Best of 2021: Emmy-Winner Hannah Waddingham on the Joy of Making “Ted Lasso”
This interview is part of our highly subjective, decidedly non-comprehensive “Best of 2021” year-end list. It was originally published on July 29.
Before Ted Lasso became a phenomenon, setting a record for most Emmy nominations by a freshman comedy (20 total, including seven for its actors), its virtues were spread, among my friends, more like a whisper campaign. One buddy in particular kept needling me via text. What finally broke me was the realization that here was my most sports-agnostic pal pressuring me to watch a show about an American football coach being hired to lead an English Premier League soccer team.
Maybe you had an experience like this with Ted Lasso? The show’s legion of fans, of which I am now a member, might as well be smeared in AFC Richmond blue face paint for the tenacity of the passion the series evokes. Perhaps, as the New York Times’s James Poniewozik suggests, the joy that the series brings viewers is due, in part, because we have reached a far different place than we were twenty years ago when TV was defined by an era of “High Irony,” as Poniewozik writes. From Letterman to Seinfeld to Ricky Gervais’s caustic, sarcastic David Brent in The Office, it was a time when the most watchable shows often centered on the least likable characters. From David Brent to Tony Soprano to Walter White, the loathsome lead was the draw of the series. This dynamic has been turned on its head, and the poster child for the new era of series centered around lead characters you’d let babysit your children is Jason Sudeikis’s Ted Lasso.
“This series was so refreshing in every sense,” says Emmy-nominated actress Hannah Waddingham. Waddingham plays AFC Richmond’s owner, Rebecca Welton, who spends all of season one trying to undermine Ted in every conceivable way. “It was championing the underdog, it was championing those people who are damaged and scarred, and needed to be not only held up but squeezed along the way. I loved the fact that there was nothing snippy about it. It wasn’t fashionable to criticize or even josh, really. It was just about being the best version of yourself and making it affect others.”
Ted Lasso is defined by joy and sincerity, emanating from Sudeikis’s titular coach and washing over the not always receptive Brits—these are a people known for stoicism, not effervescence. On the spectrum of Brits unamused by Ted’s unshakable enthusiasm and good cheer, Waddingham’s Rebecca Welton falls towards the most resistant end. While some of AFC Richmond’s players — notably the team’s grizzled veteran Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) and its best player, Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) — think Ted’s a fool, Rebecca’s entire mission dictates she rebuff Ted’s relentless goodwill.
“There were two things that were difficult, one slightly more than the other,” Waddingham says about her role. “It was very difficult as an actor who digs what Jason Sudeikis does, and particularly when he’s got a cheeky little thing going on any given day, to not just be there fan girl-ing and laughing and breaking all the time. The harder thing was, however, that Rebecca could not let that in. She couldn’t allow his unbridled joy to affect her mission. She has no space in her life at that point for warmth, or silliness, or empathy, even.”
The reason for that is Rebecca is a woman hellbent on revenge. We find her fresh from a catastrophic (and very public) divorce with her cheating ex-husband, Rupert (Anthony Head). She became the official owner of AFC Richmond thanks to her divorce settlement, and in season one, she’s hired the soccer neophyte Ted to spite the soccer-loving Rupert and to run his beloved team into the ground.
While things didn’t go to plan for Rebecca Welton, they sure have for Hannah Waddingham. We spoke with her about the unique challenges, and the constant joy, of working on TV’s most lovable series.
When you came on board, did you know how season one was going to play out?
No. All I knew was the pilot. And not only was it just the pilot, but all I had was Rebecca’s sides from the pilot. So I had no idea about Rupert, I had no idea about anything that happens with Ted, I had no idea that Keeley (Juno Temple) comes in and changes her life as well. Honestly, I was almost learning en route. And I think that’s what allowed me to give of myself more because I had no choice but to go with my gut reaction to each moment.
How did you approach Rebecca’s refusal to let Ted in, and her increasing inability to be totally resistant to his charms?
If someone is hellbent, as Rebecca is, on doing something that is not smiley and jokey and full of joy, Ted’s kindness can actually be an irritation, and I chose to make that irritation my impetus for her. I don’t want your sunniness, I’ve got something to do because I’ve been wronged. The heartbreaking line for me in that gala scene is when Rebecca says to Rupert, ‘You should do the auction because they’d rather have you than me.’
Right, when Rupert swoops into the gala with his young girlfriend and everyone fawns over him, and it’s clear Rebecca is not even close to over him.
Right, it’s a psychic fallout, there are few worse things than still being in love with someone like that—and I hope I conveyed enough to people that Rebecca is unfortunately still desperately in love with Rupert and can’t do anything about it. So to constantly try to convey this upset through the aggression she’s showing towards Ted, that was a hard balance to find.
From a technical standpoint, you learn all your lines and absorb everything that’s happening in the script just a couple of days before shooting?
Yes. They’ll give you the new script and need to hear the dialogue coming out of us at the table read, and by the time you’ve learned that you’d get other versions sent by email, and so then you’d learn that, but by the time you get on set you’ll get a newer, definitive version of the script that they’ve stopped tweaking. And that’s what makes it so brilliant, you have to have a knowledge of it in your bones. It’s the same with season two, it’s become a running gag with Jason. I’m like, ‘Are you going to suddenly plop a new bit of script on my Rebecca desk?’ And he’s like, ‘No, no, I’ll get Chip to do it.’ Chip’s his assistant. Then Chip would sidle up with a piece of paper and go [she does the “nothing to see here” whistle]…and I’d ask when I need to learn that, and Chip goes, ‘Now, ma’am.’ You just have to go with it because you don’t have any choice.
And I imagine there are still plenty of tweaks during filming?
Yes. They’ll suddenly go, ‘Okay next time, instead of saying that, say this.’ You’re trying to cut and paste in your head, all while you’re on a close-up. Of. Your. Own. Face.
Safe to say you’ve never worked this way before?
Of course I’ve never worked this way before!
And is also safe to say you’ve learned to love it?
What it does do is they get the very best version of it because you’re their conduit that’s firing on all cylinders, and they’re feeling it in the moment. You can’t help but feel it in the moment, too, because [the lines] have literally just been given to you. So you have to go with your knee-jerk guttural response, and I think that’s what makes it so visceral for the audience. We’ve had no space to let it in and go, ‘Oh I’m going to do this with it. I’m going to flesh it out like this.’ You just have to give that knee-jerk reaction.
How has it been working with this ensemble of great comedic actors like Jason and Juno Temple?
The person we mustn’t leave out who I have an awful lot of stuff with is Jeremy Swift as Higgins. He’s just as much in there as the rest of them, and I was so grateful that I had such a great scene partner in him as I did with Jason and Juno. He’s playing such conflict as well, and even though he and I had never met, we knew of each other very well. When he first walked in for the table read of the pilot, he bobbed his head over to me, and went, ‘I’m Higgins.’ And I went, ‘F**k yes, of course you are.’ It just worked immediately, and I feel that when I watch it. I feel like you think they’ve known each other for years, and that was really important to have that.
And initially, their relationship falls into that archetype of the powerful, remorseless boss and the sniveling yes man, but, by the end of season one, even this relationship is deeper.
Universally, the writers have given everyone not just layers of the onion, but sublayers of the sublayers of the onion, and when everyone has that going on, that’s what makes such a compelling watch.
Even AFC Richmond’s cocky, insufferable star Jamie Tarth gets a backstory that adds nuance to why he’s the way he is.
You know what? I have to say, Phil Dunster, who plays Jamie Tartt, is one of my favorite performers because he is so good in that part that I think people think he’s like that in real life, and he’s the least like his part.
The first season saw Rebecca undermining the team to try and hurt Rupert, but in season two you’re no longer trying to tank AFC Richmond and Ted’s nascent soccer coaching career—how has that switch been for you?
Totally different, which I’m not going to lie, it slightly unnerved and derailed me a bit. There’s no attrition with Ted, there’s no attrition with Higgins, Rupert’s not there, at least as far as I’d gotten when I was thinking this. So I was like, okay, who is she now? So I had to take scene by scene, person by person, as we all do, how you react to each of those people in what they bring out of you and what you bring out in them.
Ted Lasso has been a surprise hit in that, on paper, a series about an earnest American college football coach being set up to fail in the English Premier League sounds more like a potential niche show. How has the reaction been for you?
Even when we were shooting it, I remember a few us going, ‘I don’t know what this is going to be or how this is going to be perceived.’ You shoot a load of scenes and then you see it in the edit, and you’re just like, ‘I didn’t know it was going to pluck at everyone’s heartstrings and make them cry with laughter and with real tears of concern for these people. And it really was a joy for me to watch it as an audience member as well. The revelation about Ted and his wife and the fact that he’s been making the biscuits all along, and that he puts a little wobbly queen on top of it when he’s finishes them…it’s just the detail in it. Even Lasso and Coach Beard [Brendan Hunt, a co-creator and writer as well] have the most fabulous relationship where they finished each other’s sentences. I don’t think I’ve ever been in something where I watch it and I’m also a fan.
Ted Lasso season two is currently streaming on Apple TV+.
Featured image: Hannah Waddingham and Jason Sudeikis in “Ted Lasso,” now streaming on Apple TV+.