How 'Ted Lasso' Changed the Game for First-Time Emmy Nominee Hannah Waddingham (Exclusive)
In a year where nothing was typical about the TV landscape, Ted Lasso may have been the biggest shock of all. A streaming sitcom about English football, inspired by commercials from 2013 for NBC Sports' coverage of the Premier League, starring Jason Sudeikis and a cadre of talented British performers typically known for more serious fare, the Apple TV+ original is now an awards season record-setter, earning 20 Emmy nominations and breaking the record for most nods for a comedy series in its first season.
To be fair, it was also a surprise for Hannah Waddingham, who earned her first for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. The acclaimed West End actress and three-time Olivier nominee certainly left an impression with her role as the menacing Septa Unella on Game of Thrones, but it's on Ted Lasso as Rebecca Welton, the newly divorced owner of AFC Richmond, the club that hires Sudeikis' titular American football coach to try his hand at the European iteration of the game, that she's truly gotten the chance to showcase her massive talent on TV.
"I've never watched something that I'm in where I've been so startled by its general thoughts and themes and how it's all been put together," Waddingham shares with ET. "I literally sat there at the end of the first episode and just went, 'Oh my god,' I just hadn't prepared myself for what the show was."
On a different kind of series, the character would have been set up as a more predictable antagonist archetype. Rebecca hires Ted as an act of revenge, hoping he will fail miserably and ruin the club her philandering ex-husband loves so dearly and lost to her in their split. But it's immediately evident -- thanks in part to a subtly stellar performance by Waddingham -- that there is more to her than an adversarial foil to the endearing "aw-shucks" energy that Sudeikis brings to Richmond's new gaffer.
"I don't think I've ever felt so much passion -- and not aggression, but deep, deep-seated passion -- about a character, ever in my professional life," the actress says. "She is such a precious jewel to me, because there are so many layers to her. I've been afforded the luxury of playing a part where she literally can change in one sentence.”
She adds, “To be given the opportunity to speak the words of these unbelievable writers and make the audience feel differently about her within one sentence, I worry that it will never happen again for me, because the writing is just breathtaking.”
While Rebecca and Ted are very much at odds when the series begins, they also have some crucial commonalities. They're both finding their way through the other side of a failed marriage and learning how to reset their lives after unexpected heartbreak. And despite Rebecca's determination to foil Ted's progress at every opportunity, she is also charmed by him almost immediately, and repeatedly. As season 1 progresses, it's clear the pair shares a meaningful connection -- he assures her that she's not the only one who can see her ex-husband for the conniving snake, and she, in turn, is the one to comfort him in the midst of a terrifying panic attack.
That makes it all the more heartbreaking when Rebecca's initial plan to sabotage the club ultimately succeeds, with Richmond's losing record forcing their relegation after a heartbreaking loss to Manchester City. The emotional crux of the betrayal comes to a head in the penultimate episode, which is, unsurprisingly, the episode for which garnered Emmy attention for Waddingham.
After first comedically failing to confess the truth to Ted, Rebecca is surprised in her office by a visit from her ex, Rupert (Anthony Head, in a spellbinding bit of villainy), who announces that he and his much-younger fiancee are expecting a child. He lands the blow with an extra bit of venom, telling his ex-wife in so many words that his previous protests about procreation were less about not wanting children, and more not wanting them with her.
Left reeling in her office, Rebecca makes her way downstairs to the locker room -- in a tracking shot that allows Waddingham to masterfully convey every ounce of her character's anguish and tenuous composure. She enters Ted's office and blurts out her confession beginning with a simple belief, one that seems to have shaped her life, both personal and professional, in ways that maybe she can't even understand: "I'm a f**king b**ch," she tells him blankly, matter-of-fact.
"That whole passage feels like a meandering river to me where she's hit by rocks and then the water takes her right to where she needs to go," Waddingham says of the sequence, naming it her most memorable moment of the show's lauded first season.
She recalls crafting Rebecca's turn in that moment as a dawning realization, recognizing the trauma of the "just absolute putrid poison that [Rupert] has dripped in her ear for years and years -- it's damaged her and she's therefore damaging everyone else."
"You find her from the back of her neck, turning into that closeup shot of her thinking, 'Do you know what? I can't get any lower, I can't feel any lower, my life is on its knees, I need to go and confess to this lovely man who doesn't deserve this,'" the actress notes. "She's had the final slap around the face, and I feel like it makes a cog in her brain finally shift, like, 'What are you doing, girl? What are you doing?'"
But the fallout isn't what Rebecca -- or viewers, for that matter -- expected at all. Ted is surprised by the news, of course, but in a subtly brilliant bit of acting by Sudeikis, softens from the shock almost instantly, offering not acceptance, but forgiveness. That's the breaking point for Waddingham's character, who is brought to tears by the kindness and counters Ted's offer of a handshake with a fierce hug.
"There was a vulnerability and a need in Rebecca to be loved and have someone put their arm around her and go, his very line that he says, 'Divorce is hard,'" the actress says of the moment. "He was saying that to her [all season]," she adds. "He says that to her without saying it to her. In episode 1, he says, 'How are you holding up?' That's him saying, 'Divorce is hard,' but she doesn't hear it."
The season ends with heartbreak on the pitch, but a resolve for the future between the two heads of AFC Richmond. And as the show entered its second season, it was important to Waddingham that while Rebecca is no longer openly antagonistic, she's still dealing with the effects of her past and her own complexities of character -- or, as the actress sums it up, "I love the fact that she is absolutely flailing."
"We leave her at a point where, yes, she has had an epiphany that where she is is better if she's happy and trying to win, with Ted," she recalls of the season 1 finale. "She's realized that she can get herself out from underneath Rupert's grasp, but I didn't want to arrive in season 2, which is only five or six months later, and find that that epiphany was totally realized and that she was this completely different, super confident, swaying-hipped woman."
"I'm glad that we find her absolutely being the figurehead of that team, and woe betide anyone that tries to screw over her boys because she'll rip their heads off, but in her own life, as so many of us are, if you have suffered trauma of whatever kind with a loved one, then it is hard to move on and find someone to replace them or someone completely new that removes you from them altogether," Waddingham observes.
It is easier to heal, of course, with good people on your side, and one of the unexpected benefits of Rebecca embracing her role with AFC Richmond is the found family she's gained: Ted, the staff and players, and, most especially, an unlikely female confidante in Juno Temple's Keeley Jones, a WAG turned PR whiz who is always there to give Rebecca a shot of confidence when she needs it.
"That was the easiest of all," Waddingham recalls of the instant connection and chemistry she felt with Temple, which is easy to see onscreen. "There was no evolution there, because she and I met and had a completely zen moment of understanding. Even though we're completely different generations and different backgrounds and she, of course, has been a huge star from an early age and I had been, you know, burrowing away in my theater work and stuff. We met, understood each other immediately, understood what each other brought to each other's table."
"And so coming into season 2," she adds, "I feel she and I, because we'd seen the response to the Keeley-Rebecca relationship, we were wanting to nurture that and really observe that to be such a great little jewel in our hands, hugely precious."
Rebecca, as we see her in season 2, is a world away from the pilot. Professionally confident, finding her way in the dating world, but most importantly of all, reconnected to her life. Waddingham plays her with an easier smile, and a renewed spark behind the eyes, in progress, but embracing the journey.
"She has all these people who are very upfront with her now, but whom she knows love her to bits, and that is not something she's used to," Waddingham notes. "She has to let it in."
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The 2021 Primetime Emmy Awards, hosted by Cedric the Entertainer, will air live Sunday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on CBS and Paramount+. In the meantime, stay tuned to ETonline.com for complete Emmys coverage.