One of the leading lights of British drama remembers her convent days, where her interest in performance blossomed
Where to look for insight when, as an actor and a Catholic, you are playing a white British woman who converts to Islam to build a life with her Muslim husband? That was the challenge that faced Joanna Scanlan when she was cast as Mary in After Love, one of cinema’s big critical successes of the summer of 2021.
One of the answers she came up with was to draw on her experiences in the 1960s and 1970s as a pupil at convent schools still operating on the pre-Vatican II model. “I discovered I had so much ignorance about Islam,” she explains. “Every time we see representations of Islam in modern culture, it is overly heightened one way or the other, whether it is a terrorist story or a victim story. So it was a quality of everyday Islam that I was trying to catch on to for Mary. And then I remembered what it was like to be an everyday Catholic, for instance how you might speak together when everyone in the room is Catholic, and how it is different if there are people in there who aren’t.”
From that initial flash of insight, she went on to mine a rich seam. The five-times-a-day call to prayer, one of the pillars of Islam, she realised, is not unlike the rhythm of prayer that shaped daily life in the convent schools where she was educated until the age of 13 – first as a boarder from the age of six at the Brigidine Convent in Denbigh in north Wales, and then from nine at New Hall in Essex with the Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre.