Carrie's War actress on living life in the spotlight

Emma LeeActress Hannah Waterman grew up in Norfolk and returns to the county this week starring as Auntie Lou in Carrie's War at Norwich Theatre Royal. In a revealing interview, she tells EMMA LEE about living life in the spotlight.Emma Lee

There's always something exciting about being backstage at the theatre. When you're normally only allowed front of house, getting a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes provokes almost a childlike wonder.

I'm in the green room at the Cambridge Arts Theatre waiting to meet actress Hannah Waterman.

She's starring in a stage adaptation of Nina Bawden's much-loved story Carrie's War, playing Auntie Lou.

And with a couple of hours to go until curtain up it's bustling as members of the company prepare for the show. You can feel the energy crackling in the air.

Suddenly Hannah bursts in full of apologies for being late (only by a couple of minutes, which is nothing by celebrity standards).

And settling down in her dressing room for our chat, I can instantly tell that the interview is going to be great fun.

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''Scuse me while I plug my rollers in,' she says - to make sure she gets Auntie Lou's 1940s hairdo right she has to do what she describes as her 'Ena Sharples' act with her hair curlers.

For a journalist it's a bit strange meeting and interviewing someone who has had so much written about them in the papers and gossip magazines.

Starring in one of the biggest shows on TV, EastEnders, and being the daughter of actors Patricia Maynard and Dennis Waterman made Hannah catnip for the tabloid press.

Earlier this year she hit the headlines when she separated from her husband, fellow actor Ricky Groves, and much was made of her change in physique after she slimmed down when she embarked on a new fitness regime.

But meeting her, any preconceptions about what she would be like were quickly put aside.

For someone who has been written about so much, I was expecting her to perhaps be on her guard.

But she's absolutely the opposite - open, frank, funny, hugely likeable and has one of the dirtiest laughs I have ever heard. Move over, Sid James.

A complete livewire, she'd probably be a complete riot on a night out.

Carrie's War opens at Norwich Theatre Royal tonight, September 21 - and it's a homecoming of sorts for Hannah.

From the ages of eight to 18 she lived in Norfolk, at South Walsham, and went to school in Norwich and Southwold. It's the second time she's been back in the last couple of months - she also appeared in Calendar Girls.

'When I was back the last time it was the last week of the tour, so it was all a bit lively,' she says.

'I went to a nature reserve - in the rain,' she laughs and then hoots with laughter as she adds that she can't walk through Chapelfield Gardens without remembering her 'mis-spent' youth - I daren't probe as to why.

When it came to choosing a career, did her parents, who are both successful veterans of the business, try and put her off following in their footsteps at all?

'Mum's an actress too and was more circumspect about me being an actress. It's fair to say that it's tough for actresses. If you're beautiful, that starts to fade.

'You're better off as a character actress. I age up ever so well,' she says, with a little flash of insecurity that is quite disarming.

Then she chortles as she remembers her first stage role.

'I think my first ever was The Little Fir Tree. Naturally I played the title role and I had my own dressing room, demanded top billing. Other than that I was perfectly normal,' she laughs.

Hannah studied English at university and performed with the National Youth Theatre, appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in the Tempest and played Jo in a revival of A Taste of Honey, before winning the life-changing role of Laura in EastEnders.

For some actors joining such a high-profile show might be overwhelming - but Hannah took it all in her stride.

'It didn't thrill me that much to be honest. I was established as an actress - I'd been working for four and a half years - so it was just another set for me. It was just a job. I was only supposed to be in it for 20 episodes.

'I thought, this gets me out of wig fitting [she worked in a department store] for Christmas, happy days,' she laughs. 'And that was it. They kept extending my contract and every time they did it was 'kerching'. And I carried on until it fizzled out.'

Did she realise how it would change the way she lived her life?

'For the first three months you're not on screen so you're lulled in to a false sense of security. I was getting the train to work and then four or five months later it was pretty clear I was going to have to think of other ways to get there,' she says.

And how does she feel about being splashed across the papers?

'I've stopped reading them,' she says simply - adding that her newspaper of choice nowadays is the Guardian.

But 'four years was long enough' in Albert Square. And with the character of Laura being killed off there was no going back. But she has no regrets.

'As an actor you're earning a regular wage and are earning more than you will ever earn in your career. If that's all it's about, you're not in a particularly good place,' Hannah says. 'I was more interested in playing other parts.

'I left six years ago, and people know my name now - they call me Hannah instead of Laura.

'Fingers crossed, touch wood, it's worked out alright for me.'

It certainly has. She won rave reviews for her performances in Calendar Girls in the West End and on tour. And she's fantastic as Auntie Lou in Carrie's War.

The play tells the story of Carrie and Nick Willow, who are evacuated to Wales at the outbreak of the second world war. It's an uplifting piece of theatre with a bit of everything - it's a coming of age tale, a mystery and an adventure. The ensemble cast includes Brigit Forsyth as Mrs Gotobed, Sarah Edwardson as Carrie, James Byng as Nick and James Beddard as Mr Johnny.

Hannah's character starts off living completely under the thumb of her brother, Mr Evans (Sion Tudor Owen), but the arrival of Carrie and Nick into their home is the catalyst for Auntie Lou to become her own person. Hannah portrays that transformation beautifully.

The stage is her natural habitat, and, clearly passionate about her craft, it's plain to see that she thrives on becoming different characters. You sense that the fame that comes with the career is just a side-effect - you just have to listen to her reel off the list of roles she would love to get her teeth in to for proof of that.

'I would love to have a go at Abigail in Abigail's Party, some more classical stuff, Blanche in Streetcar. I played Jo in a Taste of Honey when I was 20, I would like to play Helen now,' she says.

When the Carrie's War tour comes to an end, Hannah will have spent the best part of a year on the road. She says that on her days off she likes indulging in simple pleasures such listening to Radio Four and a rediscovered love of reading - recent favourites include books by Stieg Larsson and Margaret Atwood.

'I studied English at university, and because I had to read so much I lost my love of reading. I can never read when I'm putting a play on - my brain needs space to learn. But I'm a voracious reader,' she says.

t Carrie's War opens at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday, September 25. Box office: 01603 630000 or