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News / Life / Entertainment

Hannah Waddingham’s voice (and humor) take center stage in ‘Home for Christmas’

By Alexandra E. Petri, Los Angeles Times
Published: December 4, 2023, 6:02am

Years before Hannah Waddingham stole TV viewers’ hearts as Rebecca, the owner of AFC Richmond, on “Ted Lasso” or became a viral meme as Septa Unella, the shame nun in “Game of Thrones,” the 49-year-old actor was a leading lady on London’s West End and on Broadway.

In “Hannah Waddingham: Home for Christmas,” now streaming on Apple TV+, the actor brings those two worlds together, a symbol not only of her arrival as a bona fide star but of her roots in musical theater — she’s starred in productions of “Spamalot,” “Into the Woods’’ and “Kiss Me, Kate.” And it’s a way for her to prove that stage actors really can do it all.

“There’s no reason why that craft can’t move into a different medium,” she said. “It’s just a different tool in your bag. That’s what I wanted with a special.”

Waddingham’s voice soars onstage — the production was filmed live before an audience at the London Coliseum, the same place where she spent her childhood watching her mother, Melodie Kelly, perform as part of the English National Opera Chorus. Joining her throughout the special are familiar faces, including her castmates from “Ted Lasso” (Did you know Phil Dunster can carry a tune?), and musical guests like Sam Ryder, Luke Evans, Leslie Odom Jr. and the Fabulous Lounge Swingers.

Waddingham is not only the star of the show, but she wrote all of the off-stage skits — one features Juno Temple, and another Brett Goldstein, whom Waddingham joins in a Jacuzzi. She was also the executive producer, making decisions on budgets, wardrobe edits and how to make it snow in the coliseum. “We would all sit there and brainstorm together,” she said. “I wasn’t treated like the talent.”

It’s been a long road for Waddingham, who first balked at the idea when her manager approached her about hosting her own musical extravaganza. “I would say that I’ve reached that point in my career when I just think, ‘Now the things that I wanted to do in the first place are happening,’” she said.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: Congratulations on your special! Tell me how this all came together.

A: My manager, Nick Todisco, and I discussed doing a Christmas special a couple of years ago. I said, “People don’t want to see that — this chick from London coming along and doing a quite American-style Christmas special.” I said if I was going to do it, I want it to be old school, where it’s like “Saturday Night Live” meets a combination of the Rat Pack, Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore. And it has to be on a stage and lean into the fact that I’ve been a leading lady in musical theater, both in New York and in London, for 22 years of my life. The thing I’m most proud of, which I will shout from every rooftop, is that not one note of the whole special has been tweaked, fiddled with, nothing. It’s completely live.

Q: You look euphoric on the stage. Does that feel more natural to you?

A: Theater is what I grew up with. The whole reason I wanted it in the London Coliseum is because that’s all I’ve ever known: sitting in the [orchestra] stalls watching my mom. In the U.K. for a long time, you couldn’t get into TV, which is why I spoke about it in my Emmy speech. I use my platform to say that people in musical theater are not jack of all trades, master of none. They are masters of all of them, because they have to be.

Q: Did it take a lot of persuading to get some of the “Ted Lasso” crew on board?

A: Nigh on, they all said yes. It was meant to be like, let’s see who’s around, let’s have one or two people. It was the most reassuring, comforting thing to have all of AFC Richmond going, “We’re totally in.” Have you seen how much Brendan Hunt is enjoying himself?

Q: When he’s onstage —

A: He doesn’t close his mouth for the whole song! Brendan asked about doing a bit on the side of the stage. With Nick Mohammed, I said we would love it if you would kind of be my stooge, and then you’ve been nagging me so much that I get you hoisted up to the flies. Then he went, “Oh, and I should stay there for the rest of the show with my legs (dangling).” It was just incredible that they would [pitch in ideas] and go, “And then we could do this!”

Q: You become emotional at a couple of points, including when you talk about growing up in the theater and having your daughter, who was 8 at the time, in the coliseum watching you onstage at the same age you were when you watched your mother perform.

A: There was my little girl in the box I’d always been in — the most glorified, beautiful, stunning little toddler pen for me, where I would be left safely, and she was in there at exactly the same age. Then my mom was sitting at the back of the auditorium with my dad, but my mom has Parkinson’s and is in a wheelchair. When I was putting this together, I didn’t know whether either of my parents were going to make it through to see that day, and it got me. But I wanted to keep a lid on that, because it’s not good for your voice, and I had to sing “Oh, Holy Night” completely clean.

Q: Why did you dedicate that specific song to your mom and daughter?

A: It’s my favorite beautiful, traditional Christmas song. Often Christmas specials are about the show, and I wanted it to really be a moment of quiet and focus. I wanted to let my guard down and sing for my mom and my daughter. I wanted to just be center stage, mike stand, no bells and whistles, and just say to people, “This is why I’m still here. I can still strip it back.” It was unbelievable the silence in the auditorium for that. I don’t know how I got through it, but it’s the best I’ve ever sung in my life.

Q: Had you sung with the English National Opera Chorus before?

A: No. When the English National Opera Chorus heard that I was doing it at the coliseum and why, some of the opera singers from my mom’s era who are still there offered to come and sing with me. When they came to rehearse, they ran on the stage and were hugging me and crying going, “We couldn’t be more proud of you! We all watch everything you do!”

Q: Tell me about some of those song choices and musical guests.

A: I didn’t want famous people for famous’ sake. I wanted people who mean something to me. Luke Evans and I have known each other since we were 20. Sam Ryder I think is just one of our greatest talents. “ Please Come Home for Christmas “ was on Leslie Odom Jr.’s album, and it made my head go dizzy. I thought, “I have to sing that with him.” Also, I said to my little girl, “You choose someone,” and before I even finished the sentence, she said “Leslie Odom Jr.!” She’s obsessed with “Hamilton.”

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Q: What was it like holding his hand and looking into his eyes while singing?

A: Over-f—-whelming. I literally look like I’ve won a competition.

Q: Was it important for you that the special also be funny?

A: It was important to me and to Apple. The folks at Apple kept saying, “Let’s make sure that we’ve got some great fun scenes, let’s make sure there’s an offstage, onstage element to it.” When they asked who would be my perfect scene partners, that was a complete no-brainer. All three of them — Juno, Brett and Jason [Sudeikis] — were 100% in with no question, and each of them were [so collaborative], asking what we should do. We shot those as inserts in Los Angeles after the special [was filmed in London].

Q: What else were you working on when you filmed this special?

A: I had just come back from shooting “ The Fall Guy “ in Australia and went straight into rehearsing for hosting — for the first time in my life — the 2023 Laurence Olivier Awards [the British equivalent of the Tony Awards]. I was exhausted. I went to Dave Tench, the musical supervisor on “The Voice” in the U.K., and he said, “I will start sourcing songs. I’ll run them past you, and we’ll look at who we might want to sing this together. We totally got this.” After the Oliviers, I went to Liverpool to present the Eurovision Song Contest, which was 15- to 17-hour days for five days. Then straight away, I started rehearsing this. I was like, “I don’t know where my vocal chords are.”

Q: The special will also be released as a soundtrack. Are you ready to hear your songs playing everywhere during the holidays?

A: Oh my God, I hadn’t even actually thought about that. It’s been my dream.

Q: You’re so beloved by so many people. How do you feel about people seeing this full version of you that feels more natural to you?

A: People saw some crazy banshee that got up at the Emmys, and now I feel like I’m able to say, “These are my people, this is the world I’ve come from. Isn’t it a beautiful world, the theater world?” To be able to bring my two worlds together, I don’t need any other Christmas presents this year.

Q: You have an immense creative cast too.

A: My production was only as good as every element that’s coming together backstage. I actually felt more pressure from the lineup — Hamish Hamilton, my director; Al Gurdon on lighting; Misty Buckley for the set. [They’ve worked on] the Olympics, the Oscars. My brain went, “Oh s—, now I’ve got to try and bring it.”

Q: How did you deal with that pressure?

A: I’m old school about it all. I knew my voice was in good shape. I was literally coming up through that floor of the stage going, “Come on. It’s time. It’s time.”

Q: What are your thoughts on the SAG-AFTRA strike ending?

A: I will never forget all the people who walked that line every day, for all of us. They were only — we — were only asking for what is right. I was able to get onto the WGA strike line with some of my fellow Greyhounds, but I wasn’t able to get onto [the SAG-AFTRA strike line]. I am a very, very proud union member, and I’m just so thrilled that it’s lifted in time for me to raise people’s spirits in time for the holiday period.