Chanel Cresswell on playing Coleen Rooney: ‘I hope she watches it and has a bit of a laugh’
It’s………. Rebekah Vardy’s account.” Three years later, this remains the celebrity tweet sign-off that keeps on giving. Coleen Rooney probably didn’t anticipate that hitting send on her message back in October 2019 would ignite a petrol bomb of a scandal. Nor one that involved allegations of secret Wag wars, a phone being tossed into the ocean, and Peter Andre’s privates just not being up to scratch. It’s the tweet itself, though, that’s had the most substantial legacy. That delightfully creative use of ellipsis. The wealth of memes it inspired. Then, last summer, the dramatic court case it led to.
Vardy, the wife of Leicester City striker Jamie, sued Rooney, the wife of former England captain Wayne, for libel in 2020. Rooney alleged that her personal stories had been leaked to the media via Vardy’s Instagram account, after months of personal investigation. Vardy insisted that she was innocent, and that her agent Caroline Watt was responsible for the sharing of the stories, and not her. The resulting “Wagatha Christie” trial – as it was christened by the internet – kicked off at the High Court in May 2022 and ended on 29 July, when a judge dismissed Vardy’s case. Vardy was also ordered to pay 90 per cent of Rooney’s legal costs, with experts estimating that the case could cost her at least £3m. She insists she’s still innocent. Exactly a month after the verdict, production began on a two-part television film inspired by it all. In just under two hours, Channel 4’s Vardy v Rooney: A Courtroom Drama gives us a front-bench seat to the spectacle, using transcripts from the trial to make up the script.
Natalia Tena and Chanel Cresswell star as Vardy and Rooney, respectively, with Michael Sheen playing David Sherborne, Rooney’s fearsome barrister. It’s as close as we’ll ever get to being a fly on that courtroom wall: we hear all parties’ exact words, while Rooney and Vardy themselves feel close enough to reality without overstepping into parody. For Cresswell, that earnestness was essential. She steered clear of the tabloid gossip and the hot takes strewn across social media. Instead, she wanted to make sure that her Coleen was as unbiased as possible.
“I just wanted to play a person,” the 32-year-old tells me over Zoom. “Not necessarily a footballer’s wife, or a woman that’s intertwined with drama. I wanted to get a bit more in-depth. So I stepped away from the media noise of it all; I just wanted to go and read the transcripts and perform the information given.”
Known to many for her Bafta-winning performance as Kelly Jenkins in the This is England TV series and big-screen film, Cresswell took the role of Coleen Rooney as seriously as any other. She trades her natural Nottingham accent for Rooney’s Liverpudlian tones in the show – something that sounds effortless to the audience, but a task Cresswell worked hard to nail early on. “I was constantly listening to Coleen in my ear,” she says, “because I know how important it is to get the voice right.”
Her reverence for Rooney is clear. She frequently commends her robustness as a wife and mother of four, as well as her sheer gumption for embracing her inner detective. “She was very brave trying to get to the bottom of what she thought was tormenting her, so when I was up on that stand, I wanted to play to her strengths as a wife, a mother, a person who thought her private information was being leaked,” she explains. “I wanted to play a different version of Coleen to what the public think that they know.”
The media is very good at creating these huge tidal waves of drama, and headlines and memes
Though Vardy v Rooney definitely wants its audience to have fun watching, it’s not at the expense of the names involved. There’s no snooty mockery made of the women at the heart of the story – they feel like real people who’ve found themselves in a bit of a mess. If it was dramatised in any other way, Cresswell says, she wouldn’t have signed up. “The one thing I didn’t want was for this to make these women into caricatures,” she says. “One thing that became very apparent while performing this case was the trolling issue. It’d be very hypocritical of us to make a series and highlight any stories that would snowball trolling again.”
As part of her case, Vardy pinpointed the online abuse she’d received in the aftermath of Rooney’s accusatory tweet. One particularly chilling message involved someone wishing her newborn child to be “put in an incinerator”. To guard against making the trolling worse for Vardy, the programme doesn’t villainise either party. Instead both women’s perspectives are treated with goodwill. For many watching, Vardy’s version of events won’t be particularly convincing. And throughout, Rooney does feel like the righteous party, dragged to court unnecessarily. Still, Vardy is given some room for sympathy – under the spotlight of the stand, she squirms under such intense questioning that it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for her.
“We made sure that it was very fair, and very level,” Cresswell says. “You saw the dynamics of these women, and how they were just people. They did get upset. They did cry. They did find it hard being up on the stand. It’s intimidating, even being on the stand as an actor – so you [do] genuinely feel sorry for whoever was up there being questioned. All the world’s watching, and you know it. They’re hanging on every word you say – that’s got to be a big weight on your shoulders, for both parties.”
Though they hardly interact in the programme, Tena and Cresswell are wonderfully matched – on camera, their disdain for one another feels rooted and potent. But rather than the actors “going method”, according to Cresswell, they found that they needed to let their real-life camaraderie flow off-camera. “We couldn’t help ourselves, we were talking all the time!” she laughs. “The roles we were playing were so heavily documented in the media and it was very current [when we were filming] – we couldn’t not talk to each other. I think we were both making sure that we didn’t want to make these people [into] jokes. These women really were both fighting for their points of view to be heard.”
Neither Rooney nor Vardy were involved in the making of the programme. But Crosswell hopes that if Rooney ever does tune in, she’d give her a thumbs-up for her performance. “It might not be now, but probably a few years down the line, I hope she opens a bottle of white wine and watches it and has a bit of a laugh, watching me up there trying to do her accent,” she says with a wide smile.
As for everyone else, Cresswell wants the show to do the double task of entertaining viewers, while also breaking down some of the assumptions that may exist about the worries and concerns of footballers’ wives. In her mind, Rooney and Vardy are just like anyone else.
“They’ll both do documentaries about their sides, no doubt,” she says. “That’ll be their points of view, and they’ll go into the specific [things] that they went through. But from our side, I hope people enjoy the entertainment element of it, though it’s also coming from a very truthful place. The media is very good at creating these huge tidal waves of drama, and headlines and memes. It sucks you in, because it is quite amusing. But when you sit back and watch it from more of a neutral, normal perspective... you realise that they are just people at the end of the day.”
‘Vardy v Rooney: A Courtroom Drama’ begins on Channel 4 at 9pm on Wednesday 21 December, and concludes on Thursday 22 December