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Actor Ambika Mod on Netflix's new adaptation of the romance 'One Day'


Isn't it obvious? Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew just aren't right for each other. They've been at university for four years and never spoken until the night they graduate, July 15, 1988. He's London. She's Leeds. Emma is studious, ambitious, political and working class, trying to find a life in the theater. Dex is privileged, handsome and just wants to party and travel. They spend graduation night together - not how you may think - and never quite really say goodbye. "One Day" is a new Netflix series starring Ambika Mod as Em. She won awards for her performance in the series "This Is Going To Hurt." She joins us now from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

AMBIKA MOD: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: How do you play characters who are shown over one-year intervals because it's not as if you can, you know, just throw on a grey wig and age 40 years?

MOD: You know, actually from your 20s to your 30s, physically you don't age that much. So of course we had help of costume and hair and makeup, and there were subtle changes over the years, but I think, especially in terms of Emma and Dexter, it was about just charting their character changes and how much their life experiences affect them. I think in the case of Emma, especially, like, she grows in confidence so much over the course of the show, over the course of the 20 years. So there's a maturing in that aspect. It's obviously, you know, not just physical. So that was, I think, much more helpful than trying to think about how they might walk or hold themselves or speak.

SIMON: "One Day," the novel, was a huge bestseller by David Nicholls and later a movie with Anne Hathaway as Emma. Is it intimidating to play characters that millions of people think they already know?

MOD: Yeah, big time. Yeah, yeah. You know, it's sort of part of the reason why I turned down the audition when I first got it, because I just didn't think that I could do it, and it felt so massive. The whole project felt so massive and insurmountable when we started. And yeah, lots of people have pre-expectations, preconceptions and expectations for Emma and Dexter. I would say they're probably more so for Emma than there are for Dexter, because Emma is the grounding character of the story. She is the one that everyone relates to. She is the one who people - whose eyes people see the story through. You know, David always says that when people come up to him and tell them how much they love his book, they always say that I am Emma. No one ever says to him, I am Dexter. So I think, you know, there's something very precious and beloved about Emma Morley. So being chosen to play her felt like a massive, massive undertaking.

SIMON: Did I hear you say you turned down the audition when it was first offered?

MOD: Yeah. Yeah, I did. I turned it down over, like, the course of several, several weeks. And our casting director, Rachel Sheridan, kept chasing my agent, and I kept being like, no, no, absolutely not. And one night I just woke up in bed and realized I'd made a terrible mistake. Yeah, I just - like I said, I didn't think I could do it. I'd never seen a woman who looked like me play a romantic lead before in a story as grounded as this. It didn't feel possible at the time of auditioning. I mean, how wrong I was, but it took a lot of convincing for me to really see myself in the part way, way, way into filming. It was a real process.

SIMON: And may I ask, did you read the novel, or did you think that just might get in the way?

MOD: No, I read the novel. I read the novel when it came out, so I was, like, 13 or 14 when I first read it. And I was so very young. It's always been one of my favorite books. I feel like it's always just sort of been in and out of my life. Filming it, I was sort of - it was just so lovely to be able to interact with this text so much for over the course of, you know, eight months and see it come to life. Our, like, amazing, you know, writers brought it to life so vividly. It kind of feels sad now that it's done and it's out there in the world and I don't get to interact with it in the same way.

SIMON: Well, speaking of sadness, if the series is true to the novel, there's loss ahead. Let me just put it that way - hard for actors to take too?

MOD: Yeah, it is hard. It's something that I have, you know, a bit of experience with before. In "This Is Going To Hurt," my character passed away. And it's not the playing of it that's difficult as much as it is the seeing the response to it. You know, if you've done - if you played a storyline like that right, if you - if the storytelling is done in a sensitive and, I think, impactful way and people respond to it, that's the bit where you're really hit by the force of it. We don't want to give anything away, but the show has been out for a week now, and the way that people have reacted to the tale of loss is - it's been really remarkable, but it's overwhelming. And I still don't feel - yeah, I feel like I'm very much in the eye of the storm still.

SIMON: Is there a phrase from Emma that you've taken into your personal life or find yourself quoting to people?

MOD: Oh, my gosh. I - you know, I've been doing a lot of press for this show, and people talk about it being a romance and a love story, which it is, of course, but I'm - having worked so intimately with the source material now, I'm really hesitant to call it that, because I think it's actually so much more than just that. It's so much more than just about Em and Dex's relationship with each other. It's about growing up and how difficult that can be and how disappointing it can be and how the - how, like, the contrast between our wide-eyed ambition and optimism when we're young often contrast with other, you know, people our age, selves, and looking back and seeing how things panned out. And there's a line in the novel, as well as the series, that - where Emma says - well, Dexter's written in his - oh, I don't want to give away spoilers, but Emma says we grew up together and - referring to her and Dex. And, you know, they did in many ways, and I think that's essentially what the story is about. They met when they were, like, 22, 23, and they grew up together in their 20s and their 30s. And I think that's, you know, really stuck with me filming the series, is that it is just a story about two - most of the time, two friends just growing up together and becoming adults and living out in the real world.

SIMON: Ambika Mod is Emma in the Netflix series "One Day." Thank you so much for being with us.

MOD: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.