Leo Woodall and Ambika Mod Are Unforgettable in One Day
Leo Woodall and Ambika Mod pose together against a white background. He wears a patterned polo shirt and dark pants. She wears jeans and a black racerback tank.

PLAYING DEX
AND EM

Leo Woodall and Ambika Mod take on two of the twenty-first century’s favorite characters in One Day.

Opening photograph by
14 February 20247 min read

Dex and Em. Em and Dex. Only a handful of literary couples have stuck in the minds of readers so fervently in the twenty-first century. The world was first introduced to Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morely in 2009, with the release of David Nicholls’s bestseller, One Day, which chronicled the relationship of its English protagonists through the lens of one day of the year, every year — from July 15, 1988 to July 15, 2007. Fans of the book pored over the pages as Dexter and Emma ebb and flow toward and away from each other, as they grow into adulthood. The beloved characters have been imprinted on the minds of millions and now find themselves coming to life through the performances of Leo Woodall and Ambika Mod in the series adaptation. 

Mod was one of those readers. “I was a massive, massive fan of the book,” says the British actor, who captivated audiences as Shruti Acharya in the BAFTA Television Award-winning medical comedy-drama This Is Going to Hurt. “I read it when it first came out, and I was a young teen. It’s always been one of my favorite books, always really stuck with me.” Mod originally turned down the opportunity to audition for the role of Emma in One Day, but reconsidered after spending some time re-reading the script and seeing the opportunity on the page. “There’s so much that I see of myself in Emma. A lot of the people who read the book and hopefully see the series will see a lot of themselves in Emma.” 

Emma and Dexter have just graduated from University of Edinburgh when audiences meet them, and they meet one another. They are on the verge of starting their adult lives — Emma with an eagerness to grow up and do her part to make change in the world, Dexter with a foot still in his adolescence and few plans beyond the immediate future. Across the course of 14 episodes, their individual and shared experiences propel them forward into maturity, through love and loss and the moments in between.  

Dex (Leo Woodall) gives Emma (Ambika Mod) his number on a scrap of paper.

Dexter Mayhew (Leo Woodall) and Emma Morley (Ambika Mod)

Woodall, who drew attention through the role of Jack in the second season of The White Lotus, relished the opportunity to embody Dexter, a character who starts the series as a charmed young man and endures significant change and pain as the episodes unfold. “There was a lot of vulnerability and fragility in him,” says Woodall of first reading the part. “I love that you get to see a lot of that despite an appearance of him being that everything-works-out-for-you kind of guy. A lot of really bad things happen to him, and I think he needs a bit of a hug. I guess I wanted to give him a hug.”

The pair were delivered a tremendous script from showrunner Nicole Taylor (Three Girls, Wild Rose) and leaned into the source material to help shape their portrayals. “Unlike a lot of jobs, we were really lucky to have a fantastic book, and that was my bible honestly, throughout the whole of the shoot,” says Mod. “Not only did it give us so much of Emma and Dexter’s internal dialogue, what they’re thinking on any given day that we’re seeing, but also it gave us a lot of context of what happens in between the days that we’re seeing and each year that we’re missing.”

The script and performances seamlessly weave the episodes together, jumping from one year to the next while anchored by Dexter and Emma’s development. “So much has happened, so much is about to happen; each [scene] has so much importance to where they end up going,” says Woodall of navigating the time jumps. “You just kind of focus on that really. There are definitely a lot of times where what’s happened in the year that you haven’t seen is crucial to what’s happening in the scene, but it is often kind of in the script. You never feel lost about why we are here. You know exactly why you’re there.” 

Behind the scenes with Ambika Mod. She wears a black dress with flowers and touches her clavicle.

Behind the scenes with Ambika Mod

Mod and Woodall not only had the script and the novel to lean on when developing their characters, but they also had one another. The duo met at a chemistry read, and once cast they spent time together before pre-production started. “Luckily we bonded very early,” recalls Woodall. “We knew that we had this kind of mountain to climb and we weren’t going to be able to do it alone. And we were also both aware that neither of us had done a serious series lead. So, we were also tackling that together. I won’t speak for Ambika, but I was very grateful that I had a friend in that.”

Mod remembers Leo as being “lovely and charming” on the day of the chemistry read: “I think, creatively, we felt that chemistry. There was never a scene that we really struggled with or found really tricky. Everything seemed to be in a state of flow, and that was just a result of all the different pieces coming together. In TV, you don’t really get rehearsal. You just have to pick up and go, and that’s what we did. But to be honest, I think it’s worked in our favor.”

Nicholls, the book’s author and the series’ executive producer, had spent years curating playlists for Dexter and Emma, identifying what his characters would have had on their record — or cassette — shelves. Mod used the Emma playlist to help her get into character and access the many eras she inhabited. Woodall expanded his listening experience, bringing in additional tracks that brought him into Dexter’s headspace.

Behind the scenes with Leo Woodall. He smiles wide and rests his chin in his palm.

Behind the scenes with Leo Woodall

“I remember listening to a bit of Bon Iver before a scene that required a lot of anguish, and I think something about his music is very, very emotive,” says the actor. “I tried to squeeze in ‘This Charming Man’ by the Smiths. There was a scene where Dexter put on the radio. He’s just jazzing himself up, and he’s dancing. I requested that song, and they played it loud, and it was great.” Although the song didn’t make the series soundtrack, it created a connection point between Woodall and Dexter that added to his absorbing performance. 

Mod worked with the costume and hair departments to further tap into Emma’s identity. “It is a really formative part of the experience when you’re building a character,” says Mod. “Costume designer Emma Rees just picked the most beautiful pieces. We both had a really aligned vision of what Emma was and the imperfections in her dressing, the little details that felt a bit off but felt really natural to her.” 

One of the challenges with a series that spans decades is aging the spaces and the characters in a natural way. “With the hair and makeup, our designer, Juliette [Tomes], was so adamant and glued into the details. I remember one thing she said to us was, ‘You have to remember, very few people change their hairstyle after a certain age,’” recalls Mod. “That observation made the whole thing feel really grounded, and they were both so collaborative and open to our thoughts. It helped in building those characters.”

Dexter Mayhew (Leo Woodall) and Emma Morley (Ambika Mod) lie on a rug laughing.

Dexter Mayhew (Leo Woodall) and Emma Morley (Ambika Mod)

Ultimately, Emma remains witty and stubborn, as in the book, and through Mod’s expressive face and pinpoint tone, she brings a fresh inner life that no amount of dialogue could have delivered. Similarly, Woodall expands Dexter into an entirely real person. Even in his shallowest moments, Dexter is likable and relatable, given the boundless charm Woodall imbues into the performance.  

Dex and Em. Leo and Ambika. Names not to be forgotten by all who encounter One Day