Five minutes with Gemma Chan
The actress talks about her character Hannah in I Am…
The third instalment of the I Am... anthology series stars Gemma Chan as Hannah, a single professional in her mid-30s who is struggling to satisfy societal and family expectations.
WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE CHARACTER YOU PLAY, HANNAH?
Hannah is 36 years old. She lives in London. She works in marketing in a job that she's very good at but she's not necessarily feeling fulfilled by. She's not in a relationship when we meet her in the story. She's trying to find meaning in her life and people have different ideas about how she should find that meaning. She's feeling under quite a lot of pressure in that most of the female friends in her life have coupled off or they're married and have kids and she's really questioning everything about that side of things.
SO, TO SUM IT UP...
It's an exploration of both the external and internal pressures on women, really, in terms of what society might expect, attitudes toward motherhood and how that might be internalised by someone in Hannah's position.
DOES HANNAH FACE ANY CULTURAL/ETHNIC PRESSURES WHEN IT COMES TO HAVING CHILDREN?
For Hannah, there's definitely pressure from her mother. She grew up in a single parent family with her mother, and her grandmother was a big part of her life. They didn't have a lot but they had each other. I think her mother has very strong ideas about what Hannah should be doing, possibly to compensate for mistakes she feels that she made in her life. There are definitely things that I think possibly would be there regardless of the cultural background... well, I think it's cross-cultural actually, parents wanting to be very involved in their children's lives and having a strong idea about family and the importance of family.
WHY DID THIS STORY APPEAL TO YOU?
From quite early on, I knew that I wanted to tell a story about a woman struggling to free herself from expectation. I had been having conversations with my female friends and it's based on some of those discussions and experiences. There's a lot of pressure on women around the idea of being a mother, what it means to be a mother, what it means to be a woman if you don't want to be a mother, or if you can't be a mother. That comes from a lot of different areas - from the media, from social situations, from other people and also from within. These ideas are seeded and ingrained from an early age and I felt it was important to explore this in a way that felt current.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE AROUND THIS EXPECTATION?
I think it's crazy how, as a woman, when you're a teenager or in your 20s, the idea of getting pregnant, it's been drilled into you that that is the worst thing that could happen to you. And then suddenly when you hit your mid-30s, the other message is that you're running out of time, you're going to miss out on being a mother - have you thought about your ticking biological clock? It's crazy how that switch seems to happen. You have essentially a five-year period - or maybe not much more than that - when you're supposed to meet the right person, settle down and start a family. And I think that can be quite unrealistic for a lot of situations. There are a lot of things that might also be important in a woman's life.
IS IT DIFFERENT FOR MEN THEN?
I think that time pressure is something that women experience in a way that men don't in the same way. I know a lot of men who have started families in their late 40s, 50s and 60s and it's something that I don't think they have to be restricted by in quite the same way. It's not their fault, it's not our fault. It's just that our attitudes have changed in many ways but our biology, or women's biology, hasn't necessarily taken that on board. I wanted to do something around that and to explore that a bit more.
THERE ARE MANY DIFFERENT APPROACHES WOMEN CAN TAKE...
I know women who have had children and are very happy, some who have struggled with elements of it, and other women who have considered doing things in a different way - maybe freezing their eggs, or considering using a sperm donor or a surrogate. There are many different ways that you can approach it and I think what was important for me was to show someone, hopefully, finding their way through that and it being a positive outcome of sorts. Without giving away the ending...
YOU GOT TO CO-AUTHOR THIS STORY WITH SERIES DIRECTOR AND WRITER DOMINIC SAVAGE. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
It was amazing to get the chance to co-author this story with Dominic and to work with him on finding something that we both felt was timely, important and a story that we wanted to tell. For me that's not something, as an actor, that you always get to do. You're brought onto other people's projects and you give your best but it's not always necessarily the story you want to tell. So this was, for me, a great opportunity to do that and to be at the heart of something that is centred around the story of a woman.
YOU HAD TO IMPROVISE A LOT OF THE DIALOGUE. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
I think that he's one of very few directors who works in that way and it's quite demanding and quite terrifying at the same time, but can be incredibly rewarding.
I Am Hannah airs on Channel 4 on Tuesday August 6