Michelle keeping us in suspense

Emma LeeEastEnders turned actress Michelle Collins into a household name. More than a decade on from leaving Albert Square, Wisteria Lane and a role in Desperate Housewives could be calling. But first, she's starring in the psychological drama Deceptions at Norwich Theatre Royal from Monday.Emma Lee

When you think of the all-time great soap opera characters, who springs to mind? The villains, loveable rogues, matriarchs and femme fatales. If you were to compile a top 10 then surely EastEnders' blonde bombshell Cindy Beale should be rubbing shoulders with Hilda Ogden and Dirty Den.

It's more than a decade since Michelle Collins, the woman who bought scheming Cindy to life, left Albert Square. But despite going on to have a hugely-successful post EastEnders career, including the TV series Two Thousand Acres of Sky and Sunburn and a stint in the West End musical Daddy Cool, she's still synonymous with Ian Beale's feisty ex, whose tangled love life kept millions of viewers on the edge of their seats.

'I don't think I'm ever going to be rid of her,' Michelle says with a laugh. 'I find it bizarre. It's like they are talking about someone else. I suppose in some ways it's flattering that she's become this iconic. It amazes me how many young people know who she is.'

Michelle's latest role sees her in altogether different territory and shows off her versatility as an actress. She's returning to the stage, but this time starring in the psychological thriller Deceptions, which opens at Norwich Theatre Royal on Monday.

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She plays psychiatrist Julia Smythe. Getting jaded with her work, she longs for an interesting case to crop up - and gets more than she bargained for when a young male patient arrives looking for help. Their sessions turn into a battle of wills and a psychological game of cat and mouse begins.

It sounds like a challenging piece for an actor.

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'That's why I did it,' Michelle says. 'I thought it was interesting and very different. It's important to go out of your comfort zone. I'd never played an academic before and Julia is a great role for a woman. She's a woman who doesn't show her feelings very well.' It sounds like audiences have a suspense-filled night at the theatre in store.

'I can't give too much away, but you think the story's going to go in the direction most of these things do, and it goes in another direction and becomes very unpredictable,' she says.

The play is a two-hander, and Michelle stars opposite another soap graduate - Rupert Hill who played Jamie Baldwin in EastEnders' northern rival Coronation Street.

It must take guts to take a role in a play with a cast of just two.

'You've got to be brave. I would like to think of myself as being pretty brave,' she says before going on to admit that 'It's very scary.'

'I still get nervous, but it's okay as long as you're in control and can keep your nerves at bay. I think that nerves can often be a good thing. I think most actors get nervous.

'Rehearsals are a very strange process. You're very excited at the beginning, in the middle you go 'oh my god, what am I doing', then you like it again. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Sometimes you need an audience,' she says.

Michelle, 46, was born in London - she grew up in Hackney - and still calls the city home. She can't remember at what age she was bitten by the acting bug, but says it was a long time ago.

'I always wanted to be an actress from when I was quite young. I remember going to the pantomime at Christmas and something just triggered in me, and I really wanted to do it. I was an incredibly shy child.'

That shyness didn't hold her back, however.

From the age of 14 she trained at the Cockpit Youth Theatre and the Royal Court, then went on to do a two-year diploma drama course at Kingsway Princeton College, London.

After leaving school, she carved out a musical career appearing in pop videos and then joined Mari Wilson and the Wilsations as backing singer Candide. She toured all over the UK and got to work with some of the biggest music names of the '80s, like Marc Almond, Level 42 and Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

She then moved into acting, appearing in numerous TV dramas including Morgan's Boy with Gary Oldman, Gems, Marjorie and Men, Running Wild, Lucky Sunil, the Bill and more than 30 commercials.

But in 1988 she got her big break when she was cast as Cindy.

She was originally booked to appear in just 11 episodes - and ended up staying for 10 years.

There's always a risk when an established soap actor flies the nest, but Michelle's CV has only got more impressive.

Her TV appearances include roles in Rock Rivals, Hotel Babylon, Two Thousand Acres of Sky, Sunburn, Real Women, Daylight Robbery and Doctor Who. She played Marigold in Jacqueline Wilson's the Illustrated Mum, which won three Baftas and an international Emmy. And she's also an ambassador for several charities, including Barnado's and Breakthrough Breast Cancer.

Starring in a touring production is something of a novelty to mother-of-one Michelle.

'It's not something I've done a lot before. It's not always conducive to a stable family life. But my daughter's older now and I can commute back to see her. And I quite like travelling.'

There could be more travelling in store, if the rumours that Michelle is heading across the pond to star in Desperate Housewives are true.

Michelle greets the question cautiously.

'I've been out to America quite a lot. I had a casting - I went to meet the casting director at Universal where they are based. It's a bit like a barracks right next to Wisteria Lane. It wasn't for a specific part - these things come out of the blue. I wouldn't go over there without having anything substantial. I go over there every so often, but I'm not particularly keen on taking my daughter out of school and being brought up there,' she says.

And what would her dream role be? There's quite a long list - and it gives her a chance to air one of her bug-bears: the lack of meaty roles for older women.

'Everyone wants to have a stab at Blanche in Streetcar. I'd love to do a kitchen sink drama, Pinter. Something like Shirley Valentine would be fun.

'I think you get to a certain age and on TV there's the pressure to be very young, and lots of people don't write for older women because they're not sure what sells. But it's definitely getting better. Calendar Girls is now in the West End and you've got actresses like Helen Mirren and Judi Dench [flying the flag].'

t Deceptions is at Norwich Theatre Royal from Monday to Saturday, July 13-18, at 7.30pm. Matinees are on Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm. Tickets cost from �5 to �20.50. Telephone the box office on 01603 630000 or book online at www. theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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