Next step for EastEnders' Jessie
Emma LeeShe won the nation's hearts as EastEnders' vivacious yet vulnerable Kat Slater. Now actress Jessie Wallace is Stepping Out into a new role at Norwich Theatre Royal. Emma Lee speaks to her.Emma Lee
When some soap opera characters wave their goodbyes from the back of a black cab, they soon fade into TV history. Then there are those that we take to our hearts that live on long after their last appearance on screen.
EastEnders' feisty Kat Slater definitely fits into the latter category. The embodiment of the 'tart with a heart', Kat arrived in Albert Square with the rest of her clan, short of skirt, high of stiletto and Tango of tan - and the fur was soon flying.
When Kat got her claws out, you knew about it. But behind the leopard print and lipgloss was a vulnerable girl who'd been through enough trauma to last three lifetimes, and just wanted to find her knight in shining armour.
So when Kat and Alfie Moon, played by Shane Ritchie, eventually got their act together and drove off into the sunset (OK, a snowstorm to be precise) in a Ford Capri at Christmas 2005, there was barely a dry eye in the house.
Kat was Jessie Wallace's first high-profile role. Since waving goodbye to Walford and the BBC soap, the versatile actress has played music hall legend Marie Lloyd, starred in ITV's Wild at Heart, A Class Apart, Dinner Party and West End shows, and tripped the light fantastic on the Saturday night sequin fest Strictly Come Dancing.
Now she's strutting her stuff in a revival of Stepping Out, alongside Brian Capron (a veteran of 'Enders' northern rival Coronation Street) and Olivier Award-winning West End star Rosemary Ashe, which is at Norwich Theatre Royal from Tuesday.
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Of course, there's a flip-side to being in a high-profile show like EastEnders and being one of its brightest stars. As well as winning plenty of plaudits (she was a winner at the National Television Awards and her work recognised at other major soap ceremonies year after year), for a time Jessie's personal life was tabloid fodder. Taking an educated guess, that is possibly why she's a slightly reticent interviewee. She chooses her words carefully and doesn't give much away.
Jessie, who turned 38 the day after our interview, came to acting relatively late. Born in north London, she trained as a make-up artist and worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company for two years. She applied for drama college - and on graduating from the Poor School in 1999 she won her first TV part, a role in an episode of the Bill.
'When I was growing up I always wanted to be Cinderella or Dorothy. I didn't know what I wanted to do. Then, in my 20s, I thought 'I'm going to be an actress now', and the rest is history,' she says.
Then when EastEnders was looking for a new family to move in, she made the role of Kat Slater her own.
'She was so colourful, a really great character to play,' Jessie says, describing the attention it brought her as simply 'part and parcel of the job'.
'There were lots of sides to her. I miss her sometimes.'
And does she miss her enough to make a return? Every so often rumours circulate in the press that Kat's set to don her leather miniskirt once more.
'Someone asks me if I'm going to go back every day,' Jessie says. 'But I'm loving doing other stuff at the moment.'
And she's throwing herself wholeheartedly into the role of Stepping Out's Sylvia.
The play tells the story of an amateur dance troupe - what they make up for with enthusiasm, they lack in talent. When they're invited to perform at a gala show they have to pull out all the stops for the performance of a lifetime. Penned by Richard Harris, it struck a chord with audiences when it first took to the stage in 1984. It won the Evening Standard comedy of the year award and was turned into a film starring Liza Minnelli and Julie Walters.
It's different territory for both Jessie and Brian Capron. Jessie, who takes on the role of the larger-than-life Sylvia, hasn't really played for laughs before, and Brian, who played the sinister Richard Hillman in Corrie, plays the bumbling but loveable Geoffrey, who is going through a mid-life crisis.
'It's a clever piece of comedy. Hopefully this will lead to other stuff. I'm comfortable doing comedy,' she says. 'It's come together really nicely. It's a feelgood show.'
As well as mastering her lines and her moves, Jessie has, how to put this delicately, acquired some extra support to play buxom Sylvia, thanks to her new healthy lifestyle.
'My whole body has changed,' she says proudly. 'I've gone from quite a big size 14 to a small size eight' - hence the need for a bit of padding here and there.
You can't deny that her new look suits her - and she's got there by putting in the hours of exercise and eating sensibly.
'It's not just a fad diet,' she stresses. 'I wanted to keep some curves. The food I eat is lovely. I've got so much energy and I feel so healthy. I'm 38 tomorrow, but I don't feel it. I've filmed a fitness DVD because I wanted to share it with everyone.'
And she audibly softens as she talks about another great source of pride - her four-year-old daughter Tallulah. It must be difficult juggling being on tour for 12 weeks and being a mum?
'I'm missing her like crazy. I get to see her on Sundays then I have to shoot off again. I relish every second with her.'
Is there any sign that she's going to follow her mum into acting?
'She's a street dancer. We were in Primark the other day and she did the splits. I was like 'how did she learn to do the splits?',' she says, giggling.
It looks like the stage could be set for Jessie to carve out a new niche in theatre. Stepping Out could be stepping back into the West End. And Jessie has her sights set on playing another feisty cockney character. As soon as she says it, you can visualise her in the spotlight.
'Nancy in Oliver. I love everything about her. What's not to like? She's a great, great character and the music is fantastic.'
t Stepping Out is at Norwich Theatre Royal from Tuesday to Saturday, October 13 to 17. Performances are at 7.30pm, with matinees on Thursday 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.