’t exactly short of high-profile TV roles – far from it. After working in theatre, Jessica made her name in 2012 when she was chosen to play the lead in one of the most popular period dramas of the decade.

As Jenny Lee, the prim and proper young nurse in Call the Midwife,the BBC’s warm-hearted drama about midwifery in post-war London, she had us weeping every Sunday evening as the nation took the series firmly into its heart. Viewing figures topped 10 million, meaning Jessica was suddenly one of the most recognisable faces on television – not something she was prepared for, or particularly enjoyed.

‘I discovered I had absolutely no interest in fame, which is quite useful to know,’ she jokes. We are sitting in a dark, rather hot bar in central London, drinking cup after cup of tea. She is a natural beauty – dressed today in a simple linen skirt, white T-shirt and sandals – but says she is never going to be one of ‘those women’ who always look perfect.

‘I’m just not always going to be the girl that is ready to be photographed. I think perfection is actually really boring, and I’m not that interested in it.’

It has been three years since Jessica left the show, and in many ways she has been trying to shed all remnants of Jenny Lee ever since. A stream of meaty parts has followed – she has been thrown off a rooftop in Line of Duty, played ‘class-A bitch’ Jane Rochford opposite Claire Foy and Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall, and escaped grisly murder in Sky Atlantic’s Arctic horror, Fortitude.

But while it must at times seem tedious to be known still as the Call the Midwife girl, leading that cast remains the job she is most proud of. ‘I never knew how much it took to be the lead in a TV series. It was such hard work. You’re in every scene, every day, for four months. It makes you very strong.’

It’s only now she realises how lucky she was to star in a drama that touched such a huge audience so profoundly. ‘It was an amazing, huge break. It was tough but I really did love every minute of it, especially that first series – that was particularly special, because no one knew what a success it would turn out to be. And I had nothing to set it against.’

Jessica’s new role is in another thoroughly British drama, The Last Post. Set in the 1960s against the shimmering heat of southern Yemen, where a unit of the Royal Military Police has been posted, the series captures a pocket of British history that until now seems to have escaped dramatisation. 

Written by Peter Moffat and based on his own experiences of growing up on an army base in Yemen during the Aden Emergency, The Last Post follows the men who have been sent to bring stability to the region, at that time one of the last remaining British colonies, living on the base with their wives and children under the constant threat of insurgency.

Jessica plays Alison, the beautiful, bored, and often drunken wife of Lieutenant Ed Laithwaite, played by Stephen Campbell Moore (The Go-Between, The Lady in the Van). She is quite unlike any character we have seen Jessica portray before. There is a fury within her, and a determination to laugh in the face of propriety which, Jessica tells me, makes Alison her favourite role to date.

‘It was the out-and-out don’t give a f—ness of her,’ she says. ‘I’ve never played that quite sexy, bored woman before. I got a real hit of her as soon as I read the script. This woman is so vulnerable but also so dissatisfied, but not in a “poor me” way – her dissatisfaction comes out in her wanting to have fun. 

‘It was the out-and-out don’t give a f—ness of her,’ she says. ‘I’ve never played that quite sexy, bored woman before. I got a real hit of her as soon as I read the script. This woman is so vulnerable but also so dissatisfied, but not in a “poor me” way – her dissatisfaction comes out in her wanting to have fun. 

‘I love that she just wants to drink, even though it’s so obviously destructive. At that time, you can’t behave like that, it’s not in the rules, it’s not what an army wife should be. I was intrigued by how she found herself in this situation, in this rigid regime of army life. And how do you kick against that?’

The Last Post is the perfect, sumptuous drama for the autumn. While officers are fighting to protect their outpost from insurgent attacks, their wives while away their days at the local beach club. The relentless, suffocating heat pervades everything. Inevitably, combined with the restrictions that come with living within the confines of the base, emotions are heightened and relationships tested.

Filming the series – which also stars War and Peace’s Jessie Buckley as the innocent, newly married Honor, whom Alison takes under her wing – meant spending four months in South Africa, where, Jessica says, the cast became very close.

‘It was a really happy time. It’s always hard being away from home and I’d never been away for such a long time before, but I loved it’. Home is south London, where she lives with her husband, the actor Tom Goodman-Hill (who played Roger Grove in Mr Selfridge), and their two cats, Margot and Pickle.

They married in 2015 after meeting five years earlier while performing together in Earthquakes in London at the National Theatre. Does it make life easier being married to a fellow actor? ‘Yes, I think so. [An actor] understands you might have to go away for ages to work, and that you’re either insanely busy, or there’s nothing. It’s a weird job.’

Jessica seems refreshingly confident in the way she navigates this industry. Working on Call the Midwife with an almost entirely female cast and crew, so early in her career, she says, means that these days she always asks her agent to make sure she is being paid as a male actor would be.

‘I do always say – if a man was playing a lead in this show, do you think that’s what he’d get? Because I am sensitive to it.’ She’s also, she adds, more able these days to shrug off the ‘little voice’ in her head telling her she might not be good enough. ‘I’m quite hard on myself, but it’s not helpful to think, “Oh my God, I’m a fraud.”

Growing up on her parents’ farm in deepest Herefordshire, with her older sister Sarah (now a lecturer in fashion theory), Jessica knew from an early age she wanted to act, but didn’t tell a soul. ‘I don’t think I told anyone for 10 years,’ she admits.

I’m not from a family of actors and I think I was a little bit ashamed of wanting to be one, because I associated actresses with a falseness and a cliquey, emotional, heart-on-your-sleeve thing. I’ve always had a real aversion to sentimentality. I don’t like sugar-coating things, I think it’s really important to be honest. The older I get, the more I think that’s the key to everything.

Initially rejected by every drama school she applied to, Jessica spent a year in Thailand teaching English, and on her return reapplied successfully to Rada. These days, she says, her family are ‘super proud’ of all she has achieved. She is incredibly close to her family, but regrets she doesn’t get home to Herefordshire more often.

‘It’s a bit gutting, really. I do try to get down as much as I can.’ 

She may have to wait a little longer, as a busy autumn of work stretches ahead. She is about to start shooting Sky Atlantic’s big-budget adaptation of the Patrick Melrose novels (the cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch and Blythe Danner).

Then there’s a film adaptation of the Sheridan Le Fanu lesbian vampire story Carmilla. The director and many of the production team are women. Does this tend to make a difference to the experience of shooting? ‘I don’t really think it does; I think if people are good, they’re good,’ she says firmly. 

‘It’s always delightful to have more women around. But I think it would be too much of a generalisation to say it changes either way. Everyone brings their own energy to the set.’ Her quiet self-assurance and natural pragmatism clearly keep Jessica grounded. That and her thoroughly normal home life, where her sanctuary is her garden.

‘It’s the only thing that really takes my mind off everything. I just love getting my hands dirty. Your whole being is for someone else when you’re an actor. I like scraping my hair back and being in the garden and not caring.’
Soutce: The Telegraph 23rd September 2017