Michelle Collins: ‘Cindy Beale got me where I am today’
Michelle Collins was turned down by half a dozen drama schools when she started out.
“I’ve always felt untrained,” she admits as we chat backstage at New Wimbledon Theatre, where the Hackney-born actor is playing the evil white slave trader Mrs Meers, complete with cod Chinese accent, in a touring production of the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie.
“I’d love to have gone to drama school and studied the classics, and done dance and movement. It’s always the first thing they ask you when you do an audition – ‘where did you train?’ Raw talent is great, but it needs to be nurtured. I’m convinced education and training helps you become a better actor.”
For all that, Collins has had a formidable career to date, with high-profile roles in two of our best loved TV soaps – EastEnders and Coronation Street – three series of Two Thousand Acres of Sky, and regular theatrical forays.
The latest is A Dark Night in Dalston, an intense two-hander by the actor and writer Stewart Permutt, which she is co-producing as well as appearing in at London’s Park Theatre.
“It was a conscious decision on my part to do more theatre,” she says. “I did a new play, The Glass Supper, at Hampstead a couple of years ago and I had a great time. When you’ve done a lot of telly, as I have, good stage roles don’t come along that often because people assume you only do telly. They only see you as a TV person.”
It is quickly apparent from talking to Collins that she is intense about her career and her need to generate work. “Now that my daughter has gone off to university, and I’m in my mid-50s, I feel the need to be proactive about finding work. I’ve never been cast because of my looks. If people remember me it is for my acting. I never wanted to be one of those beautiful but ageing actresses no one knows what to do with any more.”
Being denied training had the effect of toughening Collins up and making her even more determined to succeed. “I was very, very driven and nothing was going to stop me. I dread to think what I would have been like if I hadn’t succeeded.”
After six years doing work in regional theatre and on the London fringe, she was called in by EastEnders producer Julia Smith for an audition for the role of Cindy Beale in 1988. Dressed to kill, Cindy made it clear from the start that she didn’t take any prisoners.
“She was such a strong, fantastic character to play. I’d like to think I’d be where I am now without her, but I doubt it. In the beginning I’d argue with the writers about some of the things Cindy had to say, because they were so awful, but at the end of the day you’re just the actor. You’re being paid to say the lines.”
Doing EastEnders for 10 years (with a two-year break in the middle) brought with it a high level of public exposure, as well as financial security. “I was given a hard time by certain sections of the press and I felt raw and vulnerable a lot of the time. Quite often with acting, people think it’s easy and anyone can do it, but it’s hard work to be successful over a long period, and you have to take a lot of flack.”
Q&A: Michelle Collins
What was your first non-theatre job? Working in McDonald’s in Kentish Town.
What was your first professional theatre job? His Master’s Voice at the Half Moon Theatre, London, in 1983.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? When I auditioned for drama school aged 17 and failed to get in, I wish someone older and wiser had said: “Look, Michelle, you’re too young. Come back and try again next year.”
Who or what was your biggest influence? My English teacher, Mr Thompson, and theatre director Ian Brown.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t talk too much, don’t ask silly questions and don’t eat garlic the night before.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? A journalist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I have a meditation tape and a portable bed of nails that helps me to nap before the show. I can sleep for seven minutes and wake up feeling refreshed and focused.
In the wake of EastEnders, Collins divided her time between TV and stage, consolidating her place in that crack elite of post-soap actors such as Sue Johnston, Sarah Lancashire and Amanda Burton, and surprising us all with her versatility. Few people knew she’d toured with the singer Mari Wilson, as one of her backing singers, before she got into acting. She even had a mini-beehive to match the star’s trademark hairstyle.
The last time The Stage caught up with Collins was in 2006, when she was playing the nightclub owner Ma Baker in the short-lived Boney M musical Daddy Cool. Four years on, she returned to the world of TV soaps with a leading role in Coronation Street, as Stella Price, landlady of the Rovers Return.
“I loved doing Corrie, even though I got a bit of flack for my northern accent when I started. I was terrified when I went into it because of all the iconic women who’ve been there before me, but I hope the Corrie fans grew to love Stella.”
She also had a hard time with accents in Thoroughly Modern Millie, she says, as her character fluctuates between a phoney Chinese accent and accentuated Brooklyn, both equally alien to Collins. “The easy thing would be to let yourself go with it, but the audience has to understand what you’re saying otherwise there wouldn’t be much point. It’s a bit like playing the villain in panto. I do feel like a bit of an imposter in a musical but I think I get away with it, and the 1920s clothes are fantastic.”
The rehearsal schedule for A Dark Night in Dalston tended to follow Collins on tour around the country. “It wasn’t ideal scheduling and setting up the play while I was on tour, but having committed ourselves to the Park Theatre we didn’t have a lot of choice.
“It’s been a big learning curve for me, being involved on the production side. We did three readings, including one at the Park. Miriam Margolyes came to that one and told Jez [Bond – Park theatre artistic director] he must put it on. The last time I did a two-hander was Rattle of a Simple Man with Stephen Tompkinson.
“Ideally, I’d like to alternate theatre and TV work, as well as generating work with my own production company, It Worx. I’ve done a comedy pilot with Jack Dee and Harry Hill, which hasn’t gone out yet, and a TV play written by Jo Brand. I also co-produced a short film last year, Black Road, which won the European Short Film Festival in Berlin. I like doing joint projects with other women. My friend Brenda Gilhooly and I started the Women in Media Breakfast Club at the Hospital Club. The idea is to talk about our industry, what’s going on, share ideas and keep in touch.”
Rather surprisingly, Collins agreed to take part in the gruelling Bear Grylls: Mission Survive TV challenge 18 months ago, having steadfastly turned down Celebrity Big Brother, Strictly and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. “I must have had a moment of madness when I agreed to do it. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, physically and mentally, but I did feel quite proud that I got through it in one piece.
“I couldn’t do the other reality shows because I’m actually quite shy and reserved. People assume all actors are loud and show-offy, but it takes me time to get to know and trust people. I don’t knock other actors for doing reality shows because everyone has to make a living at the end of the day.”
At the time of our meeting, Glenda Jackson is in the news for her performance as King Lear. “What stamina and energy at the age of 80,” exclaims Collins. “I’d like to think I’ll still be acting when I’m that age. It’s also great that you can cross those lines now and a woman can play Lear. We’ve come a long way.”
CV: Michelle Collins
Born: 1961, Hackney
Training: Kingsway Princeton College, London, 1977-79
Landmark productions: Theatre: Rattle of a Simple Man, Comedy Theatre, London, (2004), Kinderstransport, Chickenshed, London (2016), Thoroughly Modern Millie, UK tour (2017). TV: Running Wild (1987-89), EastEnders (1988-98), Sunburn (1999-2000), Two Thousand Acres of Sky (2001-2003), Perfect (2001), The Illustrated Mum (2003), Coronation Street (2011-14)
Agent: Deborah Willey at Independent Talent Group
A Dark Night in Dalston is at the Park Theatre, London, until April 1