With 'Venus,' Whittaker rising

Times Staff Writer

WHERE many a 24-year-old film debutante might turn gelatinous alongside P-P-P-Peter O'Toole, say hello to Jodie Whittaker, who plunged herself into Roger Michell's "Venus," emerged to wows from co-actors and critics, and wound up saying of the globally esteemed O'Toole, "He's got really good banter." A hint to how she navigated such rare air with such aplomb: She's got really good banter too.

By the time she's turned up in her jeans, sweater and beloved navy blue Chuck Taylors, talked for 40 minutes in her agent's office, continued the discussion along the unbearably swarmed Oxford Street, and still on into Bloomsbury in front of the British Museum, it's clear: Here's one of the better natural conversationalists among the 6 billion earthlings, maybe even a candidate for the proverbial sister-you-wish-you-had.

She's all insight and no tedium while pouring out words about her home village (Skelmanthorpe, pop. 4,100, Yorkshire, northern England), her affection for her still-married parents (vast), her best friends (four non-girlie young women from home), her world roaming (includes backpacking on the West Coast at 18), her acceptance in 2002 to East London's 126-year-old Guildhall School of Music and Drama (kept thinking they'd send second letter confessing error) or the day her parents brought her the 150 miles south to London (toted the same well-concealed vulnerability as her character in "Venus").

That's not to mention her take on such subjects as Hanif Kureishi's unapologetic screenwriting (iconic in her worldview), to the bizarrely patronizing way people treat the elderly (she once worked nine months in an assisted-living facility), to San Diego (the only place other than London that made her stomach dance at first sight), to American football.

Yep, American football.

An accomplished squash player and soccer fantasy-league owner, she took in the Arizona-Arizona State game in November with her Arizonan boyfriend. Unlike with soccer, she said, "I couldn't understand why it was stopping all the time." Unlike with rugby, she said, "you don't even have to have the ball and you can be shoved to the floor.")

The third reading does it

With everyone around her forecasting the demise of her anonymity, she starts the walk down Oxford telling how she was in Birmingham (the one in England) filming the BBC's "Doctors" about a year ago when agent Mary Fitzgerald dialed from Morocco to say Whittaker's third reading for "Venus" had clinched the part of Jessie, whereupon Whittaker began crying and the taxi driver said, "You all right, love?"

Her first conversation with O'Toole, 74, had come at that third reading. Three actresses had wrought tight contention for the part of the coarse grandniece who comes to London and annoys the hell out of her aged great-uncle (played by Leslie Phillips) but enchants his aged best friend (played by O'Toole). Set to meet both Kureishi and O'Toole, she judged herself "terrified."

"He's like 6-3," she said of O'Toole. She, by the way, is 5 feet 5. "And he stood up to say hello to me and he was just this towering man." She requested an autograph of a "Lawrence of Arabia" DVD for somebody else. Banter ensued. Whittaker asked O'Toole if it was true what her mother had said about him wearing some sort of unusual costume to some sort of party in the 1970s. O'Toole replied it was not true but wished it were.

By last February, as they shot the final scenes on spitefully frigid days on an English beach, she'd lean on him during breaks.

"He would take her out for walks and talk to her; he was very charming with her," Kureishi said.

"What a connection with such an amazing man," Whittaker said.

"She is a brave, very self-assured, tough little girl," O'Toole said.

In fact, Phillips found her emblematic of a sort of evolution across in the decades, in which young people "are getting more and more sure of what they do," a vantage point with heft given Phillips' age (82) and film total (136). Much as he shared Whittaker's first film, Phillips shared Julie Christie's first two ("The Fast Lady" and "Crooks Anonymous"), both in 1962 when the future Lara Antipova was still 21.

"She wasn't as relaxed as this girl," Phillips said. "She was nervous and she was late on the set and she didn't necessarily get on with the director. Jodie's terribly assured. Very on the ball."

Example, from Phillips: On the "crucial day" at the outset "when we all sit 'round and read" in the production company, Whittaker showed up with the northern accent central to the part. "She arrived on set knowing her lines when I don't think I've ever done that," Phillips said. "And she did it without the book....There was no sign of nerves or anything. I was quite nervous."

She'd steered toward such a moment since she decided to become an actress -- at age 5. She'd won the Gold Medal for Acting at Guildhall, appeared twice in London's West End and twice in BBC series. Still, a film brought exotic aspects, and not just having to smoke cigarettes ("horrid") or drink the sugar-water gunk that passes for beer, but also the first scene director Michell filmed.

When Whittaker watches that scene these days and sees Jessie sitting beside O'Toole's Maurice at the theater, she still can spy the uncertainty roiling within, even if nobody else in her life notices. At that point began a trajectory so meaningful that even though her next assignment might turn up wondrous -- the lead in "Good" opposite Viggo Mortensen -- it somehow won't be the same.

"I'll probably never do anything so open again, in a way, because I had no experience," she said. "I had no idea of what I looked like on screen. I didn't know how to approach filming," or which facial expressions might succeed on film, she said.

"So it's quite sad that that first moment is gone."


Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz contributed to this report.

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