■ The EastEnders actress, 41, on selfies at A&E, punching Sharon and her National Soap Awards nod
Are you looking forward to the National Soap Awards?
I really am. I’m taking my mum, who is the biggest soap fan ever. I’m really chuffed with the nomination — it’s nice to be appreciated.
You’ve been in EastEnders before playing Karen, though…
Yes. I was in it a year before I got the role of Karen. I played Thelma, a rival barmaid to Linda, for eight episodes, so I knew Albert Square. The first day as Karen we were all a bit nervous, being the new family. We came in with a bang and we were the neighbours you’d cringe about living next to. But as you’ve got to know them, you realise Karen has a heart and would do anything for her kids.
Had you auditioned to play any other characters?
I had and I’d done a couple of their workshops. They do a lot of improvisations with different actors. I’d done an EastEnders spin-off before, so I was known to them, and I’ve done stuff like Call The Midwife. It was a matter of getting the right part and I’m glad I got Karen. I think I was the skankiest actor they could find — ‘she might have played Thelma a year ago but she’s rough as old boots — she’s a keeper’. I was doing other stuff, cracking on, but the timing for this has been perfect. My daughter is two now so it’s a good routine — I know the week before when I’m working so she goes to nursery.
Would you have preferred a more glamorous role?
No. Some people are in make-up for an hour. I go in and get my bun checked and that’s it. Then, when I go out and I’m done up and wearing make-up, I get a lot of compliments. ‘Oh my God, you look so thin and pretty!’ I’m like: ‘All right, calm down…’
What have been your favourite storylines?
The stuff with Bernadette losing the baby was tough to film and she played it brilliantly. I punched Sharon in my first week, which was fun. Now there’s a storyline about how she’s suffered from domestic violence in the past. That’s a big issue and there’s real gritty stuff there.
How did you start acting?
I was the class clown at school and did talent contests on holiday. Then, at 16, I went to a performing arts college in Portsmouth with Emma Barton, who plays Honey. I wanted to be an entertainer but wasn’t serious about being a proper actor — I didn’t think that was within my reach. When I was 20 I got a scholarship from Portsmouth council and went to ArtsEd in London. I got more serious about it when I started studying Ibsen and Shakespeare. I watched Kathy Burke — she was my idol. I thought, ‘She’s a working-class girl from an estate and if she can do it, so can I.’
Has acting become a more elitist profession than it used to be?
I’m not sure the council still offers that scholarship — without it I never would have been able to afford to go to drama school. I don’t think there are the same opportunities now. If you can afford to pay for it you can do it — but where does that leave people who can’t? There’s so much talent that doesn’t get through. It’s a difficult business.
What was your first professional job?
I played Attacker’s Friend in the film Gangster No.1. My mum went to the cinema to watch it but blink and you miss me. Then I did a play at the National Theatre — we toured the UK. It was directed by Fiona Shaw and it was a great job.
What’s the worst job you’ve had?
When I was at drama school I was a barmaid at a pub near QPR football club. It was a rough old dive of a pub. It used to kick off every single shift — it was grim.
How did you end up in hospital with a nail infection?
When I went into A&E, EastEnders was on the telly and everyone wanted a selfie. I bite my nails, I bit one too far and got an infection — they had to slice my finger open and squeeze the stuff out. It was disgusting. I haven’t bitten my nails since. I’ve got nails now — they look lovely. I said to my mum: ‘If I ever do an interview about it I’ll say, “If I can just stop one person from biting their nails then it’s all been worthwhile.”’ I’m going to be the ambassador for nail biting.
What lessons has your career in showbiz taught you?
Keep grounded, respect your fellow actors and if you want something, just keep pursuing it. There have been times when it’s been a struggle but you need to keep your eye on what you want and go and get it.
The British Soap Awards is on ITV on June 2. To vote, go to britishsoapawards.tv before 9pm tonight