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Deadline to death

Jayd Johnson has moved on from her role as a confused teenager in River City to take the lead in a dark newsroom drama.

There are not many actors who would take being head-hunted to play a “big dirty girl who likes eating”  as a compliment, but Jayd Johnson is far from disgruntled.

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In fact, sitting in a tucked-away corner of a Glasgow hotel, the 20-year-old, who cut her teeth on the homegrown soap, River City, is relishing the prospect of bringing crime writer Denise Mina’s feisty and fearless Paddy Meehan to life in BBC Scotland’s forthcoming The Field of Blood.

Adapted from Mina’s gritty novel, and written and directed by Sea of Souls creator David Kane, the two-part drama centres around Meehan, who works in a Glasgow newspaper office in 1982 as a copy girl (read: general dogsbody). Bafta-winning actor Peter Capaldi plays whisky-soaked veteran reporter, Dr Peter, with David Morrissey as editor Murray Devlin and Ford Kiernan as wry-tongued hack George McVey.

It’s a world where misogyny is rife, the glass ceiling barely inches off the floor, yet, against the odds, Meehan is determined to become an investigative journalist for the Glasgow Daily News and follow in the footsteps of her heroes, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, who exposed the Watergate scandal.

Opportunity arrives when, in a storyline likely to fuel controversy, a 10-year-old boy is accused of torturing and beating a toddler to death, echoing the 1993 murder of Liverpool youngster Jamie Bulger. When it transpires Meehan knows the alleged killer she vows to prove his innocence -- at great personal cost. Johnson admits the role required a strong stomach.

“When I read the first chapter of the book, I was taken aback [by the graphic nature] of what happens, but it doesn’t actually show that kind of detail in the television version,” she says carefully. “During filming I did have to work hard to switch off. One of the scenes I found most difficult was when Paddy was attacked. It triggered something which really got to me.

“When we stopped for lunch I had to put my iPod on and dance about to Beyonce because, if I hadn’t, I would have stayed in a bad place. There were times I would forget I was acting. While that is a good thing as an actor -- because that’s when you know you are immersed in the role -- it can be scary too. I would go home each night and talk to my parents. It was almost like a debriefing. That helped keep things sane.”

For Johnson, though, it’s the role that almost never was. After leaving River City, she moved to New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Art, where big names such as Lauren Bacall, Robert Redford and Kirk Douglas trained, when the call came asking her to audition.

At first she refused, admitting that for days afterwards she was niggled with doubt about turning it down. Then the show’s producers got back in touch to see if they could change her mind.

“When they first approached me, I wasn’t up for leaving drama school. At the back of my mind, though, I knew there was something special about it.

“A month later they approached me again. The director had seen me in River City and thought I would be perfect. I said: ‘OK, send me the script ...’ and immediately fell in love with it.”

In the past author Mina has pegged Meehan -- who gets her name from convicted bank robber and miscarriage of justice victim Paddy Meehan -- as “feart fae nae bastard”, a description which prompts a grin from Johnson. She is unfazed by the notion of being handpicked to play a character described in one scene with David Morrissey as “the fat tart who makes the coffee” and “no stranger to a macaroon”.

I should point out at this juncture that there is nothing “big” about Johnson. She’s a curvy size 10 at the most and -- unlike her onscreen alter ego who exists on a diet of boiled eggs in a bid to shed weight -- says she is comfortable with how she looks.

“Paddy’s very self-conscious about her body image and role within a male-dominated world, whereas I’m not like that. I’m much more confident,” she says.

Not that Johnson didn’t feel some trepidation. “I read the book when I was in New York and the first four or five pages were filled with rave reviews saying what a hero this character is,” she says. “That was daunting because I knew then I had to get it right. There are so many people who love the book and I didn’t want to let them down.”

 

The drama was filmed on location in Glasgow and Quarriers Village, Renfrewshire, at the end of last year. Nye Bevan House, a drab office block in the city’s Charing Cross, provided the backdrop for the smoke-filled, kipper-tied newspaper office of 1982, with designers poring over a 1980s’ documentary on The Herald to add authenticity to proceedings.

“The newsroom set was amazing,” says Johnson. “It looks the double of the one in the documentary. Walking into it with all the cigarette smoke felt like being in a time warp. It was so cool. The props were perfect -- right down to the style of cans of Irn-Bru from the time.”

Quarriers Village near Kilmacolm, built as the Orphans’ Homes of Scotland in 1878 by philanthropist William Quarrier and later at the centre of sexual abuse allegations, was used during shooting to depict the Meehan family home.

“It was an atmospheric place to film,” says Johnson. “I didn’t know much beforehand about its history, but I spent time reading up and going through lots of old photographs. There were all these pictures of children, thousands of them, and the village has an eerie resonance to it.”

With The Field of Blood set in the early 1980s, it’s an era which Johnson -- who was born in 1990 -- didn’t experience first-hand. “I did a lot of research,” she says. “I downloaded songs from the time. I love 1980s’ music, especially The Clash. The fashion was brilliant too. The costume designer Gill [Horn] and I played around with all the old-fashioned clothes ...”

Johnson trails off, catching herself. “I say old-fashioned -- it wasn’t that long ago,” she hurriedly interjects with an apologetic smile. “I quizzed my parents too. My dad was great for advice. He talked a lot about the big perms and bold colours, how everything was so eccentric in the eighties.”

Making The Field of Blood, she says, brought into focus a few surprising home truths. “The story is set in a man’s world and it was the same for me going on set each day,” says Johnson. “I was surrounded by almost all guys, which was perfect for getting into character. Did it bring out my inner feminist? A wee bit. I would sit around listening to them tell stories, although they would be mostly talking about football, so I was a bit bored.

“Probably the biggest thing for me, though, was the realisation that, even though we have come so far, it’s still a man’s world in so many ways. That was something I never thought about until I did this role. It never crossed my mind that things would still be that way, but men do still get the first hand in things and women do still have to prove themselves.”

 

While her onscreen ego Meehan feels suffocated by her strict Catholic upbringing and overbearing fiance, Johnson is a self-confessed “real family girl” who loves nothing more than hanging out at home. The youngest of three children, she grew up in Rutherglen, Lanarkshire. Her parents Connie, 49, and Johnny, 52, own and run a cafe in the Forge Market in the east end of Glasgow. Her elder sister Jordana, 28, is a wedding planner while brother, John Paul, 31, works in the family business.

Johnson began attending drama classes aged eight and landed her first professional acting job at 11 in the film Dear Frankie, starring Emily Mortimer and Gerard Butler. “It makes me mad when people sometimes think I was a child actor and that my mum and dad pushed me into it.

“It all came from me. I was my choice. I couldn’t ask for better, more supportive parents. My dad would always take me on auditions and pick me up afterwards. They like what I do, I think.

“My mum says it’s an amazing thing to do what you love in life and she sees how excited I am when I go to work.”

Johnson is pretty with long, dark lashes which frame her hazel eyes. Her thick brown hair hangs loose around her shoulders, a discreet heart-shaped tattoo on her left wrist. She’s gregarious, possessing a youthful candour not dulled by the hours of media grooming which so many young stars under go.

From the age of 13, Johnson played Nicki Cullen in River City. She left in 2009, after six years, and with her character currently “in Spain” (soap opera speak for an indefinite hiatus), she doesn’t completely rule out returning to Shieldinch. “The door was left open. They were great about me leaving,” she says. “Would I go back? I would never say never because River City taught me so much. In a way, I think of it as high school. It was an important learning process, but you can’t go back to school, can you?”

What about being tipped as “the next big thing”? Johnson visibly blanches. “Oh God,” she croaks. “I try not to think about that.” Her brow furrows. “I do put myself under pressure watching a scene and picking what I’ve done to death, thinking I should have done this or that. I feel more pressure from outside than internally.”

She doesn’t seem overly attracted by the notion of fame. Has she Googled herself recently? A fervent shake of the head. “I’m trying to avoid doing that,” she says. “You could see a hundred amazing things written about you, but then that one bad thing would be the only thing you think about. ”

Since she returned from New York, Johnson has been living with her parents and credits them with keeping her grounded. “My mum and dad are constantly telling me I need to go and help out in the cafe,” she says, with a mock roll of her eyes. “I’m rubbish at it. I’m so slow. They end up doing it themselves because it takes me so long.

“When I was filming The Field of Blood my dad came on set and enjoyed getting into the technical side of it from behind the camera. He often reads scripts with me and quite fancies himself as an actor.” Johnson giggles. “We were reading a scene before I went to work one day and I couldn’t stop laughing because he was properly getting into it. He’s actually not bad, though ...”

Johnson is already compiling her hefty to-do list, admitting she quite fancies turning her hand to directing or theatre work. “There is so much I want to do before I’m 30,” she enthuses. “When I turned 20, I felt really upset. I know I’ve had such an amazing life so far but I felt I hadn’t accomplished everything I wanted to. People said to me: ‘Are you crazy? You have just turned 20 ...’

“I want to work as hard as I can. Family life? I don’t know ... I can’t see myself getting married or having kids. I would rather have a career. Maybe in 10 years I will change my mind. My mum always says: ‘Give it five or 10 years and you will be wanting a kid ...’” Her incredulous impression shows she doesn’t quite believe it.

It’s only later it strikes me that Johnson’s words almost exactly echo those of the free-spirited Meehan in a tender scene with her fiance. Stockholm syndrome? Perhaps. There are flashes of innocence about Johnson, yet her musings are peppered with a sageness which belies her age.

“I’m only 20. I still have so much learning to do. You never stop learning as an actor, and I still have miles and miles to go.” With Johnson, you get the feeling the journey will be far from dull.

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