Having researched the matter exhaustively, I can confirm that, at this precise moment, there are two types of people in the world: those who love Ted Lasso – Apple TV+’s unashamedly feel-good comedy about an American football coach transplanted to the UK to work with a flailing Premier League team – and those who just haven’t watched it yet.
The show launched at the tail end of lockdown 1, delivering desperately necessary bolts of good-natured, hope-infused jolliness that simultaneously managed to be unpredictable, non-trite, genuinely funny (and on occasion, devastatingly sad) and – bonus! – introduced an isolated world to characters who demanded you feel connected to every one of them, usually in the time it took them to speak their first lines. By the time season two arrived this summer, Ted Lasso’s signature sweetness, its apolitical decency, its optimism, took on new significance, operating as a prompt and a promise on how decent humanity can be when it tries, and…
I’m gushing, aren’t I? Never mind: some things should be gushed over.
I didn’t start watching the show until recently, when it won seven Emmys – though the awards themselves weren’t what turned me on to Ted. That was down to Lasso star Hannah Waddingham, to the spectacle of a staggeringly good-looking peroxide blonde accepting her Emmy for best supporting actress while wearing the kind of coral pink fishtail gown I’d be reprimanded for describing as “the definition of va-va-voom” (though not by her: “Objectifying people, it’s what makes the world go round, isn’t it?” she’ll say), stealing the entire ceremony with how amazing yet hilarious she clearly found it all, and delivering an acceptance speech that berated a TV casting system that routinely ignores the talent available in musical theater, where she herself had flogged her guts out for 20-odd years.
So what’s it like to be suddenly famous, I ask Waddingham (aka the mighty, mightily flawed Rebecca Welton, owner of AFC Richmond, recruiter of Ted Lasso).
Waddingham shudders. “Oh, I don’t know about ‘famous’.”
Come on! You just won an Emmy for a massive show, which is on Apple, which – according to streaming platform math – makes you at least twice as famous in the US as you are here.
“The f-word makes me really uncomfortable. I’ve been a grafter all my career. Fame and celebrity makes it feel… It’s a generic term that makes me nervous. You can see, it jolts my system a bit.”
A staggeringly good-looking peroxide blonde accepting her Emmy for best supporting actress while wearing the kind of coral pink fishtail gown I’d be reprimanded for describing as “the definition of va-va-voom.”
Yeah, I can. Waddingham is supremely self-assured, 5ft 11in of dance-honed physicality in a floral print maxidress topped off with a phenomenal face (albeit one which, she announces while being photographed, “tends to look arsey if I don’t smile”), and she holds a room like a woman accustomed to holding entire auditoriums. Yet when I punt the notion she might now be famous, she shrinks.
What are we to call you then?
“More known? There you go. More known! The thing that was weird was going to Los Angeles for the first time. You get off the plane, and it’s like you’re in Friends.”
What do people say to you?
“ ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ Which is why when someone says, ‘Oh, do you mind people stopping you in the street?’ I’m like, ‘How could you mind when people are saying, “Thank you for getting me through a terribly dark time”? ’ ”
That Waddingham should have her big break, should achieve such levels of, uh, more-known-ness, at the age of 47, while portraying a 47-year-old woman (“I actually said to Jason [Sudeikis, creator of the show, who plays Lasso], ‘Can Rebecca be my age, so I can play her as truthfully as possible?’ “), a rock-hard yet vulnerable divorcee with a phenomenal wardrobe, is a significant indicator things might be changing for women, both on-screen and in the broader culture. Waddingham’s Rebecca is part of the reason that the daring possibility that women might, in fact, become more relevant with a little bit of age, is gaining currency (see Kate Winslet’s Mare of Easttown, Sutton Foster of Younger, Sharon Horgan and the entire cast of the Sex and the City reboot).
“I feel a real responsibility for women of a certain age,” Waddingham says. “I think it’s reassuring that, here I am, a single parent, at the age of 47, with the greatest success of my career. I find it odd and quite funny, and I’m actually quite glad. People have gone, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it have been nicer if it had happened younger?’ No! I think, in terms of suddenly your career going into warp speed, I can see why younger people lose their shit. Whereas me, yes, it’s amazing, but I’ve still got to spin the plates of life with my daughter. By 47, you kind of are who you are. I don’t need any new friends. I’ve got my clan. It’s lovely to step into the world, step up to the Mad Hatter’s table, then step away, have my normal life.”
Hannah Waddingham was born in Wandsworth, south London, into performing stock. Her mother, Melodie Kelly, was an opera singer, and so were both her maternal grandparents. You get a sense there was never any question she’d wind up onstage. She studied at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts – also in Wandsworth – then launched herself into an accomplished stage career. She worked in theater consistently for two decades and received Olivier nominations for her parts in Spamalot in 2007, A Little Night Music (2010) and Trevor Nunn’s revival of Kiss Me, Kate (2013). Which was all great, she says – but she wanted more.
“I think it’s reassuring that, here I am, a single parent … with the greatest success of my career.”
What, exactly, if not fame?
“It’s not that I’ve never wanted it, [it’s that] I don’t believe anyone gets into theater because they think they’re going to make a desperate amount of money or they’re going to become famous. I just wanted to play effing great characters, with other great characters, in great shows or on TV. And TV eluded me for years. It appalls me that musical theater people have been overlooked for years on-screen.”
Why is that?
“We don’t take them seriously as actors, [we think they’re all] jazz hands, singy, dancey, tits and teeth. Well, they’re not. They’re only doing that because that’s what you’re required to do. If they were required to do other things? You watch them go. I remember 10, 15 years ago, saying to my own agents, ‘Well, are you going to bring any casting directors?’ and they would say, ‘Oh no, they’re not going to come to a musical.’ Like it was a given. It’s so rude.”
Waddingham did get a role on ITV’s Benidorm. “I’m very grateful to Derren Litten for writing me that character. But even he had a struggle with ITV. ‘She’s not famous enough.’ That’s why I’ve got a problem with this word ‘famous’.” But nothing major followed. “I had to go to America to be taken seriously. I thought, ‘I know I can do it and I’m going to knock on the door until some f***er opens it.’ ”
The f***ers who did were David Benioff and Dan Weiss of Game of Thrones, when Waddingham was cast as Septa Unella – a vile, violently righteous nun – while heavily pregnant. “I just went in to say hello for next time: ‘Hello, I’m about to pop.’ Brilliant [casting director] Nina Gold said, ‘Is this something that you would actually consider? Because you’ll have only had your baby nine weeks before you’re needed out in Dubrovnik.’ I literally went, ‘Yes. Yes, fine.’ ”
Waddingham references that baby – her daughter, now eight – a great deal. “I waited a long time to have her. I didn’t think I could have children. I did a general health check for a job and, horrendously, the thing came back saying, you know, ‘Blood type: this… Fertility: low.’ That’s how I found out. My world fell down about my ears. I thought, ‘I’ve taken too long. I’ve taken too long. I’ve been doing too much theater work… I’ve done this, I’ve done that… I’ve done something wrong.’ ”
How old were you?
And in a relationship?
“Yes. And thankfully my daughter’s dad [Gianluca Cugnetto, a food and drinks industry adviser, from whom Waddingham has since split] was like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll sort this out.’ ”
“I actually went down the eastern medicine route. I had all my metal levels read and the rest of it, and thankfully, for me, that seemed to do the trick. It feels like she was… You know with Indiana Jones, grabbing the hat from under the door? I felt she was my last good egg.”
Her daughter is not allowed to watch Ted Lasso (“too much swearing”). She is, however, according to Waddingham, the reason that she’s in the show at all.
Waddingham believes that she manifested her part in Ted Lasso – that she formally asked the universe for it and the universe delivered – which makes me uncomfortable because those sort of ideas just do. I tell her this – she tells me she’d never tried manifesting before, and had only done it on that occasion because of her daughter, who’d become suddenly, unexpectedly very ill with an autoimmune disorder while Waddingham was stuck on a film shoot in Belfast in 2019.
“I got a phone call going, ‘There are splatty marks all over her legs and she’s vomiting green bile,’ and I was like, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ Like I’d been slapped round the face. I physically couldn’t get home. The production company tried to get me on a boat. I tried to charter a helicopter.”
She flew back on a plane the following day (bad night? “Yup. Didn’t sleep”) and her daughter got gradually better. “I had my manager in LA by then, and I said, ‘With all due respect, I love where my career is going, but I cannot have that heart-stopping moment ever again in my life, where I feel like I’m not serving my child.’
“I said to them, ‘Whether I go back to doing shows or concerts or voice-overs or whatever, I’m perfectly happy with that, because she comes first.’
You get a sense there was never any question she’d wind up onstage.
“There was a deathly silence on the phone. I got off it and I stood out on the decking in my garden and I imagined I was just standing on the earth – I don’t mean it to sound dramatic or wanky or bohemian or whatever – I imagined that everything was stripped back and there was her, upstairs, in her bed, with me standing there, and I went, ‘Thank you, first of all, for making my child well. Thank you for everything that is happening for my work. Can I please ask that I need to stay here and be with my girl, but I don’t want the momentum to stop in my career, because I’ve worked really hard and I feel like I deserve it? I hope that’s OK to say: I feel like I deserve it. Can I just ask for something here that stretches me and shows what I can do? And thank you.’ That’s literally what I said.”
“You have to say it and mean it. Like f***ing tunnel vision.” Two months later, Waddingham was called to her first meeting about Ted Lasso. She auditioned without realizing the show would be filmed in Richmond – a 30-minute drive from her home. “I said to Jason Sudeikis in the meeting, ‘So, where is this going to shoot?’ And he went, ‘Er… Richmond.’ And I went, ‘Richmond – as in Richmond, Surrey?’ And he’s so dry, he went, ‘Well, I think if it’s in Richmond, we probably need to be in Richmond.’ I was like, ‘Yes, you would think that.’ And I got the bit between my teeth. I was like, ‘I’m having this!’ ”
Her first indication that she truly did Have It came as she walked down a studio corridor following the latest in a sequence of auditions with “Kimberly Hope, the casting director, and Bill Wrubel, one of the exec producers… Bill said, ‘Oh, by the way, I must just say, I love you in your musicals. I saw you in Spamalot.’ I went, ‘Oh God, thank you. But Rebecca doesn’t sing, does she?’ And under his breath, in front of me, Jason went, ‘She does now.’ ”
I ask Waddingham if she’s single, hoping she’ll regale me with stories about navigating Tinder as a More Known person. But no such luck. “I’m not. I’m not single. That’s… a work in progress.” Who are they? “I’m very, very private.” But it’s someone you met pre-Ted? “Yes. Better the devil you know, sometimes.” (Better the devil you knew before you were famous, certainly, I think.) She’s never been married, has no real desire to be. “I was engaged once. I remember standing in a shop, looking at the wedding dress, looking at other people and going, ‘Oh my God, this feels like a sheep dip. We’re all doing the Thing.’ ”
I ask about the rumour that Ted Lasso’s cast are now paid $150,000 (£110,000) per episode, but she says, “Oh, I’m not discussing that!”
So then I ask about the rumor Jason Sudeikis implemented a “no arseholes” policy on the cast and crew. She says that, at least, is true. “There genuinely aren’t any. Does that usually mean you’re the arsehole, if you think there are no arseholes?” I think you’re OK, I say. “I always say there’s nobody I wouldn’t mind being stuck in a lift with on that job.” Right – but who’s best? “I’m very, very close to Brett Goldstein,” she says. Goldstein, who plays Roy Kent, is one of the writers on the show and, coincidentally, I tell Waddingham, I’ve got a massive crush on him.
“Everyone’s got a massive crush on Brett Goldstein,” she says. I know, I tell her, it’s a bit like saying, “I’ve got a crush on this bloke called Brad Pitt,” but she’s not listening; she’s busy checking her phone. She triumphantly flashes a missed call alert at me. “Brett Goldstein literally just called two minutes ago! What the hell is that, then? If that isn’t manifestation, what is that? That is you, you witch!”
I giggle and blush.
We talk about the third – possibly last? – season of the show (“I don’t know. Genuinely don’t know. I don’t know when it’s going to end and I don’t know Rebecca’s trajectory”), and we attempt to dissect what it is that makes viewers love Ted Lasso with such passion. We talk about the Etsy categories filled with Lasso-themed merchandise, the earnest online conversations about how Lasso represents “positive masculinity”, and why his quotes ricochet round social media (eg “Beating yourself up is like Woody Allen playing the clarinet. I don’t want to hear it”). “It’s the writers,” Waddingham says. “They’re like a roomful of Jedi Knights.” And finally, just as I’ve almost given up, I get her to cop to fleeting glee, to a little Schadenfreude-lite, directed at those who missed or ignored or disregarded her talent in the past. “Oh, secretly I think [she blows an extravagant raspberry and flips lusty V-signs at unspecified targets] to a couple of people. I’m not going to lie. I’m human. And there are some people who are knocking on my door now going, ‘Would you like to come and do…?’ And I think, ‘No, I wouldn’t like to come and do that, thanks. Why would I want to do that, for 25p a week?’ I don’t need to name and shame them, but yes. There are people about whom I think, ‘Oh, I wasn’t good enough for you then, but I am now?’ ”
Not that it matters, not really, because, she says, “I’m having a brilliant time and hopefully taking the people that I love with me.”
I say goodbye, leave Hannah Waddingham to have her hair re-zhooshed in advance of the Succession premiere that evening, and take myself home to practice some manifesting. Just in case.
Polly Vernon is a feature writer for The Times of London