■ The ex-pop star and EastEnder, 48, on being Hermione on stage, Naomi Campbell and trying to help a co-star on drugs
Why did you want to play Hermione in Harry Potter And The Cursed Child at London’sPalace Theatre?
I’ve done a lot of musicals and I really wanted to do a straight play in the West End, plus me and my sons are big Harry Potter fans. I had five auditions and at each one I got a bit more nervous but excited. The fact Hermione’s so well loved is scary but she’s a mother now and has new responsibilities, so that helps. Obviously, because it was Emma Watson in the films, there’s an assumption there but no one’s more proficient than Jo Rowling to make decisions as to who should play Hermione.
Have you had a furore about this?
I’ve had very good responses – I think maybe when the play first came out, the original actress got a lot more problems than I’ve had. I was the first black Belle from Beauty And The Beast and there was a furore about it but that was 20 years ago. We didn’t have Twitter then and I’m sure it would’ve been different if we did. I also played a black Cinderella when I was 16. I’m lucky enough to be of a generation where people wanted to reflect the England we’re in, so EastEnders said, ‘We’re going to have a black family.’ Obviously, there are always some idiots and that’s what they are.
Do you think it’s crazy, then, that Coronation Street has only just got its first black family?
I’m not a big Corrie viewer although I know Coronation Street has consistently had black characters in it but I didn’t realise they’d never had a black family. It just seemed really late. But I’m glad they’ve done it.
Have things got better for black actors?
In the 1980s and 1990s it seemed opportunities were there but then it became about period drama so those doors shut. I know a lot of black actors who went to America at that stage because they couldn’t get a role. Idris Elba made his name in America in The Wire, then he came back.
Wasn’t Naomi Campbell in your class at the Barbara Speake Stage School?
Yes! I got moved up a year into Naomi and Amma Asante’s class for a while so I grew up with them and we still talk to each other all the time. And Kwame Kwei-Armah also went there but he’s older than us so we looked up to him. That school did teach you, as a black performer, that you would have less opportunity. So we’ve all diversified and done other things.
What’s Naomi like?
Amazing, I love her. We’d always go, ‘Naomi, your legs!’ She is such a generous person and does so much for so many people but never does it for publicity. She’s not even a diva. She’s so hard-working and just knows her own mind and says it. She’s got your back so it’s good to have her in your corner.
Was it hard to see Danniella Westbrook on self-destruct in EastEnders?
Yeah. I send her little messages sometimes now but it was hard. She was a beautiful girl and got sucked into this world of people telling you it’s glamorous to do this, that or the other when you’re so young and susceptible. Looking back you think, could I have done more? I have had a go at her once or twice but then I went round to help her once or twice when we were younger. But how much influence have I actually got? Zero.
Were drugs ever on your radar?
No, I was overly cautious. I never drank or took drugs because I knew I couldn’t mess things up – I didn’t see second chances for black actors. I used to go to the Met Bar and just have water! I was so lame it was laughable.
What would have to happen to attract you back to EastEnders?
If they came with a really good storyline I’m sure it would be tempting. And they’re a great team. I definitely haven’t said I’ll never do EastEnders again, it’s just I’m doing other things at the moment.
You wrote the novel Pride And Premiership encouraging teenage girls not to become a Wags…
Well, more encouraging them to not rely on a man but be ambitious and financially independent. I felt there was a movement when I was married to a footballer [Mark Bright] of this big ambition to be a Wag but I could give an insight into it. Having a sense of pride in your own achievements gives you so much confidence as a woman.
■ Harry Potter And The Cursed Child continues at the Palace Theatre, harrypottertheplay.com