The Bewitching Charm Of Hannah Waddingham

As Americans fall in love with the Ted Lasso star, U.K. fans say, "Join the club."

Written by Chris Mandle
Photographs by Lauren Dukoff
Styled by James Yardley
Originally Published: 
Hannah Waddingham posing for a magazine cover

Hannah Waddingham came up through the British theater scene, so she knows two things to be true. The first: The show must go on, no matter what. It’s something the cast of Ted Lasso took to heart, having filmed the bulk of the show during the pandemic. Though, as Waddingham proudly notes, they managed to wrap the second season in 2021 without a single COVID-related shutdown at a time “when every show was falling on its arse.” “It was impressive that this massive juggernaut kept running so smoothly,” she says, in her crisp British lilt. “The cast were so respectful of not threatening our beautiful, isolated bubble.”

The other: No job lasts forever. (Even The Phantom of the Opera, Broadway’s longest-running show, is finally closing its doors.) It’s also true of Ted Lasso, the cozy Apple TV+ show that made Waddingham a household name as it comforted the anxious and the scared during the first year of the pandemic. The first season became the most nominated first-season comedy in Emmy Awards history, with 20 nominations. (It won seven, with Waddingham taking home Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.) The second season received another 20 nominations, and won four. But the incoming third season is expected to be its last. To Waddingham, it’s bittersweet; she loves playing Rebecca Welton, the steel-clad boss bitch who owns AFC Richmond, the British football team that sweet-natured American Ted (Jason Sudeikis) is trying to coach to victory. “I’m in a job that I will struggle to beat,” she admits. “When I say there’s not an arsehole in [the cast], that is true. It’s a very happy camp. They have a ‘no arseholes’ policy, apparently.”

Though her character starts off as something of an ice queen, Waddingham herself has contributed plenty to the warmth radiating from the show. “There’s a line early on the show: Would you rather be a lion or a panda?” says her co-star Toheeb Jimoh, who plays Sam Obisanya, a right-winger for AFC Richmond (and Rebecca’s unexpected love interest in the second season). “Hannah is definitely a lion on the outside. She can seem like an intimidating presence because she’s really tall, super striking, and incredibly sharp. But the Hannah I know personally is as panda as panda gets. She’s the silliest woman, with a weird, cackling laugh you can hear a mile away.”

Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini suit c/o Paumé Los Angeles, Intimissimi bodysuit, Jennifer Fisher earrings, Dinosaur Designs ring, Le Silla shoes.

Waddingham joins our Zoom while in transit, adjusting her jadeite glasses to better see — she’s being driven home from Soho, where she’s been recording dialogue for an animated project. It’s a race against time: She hasn’t seen her 8-year-old daughter for eight days and wants to see her before bedtime. If she gets home too late, she won’t get a chance to see her again for three more days because of work commitments. At times, she seems a little anxious. “The joys of motherhood,” she says, managing an exasperated sigh while beaming from ear to ear. But for the most part, she projects eternal theater-kid energy: warm, exuberant and delightfully campy. When I ask about her stint as a guest judge on an upcoming episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, she says “the queens were totally delicious,” infusing as many syllables as possible with a rich, glossy luster.

Getting here — rubbing shoulders with world famous drag queens, hopping between sets and award shows — took a while. Prior to Ted Lasso, Waddingham, 48, spent much of her career working in theater, from humble dinner shows to Broadway and the West End. So she takes none of her current TV stardom for granted because, to hear her tell it, none of this was supposed to happen. “Musical theater people don’t get into it for money or fame. It’s in your blood; it’s in your bones; it’s a vocation,” she says. Her mother sang with the Royal Opera House and the English National Opera and was the daughter of two opera singers herself. “I don’t remember ever not wanting to sing or act — I remember the opposite,” Waddingham says. “Finding out some people’s parents worked in offices, I was like, ‘What do you mean? Doesn’t everyone sing and dance for a living?’”

Agent Provocateur corset, Jennifer Fisher earrings.

On stage, she developed a reputation as a “ballsy belter” thanks to her powerhouse four-octave range — not something she sought out, but something she accepted nonetheless. “You take the work you are offered, and I do it with my full heart,” she says. But her credits are diverse, ranging from Monty Python’s Spamalot (which earned her her first of three Olivier nominations, the British equivalent of the Tony Awards) to Sondheim (Into the Woods, A Little Night Music she does a mean rendition of “Send in the Clowns”).

One of her early fans was her now co-star Brett Goldstein. “I consider her one of the best actors I’ve seen on the West End stage,” he says. “Her voice, her nuance, her comic timing. Her Lady of the Lake [in Spamalot] remains one of the funniest live performances I’ve ever seen.” When Goldstein found out Waddingham got the role on Ted Lasso, he was thrilled. “At the first read-through, I went over like an insane stalker and told her she was amazing, and that I’d seen all her work. She was polite and scared.”

“Musical theater people don't get into it for money or fame. It's in your blood; it's in your bones; it's a vocation.”

But for Waddingham, moving into television wasn’t easy. Growing up in the U.K., I remember her as a bit player on sitcoms like Benidorm (set on a working-class holiday resort on the eastern coast of Spain) and soapy dramas like Brookside, Hollyoaks, and Footballers’ Wives. This is the kind of regular, if unglamorous, work that pays the bills but doesn’t necessarily get you noticed by the industry, even if she did occasionally steal scenes by dialing them up to 11. (On Benidorm, for example, she played a spray-tanned, rhinestone-bodiced beautician called Tonya Dyke — imagine 2009-era Snooki cosplaying as RuPaul.) Whatever she was given, she committed to it like it was Pinter. “I had long accepted the fact that I was seen as a ‘musical theater’ girl, even if it was some kind of derogative perception: ‘Oh no, they’re musical theater,’” she says. “I had accepted that so much that it was a shock to me when suddenly anybody was interested in me, screen-wise. It happens all the time.”

The turning point, surprisingly, was playing Septa Unella on Game of Thrones — better known to fans as “the shame nun” for her part in Cersei Lannister’s brutal walk of penance. Unella is a formidable religious zealot with a Terminator-style steeliness, who rang a bell and repeatedly bellowed the word “shame” behind Cersei as she was paraded through the streets for her sins. Waddingham finds it weird that such a small part helped her break the cycle, but then again, there’s nothing like Game of Thrones to level up your resume. “It almost opens a floodgate,” she says. “Somebody has to take a punt on you, and then suddenly people go, ‘Oh, [she] must be all right then.’” It’s the role people used to always stop her for, before Lasso.

“I only get recognised as Septa Unella when I haven’t got any make-up on,” she says. Like the time she was on a plane at the crack of dawn, en route to shoot Game of Thrones’ sixth season, with her then-18-month-old in tow. “You can imagine what that was like, trying to get her to take her bottle,” she says. “I was just totally in mommy mode, and this guy sitting next to me went, ‘Would I be right in thinking you can ring my bell?’ I was like, ‘My God, note to self: Put a little lipstick on next time.’” Even flight attendants have been known to ask her, on a red-eye flight, for a picture. I ask her if it feels invasive, but she gives a sly smile. “It’s quite fun, though. You’re all holed up, and they don’t say it in a horrible way. They say it in a lovely, cheeky way, and then they leave you alone and give you a really lovely drink.”

Sacai clothing and belt, Pamela Love earrings, Giuseppe Zanotti shoes.

Ted Lasso might be approaching the end, but she is taking its lessons about kindness into the real world with her. “It encourages people to think the best of others, to know that everyone’s going through their shit,” she says. “And I think society has gotten very used to funny things that are derogatory about people. Ted encouraged people to be warm and to be kind and be funny to each other, not bitchy.”

Maybe that’s why she’s so willing to play her part in making other people happy. “Do you know what’s lovely?” she asks. “The thing most people say to me is thank you. Imagine what that’s like all the time. People going, ‘My God, you got me through a horrendous, horrible time.’ Someone came up to me once and said, ‘Can I just give you a squeeze?’” She looks out the window as the car moves through London. “It’s so nice,” she says, more to herself than to me.

Kathryn Bowen dress, Maison Met cape c/o The Residency Experience, Jimmy Choo shoes.

To borrow some theater-kid lingo, you could call this period Waddingham’s “yes, and” era — embracing the chaos, throwing herself into all the doors that have opened. “She’s worked so hard, for so many years, to such a standard, so to see her to be validated with the work she’s booking right now is just beautiful,” says her Ted Lasso co-star Kola Bokinni (who spoke to TZR while carpooling with Jimoh on the way home from filming). Or, as Goldstein puts it: “She can do anything that she wants now.”

Right now, that means indulging in a little bit of mischief. She’ll voice the villain in 2024’s animated Garfield movie, and she’s just appeared in Hocus Pocus 2 in a pivotal (if brief) role as the Witch Mother. “I do keep warning people that I am so very much blink-and-you’ll-miss-me, but I did it for my daughter, who is obsessed with the original,” she says. (Her daughter isn’t allowed to watch Ted Lasso yet — too much cursing.) Last year, sandwiched tightly between the Emmys and her Hocus Pocus costume fitting in Rhode Island, Waddingham also squeezed in a duet with Michael Bublé for his Netflix Christmas special. Introducing her, Bublé said, “She’s living proof that if you put good things out into the universe, they come back to you.” Then, Waddingham burst through the doors in a holly-red ball gown, a grin across her face, coming in for the chorus in Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” with a little shimmy.

Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini suit c/o Paumé Los Angeles, Intimissimi bodysuit, Jennifer Fisher earrings, Dinosaur Designs ring, Le Silla shoes.

Waddingham credits the night with giving her a hangover for the ages. “He and I have known each other since 2006 — I was doing Spamalot in London, he came to see it, and we have remained firm friends ever since,” she says. “When I won the Emmy, he basically FaceTimed me, crying, going, ‘I always knew it, I knew it, I knew it!’” He asked her on the spot to be in the special. Later, at the wrap party, “He and I were like two 12-year-olds having our first beverages. We were so tired and there was so much…” she lets off a groan, as if the ghost of the hangover might still be lurking around. “I think tiredness and adrenaline equal chronic hangovers once you’ve got some beers in you, don’t they?”

“Society has gotten very used to funny things that are derogatory about people. Ted encouraged people to be kind and funny to each other, not bitchy.”

After this year’s Emmys ceremony, the Ted Lasso cast had its own reunion rager following two years of COVID-dampened festivities. “I like an old fashioned first — there’s something slightly medicinal about it — and then I’m usually a margarita kind of gal,” she says. But the night was one for networking, too. As well as practically collapsing at the sight of Martin Short (“A real bucket-list moment, I’m obsessed with him”), Waddingham met Abbott Elementary’s Sheryl Lee Ralph and Lisa Ann Walter. Brainstorming with Walter on how to get her on the show, Waddingham pitched a hapless substitute teacher, but Walter told her, “‘You have to come in as the biggest boss bitch of all,’” Waddingham recalls. “I was like, ‘What, because I’m English and tall?’” She thinks incompetence might play better: “It’s funnier if I’m inept, and don’t know the curriculum, and I’m also very British.”

For Waddingham, seeing Ralph was especially powerful: The 65-year-old won the award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, becoming only the second Black woman in history to do so. It was moving, Waddingham says, to see someone who has been criminally underappreciated getting their due. “For many, many years, she and I were working our backsides off under the radar, her on Broadway, me here in London,” she says. “We said that we both feel like different versions of the same person going, ‘Hello? Hello? Can you please see me as something else?’ That’s why I was first up out of my chair going, ‘Fuck yeah!’ for her — because I know that feeling, and I know how bloody hard and bloody brilliantly she has worked for so many years.”

Agent Provocateur corset, Emporio Armani pants, Jennifer Fisher earrings, Le Silla shoes.

Waddingham’s car pulls up by her house. Talking of careers and success is making her pensive. “I always measure happiness with how many people that you desperately love are doing well,” she says. “I’m quite an old-fashioned basic gal like that. As long as I have enough and everyone around me is good, then it’s been a good year.”

It’s time for her to say goodbye. “I’m going to very unglamorously go and bathe my child now,” she says sweetly. “I’ll bring the old fashioneds next time.”

Top image credit: Sacai clothing and belt, Pamela Love earrings.

Photographer: Lauren Dukoff

Stylist: James Yardley

Set Designer: Dane Johnson

Hair: Marcus Francis

Makeup: Stephen Sollitto

Production: Production Squad

Talent Bookings: Special Projects

Video: Alexander Van Brande

Associate Creative Director, Video: Samuel Schultz

Photo Director: Alex Pollack

SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid

SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert

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