Emma Atkins on the Secret Behind Emmerdale’s “Vanity”

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If you haven’t seen “Vanity,” the portmanteau for Vanessa Woodfield (Michelle Hardwick, who is openly lesbian in real life) and Charity Dingle (Emma Atkins) on the British soap opera “Emmerdale,” stop what you’re doing and catch up.

Vanity is unlike any other couple we can think of: droll, mature, entirely unexpected and, to quote Vanessa herself, fun. Village bad girl Charity is sharp-tongued and abrasive, her snark cutting to its recipients, but humorous to the audience. Sexually uninhibited (Atkins once called her a “tart with a heart”) with an irrepressible bent towards troublemaking, she’s been around Emmerdale long enough to have done a lot of soap opera things (like marrying three times, having several kids, and going to jail, to name a few).

Vanessa is the town veterinarian whose last relationship was with a teenage boy. Neither is prepared for the game of cat and mouse that Charity initiates to turn into anything more, but like a brave and determined lion tamer, Vanessa persists until she finally gets her woman. What follows is a beautiful storyline about having a supportive, genuine same-sex relationship in your forties.

A distinguishing characteristic of Vanity is that Charity and Vanessa are real people. Neither is perfect. Charity isn’t always easy to love: she pushes her partner away under stress, has a history of manipulating other people to get what she wants, and carries so much emotional and relationship baggage that it might as well come in railway boxcars.

Vanessa, meanwhile, has a tendency to decide what’s best for her partner and to push forward with that regardless of her partner’s feelings like an overeager Girl Scout. But together, their storyline is about growing as individuals and becoming better partners in an encouraging environment.

Charity is learning to let her guard down and be a compassionate partner, while Vanessa is learning to moderate her impulsive need to “do the right thing” and to really listen to her partner’s needs. So far, the two have weathered issues like Vanessa being suspended from her job, Charity confronting the aftereffects of systemic rape by a police officer when she was a young teenager and seeking justice for the rape, and Charity’s discovery that the son she thought died decades ago is now a young man with cerebral palsy.

Ultimately, it is this human element that sets Vanity apart from almost every other lesbian TV couple on air right now.

It is probably possible to count on one hand the number of female same-sex relationships that have ever been on TV—in any country, at any time—in which both partners were in their forties and had children from other relationships. This is a real modern family. Moreover, not only are Vanessa and Charity three-dimensional characters, but they’re actually allowed to express sexuality, something that is both rare for lesbian pairings and disappointingly uncommon among female characters no longer in their twenties.

With Vanity, viewers are not in doubt what Vanessa and Charity are doing behind closed doors, and it’s mostly not crossword puzzles (although somehow it wouldn’t be surprising if Charity did do a crossword puzzle every morning).

Much of Vanity’s appeal hinges on the unbelievably dynamic character of Charity, whose last same-sex relationship on the show was in the early 2000s with “Emmerdale”’s then lesbian resident Zoë Tate.

There are few characters on TV like Charity. She’s bold, brash, and says things aloud that most people would only say in their heads. Through the Vanity storyline and the exposition of her traumatic past, Charity, a longstanding “villain” of the show, is being redeemed to some extent and humanized.

AfterEllen was fortunate enough to catch the unbelievably talented and gracious actress behind Charity, Emma Atkins, in the midst of her whirlwind schedule, to ask her more about Vanity.

AfterEllen.com: You and Michelle have fantastic chemistry as Vanity, the fan name for Vanessa and Charity as a couple, but before the Vanity storyline, Charity and Vanessa didn’t interact much. Did the writers get lucky in putting you two together, or were they seeing something behind the scenes?

Emma Atkins: I think initially, they needed a female character for Vanessa to engage with on an intimate level so that confusion over her sexuality came into play. Basically, they took Charity and Vanessa and locked them in the cellar. The script was good and the scenario was extremely unexpected. It seemed to work. And they decided to continue exploring the dynamic of two polar opposite personalities.

AE: What was your reaction when you found out about the Vanity storyline? It’s been well over a decade since the Zoe Tate storyline; did you think they’d dropped the idea of pursuing another female love interest for Charity?

EA: I was on set, about to do a line run for a scene, and Michelle said, “Have you read the next block? We end up kissing in the cellar.” I thought she was joking. It seemed so random. But then when you think about the way a soap works, it’s ever changing. Things move at a rapid pace. I read the script and thought, “Why not? This is what they’ve written, so let’s make it work.”

AE: Vanessa challenges Charity and doesn’t jump when Charity presses buttons like Charity is used to, but what else is it about Vanessa that draws Charity to her?

EA: Vanessa is kind-hearted. She has an openness and purity about her and Charity is typically drawn to the dark side of someone’s personality; characteristics that are more suited to her own. However, Vanessa isn’t moved or fazed by Charity’s inherently despicable nature. And for that very reason, Vanessa starts to get under her skin. She becomes more and more drawn to her. For Charity to be attracted to someone full of goodness, someone who isn’t turned on by conflict and drama, it is uncharted territory.

AE: Charity goes from having a laugh, to the odd string, to by March she’s showing some clinginess about Vanessa and then by April she’s all in to the relationship and feels comfortable enough with Vanessa to tell her about the abuse she suffered at the hands of Inspector Bails, something she never told anyone in past relationships. Do you think Charity is surprised by how quickly she’s fallen into this relationship with Vanessa and does it scare her at all?

EA: Charity hasn’t had much control over her feelings for Vanessa, which take her by storm. The audience get to see a rather organic chemistry unraveling as a consequence, which I think is brilliant. It’s something Charity’s never experienced. And for her to open up to another human being in this way, and share such a painful secret, speaks volumes.

AE: Do you feel that Charity’s relationship with Vanessa has nurtured any character development for her, and if so, what new elements of her character have you most enjoyed bringing out?

EA: Charity is being shown genuine affection. Vanessa isn’t interested in mind games, which renders Charity powerless, and I think this is more interesting to watch. Seeing a vulnerable side for once. As an actress, it’s a wonderful challenge to play an entirely different aspect of my character’s personality. We are used to seeing Charity’s bravado and she’s almost out of her depth because she can’t adopt any of her usual ammo. She finds herself wrapped up in this rather functional, beautiful relationship. She is so used to playing hard to get. Vanessa allows her to be herself for the first time in her life. Knowing how caustic and confrontational Charity can be, I think it’s an exciting combination of feelings and emotions.

AE: What has been your favorite Vanity scene to date? Do you have a favorite thing about Vanity as a couple?

EA: The cellar scene was so unexpected and I think we made something quite bold yet intimate. I asked the director and Michelle, of course, if I could pull the eye mask off Michelle’s face and ping it back to give the moment before they kissed some “impulsiveness.” We tried it and it just worked. Making use of her costume seemed a good way for Charity to make her move. It was funny as well as exciting.

AE: Charity plans a date with Vanessa. Where do they go and what do they do?

EA: Charity would probably take her out to dinner and then a club.

AE: You mentioned in another interview that you hoped that Vanity would last a while because you didn’t want the storyline to be seen as just something salacious. What would you like to happen with them? Do you see the potential for a long relationship between them?

EA: I had no expectations, as I know how storylines can change overnight or run for a while. You never know. I like seeing Charity being emotionally affected by someone in a positive way for a change. It was a wonderful contrast to the really heavy storyline of Charity’s past.

AE: What is it like working with Michelle?

EA: We have a terrible time working together. Joking of course. Michelle is wonderful. We have a good working relationship. She’s extremely professional. We always play around with the dialogue and try and give our characters little quirks when we interact with one another.

AE: In the mid-2000s, a very common depiction for bisexual female characters on TV and in movies was that they were crazy and/or manipulative. Charity and Zoe both checked this box. Now in 2018, Vanity is neither. Do you feel that there was a conscious shift on “Emmerdale” to be more positive in the portrayal of bisexual women?

EA: I’m not sure if this was a conscious shift in terms of planning to put Charity and Vanessa together and make it a positive portrayal of a same-sex relationship. I think “Emmerdale” did something random and it worked. And as a consequence, it’s a window of opportunity to develop a love story between two very different women. To begin with, there was a little bit of manipulation from Charity’s side, but Vanessa soon puts her in her place. You have two people with contrasting personalities that can still manage to have a loving relationship despite one of them being relatively dysfunctional. Vanessa allows Charity to be true to herself which, in turn, allows her to open up like never before and Charity realises pretty quickly that she doesn’t need to be crazy or manipulative. Regardless of their sexuality, for me, it’s just a brilliant love story between two people who happen to be strong women. It has really spoken to people.

AE: I love the scene in which a flustered Vanessa comes to Charity and tells her they’ll never kiss again, and instead Charity actually convinces her to come upstairs as a “hangover cure.” I love it because you start very gently nodding, and Michelle mirrors your nod, kind of like a snake charmer and a snake. Was that intentional?

EA: It’s lovely that you picked up on that scene and the way it is played. It was organic and that was Michelle’s choice to make her vulnerable and nod along and it was a brilliant choice. It worked well. She very quickly gives in to Charity and falls under her spell. I see why you liken it to snake charming. That made me laugh out loud.

AE: Fans know you’re not publicly on social media, but do you ever go online to see what the conversation is about Vanity and read what your fans have to say? And with that, how do you feel about being so popular with LGBT fans?

EA: Michelle tells me stuff. I am always blown away by the wonderful feedback. It is overwhelming, to be honest, in a really lovely way. How could it not be! If we are telling a story and telling it to the best of our ability and it’s getting positive attention, then we are doing our job. I finally yielded to the way of the social solar system recently and set up a public Instagram.

AE: Charity gets the best lines. What has been your favorite line so far for Charity, and do you ever ad lib these funny lines?

EA: I am blessed with the lines I’m given. I get excited every time I get a script and see that she’s being mischievous. I want it to always be this way. I liked the scene with Vanessa and one of her clients in the pub where Charity throws the client out for being rude to Vanessa and she says, “Go on – TROT ON!” I went all posh on the word “trot” and I nearly couldn’t do it for laughing. Just the way Charity finishes the scene with, “Meet me in the cellar in 5 minutes.” The whole scenario was lighthearted and mischievous. Always a good combination.

AE: Are there any scenes or storylines that weren’t scripted the way they ended up because you thought something else would work better?

EA: We mostly stick to the script but because we know our characters so well, it’s always lovely for the audience to see the idiosyncrasies really coming out. I think it’s essential to play around with quirks as and when we can. Often in a funnier scene, there’s more opportunity for Charity to come into full play. Usually when she’s being confrontational in the pub.

AE: In 2016, about 43% of all the lesbian and bisexual female characters on English language TV were killed off, a spike from the usual annual rate of 25-30%. Since then, there’s been a large push in the US to ensure that the kill rate is lower, and it was about 10% or so in 2017. If the writers of “Emmerdale” came up with what they thought was a brilliant death for Charity or Vanessa, would you be able to suggest that perhaps instead she become a fugitive in South America instead?

EA: That is very flattering and yes, I’ll be sure to put that to them, should they ever decide to do a Thelma & Louise on us.

AE: Will you be attending any LGBT-related events this year, such as a pride parade or the ClexaCon that will be happening in London on 2-4 November?

EA: At the moment, I’m lucky if I get home in time to put Albert to bed. I’m working long hours, so my weekends at home with my family are precious. I would happily attend any event/celebration of the LGBT community, given the time! And I want to officially apologise if I can, for the lateness of this interview. I’ve been looking forward to doing it for so long but I’ve been waiting for enough time to be thoughtful with my answers, due to the fact I was so blown away by how good the interview is. I wanted to do it justice. So I’m sorry for that!

AE: When putting together this interview, I asked Twitter to submit questions. A very common response was the desire to know whether you realized the extent of the impact that the Vanity storyline is having on fans all over the world. In the past, you’ve rejected the idea of Charity Dingle as any sort of a role model, which is fair, but Vanity—as a loving same-sex relationship between two adults over the age of 30—is nevertheless so far an extremely positive relationship with tangible positive impact. Do you feel buoyed professionally and personally by that sort of impact?    

EA: I cannot begin to express how gobsmacked I was when I heard this during a phone interview. I had no idea of the impact and I don’t really know what to say except I’m humbled and flattered and something must be working! And yes, I am used to the opposite happening: people telling me Charity is such a wicked human. So for my character to be connected to something of substance, a storyline that is having a positive impact on people, and like you say, across the globe, I’m truly speechless, and beyond amazed.

AE: Finally, if fans want to convey their thanks, gratitude, and support to you, what’s the best way for them to do that?

EA: My new Instagram account? @missemmaatkins. I was worried about doing a public one as I find the world of social media both exciting and frightening. But I guess the industry I’m in, it’s now a huge part of my world. So I may as well embrace it. I’d love to say thank you to every single person who’s sent messages to me regarding the storyline over the past year. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for such kind words. It means the world to me.

Vanity has a large fan base, particularly in England, where Vanity is an “Emmerdale” fan favorite couple. For a super cute video of Atkins and Hardwick talking about Vanity, check out this video of them playing “60 Seconds on Set”!

 

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