Interview: British Actress Holli Dempsey On Dad’s Army Remake & Working With Ricky Gervais

British actress Holli Dempsey, who rose to fame playing care worker Vicky in Ricky Gervais’ acclaimed comedy-drama series Derek, is set to star in an updated version of Dad’s Army hitting UK cinemas next year.

Top 10 Films editor Daniel Stephens spoke to Holli Dempsey about remaking Dad’s Army (which stars Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Tom Courtenay and Michael Gambon, and is directed by St. Trinian’s director Oliver Parker) and about her role in TV’s Derek alongside Ricky Gervais.

Holli Dempsey, British Actress, Derek, Channel 4, Ricky Gervais, Dad's Army,Congratulations on landing the role in the new Dad’s Army – had you seen any of the original series before you started preparing for the role? How does the film differ from the television series?

Thank you. This really was a dream job. I adore the original series now, my uncle bought me the box set for Christmas, and with over 39 hours of footage, it’s a good job I do like them!

I’d seen some of it before the audition but admittedly, as a child I avoided it at all costs. The green and grey colouring of the show and subtle humour just didn’t appeal to me as a little girl, I am so glad I’ve had a reason to go back and watch it as it is just genius. I think everyone involved in the film has tried their best to honour the original themes and feel of the original series. We even have the two remaining cast members from the series starring in the film. The characters and the comedy hasn’t aged at all, and it is still set in the war era. All the characters were and are so 3D and diverse. Whether you identify with a more jack-the-lad character of Walker or the dry humour of Wilson, there is a character for everyone. When characters are that detailed and strong, you can put them in any situation, with hilarious consequences!

Do you think the new film will win over fans of the original series while gaining a brand new audience as well?

I know many young people can identify with growing up with Dad’s Army, but never quite ‘getting’ the comedy. I am very excited at the prospect of the film drawing in a younger audience. We have the majestic Catherine Zeta Jones as the leading lady and young stars such as Blake Harrison and Emily Atack, who I know have a big fan base of their own. I do believe once the film has hooked viewers they will be dying to buy the box set and start the journey over again!

Can you tell us a little bit about your role in the film and what you did to prepare for it?

Holli Dempsey, British Actress, Derek, Channel 4, Ricky Gervais, Dad's Army, Top 10 Films,

The cast of Dad’s Army feat. Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Tom Courtenay, Bill Paterson, Michael Gambon, Blake Harrison

ON THE CAST: At the first rehearsal I found myself in a room with Alison Steadman, Felicity Montague, Billy Nighy, Bill Patterson, Toby Jones, to name but 1% of an incredible cast (cor! Name dropping) – that was a little surreal. I was just glancing around thinking “I’ve grown up watching all of you!”…

I play Pike’s girlfriend Vera. She is a very sweet and loyal girl, I’d call her ‘salt of the earth’. She is besotted by her beloved Pike and very much a part of the women in the film who have a much bigger presence than in the original series. I didn’t have the same preparation to do as the men did, as I wasn’t matching up to anyone. However I had a couple of meetings with Oliver Parker the director to ‘find’ Vera but he seemed to like the quality I brought to the audition. Blake and I had worked together before so we could get straight in to finding the characters and their relationship.

Working with such a great ensemble cast must have been both exciting and also a little unnerving (especially as this is your first feature film)? How did you find the experience?

I absolutely loved every minute of it. At the first rehearsal I found myself in a room with Alison Steadman, Felicity Montague, Billy Nighy, Bill Patterson, Toby Jones, to name but 1% of an incredible cast (cor! Name dropping) – that was a little surreal. I was just glancing around thinking “I’ve grown up watching all of you!”. Everyone was so lovely with such a wealth of stories behind them. I like to think I played it pretty cool around them all! At the end of the day they are all humans – if incredibly talented humans!

Were there any particular actors you gravitated towards for tips or guidance? What guidance did they give you?

ON DEREK: Playing Vicky in Derek was the first time I had been able to develop a character over two series so that was a real dream come true. It is definitely the role that made my Twitter followers increase if nothing else…

Emily Atack and I got on pretty quickly. It’s always lovely to have friends in the industry who are doing what you’re doing as it is a strange industry to get your head around sometimes! I HAD to ask Bill Paterson about his experience filming The Witches with Anjelica Huston which was my ‘go-to-film’ when I was child! I have learnt so much from just having lunch or dinner with these lovely people. It was great to hear from these seasoned actors how similar and different the industry really is today. Jobs like this make me feel very blessed!

You must be equally excited for your first feature film to be arriving in cinemas – how have you found the press junkets and promotion (is it enjoyable or a bit of a chore); are your family/friends excited to see you on the big screen; and how happy are you with the finished film?

That bit really excites me. I can’t wait to fill a cinema room with all my friends and family to watch such a classic comedy film. It’s great to see that there is a real buzz around the film already, even though it won’t be out until next year! I loved filming it and I adore the original series so any interviews have been fun. If you love what you do you don’t mind talking about it. Saying that, I still haven’t seen the film and I don’t think I will be privy to it for a while 🙁 I CAN’T WAIT ANY LONGER!!!

What was the highlight for you working on Dad’s Army – what will you most remember about the production?

Aside from a dream part, incredible cast and a wonderful director and crew of course. I really love the sea, so to be staying right on the coast and filming by the sea was a real treat. It always makes me feel so lucky. If I ever felt down or tired, the sea air would sort that out.

Holli Dempsey, British Actress, Derek, Channel 4, Ricky Gervais, Dad's Army, Top 10 Films,

Holli Dempsey (left) with Ricky Gervais on the set of comedy-drama series Derek

How did the film-making experience differ from working on television series Derek?

Well, as anyone who has worked on a Ricky Gervais production will tell you, it really is a unique job. My memory of filming Derek is laughing all day long, eating lovely food, painting the old ladies nails upon request and finishing before 4 o-clock. Can’t complain! We had built such a ‘home’ – literally.

Whereas any other production will be up against bigger time constraints for a start. The film was harder simply because of the longer days, cold locations etc. but that doesn’t dampen your spirits when you’re doing the job you love.

Would you consider Derek as your big break in acting? How did you get the role?

ON AUDITIONING FOR RICKY GERVAIS:We read the scenes and then did some improvisation in character. During this Ricky asked me questions, most of which I ignored as I played on my phone. He asked what I liked to read, I responded ‘Twitter’. He loved that. Then asked what I wanted to be when I was older? I thought for a moment then said “I dunno, like a Kardashian or summink??” At this point I heard Ricky’s well known laugh and knew I’d (hopefully) got the job! I was so proud that he kept those two lines in the first series. From then on Vicky kept growing and growing…

Playing Vicky in Derek was the first time I had been able to develop a character over two series so that was a real dream come true. It is definitely the role that made my Twitter followers increase if nothing else. I think people have responded so positively to Derek as a series and my character Vicky.

I get wonderful messages from people all over the globe who have been touched by Derek’s message of kindness. I auditioned for the casting director and assistant producer before being called back to meet Ricky. I played it cool as the character of Vicky had been described to me as “sullen and uninterested”. We read the scenes and then did some improvisation in character. During this Ricky asked me questions, most of which I ignored as I played on my phone. He asked what I liked to read, I responded ‘Twitter’. He loved that. Then asked what I wanted to be when I was older? I thought for a moment then said “I dunno, like a Kardashian or summink??” At this point I heard Ricky’s well known laugh and knew I’d (hopefully) got the job! I was so proud that he kept those two lines in the first series. From then on Vicky kept growing and growing.

What did you learn from your experience on Derek from an acting perspective and what memories will you take away from the production?

Holli Dempsey, British Actress, Derek, Channel 4, Ricky Gervais, Dad's Army, Top 10 Films,

Holli Dempsey preparing to film a scene on the set of Ricky Gervais’ Derek

I learnt just how many different styles of acting there are!! I knew this already of course but filming Derek and Dad’s Army at exactly the same time really brings it home. Derek is a mockumentary so the acting has to be as true to life as possible. Whereas Dad’s Army is a classic British comedy film, so the acting is ‘played up’ more. They are two very different styles of acting and it’s wonderful to be doing both and hopefully soaking it all up as I go. I’d always wanted to play a character like Vicky. Girls like her are so often played ‘up’ and exaggerated. I wanted to stay true to girls like her who haven’t had the easiest start in life. I wanted to make her a three-dimensional character. It was so great to let a character like her develop.

Watching Ricky work has definitely taught me to be more fearless, take risks, but also find what you’re good at and perfect it.

Holli Dempsey, British Actress, Derek, Channel 4, Ricky Gervais, Dad's Army, Top 10 Films, As for pearls of wisdom: As the wonderful Sheila Collings (the lovely lady that teaches Vicky about ‘men’) said before she passed away just after Christmas 2014: “Actors don’t retire, they just drop dead!”

A job like Derek showed how people from completely different ends of the age spectrum can get on so well when bonded by such a lovely common cause!

What was it like working with Ricky Gervais? How does Gervais, as a writer-director, differ from the public persona Gervais (or are they quite similar)?

He is a real joy to work with. He is very laid back as a director and you always feel you can make suggestions for your character. The fact that he is the writer and director and lead man means he is always there to bounce ideas off. There isn’t a long list of departments to go through just to get a word changed in the script!

He never seems to stop thinking; he is either saying something hilarious or thinking it!

I think some people have watched some of Ricky’s risqué stand up routines and have judged him solely on that. He isn’t an arrogant and egotistical guy as some people imagine, not at all. He campaigns for animal rights and keeps the world laughing. There are far worse people out there!

Do you hope to work with Gervais again – perhaps in one of his films?

ON RICKY GERVAIS: Watching Ricky Gervais work has definitely taught me to be more fearless, take risks, but also find what you’re good at and perfect it…

I would love to work with Ricky again. None of us will ever forget how wonderful it was to be a part of Derek. I like to think I’m versatile enough to come back as a character that isn’t Vicky, in one of his films and get away with it!

What else can we see you in 2015?

I gave birth a few weeks ago on Call the Midwife (episode 4). I will be appearing in one episode of DCI Banks and also an episode of new comedy series The Delivery Man.

I am also off to South Africa this weekend to film a small part in a new Sky comedy series. Watch this space!

What sorts of roles do you like playing or look out for in film/TV? Where do you feel your strengths lie as an actor?

I think one of the beauties of this industry is how different every job is. I never get bored as nothing is ever the same. I do write down parts I would love to play but they are always quite vague as you never really know what is around the corner. Also, directors and producers may see you as a part that you never imagined. I didn’t know I could play the kind of comic role that I did in Derek, but many people have told me how realistic the character seemed. That’s a strength I have always wanted as an actor. I love playing characters who are tough but have a heart. I love playing characters that aren’t ‘pretty’ too as they are often more interesting characters.

What are your ambitions as you look to the future – can you see yourself in Hollywood?

I would definitely love to visit LA and work out there if the right job came up. It’s amazing how much smaller the world has got in recent years though. I am able to audition for shows being cast in LA, from London. The idea of packing up your life to ‘make it in Hollywood’ is no longer a necessity. I just love what Britain does with their films and TV and theatre, but I’ve got a lot of exploring to do…

Dad’s Army will be released in UK cinemas next year.
Ricky Gervais’ Derek is available on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK (which you can buy from Amazon.co.uk and available in the US on Netflix

Holli Dempsey was speaking to
Top 10 Films editor Daniel Stephens

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Callum Reply

    Great interview Daniel. Holli was great in Derek, I’m looking forward to seeing her in future projects.

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