With ‘Ted Lasso,’ Hannah Waddingham and Juno Temple’s On- and Off-Screen Friendship Flips the Sports Comedy Script

When Hannah Waddingham and Juno Temple first met, in a ladies’ loo mere minutes before the inaugural table read for “Ted Lasso,” they barely exchanged words before knowing they wouldn’t have to fake the friendship that blooms between their characters.

“It was the most strange thing,” says Waddingham of their immediate connection. “It was just completely natural and effortless … and it’s been like that ever since, both on screen and off.” In fact, she admits, her job “would have been far harder if we’d been pitted against each other. I would’ve actually found that quite distressing.”

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<img class="size-full wp-image-1235020006" src="https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Variety-Women-of-Ted-Lasso-Cover-EMBED-2.jpg&quot; alt=" - Credit: Zoe McConnell for Variety" width="1003" height="1296" srcset="https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Variety-Women-of-Ted-Lasso-Cover-EMBED-2.jpg 1003w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Variety-Women-of-Ted-Lasso-Cover-EMBED-2.jpg?resize=116,150 116w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Variety-Women-of-Ted-Lasso-Cover-EMBED-2.jpg?resize=232,300 232w" sizes="(min-width: 87.5rem) 1000px, (min-width: 78.75rem) 681px, (min-width: 48rem) 450px, (max-width: 48rem) 250px" />Zoe McConnell for Variety

As the only two main women on a sports comedy otherwise packed with men, their characters traditionally would be rivals. Steely Premier League club owner Rebecca Welton (Waddingham) could have been an unrepentant ice queen, or cheeky influencer Keeley Jones (Temple) nothing more than basic eye candy. But instead of clashing over their differences, the two bring out the best in each other. Their mutually devoted friendship became integral to the first season’s runaway success, as it will likely be in the second season (premiering July 23). Waddingham and Temple’s portrayals have also earned them their first Emmy nominations, two of the show’s 20 total nods — a new record for a freshman comedy.

Rebecca and Keeley’s unique dynamic immediately stood out by subverting the expectation that they should be at each other’s throats — a deliberate choice from the “Ted Lasso” team, which delights in keeping audiences on their toes by throwing stereotypical story beats out the window. “We definitely wanted to play on the preconception that they’re not going to get along,” says Jason Sudeikis, the show’s co-creator and star. “These tropes have been around a long time, so why not use them to our benefit?”

For Temple, playing Keeley, who resists any hint of clichéd catfights with Rebecca, is a career highlight. “Women are such extraordinary creatures, and we don’t have to be competitive,” she says. “I think the show showing that is one of the things I’m proudest of being a part of, actually.”

As the writers were developing the series, about a British soccer team, they actively worked to not only “poke fun at toxic masculinity and relationships,” as co-creator Bill Lawrence recalls, but to make Rebecca and Keeley more three-dimensional than they might’ve been in the sports-movie equivalent of the show. “It would’ve been very easy for the women to be ciphers, to exist as the villain or the ingénue, or to only be there to see how they reflect on the men around them,” Lawrence says. Finding the groove of their friendship, which even blossoms into a mentorship when Rebecca offers Keeley a job (fittingly, while they’re both taking a break in a ladies’ loo) was a game changer. The same holds true for the actors, who are now so close that Waddingham considers Temple to be a “fairy godmother unicorn” to her young daughter. Throughout the filming of Season 1, the passionate response from an instantly devoted fan base, and the pandemic-era production of Season 2, Waddingham and Temple have trusted each other implicitly as they’ve navigated a singular experience in both their careers.

“Ted Lasso” premiered during the summer of 2020 with the world in various stages of lockdown. The show had been in development for years, but its arrival during a particularly fraught time only lent extra potency to its message of kindness above all. It earned praise from everyone including Kerry Washington (“a balm for the soul in these times”) to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (“positive, charming, heartfelt”). Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder recently quoted one of Ted’s favorite sayings when encouraging his players to shake off a disappointing first playoff game (“be a goldfish”). When journalist Soledad O’Brien watched the show with her teenage son, she was struck by its insistence on “choosing optimism” and refusal to caricature its female characters. “The women weren’t played as ‘the good woman’ versus ‘the bad woman,’” O’Brien says. “They had lives of their own.”

For Ashley Nicole Black, the “Black Lady Sketch Show” star who joined the “Ted Lasso” writers’ room for the second season, Keeley and Rebecca’s arc felt refreshingly familiar. “A lot of times TV starts women off in a competitive place, and then they figure out how to be friends. That’s just not my experience in the workplace!” Black laughs. “Especially working in Hollywood, there aren’t a lot of other women around. So you find the only other one and say, ‘Well, we have to be friends!’ and you can get close pretty quickly, actually.”

<img class="size-full wp-image-1235019998" src="https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Juno-Temple-Variety-Cover-Story-1-Full.jpg&quot; alt=" - Credit: Zoe McConnell for Variety" width="1000" height="1250" srcset="https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Juno-Temple-Variety-Cover-Story-1-Full.jpg 1000w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Juno-Temple-Variety-Cover-Story-1-Full.jpg?resize=120,150 120w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Juno-Temple-Variety-Cover-Story-1-Full.jpg?resize=240,300 240w" sizes="(min-width: 87.5rem) 1000px, (min-width: 78.75rem) 681px, (min-width: 48rem) 450px, (max-width: 48rem) 250px" />Zoe McConnell for Variety

Temple and Waddingham did in fact find themselves in that Hollywood scenario. “We were the two main women cast members walking into a room of a lot of very handsome, very talented gentlemen,” as Temple puts it.

“I’ve never done a show with so many men on it,” says Waddingham — which is saying something, considering that her biggest breakout TV role prior to “Ted Lasso” was a sadistic nun on “Game of Thrones.”

“[‘Ted Lasso’] is such a male-centric show that it could easily be, if not hostile, a bit overwhelming for the few women who are on-screen,” she acknowledges. “But the writers’ room is universally filled with staunch male feminists, and that comes from the top. There’s never a moment either in the script or in real life where that would ever be tolerated.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Keeley: “It’s a non-floppy-cock environment.”

As a show and set alike, “Ted Lasso” doesn’t just avoid toxic masculinity; it actively rejects it. Just about all the would-be tough-guy footballers of the series end up shedding their protective macho layers over the course of the season to reveal the kind, sensitive men who exist underneath all the bravado. “Any kind of machismo that is there is very much ridiculed,” Waddingham says. “There’s always a nod to it being ridiculous, which is really lovely.”

This approach might seem unusual to TV viewers conditioned to expect otherwise from men in comedies, but for Sudeikis and his team, it was a no-brainer. “It didn’t seem subversive,” Sudeikis shrugs. “The company that I’ve been fortunate to keep as a former high school athlete is a bunch of really funny, kind, sweet guys who are great dads and friends, and very much in touch with their feminine side.”

Watching a show about people learning to be empathetic and not to fear their own vulnerability, let alone a sports comedy, is an undeniably large part of how “Ted Lasso” won so many hearts and minds since its release amid a devastating pandemic. “People have just loved the fact that the show has people being nice and kind to each other, and trying to improve themselves,” says Waddingham. “That shouldn’t be unusual!”

The fact that “Ted Lasso” is atypical in this regard, though, is precisely why both she and Temple were so relieved to land roles on it — and not a moment too soon.

• • •

Weeks before “Ted Lasso” came into her life, Waddingham was on the set of Syfy’s “Krypton” in Belfast when her daughter fell ill back in London. It was too late to fly out, and no amount of panicked research could find her a quick way to get home. “It was the longest night of my life,” says Waddingham, still visibly shaken at the memory. “In that moment I thought, ‘You know what? I am enjoying my career hugely, but first and foremost, I’m a mother.’” Once she managed to get back and her daughter had recovered, Waddingham informed her team that she wasn’t interested in any more roles that would keep her away from London for long.

She held out hope that the perfect project might come her way. “I said, and this is no lie, that we needed to put it out in the universe to find something that would let me have some kind of catharsis for the experiences I’ve had, both good and bad, and that will keep me next to my girl,” Waddingham says. Two months later, she got the audition for “Ted Lasso.”

Just reading Rebecca’s scenes from the pilot, Waddingham wanted the part so badly she could hardly stand it. “I was just like, ‘Oh, my God, whoever gets this, if they don’t run with it, they are a fool,’” she remembers thinking. “Even the first chemistry read I had when I was flown out to L.A. with Jason, I could feel her rippling through my bloodstream. And I just thought, ‘I hope I get to be entrusted with her.’”

<img class="size-full wp-image-1235019994" src="https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Hannah-Waddingham-Variety-Cover-Story-1-full.jpg&quot; alt=" - Credit: Zoe McConnell for Variety" width="1000" height="1250" srcset="https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Hannah-Waddingham-Variety-Cover-Story-1-full.jpg 1000w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Hannah-Waddingham-Variety-Cover-Story-1-full.jpg?resize=120,150 120w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Hannah-Waddingham-Variety-Cover-Story-1-full.jpg?resize=240,300 240w" sizes="(min-width: 87.5rem) 1000px, (min-width: 78.75rem) 681px, (min-width: 48rem) 450px, (max-width: 48rem) 250px" />Zoe McConnell for Variety

As fortuitous as the timing was for Waddingham, by the time Sudeikis met her, the casting process for Rebecca had already been a long and complex one involving two rejected offers and many chemistry reads that failed to excite the writers’ room. The role was too important not to get exactly right. Rebecca’s determination to sink the club, a direct play on a similar plotline from the 1989 film “Major League,” provides the show’s initial framework and intrigue. “The first season had to be about more than Ted Lasso,” says Sudeikis, “so I just knew it was going to be about Rebecca.”

Stumped, he and co-creators Joe Kelly and Brendan Hunt turned to their old improv friend Todd Stashwick for casting suggestions. He immediately suggested Waddingham, his “12 Monkeys” co-star, who had built a career working across genres on TV and in West End theater. Sudeikis hadn’t encountered her work (“I’m one of the few people that have never seen ‘Game of Thrones’”), but the second they met, he was sold.

“She looks perfectly like the Rebecca I saw in my head. Like, if I would have sat with a courtroom sketch artist, it would have been Hannah,” Sudeikis marvels. “She just had an energy about her: a strength and a vulnerability.”

That unusual combination is crucial to what makes Rebecca such a compelling character. She’s ostensibly the first season’s antagonist, but she’s also reeling from the end of an emotionally abusive marriage and lashing out for lack of knowing what else to do. “She could have easily been seen as the stereotypical baddie at the beginning,” says Waddingham. “But it was my job to make you find reasons to want to put your arm around her, put your hands on her face and go, ‘Stop. Look what you’re doing here. We don’t have to do this.’”

Because of Waddingham’s compassionate performance, Rebecca became one of the show’s most dynamic, heartbreaking, slyly funny characters. “I don’t think people understand how difficult a job she’s doing actingwise, to be playing the villain from moment one and you never dislike her,” says Black. “That is such a difficult balance to strike, and she makes it look so easy.”

Brett Goldstein, who writes and stars on “Ted Lasso” as the team’s gruff former captain Roy, has a theory. “She’s got like, 40 different muscles in her face,” he insists. “It tells you everything you need to know about Rebecca’s emotions beat by beat in a very subtle way. It’s incredible.”

<img class="size-full wp-image-1235020000" src="https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Juno-Temple-Variety-Cover-Story-2-Full.jpg&quot; alt=" - Credit: Zoe McConnell for Variety" width="1000" height="1250" srcset="https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Juno-Temple-Variety-Cover-Story-2-Full.jpg 1000w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Juno-Temple-Variety-Cover-Story-2-Full.jpg?resize=120,150 120w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Juno-Temple-Variety-Cover-Story-2-Full.jpg?resize=240,300 240w" sizes="(min-width: 87.5rem) 1000px, (min-width: 78.75rem) 681px, (min-width: 48rem) 450px, (max-width: 48rem) 250px" />Zoe McConnell for Variety

Waddingham didn’t know the extent to which Rebecca would be evolving over the course of the season, not least because Sudeikis’ improvisational style would often see scripts changing minutes before (or even during) filming. “I can’t tell you how many times as Rebecca in Season 1 I was looking like a swan on top but underneath, panicking like an absolutely insane possessed duck,” she laughs. But she knew from the moment she read the part that it was too rich to resist.

“You know, you set yourself up for the disappointment of not getting something. So I thought, ‘Oh man, whoever gets to represent this woman, it will be life-changing for her,’” says Waddingham. “And that’s exactly what it’s done for me.”

• • •

In the days before Keeley Jones entered her world, Temple was trying to recalibrate after completing a starring role on “Little Birds,” a demanding limited series that drained her considerable energy reserves. “I gave a lot of myself to that character,” Temple says. “She was figuring out a lot in the 1950s, when you were supposed to be seen but not heard, and she had a hunger that she didn’t know how to feed. I can relate to that very much.”

Still recovering from the exhaustion of that job, Temple was shocked when she got a message from Sudeikis asking if she might be interested in playing a bubbly model on his new half-hour sitcom — a format she’d never once dabbled in throughout her prolific career of period dramas and, as she puts it in the voice of her critics, “trailer park characters.”

That didn’t bother Sudeikis. All the other actors they’d considered for Keeley had primarily done comedies, yet none of them quite fit. “There was something specific about this character that wasn’t about hitting a joke,” he explains. “It was about a vibe.” So when Temple’s name finally popped up on a list of candidates, it suddenly felt obvious. Sudeikis had met her at karaoke with his then-partner Olivia Wilde, who starred with Temple on HBO’s “Vinyl.” “You can learn a lot about someone by the way they do karaoke,” he says. “Juno’s such a good actor, listener and spirit. She’s open and curious and messy in all the beautiful ways a human can be.”

To convince Temple she could (and should) play the part, Sudeikis explained Keeley’s arc — including her eventual friendship with Rebecca and relationship with Goldstein’s Roy — and how she’d end up being far more than meets the eye. “I was truly quite overwhelmed that he thought of me for it,” says Temple. “That speaks volumes to me, that he believed that I could play a character that people would think was just one thing and then would really surprise you. I think that is one of the greatest things that I’ve experienced in my career thus far.”

Goldstein, who had already been cast when Temple came on board, describes his first reaction with Roy-like bluntness. “I knew she was fucking amazing,” he says. “I hadn’t seen her in a funny thing. I just knew her for really intense performances in serious, dark dramas … and I remember thinking, ‘Fuck, I’m going to have to raise my game.’”

If Rebecca is Ted’s brittle foil, Keeley is his tiny, female equivalent. She’s a kindhearted firecracker who genuinely wants to see everyone shine and isn’t afraid to push back when people underestimate her (which is often). It’s not a coincidence that Keeley makes the deepest connections with Rebecca and Roy, two characters grimly determined to keep everyone at arm’s length. “Keeley can’t help but get to know the people behind the mask,” explains Temple. “Even if they’re initially kind of freaked out by that, ultimately it becomes a kind of freedom for them.”

<img class="size-full wp-image-1235019995" src="https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Hannah-Waddingham-Variety-Cover-Story-2-full.jpg&quot; alt=" - Credit: Zoe McConnell for Variety" width="1000" height="1250" srcset="https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Hannah-Waddingham-Variety-Cover-Story-2-full.jpg 1000w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Hannah-Waddingham-Variety-Cover-Story-2-full.jpg?resize=120,150 120w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Hannah-Waddingham-Variety-Cover-Story-2-full.jpg?resize=240,300 240w" sizes="(min-width: 87.5rem) 1000px, (min-width: 78.75rem) 681px, (min-width: 48rem) 450px, (max-width: 48rem) 250px" />Zoe McConnell for Variety

In Season 2, as Keeley and Roy fall into a comfortable domestic rhythm, that aspect of their relationship comes to the fore when Roy realizes she quite literally gets off on his more sensitive side. He’s at first horrified, but then understands that Keeley is embracing the part of him he’s most scared to recognize. It’s yet another example of how “Ted Lasso” allows its men to be fully human without mocking their vulnerability, and how Temple’s Keeley is often the one encouraging them to own it. “To be part of a character that explores all that, it’s a true pleasure,” Temple says. “She’s got this light about her. I just love her.”

Temple was particularly pleased to be able to return to the character in a second season — a new opportunity for an actor who has primarily worked in film and never been on a TV show beyond a single year. And while she was excited to slip on Keeley’s sky-high heels and figure-enhancing tops (“The amount of fake boob we have to put into my bras every day!”), she was most looking forward to being back on a set she had come to think of as a second home.

“Whether there had been a global pandemic or not, being a girl entering her 30s and battling with anxiety and the unknown — always this industry is good for that — coming back to a safe family is a really, really special thing,” she says. Throw in the added pressure of the show being a hit beyond anything she’s experienced and Temple is especially grateful for the guidance of Waddingham. “This is a completely new experience for me,” Temple says of the outsize attention. “I haven’t really processed it yet … but to get to do it with Hannah, it feels safe.”

Keeley and Rebecca were always going to become friends on “Ted Lasso,” but at first glance, that might not have held true for the actors playing them. As with their characters, there are 15 years between Waddingham (46) and Temple (31), not to mention they’re both Leos (“Usually Leos don’t get on!” Waddingham notes with considerable delight). And yet, whether hanging out in a hotel room for Waddingham’s Critics Choice Award win for “Ted Lasso” or a cozy pub for their Variety shoot, the two are so comfortable that they tend to get tangled in each other’s arms, cackling with laughter.

“In the same way we often say that if the chemistry is there in a romantic comedy, it’s going to work, the same is true for friendship chemistry,” says co-creator Lawrence, who’s seen that truism bear out while working on “Friends” and “Scrubs.” For “Ted Lasso,” he continues, “it was palpable and recognizable on camera between Juno and Hannah from the start. Part of that friendship was created by the performers themselves.”

<img class="size-full wp-image-1235019996" src="https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Hannah-Waddingham-Variety-Cover-Story-3-full.jpg&quot; alt=" - Credit: Zoe McConnell for Variety" width="1000" height="1250" srcset="https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Hannah-Waddingham-Variety-Cover-Story-3-full.jpg 1000w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Hannah-Waddingham-Variety-Cover-Story-3-full.jpg?resize=120,150 120w, https://variety.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Hannah-Waddingham-Variety-Cover-Story-3-full.jpg?resize=240,300 240w" sizes="(min-width: 87.5rem) 1000px, (min-width: 78.75rem) 681px, (min-width: 48rem) 450px, (max-width: 48rem) 250px" />Zoe McConnell for Variety

Waddingham and Temple have more in common than their characters — bawdy laughs, reverence for the acting craft and a total lack of vanity on camera — but neither shies away from acknowledging their differences. Waddingham points out how their age gap, both on “Ted Lasso” and in life, only proves the show’s ethos of not judging a person before you get to know them. In fact, it was Waddingham who insisted that Rebecca be the same age as she is in order to make her story more authentic.

Temple, who turned 30 while filming the first season, was subsequently inspired to rethink her own approach to growing older within the industry. “You do spend a lot of time being around people that panic about aging because you’re just like, ‘Oh God, I’m going to pass my sell-by date at any minute,’” she sighs. “We forget that actually, as women, we grow more and more comfortable in our bodies and in our existence as we get older — and we care less about the exterior presentation and more about the interior presentation, I think.”

Therein lies the “Ted Lasso” philosophy: getting past one’s perception of appearances will almost always yield something richer and more rewarding inside. That this moral has proved such a breath of fresh air to viewers is a point of pride for its actors, if also strange to contemplate.

“Isn’t that crazy?” Waddingham muses. “To think that it’s unusual for women to not be pitted against each other, or for people to fall in love with each other as friends as much as lovers?”

Maybe it is for television. But for them, she continues with a smile, “it was the most natural thing in the world.”

Production: Joon; Location: The 3 Compasses/London; Styling (Waddington): James Yardley; Hair (Waddington): Liz Arklie; Styling (Temple): Nicky Yates/The Wall Group; Hair and makeup (Temple): Nicky Austin; Cover (Waddington): Dress: Dolce & Gabbana; Earrings and bracelet: Sif Jakobs; Cover (Temple): Jacket: Halperin; Earrings: Repossi; Look 1, white backdrop with soccer ball (Waddington): Jumpsuit: Dolce & Gabbana: Shoes: Christian Louboutin; Jewelry: Sif Jakobs; Look 2, white backdrop with soccer ball (Temple): Dress: Alessandra Rich; Earrings: Jessie Thomas; Look 3, white backdrop with red card (Waddington): Dress: Roland Mouret; Jewelry by Sif Jakobs; Look 4, red backdrop (Temple): Track suit and shoes: Gucci; Look 5, inside pub (Waddington): Dress: Christopher Kane; Shoes: Christian Louboutin; Earrings: Sif Jakobs; Rings: Diane Kordas; Look 5, inside pub (Temple): Top, skirt, belt and boots: Alexander McQueen

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