“Bionic Woman” Michelle Ryan Recalls Tension on EastEnders Set

Actress Michelle Ryan – soon to overrun your TV sets with both Bionic Woman and BBC AMERICA’s Jekyll – remembers her time playing Zoe Slater on EastEnders in an interview with The Independent. While the show ultimately made her a household name in the UK, she reveals that she was often “depressed” while on the British soap and that the atmosphere on set was strained:

“Like any job, you’re not going to get on with every single person who works there,” says Ryan. “I think because there was so much press interest in EastEnders there was some tension. I’m not going to say it was a happy family all the time. It wasn’t. I did make some brilliant friends, though.”

Why was there tension? “It was partly people trying to get into the limelight,” says Ryan. “And partly because people were having stories sold about them the whole time. There were quite a lot of leaks at EastEnders – different people selling stories to newspapers. In the end, I was like: ‘Who can I trust?’”

She also discusses the pitfalls of being a soap actress in Britain. Desperate to hold on to fleeting fame, young female soap stars who leave their shows often end up flashing their wares in seamy lads’ magazines. Ryan says that’s a fate she always wanted to avoid:

“I was always wary of doing the whole lads’ mag thing anyway…It’s really hard to get any kind of respect if you’ve been in a soap, especially if you want to carve out a serious career. If you’re constantly taking your clothes off, I don’t see how it’s possible for people to cast you in serious stuff. (…)”

Michelle Ryan raises an interesting point that I’ve often pondered: American soaps have a history of grooming “tomorrow’s stars”: actors as diverse as Julianne Moore, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Meg Ryan, Kevin Bacon, Anne Heche, Robin Wright Penn, and Transformers star Josh Duhamel parlayed major soap careers into global film and primetime success. One struggles to find a world-known, high-profile British actor with a similarly soapy pedigree. Why does it appear to be tougher for British soap stars to crossover to the mainstream than it is for American soap actors?

Perhaps it’s because, in Britain, soaps are already the mainstream: they air in primetime, they are regularly amongst the top-rated shows, and soap stars grace the covers of gossip rags. If you’re a “soap star,” you won’t ever escape that label easily in the UK. Plus, to American casting directors, British actors are prized for having that whiff of the theatre: they are expected to spontaneously muse in rhyming couplets. That’s what makes Michelle Ryan’s success here that much more exceptional.

Here’s a clip of Ms. Ryan on EastEnders with Nigel Harman, who played her love interest, Dennis Rickman. If you’ve seen any ads for Jekyll, you’ll recognize how stunning Ryan’s transformation is. What a difference a little hair dye and makeup makes.

Kevin Wicks

Kevin Wicks founded BBCAmerica.com's Anglophenia blog back in 2005 and has been translating British culture for an American audience ever since. While not British himself - he was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri - he once received inordinate hospitality in London for sharing the name of a dead but beloved EastEnders character. His Anglophilia stems from a high school love of Morrissey, whom he calls his "gateway drug" into British culture.

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