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Interview with Julie Fernandez, star of The Office

by Ouch Team

10th January 2005

Julie FernandezSeries two of the BAFTA award-winning comedy The Office, starring Ricky Gervais, features a disabled character. Brenda, played by Julie Fernandez, appears throughout the series, airing on Monday nights at 10.00pm on BBC TWO.
Julie is perhaps better known to viewers as Nessa - or "that disabled girl who used to be in Eldorado", the BBC's ill-fated soap from the early '90s. Based in a community of British ex-pats, the show was lambasted in the press and the BBC said adios to it just one year later. But that was ten years ago, and now Nessa (oops!) Julie has got out of the swimming pool and into the typing pool of Britain's most innovative comedy of recent times ...

We spoke to Julie about the past, present and future of her career.
Q: How did you get the part in The Office?
A: Very simple, actually. my agent saw a casting of it and sent my details in. I went up against other disabled people too; it was just the normal way of doing it. Like all castings, you have to have an iron constitution because you walk into a room and there's two, three or four people in there with a camera. You get a script, you say your lines and you walk out again - so you're never totally sure. But then I was asked in for a second casting which went better and I was offered the job!
Julie Fernandez (on the left) as Brenda in The Office
Q: Auditioning for such a high profile BAFTA award-winning show must have been fairly intimidating. How did you find it?
A: I've done quite a few interviews recently and this one always comes up. I have to say they've all been completely brilliant. It was nerve-wracking, but then it would have been nerve-wracking for anyone going into a new job - it doesn't matter whether it would be working in an office or working in television. I was lucky because everyone was so friendly and really understanding. There really wasn't an intimidating feel on set, and because it's a comedy we spent such a lot of time laughing, so that the worry went out the window.

Q: Have you done much comedy before?
A: I haven't, no. I've been going along the serious route. I wrote a documentary which I co-produced and presented this year for BBC TWO, which was about parents wrongfully accused of child abuse when their children actually have brittle bones. That was the tactic I was taking with my career lately, and this came completely out of the blue. I've really enjoyed it.

Q: So is comedy a challenge? Is it a lot different to straight acting?
A: It's very different. It's very different on this show anyway because, as we all know, when you're acting you're not meant to look at the camera; whereas in The Office, because it's filmed like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, you have to look at the camera all the time and it's all about timing. So it was new to me, but I got used to it after a while.

Q: The producer of The Office (Ash Atalla) is disabled. Is this an opportunity for him to bring out lots of pent-up humour through your character?
A: Well, not just me! There's a guy called Howard in it, who's black. So I think between me as a wheelchair user and Howard as a black fella we get a lot thrown at us, so it's very funny. It's not always politically correct, but then David Brent isn't. So I think a lot of the time, with disability, if you use your sense of humour and don't make it too sharp you can break down the barriers more.

Q: So is disability a subject full of humour?
A: Absolutely! I think disability is one of the funniest things that can be written about! I've got some amazing true life stories that I've lived and disabled friends of mine have lived, and I think they would make brilliant comedy sketches. One of the quickest ways of breaking down barriers within the able-bodied community for disabled people is through comedy. Life is pretty difficult as it is for disabled people - the getting up in the morning and getting through the day - without the full-time job, having to deal with an NHS system that doesn't work and a Social Services system that doesn't work. I think it's a very British thing to do, to laugh at yourself.

Q: Any examples of humorous disability-related things that have happened to you recently?
A: Not to myself - but someone I know has a Deaf cousin. She went to the hairdressers; she took her hearing aids out and put them on the ledge in front of the mirror. The hairdresser came up to the hearing aids sitting on the ledge, bent down and shouted at them: "What kind of haircut do you want?" These are the things I find funny, because it's the pure stupidity of some people.

Q: The last big part we saw you in was in Eldorado ...
A: I suppose it was. I have done bits and pieces in between over the past ten years, but as we know being disabled and working in the media is so difficult. Even though you're good at what you do, I've had producers telling me that I should be grateful for them employing me because I am disabled. That made it very difficult. But I do think attitudes towards disability within the media is changing.

Q: How did you feel when Eldorado came to an end?
A: Gutted. I think we all did. We all worked incredibly hard and had so much rubbish thrown at us. We started filming two to three months early because the BBC brought the start date forward, which meant for example that we had to film in studios that weren't properly built. We put so much time and effort and personal stuff into that, and combatting all the negativity that was coming from the press was difficult. And at the end of it we had nine million viewers, so it didn't boil down to the fact that not enough were watching.

Q: Some people refer to Eldorado as "that politically correct soap", and you are often brought up as proof of this. Did that filter back to you in any way, and how did it make you feel?
A: I was only 18 at the time. I had just come out of boarding school and that wasn't really the point for me. It wasn't "political correctness gone mad"; it was the fact that Julia Smith (the creator of the series) happened to want a disabled person playing a character in a wheelchair in her soap. And I know it wasn't "political correctness gone mad" because she once said to me that if they hadn't found me - they'd been looking for months for someone - they would have cut the character. They didn't want to put an able-bodied person in a wheelchair.
Julie with the cast of The Office
Q: So back to your latest work - were you a fan of The Office before you got involved with it?
A: I had never seen or heard of it before! [laughs] Which is why I wasn't too overwhelmed with going into the environment. I've got Sky Digital at home and there's only a certain amount of TV you can watch, but the BBC sent me a VHS and I thought it was absolutely hysterical. I'm a Sex And The City kinda girl!

Q: What other TV do you enjoy?
A: There's so much good stuff out there, both English and American - West Wing for example. I just love the way West Wing portrays people with disabilities so natural and integrated, I really do. And I still can't understand why more producers don't figure that one out, especially when there's around ten million disabled people in the UK.

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