Close-up: An Interview With Helen Johns

Helen Johns, who plays Mrs. Eliza Barry on Netflix’s Anne with an E, joins us on Close-up Culture to chat about the third season of this beloved series.

Q: Season three of ‘Anne with an E’ is set to premiere on 22 September. What does this season have in store for Mrs. Eliza Barry and her family? 

A: Anne is turning 16 and, in fact, all of our youngsters are now young adults. That means testing boundaries and individuating. The same goes for Diana in the Barry family, so I can tell you it’s a rather tempestuous season for all of us! 

Q: You’ve been involved in the show since season one. How have you seen Moira Walley-Beckett’s vision for the series blossom over the years? 

A: I actually think Moira’s vision has been really clear from the beginning. She had written the whole of season one before we started, and I think she knew even then how the other seasons were going to play out. She is one of the hardest working people I know, and so much of her heart and mind has gone into this show.

I suppose you could say that some of the storylines in seasons two and three are a little bolder, perhaps more of a departure from the original novels, but they have the same heart and for me, remain very true to the spirit of Anne of Green Gables. 

Q: Mrs. Eliza Barry has faced struggles with parental decisions and martial strain caused by financial difficulty. How have you found the experience of growing with a character through multiple series and adding different layers to her? 

A: I’ve loved it. Sometimes when you are hired on a project, for example a film or a guest star role, you have read the whole script and you know exactly what you’ll be doing. I love not knowing what’s coming next, and opening each episode excitedly, ready to peel more layers of the character.

I especially loved the work I did with my on-screen family in season two. Having the chance to reveal a woman who was wanting so badly to be really seen by her husband. The pain of knowing someone intimately but somehow still not being able to communicate with them effectively. And the journey of realizing that her hopes and dreams for her children might be overwhelming her ability to be a great parent. 

Q: The show has given you a chance to work with a number of talented young performers such as Dalila Bela, Ryan Kiera Armstrong and Amybeth McNulty. How have you found the experience of working with this young cast? 

A: Gosh, they are all brilliant. I love working with all of them. They work so hard, on set and off. Dalila has been in the business since she was five. She knows exactly what she’s doing – a true professional. Anne was Ryan’s first big job, and she rocked up on set with a firecracker energy, totally natural on camera and learned the ropes so fast. And Amybeth is a total star. She just is Anne. A beautiful person for a beautiful character. 

Q: Is the atmosphere on set different when you have more younger performers involved? Is there more room for mischief? 

A: Yes, I think it is a bit different, and that’s been my experience before, on other young adult shows, like Ride for Nickelodeon. The vibe is generally lighter. Kinder. Everyone knows and respects how hard the youngsters are working. They even have to do schooling on their breaks from shooting. It’s tiring. Plus they deserve protection from the more stressful parts of the industry.

On the other hand, the unions only allow people under 18 to work a certain number of hours in a day, so sometimes there is a lot of time pressure on them and us.

More room for mischief? Definitely when Ryan is around, which I absolutely love. Plus people seem more willing to laugh at my jokes. Oh, and I’m gradually learning to watch my language. Eek!

Q: I understand you found your love for acting at a very young age. What are your early memories of performing? Did you have any mentors who helped foster your interest in acting? 

A: It’s true. I was only three when I started telling people I wanted to be an actor. I would command my family to sit in the living room and watch whilst I performed renditions of whole movies or shows, complete with songs. It was a lot for them – I don’t think my siblings have quite forgiven me.

I started at Redroofs theatre school when I was five and loved doing shows there. I played annoying gum-chewer Violet Beauregarde in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for instance. And Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

My first on camera work was in a short film written by Malorie Blackman. I was one of a group of children who got caught up in a dangerous cycle of telling lies and bullying. I ended up stabbing one of the other girls, and working with fake blood and syringes was a fascinating experience for us kids, as you can imagine. 

Mentors, yes. Big time! Judy Seall, my drama teacher at my elementary school was the finest I could have asked for. The drama department was small – basically just her – but our classes and shows had a big impact. Some very successful actors have come out of that school, and she brought out the best in all of us. She also ran an amazing local youth theatre which I went to weekly.

Then when I did my degree at Mountview, we were so fortunate to be led by Andrew Jarvis, who is a truly brilliant actor with decades of experience working with the very top people in the theatre industry. There are so many people I am grateful to.

Q: You are also an accomplished voiceover artist with motion capture and voice credits on franchise video games – like ‘Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’ – and over 30 audiobook titles available on Audible. How do those experiences compare to being on a set and working with a cast on a show like ‘Anne With An E’? 

A: I have so much fun working on video games. I did both motion capture and voice work for Ubisoft on those games. Motion capture is almost like theatre. You rehearse for a long stretch and then perform the whole scene in a room, with lots of cameras surrounding you and you have to get it right in one take. I enjoy the immediacy of that.

It’s really cool when you get to see the final product – you recognize your own movements and voice, but you have a different face. A lot of actors don’t like watching themselves on camera, but with video games it’s sort of like you’re watching someone else! There are also some very talented writers working in the game industry now, so scripts can be much more nuanced, not just one dimensional goodies vs. baddies. 

With TV shows and films, it’s more of a jigsaw puzzle, with awareness of continuity so the editors can match all the shots together. It’s a slightly different skill set, working within that kind of framework. My favorite thing about Anne is having all the story arcs and character development that come with being part of a show over three seasons. Plus it’s a joy to work with these lovely people over such a long stretch of time. You don’t really get that in games. 

For me, the best part of voice work is the flexibility in casting. You can be anyone your voice will allow you to create – you aren’t limited by the way you look. That’s true for video games too. I’ve done so many audiobooks now, and it’s almost always just me, reading the entire novel, including all the characters. It’s a constant learning experience – I often come across characters with accents or habits I’ve never used before – and a playground in which I can stretch my skills. It’s tiring though, working alone. I find it so energizing working with other actors. 

Q: What is next for you? Any upcoming projects or ambitions to share with us? 

A: I managed to work on two other projects at the same time we were shooting season season. Mrs America, a TV show for FX, which is a true story about the struggle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Cate Blanchett plays Phyllis Schlafly, who campaigned against it. I admire her work so much.

And the forthcoming animated feature Charlotte, another true story about a German-Jewish painter Charlotte Salomon. It follows her life leading up to and during the Second World War. It’s very moving. 

I’d like to do something contemporary next. I love cop shows like The Wire and Line of Duty. Phenomenal writing, and long scenes with lots of twists and turns. Fingers crossed!

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