Lydia West on Big Mood, finding her voice and embracing her biggest role yet: motherhood

lydia west is a whole mood
Lydia West on Big Mood and finding her voiceRay Burmiston / Channel 4

“I hated my early 20s,” Lydia West says with refreshing honesty, appearing on Zoom without a scrap of makeup, her hair pulled back off her face. “I didn’t know myself… I was so lost.” The actress is reflecting on turning 30 last summer, much like her character’s best friend in Big Mood, the new six-part series which puts millennial women at centre stage. It’s been tipped as the UK’s answer to Girls, thanks to its searing one liners and on-the-nose portrayal of those messy, formative years so many of us recognise in ourselves.

lydia west is a whole mood
Ray Burmiston / Channel 4

“Getting older, I’ve become much more confident and comfortable in my skin,” she muses now, before sharing a small insight into the news she’s been keeping secret for the past year. “I wouldn’t want to be any younger. I found out I was pregnant around my birthday, so it was a bit of fear, excitement… mixed emotions. But I didn’t wake up and suddenly have my life together. I still feel like the same person. Everything that existed before, still exists.”

So yes, alongside doing press for her seminal new show, West is embracing her biggest role yet: motherhood (but we’ll get to that later.)

From assistant to actor

West grew up in Barnet, North London, in a “very normal household” with two older siblings. “My mum was a district nurse, and my dad is a community support worker,” she says as she sips her tea. “It was a stable upbringing.” She attended a performing arts state school but packed it in aged 16, favouring a more traditional route. “I was like, ‘What do my parents want? What will make them happy?’ I went to college and then studied business at university.” After graduating, West took on various office jobs, eventually settling in a personal assistant role that she loathed.

“I was hating life,” she shares with welcome sincerity. “I had just come out of a really disruptive relationship and went through a period of being like, ‘I need to change lots of things, but what can I actually do?’ I joined an amateur theatre company, which was like therapy before I knew what therapy was.” From there, she landed a role in a stage production, which led to her first agent, and a place at the prestigious Identity School of Acting, who count John Boyega and Damson Idris among their alumni.

“It just escalated very quickly,” West muses now, explaining how her first major acting job, as Bethany in the dystopian drama Years and Years, came along. “When I got the part [in 2018], I was still working as a PA, and my boss was like ‘You can just be ‘on call’ part time.’ So I was filming in Manchester, while also answering his emails and doing his online shopping.”

lydia west is a whole mood

What followed was a role in TV mini-series Dracula, before landing arguably the job of a lifetime: Jill in the critically acclaimed It’s A Sin. The joyful yet gut-wrenching series follows a group of friends during the AIDS pandemic, which devastated the gay community in the 1980s. “It was the most electric set - we had this sparkly energy while we were making it,” West says, lighting up. “We had no idea if it would reach a mass audience - historically queer-based shows don’t tend to do that. It came out at the perfect time in lockdown, when everyone was glued to their screens and wanting original, brilliant content.”

The show was 12-time BAFTA nominated, including a Best Actress nod for West, catapulting her into mainstream consciousness. “When the show came out and [its popularity] spiralled, it was very overwhelming. The fame part isn’t something you’re taught how to navigate. It’s bizarre leaving your house and being recognised, and I found that hard to manage; that loss of anonymity. You want the show to be seen by so many, but you then become really exposed.”

To add to that, West became a poster girl for her character, who is based on a real person, and the comparisons to someone who is held in such high regard (to the extent that #BeMoreJill trended nationwide) felt challenging. “Jill is so amazing. I had feelings of not being deserving, not knowing how to manage it, and also imposter syndrome. I went through that year being like, ‘Wow, something’s changed.’”

In other words, it was a lot to handle after just three acting jobs. West credits a supportive network of friends and therapy for keeping her grounded, as well as a commitment to personal discovery. “It unleashed a lot of feelings of not being good enough, so I wanted to figure out where they stemmed from, which then allowed me to find my voice [on other production sets].

“To speak up when I saw wrongdoing, or when I felt like someone had a huge ego, or if I’m not comfortable with someone. It gave me confidence. It’s A Sin was a very supportive atmosphere, and now with my career changing and me becoming a ‘lead’ [in other projects], I go in with the aim of setting a good example. It really starts from the top down, like any organisation, and if it’s toxic at the top, it’s going to be really negative at the bottom. I’ve gone home from sets feeling like I’m not good enough, feeling shit, and feeling nervous around some actors. Scared of them because of their big personalities. I don’t ever want to make anyone feel like that.”

lydia west is a whole mood
Acne Suit & Earrings.Ray Burmiston / Channel 4

Making big moves

Unsurprisingly, then, West and co-lead Nicola Coughlan strived to create a supportive, inclusive environment on the set of their latest release, Big Mood. The dark comedy, which launched last Thursday on Channel 4 [28th March 2024] follows Eddie and Maggie, two best friends navigating life in their early 30s, while Coughlan’s character manages her bipolar disorder. “Big Mood felt like that sparkly [energy] again,” West says, enthused. “It was created, directed and produced by women. Not to shit on recent jobs, but it’s a different energy on set when there are no egos. I felt so safe.”

The series, which was filmed in early 2023, delves into mental illness in a sensitive yet authentic way, while addressing themes like grief, codependency and depression. It manages to be both laugh out loud funny and painfully confronting, illustrating the transformative and often challenging period of life. “The show takes you on a ride with two complicated, real humans who are going through stuff,” West continues. “You think it’s going to be one thing, and then it ends up being something else.”

Considering their chemistry, both in interviews and on-screen, it’s no wonder Bridgerton’s Coughlan and West have developed a strong and honest friendship in real life. “My peers and I have a relationship now where we talk about fees for a job,” West shares. “It’s so hard to have those discussions and be like, ‘Oh, what are you being paid for this? Does this sound about right?’ But with your best mates, you talk about everything else, so why is the subject of finances or how much you earn something we don’t? That’s been an amazing lesson for me. And then, sharing industry advice, and supporting each other when we’re going through difficult times at work.”

Life off screen

Talking to West is like catching up with an old friend, and her genuine and warm energy is palpable, even through a screen. She’s honest about the illusion of ‘having it all’, and is open about new motherhood, while clearly feeling fiercely protective of her family unit. She hasn’t revealed her baby’s gender, or gone public with her partner. “When I found out I was pregnant, my immediate thought was, ‘Oh my god, my work',” she shares now. “I had a very difficult pregnancy with sickness, so I had to be quite rational about what I could do based on the condition I was in.”

The actress decided to keep her pregnancy a secret, taking the latter half of 2023 off work so she could prioritise becoming a parent. “I’ve always wanted a family. For our generation, it’s so hard. We have to be career-minded. It’s amazing that women have so many opportunities now, but you do feel like you have to make a choice. Do you focus on your family? Or your career? For the boomer generation, they had their lives together by 30 [years-old] with the house and the kids, and it’s just a bit harder for us. I’ve tried to take back that control, and to figure out what I want at this moment. There’s so much pressure on booking your next job and staying relevant, it can be scary. You think, ‘Will I ever work again?’”

lydia west is a whole mood
Acne Suit & Earrings.Ray Burmiston / Channel 4

While West is certainly not gone for good (“I’m definitely not ready for retirement yet!”) the actress is candid about wanting to take a moment to breathe; not only as a new mother, but so she can be selective about what she does next. “I’ve naturally changed the goal of my career, and want to make more impactful pieces. You want to entertain, but also inform, and [I want to] make things that are close to my heart. Obviously there are financial constraints, but I don’t want to rush to do a job just to be working. I’ve stayed in situations before out of fear, and that’s something I don’t want to make decisions based on anymore.”

As for the one thing she’ll absolutely be back for, West smiles. “I’m happy to spend time with my little family until a potential Big Mood season 2.” Over to you, Channel 4.

Big Mood is now streaming on Channel 4.

Cover & Lead Image: Acne Suit & Earrings.

Photographer: Ray Burmiston / Channel 4, Interview: Dusty Baxter-Wright, Hair: Nicola Harrowell, Makeup: Naoko Scintu, Stylist: Farrah O’Connor.

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