From London’s East End to HBO Max, there’s no limit to Jessica Plummer’s prowess
Jessica Plummer’s ascension to stardom has been well-paced if not deliciously strategic; before life in the ranks of British primetime she was touring with Jessie J as a member of chart-topping girl group Neon Jungle, and in 2015, a leap of faith from music to acting placed her alongside Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning in How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017). Fast forward to 2019, and she landed her breakthrough role as Chantelle Atkins on EastEnders, the UK’s most-watched soap opera. With no formal acting training under her belt, Plummer’s portrayal of a battered wife in a domestic abusive relationship was gut-wrenchingly real, tearing at the heartstrings of critics and viewers alike. Art fatally imitates life in the storyline as Chantelle Atkins is ultimately murdered by her husband, a plot twist that doubly reflects mortality rates in abusive relationships, along with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on domestic violence. More than just a beautiful face, Jessica infused the role with the kind of dynamism that adds dimension to the portrayal, while making her appear all the more human to the show’s fans.
Post life in the East End’s imaginary Albert Square, the EastEnders star has successfully traversed soap stardom, landing the lead on the HBO Max/BBC One drama series The Girl Before. Inspired by the JP Delaney novel of the same name, the four-part small screen adaptation co-stars David Oyelowo and Gugu Mbatha-Raw and scintillates a multi-layered, complex storyline that will keep viewers at the edge of their seats.
On the cusp of the release of The Girl Before, Jessica indulges 1883 in a down-to-earth chat about her fascination with unpacking complex female protagonists, life as an undercover shy girl in the spotlight, and her unbridled aspirations of staring in a future Bond film.
We’ve got to talk about your role on EastEnders.
EastEnders. I love how you say that. [Laughter].
Thank you. [Laughter]. How much did you know about the storyline and the role of Chantelle Atkins when you took it on?
So I knew that it would be a domestic abusive relationship but other than that I had no idea where it was going to go, or how we were going to get there. All I knew was that she would be in an abusive relationship with her husband, and that she had two children. And that my parents already lived in the Square. So I [my character] was joining a family that had been established— I think they had been there a good two years before I had joined. But I mean, I grew up watching EastEnders— it’s what you did before you went to bed. You ate your dinner you sat down, you watched EastEnders.
It’s a hugely important show!
Yeah, and to be a part of something that I would watch every evening growing up was such an honor. I remember my first scene like it was yesterday.
I wanted to chat with you about the storyline – – it’s something that is quite common to see on film and television, at least in American film and television. But this exploration was different— the death of Chantelle Atkins really brought the storyline to life. It really made the story resonate. What has been the most poignant response that you’ve received from a viewer, or fan?
To be honest, all of the responses. I remember there’s actually one that really does stand out. I was in my local supermarket and a lady came up to me, with her child in a pushchair…she ended up telling me that she was planning to get a train the next day to move across the country because she was inspired by the story and feeling like she needed to get out of her situation and was in the process of making that happen…To collaboratively be a part of something that could affect someone’s life— and potentially save someone’s life— is an honor.
Do you know if she took that train?
You know what, we were in the middle of the supermarket…I hope so…The reactions that we’ve gotten…as an actor, I didn’t necessarily want my character to die…people didn’t see it coming because people want to champion the victim and see the villain get his karma.
I was hoping— and expecting— to see her monster of a husband go down ‘David and Goliath’ style, but it didn’t go down like that.
But I guess it’s a reflection of real life— that’s not how it always happens.
In what ways would you say this portrayal broadened you professionally?
Being a part of a show like EastEnders, I remember when I first joined the cast, everyone was telling me, “If you can do EastEnders, you can do anything.” It is a machine…I remember my first day on The Girl Before, and looking at the call sheet and seeing that there were six scenes to be shot, and I was thinking, “Where are the other pages?!”. On EastEnders, we would sometimes do up to fifteen scenes a day. The pace of everything and the cast is so big…Being able to learn with such a vast group of actors, and working with different directors each week, I was able to learn so much. I understand now why they said to me in the beginning, “If you can do this…” because it is a machine. They turn everything over so rapidly.
How did such a rigorous experience impact your day to day personal life?
I came off of maternity leave before I joined EastEnders, and it felt like perfect timing— as an actor— to be part of a show with so much structure. To gain so much structure—as much structure as you could get being on an ongoing soap that happened to shoot in London— it felt like everything was falling into the right place at the right time, after I had taken such a big break from the acting industry. I felt like I got back on it and was able to just…you’ve got no choice when you’re there. You’ve just got to show up, and you’re potentially doing 15 scenes that day, and you’ve just got to figure things out the work ethic of getting it done has been engrained in me.
How did the role reshape your own perspective? It definitely impacted mine.
Massively. Before the scenes kicked off with my character, we sat down with the charity “Women’s Aid” and I got to speak with women who had been in situations like my character. As much as I turn up to work and try to keep my personal life and my work life quite separate— just because of the weight of the storyline, it can be quite intense because it’s an ongoing drama…You don’t want it to cross over into your personal life. But yeah, it’s been an eye opening with things like the statistics— it’s shocking.
How did you manage to maintain the distinction between work life and personal given the intensity of this role? A role of this sort can be emotionally exhausting. How do you decompress?
So I will just turn up as I am and have something trigger me whether it be a piece of music, a thought, a picture, or even a smell to get me into character, and literally as soon as I hear “Cut!”, I’m back in the room. As much as the finished result of what we’re creating is important, I want to go to work and enjoy myself and make relationships with other cast members and crew. I find that connecting with other people as myself helps me to come back to myself…Doing storylines like that, you don’t want that to spill over into your real life.
Did you have a source of inspiration to help you prepare for the role of Chantelle Atkins? You did it so brilliantly and believably.
Thank you. I think one of the main things for me had been speaking with a lady who had been in a really similar situation to Chantelle, and seeing the effect that it had on her. I was feeling like, “I want to do this for women like you [her].” For women like her one year ago, before she was brave enough to be in the position that she is in right now. And to be as truthful as possible to help make some sort of a difference, no matter how big or small that might be. That was my driving force for pushing through and trying my best…I felt like I was in a really privileged position when I joined the show because my family was already established and just figuring out the dynamic between my character and theirs and because they didn’t want to reveal the domestic abuse straight off— I think it was three months before that came to life. So I was able to really figure out my character and who she was, and figure out my relationship with my husband…It wasn’t till after this one specific episode that the mask came off and you saw what happened behind closed doors.
Let’s talk about your role as Emma Matthews, in The Girl Before…Have you read the book, The Girl Before?
So I asked the director before we started shooting for her opinion of if it would be beneficial [to read the book] and she said to wait. And I’m really glad that I did— I still haven’t read it, but I told myself that when I’m done with this project, I’ll read it as a treat to myself. But I still don’t feel like I’m done, because it’s not out yet…So no, I didn’t read it, I only read the script, and figured her out from the script, which is nice in a way…When I have a definitive idea of someone’s personality, I latch on to it…and not having that gave me freedom to bring my own things to the table of how she might be.
She’s definitely complex. In the storyline we’re presented with one impression of her, but as the story moves along, that unravels and reveals an alternate persona. In some ways, her fate reminded me of Chantelle Atkins…Do you feel a pull towards those emotionally complex characters?
[Laughter]. Yes, I do! I always joke that I need to do a comedy. They’re really interesting to play. Like you said, you see it all unravel. There’s one version of the character with her friends, and then a completely different version when they’re alone…I find that so interesting— to delve into why that’s the case and what is her driving force, and the need to pretend, and what is it that she’s running from, or running to. All of the different layers, I find quite interesting. But yeah, I definitely need to do a comedy.
I love that you’ve just mentioned the different layers within the characters. How would you describe Emma, and which of her layers do you relate to?
Emma is on the surface this bright, bubbly, young and free-spirited woman. She’s in a realty with her partner, however, beneath the surface she is not as happy as she portrays herself to be. Rather than dealing with the trauma that she faces, she tries to run from it, all the while keeping up appearances…I think the thing that I share most in common with Emma is that we can be quite messy. I wear all of my emotions on my sleeve— I’m so bad at hiding how I feel.
No poker face?
Absolutely not. [Laughter]. I feel like we’re quite different in the way that we deal with things— I’m very much like, “I can’t live my life unless this is dealt with”, so I just deal with it, even if I need to talk about it 100 times; whereas Emma’s approach is to sweep it under the rug.
Are there any concerns with being typecast?
I haven’t really thought about that. I feel really privileged to portray the roles that I have so far. And I feel like they’re relatable to a lot of people. I also feel like I can play different characters in different roles, so it’s definitely not a worry for me. However, if I do continue to play someone who dies, that’s a compliment. That’s a hard thing to do. [Laughter].
What would be your dream television role?
I’m not just saying it, but playing a character like Emma Matthews…I loved it, and enjoyed the whole process…But maybe something more physical that will get my adrenaline pumping. I love speed…I’m scared of heights, but at the same time I have to do it! Like if you bought me a ticket to skydive, I’d be really cross with you, but I’d have to do it! If you know anyone who’s making a film with people jumping out of planes—
Tom Cruise, Mission Impossible. Hello!
Or you could be a Bond Girl. You should be the next Bond Girl.
I’ve said this!
Let’s do some visualizations, because I could totally see you as the next Bond Girl.
Let’s put that out into the atmosphere.
And how about a role that utilizes your vocal skills. You’ve got some vocal pipes on you! I’ve heard you sing.
It makes me cringe. I just about can watch myself back, especially with an audience— I find it so awkward. So singing, oh my goodness!
Really? But you were part of Neon Jungle. Once a singer, always a singer.
Yeah. But I mean I knew my role in the group— I was on the harmonies, on the easier bits. And it was amazing. Can I hold a note? Yes, but at the same time I couldn’t think that I’d be good enough…After I’ve finished all of the adrenaline stuff, I’ll go back to that stuff.
I listened to the renditions that Neon Jungle did, and loved your solo in “I Gotta Get Through This”—
Yeah, Daniel Bedingfield!
Watching you perform, and listening, I can see you wear your heart on your sleeves on the stage. So I’m surprised that singing/music is not on your radar right now.
That’s really kind of you to say. If I’m really honest with myself, maybe it’s a confidence thing, so it’s easier to brush it off. Who knows? But it’s really a lovely thing to say.
Are you shy?
If I said that to any of my friends, they’d laugh and say, “You’re the least shy person in the world.” But I do get awkward, and I deflect, and that’s how I deal with people complimenting me. I feel shy right now. [Laughter].
I have a girlfriend who gets shy when she’s being complimented, so when she’s being complimented, she squeals, “I’m shy! I’m shy!”. [Laughter].
I just say, “Shut up!”.
Any upcoming projects that you’re excited about right now?
In short, no. For me, this was the crossover from soap world to drama. I feel like strategically, my agent is withholding till after the new year when The Girl Before comes out. People knew me before from Neon Jungle and EastEnders, and not much else. But I’m really excited for all of the possibilities.
When is The Girl Before released on HBO Max? I recently downloaded the service so I could watch it, but it’s not yet released.
I know in the UK it comes out before the end of the year. In the U.S., I think it’s early spring.
I have to wait till March? Awh man. Well, I’ve got to say, I’m really a fan of your work on EastEnders. You were fantastic!
“I’m shy! I’m shy!” Shut up! [Laughter].
You should use that line. [Laughter].
Well let’s just say, I was so blown away by the realness of your portrayal on EastEnders, so I’m excited to see you in The Girl Before.
Yayyy! I can’t wait for everyone to see it. We’ve all worked really hard on it. It’s been a long time, and I’m ready for people to see it. I just want it to be out there. They’ve done such a good job with the edit.
And next up is you as the next Bond Girl!
We need to think of what my name’s going to be…Jess Bond?
The Girl Before starts on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on 19 December at 9pm
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