EastEnders actress Gillian Wright - aka Jean Slater - on starring in the Norwich Theatre Royal pantomime and secrets from the soap
PUBLISHED: 10:48 15 July 2017 | UPDATED: 11:19 15 July 2017
Star of TV, stage and screen Gillian Wright talks playing the baddie in Sleeping Beauty, her excitement to explore the fine city and how her EastEnders character Jean Slater has helped others with bipolar disorder as she swaps the Queen Vic for the Theatre Royal this Christmas.
Are you excited to star in Sleeping Beauty at the Theatre Royal?
I am what a lovely theatre, place and staff – I’m looking forward to it. I played the baddie in Sleeping Beauty at Malvern Theatre in Worcestershire last year but each pantomime has a very different style.
Do you prefer playing a goodie or a baddie?
They are both a lot of fun but I was doing a lot of good fairies and it got to a point where I couldn’t think of any other way to play it and I really wanted to have a go as the baddie. People kept saying “you don’t see Jean Slater as a baddie” but I’m not Jean Slater I’m me. I was given my first baddie at Horsham Theatre in West Sussex a few years ago and I loved it.
Have you even visited Norfolk before?
I went to North Norfolk a few years ago with my sister on holiday but I’ve never been on the Broads so I’m very excited to do that. I have a friend who lives in Bradenham and she said Norwich is a lovely city – hopefully I’ll get to explore on the odd day off. There isn’t a single person I’ve met so far who isn’t proud of being from Norwich.
When do you start rehearsals for Sleeping Beauty?
We start on the last week in November and the show starts on December 13. You have to turn up with your part under your belt and off script and there’s not much time to play really because you’ve got to nail the choreography, nail the songs – you get shown a dance once and that’s it. Although everyone works hard to get the show on and it’s fantastic when it opens it’s only really once we’ve done a few performances you can start to play.
In EastEnders you play Jean Slater who suffers with bipolar disorder – are you ever approached by people who have been affected by your character?
I was on the tube and I saw a young mum and son jump off the tube then very quickly get back on and sit next to me. She told me she was on her way to hospital to visit her other son who had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attempted to take his own life and that she didn’t know anything about what he was going through until Jean’s storyline on EastEnders. She said she started to notice similarities and took her son to the doctors where he got diagnosed. I was touched and realised the huge responsibility I had playing the character and I was chuffed to win a mental health award. (Gillian won a Mental Health Media Award in 2006)
What research did you do before taking on the role of Jean?
I was only ever meant to do one episode in December 2004 and then they decided to give me a few more and told me they were going to make Jean bipolar. I was put in contact with someone who suffered with the condition and they were always on the end of the phone. I would usually call him to say how I envisaged reacting to a situation and he would tell me where it was on a scale of 1 to 10 and what the lowest I could go was and what would be the trigger setting me off on a spiral. They wrote really well for me and Lacey (who played daughter Stacey Slater who also suffered with the condition) and allowed us to play together.
What was your favourite moment from EastEnders?
I just got back from a charity gig in Guernsey with Big Mo who I hadn’t seen for years and we had a right old laugh going down memory lane. I had the most fun in my exit scene when I left with Ollie to go to Brighton as I fought a battle to get that car. It was going to be a Ford Fiesta but I thought that was utterly boring. I wanted something imaginative so they came back with a lovely soft top sports car but health and safety said I wasn’t allowed to stand up, what’s the point of a soft top sports car then? When they said action I did it anyway as they can’t stop me once it’s done!
Who do you still keep in touch with from EastEnders?
I keep in touch with Shane Ritchie mostly – he won’t be able to come see me in Norwich as he’s doing panto too. I’m also close to Mo and Lacey and every so often text other cast members to see what’s going on.
Will Jean Slater return to the soap full-time?
I like bobbing in and out. At Easter I was in one episode and I’m really lucky to do that and I’d like to go back. But with a new executive coming in I’m crossing fingers they don’t kill me off!
Sleeping Beauty is on at the Norwich Theatre Royal from December 13 – January 14.