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The Spotlight Podcast

Tommy Jessop is the first actor with Down Syndrome to play the lead in a primetime TV drama, he’s also been in Line of Duty and is the first actor with Down Syndrome to be professionally cast as Hamlet, and become a full voting member of BAFTA.

16 minute listen or a full transcript of the episode can be found below.

Podcast Transcript

Ilayda Arden: Hello, welcome to The Spotlight Podcast. My name’s Ilayda and today’s episode, we’re talking to Tommy Jessop. Tommy Jessop is the first actor with Down Syndrome to play the lead in a primetime TV drama. Just a little show called Line of Duty. Have you heard of it? He’s also the first actor with Down Syndrome to be professionally cast as Hamlet, and become a full voting member of BAFTA.

A trailblazer in every sense, Tommy has forged an incredible career for himself, and today’s podcast is a short episode where we chat to Tommy about his experience and his views on breaking the barriers and labels that he’s often come up against. It’s a short and sweet chat, but full of golden nuggets nonetheless, and I hope that you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed recording it and chatting with Tommy. So let’s get stuck in.

So Tommy, thank you so much for joining me for today’s podcast.

Tommy Jessop: Well, it’s no problem.

Ilayda Arden: It’s lovely to have you on. I want to hear all about your story and I’ve got some questions pre-prepared for you. So if you’re okay with that, I think we’ll just get started. How does that sound?

Tommy Jessop: Yes. Pretty wicked.

Ilayda Arden: Wicked. Okay. So my first question for you, Tommy, is how did you get into acting and performing?

Tommy Jessop: Well, I did not attend drama school. But I did want to be an actor from a very young age and it might have something to do with one of my greatest passions in life, which has to be acting and dancing. And it makes me feel even more alive and free, yes.

Ilayda Arden: Brilliant. And, so how old were you when you first started performing?

Tommy Jessop: I think I was about 10.

Ilayda Arden: 10. Okay. And you just kind of carried on from there.

Tommy Jessop: Yeah.

Ilayda Arden: Perfect. And what’s your journey been like so far?

Tommy Jessop: Well, it has been really a joy though. And I do like being a character and seeing how the audience might feel about how the character might be feeling and what they are going through. And I have also won plenty of awards on the way, which is a great honour in my life.

Ilayda Arden: Yes.

Tommy Jessop: And being in Line of Duty is another honour.

Ilayda Arden: Yes. You’ve definitely been a trailblazer and you’ve paved the way, I think, for a lot of people and it sort of leads me to the next question which is, what challenges have you faced in the industry as an actor with Down Syndrome?

Tommy Jessop: Well, I would not use the word ‘challenges’ because I always thrive really well under a challenge, but the word I would use would be breaking down barriers.

Ilayda Arden: Yes.

Tommy Jessop: Yes, because the main barrier is labelling people which really does put us in a bad place. It is really depressing that we are being put in the box which says, ‘they can’t play that role’ when we can! Just give us a chance. And I also wish we could break down those barriers for people living with all sorts of disabilities to get into TV and film roles.

Ilayda Arden: Yeah, I think that’s certainly been the centre and focus of a lot of your work, hasn’t it?

Tommy Jessop: Yeah.

Ilayda Arden: Yeah. And it seems like you’ve been presented with challenges and opportunities over and over again, as you rightly say you saw them as opportunities to thrive.

Tommy Jessop: Yep.

Ilayda Arden: How have you overcome what people have thrown at you in terms of labelling you or that sort of thing?

Tommy Jessop: Well, I’m still trying to overcome them because I do work hard and I always try to be professional so that people want to work with people like me again. And I’ve also been lucky making short films with really good story lines. And I also think that short films are far more progressive. I’ve played a murderer who saved the day, a thief, a fisherman, a boxer and a football fan.

Ilayda Arden: That’s amazing. I mean, you’ve really proved that you can break beyond the boundaries in labels that people might insist on giving you or labelling you.

Tommy Jessop: Yeah.

Ilayda Arden: Yeah. And how do you think the industry is changing or could change to create more opportunities for performers who have learning disabilities?

Tommy Jessop: Well, I reckon that writers and producers should take chances on us because there are more roles on TV, but there is a lack of writers and film producers who believe we could play a fantasy, romance, adventure or sci-fi. So why can’t they just give us a chance? I can play absolutely everything that you can throw at me and in the words of ABBA, take a chance on me.

Ilayda Arden: I love that, yes. I love that. Amazing. That’s so poetic as well. It’s brilliant. Also  very pertinent because obviously ABBA are releasing their new music.

Tommy Jessop: Yes, on trend.

Ilayda Arden: You’re very much part of the cultural trend. So then let’s talk about giving chances to people.

Tommy Jessop: Oh yeah.

You are a co-founder of Blue Apple, a theatre and dance company dedicated to supporting members with learning difficulties. Why was it important to you that a company like Blue Apple exists?

Tommy Jessop: Well, I reckon Blue Apple is really important because it gives people the chance to express themselves even more on stage and to feel the emotions of their character. And they should also be able to feel free on a stage as well. And being in Blue Apple is like being in a family. People make really good friends for life and share their gifts with the world. And Blue Apple is a place where people can act, dance and sing. Before Blue Apple, they could not do all of this.

Ilayda Arden: So what you’ve done is in co-founding Blue Apple, you’ve given the same chance that other people gave you, to others in your position. And you’ve also created a safe community and a place for people to explore and feel the joy of creativity.

Tommy Jessop: Yeah.

Ilayda Arden: Love that. Love it. Tell us about the process of being cast for Line of Duty. What did you do to prepare for your auditions?

Tommy Jessop: Well, I basically read the script and think about how my character is feeling.

Ilayda Arden: So that’s how you prepare for the role. And how was the process of being cast for Line of Duty?

Tommy Jessop: Well, I reckon it was honestly the greatest honour of my life so far.

Ilayda Arden: Brilliant.

Tommy Jessop: One of many.

Ilayda Arden: Amazing. What advice would you give to any listeners who might have learning disabilities or similar on how to navigate the industry?

Tommy Jessop: Well, live your life to the fullest and be yourself and start by trying to find a local theatre and give acting a go. And just be free to feel your emotions come alive.

Ilayda Arden: Perfect. And when you say, see if you can get involved with a local theatre company, that’s a way of people getting involved and learning how to act and dance or sing or whatever it is in the way that you did through

Tommy Jessop: Yep.

Ilayda Arden: Yeah. Okay. And I suppose the there’s one last question that I have, which you sort of mentioned earlier and it was, you said, there’s sci-fi that I could do, if you give me anything, I can do it. What would be your dream role?

Tommy Jessop: Oh, probably to be the next Bond.

Ilayda Arden: Oh, wow. Yes. That would be amazing.

Tommy Jessop: Oh, wicked!

Ilayda Arden: It would be wicked wouldn’t it? Amazing. Well, Tommy, it’s been super, super lovely to chat to you.

Tommy Jessop: Yeah.

Ilayda Arden: Thank you for your time and your insights and also your advice to other members who might be wanting to get involved in performing in any kind of way. Thank you very much.

Tommy Jessop: Well, it’s no problem.

Ilayda Arden: And that’s it. If you liked what you heard today, then feel free to head over to Spotlight.com, where there’s a whole host of articles, videos, and other podcast episodes about the casting and performing arts industry available in the news and advice section of the website. You can also find the full transcript of the episode there as well. So, until next time.

Main photo by James Veysey/Shutterstock