'One Day' Star Ambika Mod’s Unlikely Path to Playing Emma Morley

Warning: major spoilers for One Day ahead

Ambika Mod still hasn’t fully processed the effusive reaction viewers have had to her new Netflix series One Day, based on David Nicholls’s best-selling 2009 romance novel of the same name. The 14-episode series dropped on February 8 and Netflix, just in time for Valentine’s Day, and quickly became a huge hit and the #1 series on the streamer. “I still feel very much in the eye of the storm,” she says. “People are like, ‘Oh my god it’s amazing,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, is it amazing?’ I haven’t been able to compute. There’s so much happening.”

Mod’s overwhelmed response makes sense when you think about the path she took to playing Emma Morley, the heroine of One Day, which starts in 1988 and charts the chaotic, 20-year friends-to-lovers story between working-class, aspiring writer Emma and the handsome but emotionally messy, upper-class Dexter Mayhew (The White Lotus’ Leo Woodall).

Mod and Woodall in One Day

Ludovic Robert/Netflix

The 28-year-old Mod, who started her career as a comedian before landing a breakout role opposite Ben Whishaw in the 2022 BBC medical dramedy This Is Going to Hurt, declined to audition for One Day multiple times. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the material. As a teenager, she’d read and enjoyed both the book and the 2011 film version starring Anne Hathaway.

“As much as I love the character and as much as I identified with her, I just didn’t see myself in that position in a believable way,” Mod says. Emma is written as white, which Mod, who is the daughter of Indian immigrants to Britain, is not. “As much as they were seeing people of all different ethnicities for both roles, you never want to raise your hopes in that situation,” she explains.

And yet Mod also had a lot in common with the acerbic Emma, who meets Dexter in the final hours of university life. He’s popular and posh while she’s academic and neurotic. At first, Emma’s shocked that he’s even talking to her. “I did kind of feel like an outsider in many ways that Emma feels like an outsider, especially early on in her life,” Mod says. “I often feel like an outsider in this industry. When I go up for roles like this, [I’m] sort of like the underdog.”

In the end, Mod beat out hundreds of other young hopefuls for the coveted part (just like Emma becomes a bestselling author, who wins Dexter’s heart.)

Mod grew up in South Hertfordshire outside of North London, and always wanted to be an actress. While attending university at St. Mary’s College in Durham, she found herself not getting cast in any plays, and so decided to audition for the school sketch troupe. “Acting and comedy are in some ways bedfellows, but in some ways worlds apart,” she says. “For me, they ended up molding into one.”

When asked if she brought her comedic background to playing Emma, Mod says it was probably more an unconscious choice than a planned one. “I try to bring levity to a situation or scene as much as possible,” Mod says. “When I go into a room, it’s often my superpower. Emma is wickedly funny, wickedly sharp, and wickedly intelligent. There was no chance in hell that we were going to dumb her down or dilute that quality about her.”

Emma’s “wit is her currency,” Mod explains, another thing that the two have in common. Though Mod adds, “not to blow my own trumpet or anything,” throwing a bit of their similar self-deprecation into the mix.

Of course, anyone who has already watched One Day knows that Emma’s ending is an unhappy one. Mod was nervous going into the day when she filmed the character’s shocking death. She and director Luke Snellin discussed Emma’s thought process as she’s lying on the ground after being hit by a car while riding her bike. As a viewer, you can see Mod’s eyes searching until they suddenly go horrifyingly still. “It was a very intentionally shot scene and even watching it myself back I was like, ‘Oh god, you can see the moment it happens,” Mod says.

While Mod suggests waiting a couple of weeks to ask her how she feels about One Day‘s reception, she knows she came away from the experience with a lot of new confidence: “If I’m ever doubting myself or feel like I’m not getting what I deserve, I’ll just look back on the experience and be like, ‘Well, I did that.'”

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