The Wagatha Christie trial was easily the most high-profile court case of 2022. You didn’t need to follow football to know who Rebekah Vardy was; you didn’t have to be on Instagram to know that Coleen Rooney, suspecting someone was selling nuggets from her personal life to the Sun, smoked out the culprit by fabricating a story, restricting her follower count to one person – Vardy – then waiting for it to hit the showbiz pages. The whole escapade had so many dimensions – suspense, panto, bitter enmity – and played so well in a culture that routinely pries into the lives of footballers’ wives and girlfriends, that by the time Vardy brought her astonishing libel case against Rooney, there can’t have been anyone in the country who wasn’t getting in the popcorn and waiting for the self-sabotage to play out.
Well, turns out there was one person: Natalia Tena, who now plays Vardy in Channel 4’s Vardy v Rooney: A Courtroom Drama with a self-respect that dignifies the whole saga. “I didn’t know who these women were at all,” the 38-year-old actor tells me in a restaurant in London’s King’s Cross. She’s openly vaping indoors so I already love her, but I don’t quite believe her. “Seriously?” I ask. “But they’re so famous. And this has been going on since 2019.”
“I didn’t. I promise you. I’m not in that universe. I live in a houseboat, and I love my animals and I have a band and I play the accordion. I don’t know anything about that universe, I don’t know anything about fashion, I don’t know anything about football. I knew who Wayne Rooney was, I didn’t know what his wife was called.”
Tena swears constantly and wears an incomprehensible cardigan that could be a poncho or a parachute. She’s come straight from the photoshoot so looks as polished as she does in Vardy v Rooney, but the world of personal grooming and up-dos is a mystery to her. Wearing fake nails to play Vardy, she had to ask her co-star Chanel Cresswell (who plays Rooney) how to flush a toilet (“and Chanel went: ‘Babe, you do this,’” and she proceeds to show me, guessing – correctly – that I also don’t know).
The show is fascinating; the script keeps resolutely to the court transcripts and heaps all the responsibility for making these women three-dimensional people on to the performances. Ultimately, you don’t tell your whole story to a judge, under close questioning, least of all when you’re trying to win; all the precariousness of Vardy’s position, her intense vulnerability to the caprice of public opinion and remorseless tabloids, her mischief, her skewed moral compass, has to come out in the minutiae of Tena’s expressions. This is even harder than it sounds, given that “Vardy talks about the fact that she does a lot of cosmetic stuff to her face – she’s very open about that. So she’s got quite a still face. I was, like: ‘Fuck, I can’t move too much.’ She’s the opposite of me! It’s scary, playing a real person.” Because the performance is so sincere, there’s no sense that Vardy is ridiculous (as there is in most of the media coverage; I’m sure Tena’s total obliviousness to mainstream culture helped, in making a rounded character out of this mayhem). “It’s about trying to make her as vulnerable as she can be,” says Tena. “She believes her truth.”
For the speed of its turnaround alone, the show is an incredible achievement – the case only closed at the end of July, and if the actors had five days to rehearse, goodness knows how long the writers had. More impressive still is that it could so easily have been snobbish, an excuse to laugh at Vardy in particular, for charging guilelessly on to the witness stand, with so much kompromat on her phone – endless exchanges with her agent about what story to leak where – that even if she’d won, she’d still have lost. But Tena’s performance elevates it. “It’s actually two women fighting for their reputations, tooth and nail. Vardy has been not believed before, many times, so she’s living her worst nightmare. I imagine there’s a level of PTSD, and trying to save her reputation becomes everything. She’s a warrior.”
Tena has been working more or less constantly since she was 16 – small roles in huge franchises (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, The Mandalorian), huge parts in niche arthouse (Anchor and Hope) – without ever losing her fiercely original, effortlessly outsider vibe. She really is a one-off: however much she contributes to mainstream culture, she remains mostly oblivious to it.
She was born in London to Spanish parents, María Tena and Jesús Andrew Gastiain, who “both came to escape Franco, because it was a military fascist dictatorship, horrendous. Then Franco died, but my mum didn’t want to go back to Spain, she said it was so closed-minded, narrow, sexist, awful, racist.” Jesús is a carpenter (“one of those dads, he’s just proud of me whatever. Even if he doesn’t understand any of it. I’ve done stuff with high sexual content, on stage, on film, and he’s like: ‘I’m so proud of you.’ Jesus, Dad.”) María got a secretarial job working for the UN, modestly paid, but it came with school fees as a perk, so Natalia went to Bedales, “this really fancy school, with these very normal-wage parents. It was like seeing another existence. Proper lord and lady shit.”
It’s a boarding school famous for its hippy shtick – pupils call the teachers by their first names, don’t wear a uniform – but contrary to its reputation, it does have some rules, which is how Tena got her first break at 16. “I’d got caught smoking at school and I was being punished, which meant I couldn’t go home at the weekend. I was coming out of a bush, smoking again, and the drama teacher said: ‘Nat, what are you doing?’ If you get caught smoking while you’re on a punishment for smoking, I mean, it was bad. He said: ‘I won’t tell anyone, but can you go into that room, the drama barn?’ And it was full of little boys. I thought my punishment was that I had to babysit. Then a casting director said: ‘You must be here for Ellie.’ I did my first audition not knowing I was in an audition, and got the job.”
That was 2002’s About a Boy, in which she plays the punk who takes the eponymous kid under her wing. I want to say the rest is history, but it’s not really. She wasn’t sold on the career: “I didn’t think acting was a real job. I thought that’s only for really pretty girls, that’s not going to be me.” She wanted A-levels, she wanted to be a psychologist. “I got quite a few little roles between 16 and 18, and I can’t believe the ovaries I had then, I always said: ‘No, unless it’s a lead, I’m not leaving school.’”
Her stage work is easily what Tena talks about with most passion – with companies such as Shared Experience and Kneehigh that have distinctive, experimental sensibilities. “When I see their plays, I want to make love and mischief and music and feel alive.” Kneehigh is where she learned the accordion, which is how she became lead singer of Molotov Jukebox (her boyfriend of 15 years, who lives with her on the boat, is also in the band). She didn’t go to drama school because they said she couldn’t work professionally while she was studying. “And I thought: ‘No, I’m gonna carry on earning money, I’m going to learn on the job.’ But I’d speak to my then boyfriend, who was at drama school, and I was doing pretty much what he was doing, except in real time – stage-fighting, singing, projection, voice – with really experienced actors.”
By her mid-20s, she was finally on board with acting as a real career, but still had a vexed relationship with it. “I wanted to study to be a midwife. I wanted to do something useful in the world, have an actual skill. I can speak Spanish, I could go somewhere and really help women. And every time I was about to deviate, I’d get an amazing job.”
So she auditioned for Game of Thrones (she’s the grumpy but kind-hearted wildling Osha) not knowing what it would become, because no one did, and she auditioned for Harry Potter having never read any. “I didn’t know anything about it. I thought Voldemort was a country. The first audition I did, I didn’t understand what the fuck I was reading. My agent called me back later, and said: ‘Yes, it was terrible. But for some reason the director wants to see you again.’”
She got a relatively small part, Nymphadora Tonks, so wasn’t part of the main Hogwarts shooting and, indeed, often was just hanging out, watching The Jeremy Kyle Show. “I was like, 10, 20 years younger than the rest of the Order of the Phoenix, but I was older than the kids. The person I bonded most with was my husband. He was amazing. He made me laugh so much.” Wait, your real husband? She looks at me, baffled that I would think her so conventional. “No, I’m not married. David Thewlis [who plays Remus Lupin], he was super-intelligent, he helped me and guided me. I was quite young, and I’d only done theatre at that point. It’s a whole different craft.”
Tena resists any attempt to explain or narrate her anarchic career – “as an actor, the only choice you have is whether you’re going to audition or not. Your career isn’t really chosen by you, it’s chosen by other people.” This hands-off, no-plan approach has built up an incredibly varied, anti-typecast career; she’s probably closer in spirit to Xi’an, the alien in The Mandalorian than she is to Rebekah Vardy, but she isn’t looking to settle on a type. It’s how she approaches her work, or the world.
Vardy v Rooney: A Courtroom Drama starts on Channel 4 at 9pm on 21 December