Jodi Balfour as Gladys Witham in Bomb Girls
It was a little over 70 years ago that women of all ages said goodbye to some of the most important people in their lives, as fathers, husbands, brothers, and fiancés left behind all they held dear to fight against enemy forces during World War II. Many of these same women sacrificed even more to help support the troops any way they could back at home. The Canadian-made wartime TV drama Bomb Girls focuses on the lives of four women working the Blue Shift at a Canadian munitions factory. Among these spirited and patriotic souls is Gladys Witham, a beautiful young woman whose worldview is expanded tremendously throughout the show’s two seasons. She is played by actress Jodi Balfour, who was keen to take up the cause and step into Gladys’ shoes.
“I was living in Vancouver when I originally received the script for Bomb Girls,” recalls Balfour, who was born and brought up in South Africa. “When it rains, it definitely does pour, because I was also in the midst of opening up a coffee shop [Nelson the Seagull] with two friends of mine. I began reading the script and it immediately captivated me more than anything else I had read the previous year. The material was so strong and it mentally ‘transported’ me to a different point in time. I’ve always loved period dramas, so this definitely seemed like a dream role.
“Again, the script was so strong and I was taken with it right from the beginning, but I had to audition just like everyone else. That was a long process, really, from the first time I auditioned, which was a taped audition that I did in the restroom of the café before we opened in the morning. It was the best place for me to do it, mainly because we were able to shut the door,” she says with a laugh. “So from that first tape to when I got the job, it was about a month-and-a-half wait, which ended with me finding out I had gotten the job. I was thrilled, of course, and before long I was being flown to Toronto where we shot the show.
“It all happened so quickly and, in fact, we never really went through the pilot process. I only read the pilot script when I first auditioned, but we had been given six episodes right off the cuff. So we started shooting right away, and what stands out the most for me when I began working on Bomb Girls is just the immediate sense of teamwork and camaraderie amongst the cast and crew. A lot of the actors had flown in from all over Canada to play the various roles, and seeing everything begin to come together was, I think, a very emotional time for a number of us. However, that’s what gave me the sense right away that this really was something special that we were becoming a part of and a blessed project. Within the first month of work it felt like a real creative family, which is a rare and wonderful feeling.”
War has only just recently broken out when viewers are introduced to Gladys Witham in the Bomb Girls series opener. Living in the affluent Toronto, Ontario neighborhood of Rosedale, she is the only daughter of wealthy Rollie Witham (James McGowan), who owns a chain of grocery stores, and socialite Adele Witham (Kate Hennig). Gladys begins her employment at Victory Munitions in the office during Blue Shift, but subsequently asks for her position to be changed so she could work down on the factory floor with the other women. Not one to hold her tongue or be afraid to offer an opinion, Gladys afforded Balfour the opportunity to play a wide range of emotions and become involved in a variety of onscreen situations.
“Gladys is a real firecracker and I rather love that about her,” says the actress,” but that’s also where a lot of the [acting] challenges with her lie. The trick for me was diving into the idea of the things that she did and taking them on fully and committing to them fully. Getting under the skin of a character like Gladys was quite difficult at times. She operated entirely on her instincts as well as her gut, and there’s a real bravery that fuels that sort of thing. So the biggest challenge for me was to wrap my head around some of the ways in which she behaved. Among the other challenges was Gladys accent and dialect; being from South Africa, I had to figure that out.
“Another challenge and one that was the most fun for me, was learning more about that time period and reading as much as I could about women in the 1940s and Canada of the 1940s. I wanted to get a real sense of the time as well as rhythm of the era, which would inevitably inform the way that your character behaved, the way she thinks, and even the way she walks. That was a substantial amount of investigating to do, but fortunately we had a number of advisors on the show along with a wealth of resources.”
In what ways did the actress see her character grow and develop in Bomb Girls’ two seasons? “I think in the first season we were introduced to a character that was quite juvenile at times,” muses Balfour. “Gladys was in her own way stubborn and had to get her own way. She would, always with the best of intentions, go after her own pursuits despite any advice or input from those around her. By the end of the second season, we sort of see a woman who has learned tremendously from others and has also surprised herself by her show of loyalty along with sense of compassion and understanding for women who aren’t exactly like her.
“I think, for example, we learn a great deal about Gladys and see her grow quite a bit in her relationship with Betty [Ali Liebert], from them not getting along at all in the first season, and by the end of season two, sharing a sense of sisterhood. For all intents and purposes, they could not be more opposite from a social as well as financial standpoint, just in terms of Gladys being engaged to a rich young man, and Betty exploring her sexuality. Those two things alone would have been reason enough for them not to get along, but instead they come to understand one another and Gladys never had a problem with what Betty was exploring. I think she was a great catalyst for us to watch Gladys mature. Certainly by the end of season two, and especially in the TV movie, [Bomb Girls: Facing the Enemy], we see a more adult woman who is even more aware of the world’s problems and has learned that life isn’t black and white all the time. I just think the show’s writers did a wonderful job developing the gradual trajectory of my character.”
Despite critical acclaim as well as a large fan base, Bomb Girls was not renewed for a third season. However, unlike most TV shows that are cancelled, this one was given the chance to wrap up many of its storylines in the aforementioned 2014 made-for-TV movie Bomb Girls: Facing the Enemy. Set in 1943, it continues the story of our heroines, including Gladys Witham. In season two of Bomb Girls, she was recruited by a U.S. government agent, Clifford Perry (Tahmoh Penikett], to help him investigate a suspected spy that had infiltrated Victory Munitions. That relationship, personal as well as professional, comes to a head in Facing the Enemy, which Balfour was delighted to participate in.
“The storyline with Gladys and Clifford was a really fun and one in which we got to see a more grown-up version of my character,” notes the actress. “I think Clifford was unlike anyone she had ever met, and he made Gladys have to step up to the plate in terms of adulthood and the smarts that she has. She couldn’t play the fool at all, and Clifford challenged her knowledge of the war effort as well as humanity and human behavior and sort of knocked the idealist out of her. It was an interesting juxtaposition between the flow of the factory and a real-life-type of story of what did go on during the war but that not many people got to learn about and share in. So I loved it.
“As far as working on Facing the Enemy in general, it was bittersweet. It felt wonderful to reunite with everyone and have an opportunity to celebrate the show and find some closure for Bomb Girls after news of its cancellation. It was too short an experience, though. I wish it could have gone on for another entire season, but I think the wonderfulness of it triumphed any of the sadness about being cancelled. When it comes to Gladys, I had such a good time getting back under the skin of this grown-up character. The shift from what had been a very friendship-oriented Gladys to the more spy-oriented Gladys was, again, quite a challenge, but one I enjoyed taking on. Coincidentally, it kind of fulfilled a childhood fantasy of mine of wanting to be a spy, so it ticked all those boxes for me.”
In the past few years, Balfour has become a familiar face to TV watchers, having appeared in a variety of TV movies and miniseries along with such series as Tower Prep, R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour, V, Supernatural, Sanctuary and Primeval: New World. It was, however, long before ever stepping in front of a camera that she first became enamored of performing in front of an audience. “I was around the age of four and went to a live performance of The Nutcracker,” she says. “I remember looking over at the orchestra pit and seeing all the string instruments, and then sitting down to watch all the dancers onstage. I just knew then that I had to be part of performance [art].
“Immediately after that, I took up ballet and started learning how to play the violin. I actually still dance, and one day I would love to come full circle back to that. In 2009, I graduated with a degree in Theatre and Performance from the University of Cape Town, which is our sort of premiere conservatory-type theatre program in South Africa. Around that time, the BBC came to Cape Town to film a two-part miniseries that was based on true events and was called The Sinking of the Laconia. I managed to book a part on that, and that was a huge help to me as far as getting an agent and having some recognizable international credits to my name. That then helped me get more auditions and is really what helped me get to where I am today,” she enthuses.
Like most actors, Balfour would like nothing more than to jump from one project to the next, but even when she is in-between jobs, the actress does her best to keep on doing what she loves most.
“I’m very fortunate to have an amazing community of friends who are actors, too,” she says, “and when we’re not very busy, we sort of do our best to shoot short films or have play readings or get together and have writing groups. It’s important to keep doing something so that you always feel engaged in this industry. As an actor, you’re often waiting around for others to choose you and what you do, so you have to try to find some ‘sanity’ within that. If not, you’ll just feel like you’re at the mercy of those people you’re waiting to hear from.”
Bomb Girls: Facing the Enemy airs Monday, May 26th @ 9:00 p.m. EST/8:00 p.m. PST on REELZ. Please note, all photos above courtesy/copyright of REELZ.