So, a little bit about me to start - I started acting when I was 5, I went to a little children’s workshop in Leeds, and we did Saturday morning classes (which cost 2p!). We put on two productions a year, and I fell in love with acting. I ended up going to Intake in Leeds, and I did a dance/drama/music course, and at the grand old age of 16 I got a part in Coronation Street. Eventually I went into Holby City, and then loads of TV... and as they say, the rest is history!
I know you did a masterclass before on the differences between auditioning for TV and theatre, but I missed it. Could you please go through a few of those tips again?
For me, the difference between preparing for a TV or theatre audition is about being off book. With a TV audition, you need to be off book - you have to know your lines inside out. You also need an idea of what you’re going to be able to do with the character. The problem is that you don’t always get the full script as there's so much secrecy around projects, so you might have to make things up to a certain extent. Also, walk into the meeting as that character. Think about how they dress, think about their attitude and where they’re coming from. Go in looking the part - wear clothes that character might wear. Obviously if they’re a doctor you’re not going to go in with a stethoscope around your neck! But think about how they might look.
Theatre auditions, you don’t need to be off book. They want to talk more about the entire project, so make sure you’ve read the play, and be ready to be directed. They don’t expect you to have learnt the script – unless they’ve specifically asked!
Self-taping is massive at the moment (due to the current climate), so you have to learn how to do it properly. Light yourself properly, get your camera up, direct yourself. You can go to courses at the Actors Centre on how to do it, but for me, just make sure you have a decent camera (I always use my iPhone), a blank wall background and a good light, and be off book. Sometimes that’s impossible though, say if you’re doing an American pilot, at 5pm you’ll get your agent sending you 15 pages to learn and self-tape before the morning. That’s impossible! The trick for that is to use an autocue - I have an app called PromptSmart (which is an autocue), which you position at head height by the camera (so it looks like you’re looking at a character!), then you can read and act at the same time.
Also, get yourself a stable community of actors to work with. You can help each other out, I have four actor friends where we all help each other out to film self-tapes.
When you're filming something like Coronation Street with its quick turn around and shooting scenes out of sequence, how do you deal with that?
It becomes an art working on quick turnaround shows. Holby City was the same quick turnaround, where you do double-banking. Double-banking is where there are two crews on at the same time, and you film more than one episode at once – for example there will be one set/crew where you are doing episodes 1 &2, then you’ll go across to another set/crew where you will be filming episodes 3&4. You can jump around the scenes all day! The way you cope with it is by doing your homework. I do a storyboard, writing out my scenes and my character journey. I will do a 1-10 of mood, because you have to know where you’re pitching it – if your character is having quite a traumatic time, you don’t want to start at a 9 and have nowhere else to go! By doing a scale, I can track my emotions so that they’re building over the episode/storyline. When you’re dipping backwards and forwards filming different episodes, its key to know where you’re pitching yourself.
Prep, and sleep. Get as much sleep as you can at night, or even between takes. Try and learn how to sleep on a washing line!
The website said you started directing. Was it difficult to be on the other side of things? Or was it good because you are an actor?
My directing career is really in its embryonic stages. I shot a show during lockdown, called Dun Breedin’. We maintained social distancing throughout the whole time, shooting these short episodes about women going through the menopause, filmed in our houses.
Our director would give us camera plans, she would tell us where to put our phones, where to shoot from. I started to be a bit more adventurous with my camera plan, and our director thought I had an eye for it and gave me the opportunity to direct an episode. I had to draw out and send round a camera plan, say what angles I wanted, edit it and choose the music. I utterly loved it. My favourite part was talking to the actors and giving notes – I thought it would be strange working with my mates, but everyone took direction from me and the transition was really smooth.
So now, hopefully I'm going to be directing a short film in September – and it helps from being an actor. You know how you like a note, it's much easier to give notes.
How do you keep a long run 'fresh'?
When you’re doing a show like One Man, Two Guvnors, you keep it fresh by remembering that for the audience, it’s the first they’re seeing it. You have to want to please them. It is tough, I did the show for five months. I think it’s slightly easier doing a comedy, as it’s not as ‘hardcore’ each night. You have to psychologically tell yourself this is the first time you’ve ever done it.
It’s the same with TV though – when you are shooting, you might have to do the same take over and over again. By the time you’ve finished, you might have said your six lines forty times. Every time you do it, you have to feel like it’s the first time you’ve ever said these lines.
Also, with theatre, the audience have paid a lot of money to see this performance, so you’ve got to give it to them!
Do you have any advice for keeping sane in between acting jobs?
Being out of work is the worst thing in the whole entire world to me. I absolutely hate it. I don’t know who I am when I don’t have a job coming up. Right now, this whole Covid scenario has been very difficult!
To keep sane - find as many hobbies as you can, become creative – start writing, think about directing your own short film, go and see shows and keep yourself involved in the industry as much as you can. Join a local theatre group, try and teach drama classes in local schools, do voice over reels. It’s all about distractions. It’s rubbish being out of work, I’ve been doing this job thirty years and I still worry that I’ll never ever work again. You have to distract yourself out of that. There is no way of keeping sane!
When you're working, try and save your money. That working as an actor, that is the fun bit – so save your money so you can enjoy your time off! Think about it as if you’re being paid to be out of work.
Are there any classic theatre roles you’d like to play?
There definitely is – I didn't train as an actor, so I’ve not played so many characters. The great thing about going to Drama School is that you get to play lots of different roles, and I’ve never done that. I felt really uneducated when I started doing theatre because I didn’t get to do that, and I didn’t know what plays were good. As I’ve got older, I’ve gone to see more plays, seen Shakespeare, etc. But the one role I really want to play is Rita in Educating Rita. I’d love to play her. We used to read it in class and I really enjoyed it. I’d also want to play Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and I saw Ruth Wilson playing Hedda Gabler, and I’d love to do that. But I think not going to Drama School has made me a bit intimidated by all that! I’m trying to get over that fear.
How much did you enjoy playing Kim Campbell in Waterloo Road?
I enjoyed it so much that I went back and did another series after I’d left! I’m re-watching it with my kids at the moment, and I feel like it still stands up, even if it is ten years old.
Do you prefer TV or theatre?
I feel more comfortable doing television. I rarely get intimidated doing TV, I’m still nervous, but I know the vocabulary on a set, I know how it works. But the buzz from doing a play! It’s instant gratification from a live audience – you don’t have to wait 6 months for it to come out and sit on twitter to see if people liked it. I can’t choose between the two!
How did you first get into the industry?
I first got into it by going to a children's theatre workshop and that’s how I got my passion for it, and then when I was 11 there was a boy who came along who was in Emmerdale, and I really wanted to know how to get on it. So, me and Mum asked, and spoke to his agent, and I was taken on. I imagine it’s very different nowadays, but I would say if you can go to a drama club which has some kind of casting agent attached to it, they will go along and ‘scout’ people.
What's your process on learning lines?
I think there's a memory muscle in your mind because I feel like I've got quicker and quicker at learning lines. I also use an app called LineLearner, and this was a lifesaver for the last two plays I’ve done. The Tyler Sisters was a three-hander and Building the Wall was a two-hander – they were really heavy duty in terms of lines. When you’re rehearsing something like that, you’re in every single scene, so you don’t have that time off to be able to sit and run through your lines. You’re having to do all your line learning at home, and if you make your family run it with you constantly, they’ll get fed up! With the LineLearner app you record all the lines, and then you can play it back with prompts, your lines missing etc. I also find it hard to read lines off a screen (like off an email) so I always print off my lines and highlight them. It's easier to see any patterns when it's on a physical page.
What's your favourite character to play in any theatre shows you’ve done?
One Man, Two Guvnors was my first professional theatrical role and was probably my favourite theatre production, as being Dolly was amazing. I loved it. The one I found emotionally hard was The Tyler Sisters at Hampstead Theatre, which was about three sisters set over a period of forty years, and every scene was a different year. It was hard, and took a really emotional toll, but I loved it.
Do you think it’s harder nowadays for talent to find those first jobs? What advice would you give?
Yes, I do think it’s harder nowadays because there is such a huge amount of competition. There weren’t as many people doing it when I started out. However, on the positive side, there's also a lot more access nowadays – there's more drama courses, you don’t need to go to a specialist school to do a Drama GCSE, there's more youth groups. It’s much more accessible now, which therefore makes it more competitive unfortunately.
My advice would be - you have to be prepared to commit to it wholeheartedly. You have to want it more than anything, because the journey is really hard and it means having lots of knockbacks. You need to be quite bold, asking for representation, doing your research and to keep sending your CV to lots of agents – then when they all say no, be prepared to send it back out to 50 agents two months later and hope that they are taking on clients. You will be naturally persistent if you really want to do it. The more open you are to just being a working actor, not focussing your attention on just being a ‘Hollywood film star’, you will have more chance for successful possibilities.
Do your research – go and see shows you like, then find out who the casting director is, and email them your CV/Headshot and say that you loved their show that they cast and would love to be considered for anything they have coming up. You will get a ton of Nos, but you just have to be persistent.
Would you cast an unknown in your short film?
In the one I’m doing in September unfortunately not, as we’re doing it with social distancing (me and my daughter are in it). In the future though, absolutely. Something I really want to try and do as I get older and hopefully get more influence in directing... I come from a working class, northern, black, poor background. I feel like the opportunities for people like that to get into the industry are shrinking and shrinking. So much happens in London, that even the train fare alone to come down to London for an audition is a massive amount of money. For example, for my Coronation Street audition, we couldn’t afford for me to go to the second audition. My older brother gave me his first wages to go. The fact that I could have missed out because I didn’t have the money really worries me, because I think of all the people who have got all this talent and will miss out on opportunities because they can’t afford to come down to London, they can’t afford to rent here, or they feel like they don’t belong because they don’t know the right people.
Going forward, my aim is to create opportunities for people who don’t have them. Or the opportunities are harder for them.
Is filming for Netflix any different from filming a normal TV drama?
It's pretty much the same, the only difference I’d say is budget – the budget on those shows in comparison to the stuff I do on ITV or BBC, the budgets are so much higher. There's a difference in the way they’re marketed – with Netflix you only start marketing them 2 weeks before they come out, because they have so much coming up. Whereas with ITV/BBC you’ll be doing press for ages in advance.
How did you get into presenting? Were you ever worried about getting back into ‘serious’ roles afterwards?
I have presented The One Show, and I had my own show on Sky One, and I loved it. I love an autocue! I started presenting when I was in Corrie, someone asked me to do this telethon because I was really bubbly. I was petrified, but it's like doing theatre – it’s utter nerves but a real buzz. When I get really scared, it comes out as this weird confidence. Once I left Coronation Street, I was asked to present the National Lottery. I have a habit of saying yes to things – which I would say is a good piece of advice. Say yes to things, especially if they slightly scare you or they're out of your comfort zone. Be up for anything – you might find that you hate it, but at least you’ve done it to figure out what you like. If you try loads of new things, you might find an unusual role that you love. I did a whole series in the back of an ambulance! I just automatically said yes, but in the end, I was really glad that I did it.
If you’re interested in getting into presenting, go to a presenting agent, get together a presenting showreel. If you become ‘well known’ as an actor they might approach you to do a show anyway, and say yes unless your gut says, “no this is going to harm my career”. I have to also say, when I veered off into presenting, doing my TV show and doing the Oscars/Golden Globes red carpet... I then didn’t work for 15 months. I didn’t think it would have an impact on my acting career, but it did make a difference. I was terrified I’d never work, but then after 15 months I got an amazing job, doing One Man, Two Guvnors. After that, I decided to be quite choosy on what I did, and I didn’t present again for quite a while. I think sometimes if you diversify out too much, you have to concentrate on what you want to do – if you want to be an actor, you don’t want to confuse casting agents who might pigeonhole you as a presenter.
What do I do when I feel like I’ve tried everything to get an acting job?
Just keeping trying. Ask for feedback – hear the notes you’ve been given, ask what you can do to improve your chances going forward. They might just say you need more experience. Always ask for feedback – in your letter when you write to an agent, you can ask for feedback if they aren’t taking clients on. If someone else is with an agent, ask a friend to recommend you. See if you can find people to ‘pave’ the way for you! You have to stand out by being more persistent and dedicated.
Do you regret not going to Drama School?
A little bit – I think you’d get a lot of confidence, getting to be an actor every day for three years, getting a safe space to experiment and try things out. You get to play characters that you probably aren’t going to get to play for thirty years. You get contacts and build a network, and you find people to make work with.
By not going, I think my acting is based on instinct rather than a craft. I am very instinctual, and I was working at 16. Drama School is to get you experience and to get you an agent, and I was already getting it. I wish I’d gone for the network, but I probably didn’t miss out!
I want to go to Drama school - do you think it matters if you don’t like Shakespeare?
I think each to their own! The real turning point for me getting Shakespeare was Emma Rice’s production of Cymbeline – I'd never really understood Shakespeare before, and it was so accessible. Keep trying - if you find a great production, you could fall in love.
if you could play any part that someone else has played, what would it be?
I loved Carey Mulligan in Girls and Boys, by Dennis Kelly. I think it’s the best play I’ve ever seen – she was absolutely outstanding in it. I just thought that she, and the play, was amazing. If I could do anything (and be as good as her!) I would do that show.
What is the role that has had the biggest impact on your life?
My favourite role on TV is probably playing Elizabeth Harvey in Harlots. It was filmed for Hulu and is coming to BBC2. It was my first period drama, set in Georgian times. All about prostitutes. I never thought I’d get that opportunity to be dressed in period corsets. As a black actress, you don’t often see those roles – they tend to be quite white shows. Unless its onstage, you don’t really get colour blind casting. I loved the process of getting into character, with the make-up and the hair – I was transformed. It was pure character.
The job I’d go back and do in a heartbeat, is a show called The Detail in Canada. It was a cop show, I had a gun, an American accent, and it is one of the best things I’ve ever done! I think it’s when I’m really transformed, when I can’t see any of myself in a character, which makes the difference for me.
With every job, it changes my life. Something has happened, changed or a part of my life has moved on with every job. Coronation Street completely broke me (in terms of launching me out into the world), on Holby City I met my best friends, Cutting It was just the most fun and I met some great friends, One Man, Two Guvnors was my first theatrical show and was just an incredible opportunity (and made even more friends!)… every single job has had a huge impact on my life. And hopefully I’ll work again!
Any tips on how to get a guest role on a TV show?
This is when you have to know what show you want to be in, find out the casting director, and email being very specific about what you want. Long running TV shows like Doctors will eat up guest roles. You want to try and get an agent as they’ll help you out with securing these roles.
Also, you have to be on Spotlight – no-one will hire anybody unless they're on Spotlight. You just have to do it – it's an essential expense. On the website they’ll have all the roles that are auditioning – apply to everything. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to work for free, but it might be worth it to get some credits under your belt.
Get on Spotlight
Get experience – get it wherever you can (short films, local theatre)
Get feedback – write to casting directors and directors
Be positive – you have to go into every meeting or audition with a smile, no matter what has happened with your day, you have to go in ready to smash it!