- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
A thing you have to know about Hannah Waddingham is that she likes to get plane drunk. Preferably on champagne, time of day be damned. In her words, “7 A.M.? Bubbles.” This was part of the plan when the minds behind Ted Lasso flew her out for a second audition for Rebecca, Ted Lasso’s steely club owner hell bent on destroying her ex-husband’s soccer team—a role she was certain she was not actually in the running for. She figured it was going to be more of a vacation with a little work thing tacked on than a real audition, but then they gave her all these damn lines to memorize on the plane ride over, which sent her bubbly plans to shit. “I sat on the plane, [thinking], guys I really want to sit here and enjoy the flight, watch a couple of films and get drunk.”
Once she got to Los Angeles, she met up with old friends over dinner, and the next day, she did a chemistry read with Jason Sudekis. She had fulfilled her duties for this role she definitely wasn’t going to get, and as she left, an executive complimented her performance as Lady of the Lake in Spamalot on Broadway. She asked, grateful but slightly confused, if Rebecca sang on the show. Underneath his breath, Sudekis mumbled, “She does now.”
Wait. Was Sudekis… confirming something? She went home and waited for 10 days, sure that she had made it all up. And she didn’t even get her champagne.
Fans of Ted Lasso, whose second season begins on July 23, know what happened next. Rebecca—a “real honey of a role,” as Waddingham puts it—really put Waddingham in the television spotlight, despite her own Ted Lasso-ian shock that she got the role to begin with. And after 20 hard-fought years, the acclaim for Waddingham’s portrayal of Rebecca feels appropriate. No actor is their character, but after a string of roles including extremist nuns and belting divas, a good-hearted and warm series like Ted Lasso feels highly appropriate for Waddingham herself.
This whole timeline might have never come about though if, two decades ago, one audition had gone differently. At the time she was struggling: at 6'2" in heels, she felt she had trouble blending into ensemble roles, but coming out of the gate looking for a lead role is a hefty proposition for a new actor. But she threw her heart into an audition for a dinner-theater show, Joni and Gina's Wedding, for a role that called for an "Overgrown Barbie doll, built like a brick shithouse" and an American accent.
“I was like, if I don't get this, I think I should just give up,” she told me, during a Zoom call from her home in London, in June. “No word of a lie. I did an American accent from the minute I walked in the door, and I didn't quit it for a second. They offered me the job on the spot, and then they said, ‘Oh, which part of the States are you from?’" The role was a turning point. After that she starred in the West End’s Spamalot and Kiss Me Kate and The Wizard of Oz. She originated roles in works for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton. It’s the dream, right? Hell, she tells me Sir Trevor Nunn shifted the age range of his production of A Little Night Music just to have Waddingham play the part of Desiree Armfeldt. That’s diva shit.
But she found the whole stage-to-screen transition harder in England that she might have had she actually been from the States, but she wanted it, badly. “Knocking on that door, I don't mind saying, was long. Really long," she says. "Just being allowed in, can I please do both? Can you please trust me that I can do both? Because it's quite hard on this side of the pond if you're a musical theater person to be taken seriously.”
Throughout the 2000s, she’d land a guest episode, here and there, but it was Game of Thrones, when she donned the habit of Septa Unella—a worthy, pious adversary of Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister—that she caught television’s attention. “I was nearly eight-and-a-half months pregnant when I auditioned for that role,” she says. The other contenders were short, older women in their late 60s, early 70s. Waddingham, again, thought she’d missed the mark. Then she landed the part and created one of the most recognizable moments in modern TV history: Septa Unella walking a naked Cersei Lannister through the streets, ringing a bell and bellowing "Shame!"
In another infamous scene, Cersei gets her revenge and wine-boards Septa Unella—a fate that Waddingham had to endure herself. And I respect the craft of it all, but I also can’t help asking… is it really worth it? Is there a time where you just call it and say, This is crazy. You’re pouring wine on my face and committing torture largely banned throughout the world… and with a red no less. “I was nearly like that with the waterboarding. But in the moment that you are dealt those cards, you have to go, ‘Am I going to be a sissy girl and say, oh no, I can't do this,’ or are you going to rest-assured that they're not going to kill you?”
As we chat, I can't help but notice how nice everything around Waddingham is. She’s framed in the gorgeous white backdrop of her home, with a vase of flowers to her right. She’s in this immaculate white dress, and despite being an intimidating presence, she’s perfectly lovely. Charming. Sometimes even, bawdy. It's really a testament to her acting chops, given that she's known for such icy figures like Septa Unella and even the hyper-intensive mom from Sex Education. And Rebecca, to an extent, is still a touch cold. “I like it because I'm a bit of a silly sausage in real life. I like the fact that I get to hang out my boots. I am an old-school theater performer at my core. I like playing characters that are nothing like myself.”
Get unlimited to access to decades of profiles with Esquire Select.
But keeping distance from Rebecca is a bit more difficult for Waddingham than roles she’s had in the past. Other roles have come with “ugly makeup” and prosthetics. Rebecca is a glamorous woman with a bite. But that’s a thin, no matter how manicured, exterior that hides a lot underneath. It resonates with Waddingham. “She can't let that slip because that's the only thing she has a handle on. If she lets that slip,” she pauses, a bit unexpectedly. “Even talking about it makes me emotional. If she lets that slip, it is a house of cards at this juncture in her life.”
She adds that some of Rebecca’s most sensitive moments tap into her own vulnerabilities. Throughout season one, half of Rebecca’s story is eclipsed by her philandering husband’s shadow and his insistence on rubbing his ex-wife’s nose in his affair with a younger woman. She, in his stead, makes plans to destroy her husband’s football team, which she negotiated in the separation. No, the stories are not one to one, but Waddingham knows about a terrible end to a relationship. “The moment when Rupert shits on her from a great height, I was more than happy to let people in and see that I had lived that in the past. I'm very…” she says, trailing off to think for a moment. “I don't know, maybe I impart that which I've been through too much sometimes. But I love that fact. I want to take the audience to the nth degree.”
For those who haven’t caught up with season one—how dare you?—Waddingham’s character has a change of heart by ten-episode run. “I wanted her to have figured things out… figured out that she does give a shit about her team and her boys. She's become the tigress of that team. But in terms of her own life, she's having to recalibrate.”
That’s where season two picks up. Rebecca may love her boys, but she’s still trying to suss out how to love herself, or at least love herself in the right way. “If you've been in a relationship, whether it's been great or toxic, it is still a habit,” she says. “And it's very hard to then find how you're going to be, where you're going to be, with whom.”
At the time we talk, Emmy nominations haven’t been announced, but Waddingham is not only highly favored to be nominated, but to win the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy. When I point that out to her, she puts her fingers in her ears and starts humming loudly, which turns into full blown singing. But she finally agrees to answer the question of whether she thinks she’ll win.
“Oh, hell no… that’s a hilarious notion.”
This is classic Ted Lasso territory. Someone has been drinking the Kool-aid because the whole “I could never win” bit is one that is hard to believe. It’s touted out in every decent actor’s statement upon learning that they’ve been nominated for a major award. And considering that Waddingham not only ended up nominated, but also favored to win… the “honor to be nominated” shtick feels a little much. But isn't that cynical of me? That’s everything Ted Lasso has warned us against. Why do we struggle so hard to adopt the mantra of feel-good TV? Maybe not everything needs to be so cynical. Maybe people are good and earnest.
Waddingham has moved on quickly, more willing to speak about another accolade she’s more proud of: getting her dad hooked on the show. At 81, she says he’s “very rarely impressed by television.” So that’s the trophy she’s holding onto. Because the awards stuff? “If I start letting that kind of thing in, in all seriousness... If I start letting that kind of thing in, I am 100 percent doing it for the wrong reasons.”
Is that another line? Is that what you’re supposed to say about awards? I’m not so sure because, in the glow of the goodness of Ted Lasso, I think she means it.
You Might Also Like