“People judge me all the time”: Corrie’s Michelle Keegan on swapping soaps for hard-hitting dramas « Michelle Keegan Daily – www.michellekeegan.net



 

"People judge me all the time": Corrie's Michelle Keegan on swapping soaps for hard-hitting dramas

theguardian.com   |   Written by Eva Wiseman

After six years as one of Coronation Street‘s biggest stars, Michelle Keegan has negotiated the complicated world of class, accent, beauty and tabloid celebrity to become an impressive actor tackling the grittiest of roles.

When Michelle Keegan was Tina in Corrie, she would spend her days leaping between storylines about abortion, murder, surrogacy and perjury, never getting Best Actress at various soap awards, instead winning “Sexiest Female” 12 times. Which was fine. It was lovely to be noticed, and it was quite glamorous and the work was great, but just once, maybe, it would have been nice to have been recognised for the work: the tears, the drama, drama that culminated in Tina being pushed from a balcony and beaten to death with a lead pipe. To have been recognised as an actor.

Which is why, perhaps, she feels so dizzily excited to be here today talking about her latest role, the lead in the new Harlan Coben drama, Fool Me Once. Netflix acquired crime writer Coben’s bestselling novels in a multimillion-pound deal, reshaping the streaming service (and it could be argued, telly in general) around the Coben model. These are twisty thrillers where each episode leaves viewers on a cliffhanger, a different suspect every night. You have to keep watching right to the end of the series or the mystery picks at you, keeps you awake.

Producer Nicola Shindler was also behind Happy Valley, a show that made a star of former Corrie actor Sarah Lancashire. “The talent, warmth and likability Michelle brings to all her roles is really special and she absolutely reminds me of Sarah in that regard,” says Shindler. “They are both very loved by audiences, because they feel authentic and reachable, while also being brilliant actors. And if a role as big and powerful as Catherine in Happy Valley came her way, I am sure she would rise to that challenge brilliantly.”

Fool Me Once centres on Keegan’s Maya Stern, a military pilot suffering from PTSD, whose wealthy husband is murdered and suddenly nothing is as it seems. Coben based the character on a combat helicopter pilot he’d met who had served in the Gulf War. “What happens when that person is trying to come back into the real world?” he wondered. And what happens then if, say, after her husband’s funeral, she sees him laughing on the nanny-cam?

It’s an unusual journey that Keegan has been on, from soap star to serious actor, especially when you add in the complication of fame. In 2015, she married Mark Wright, one of the original cast members of The Only Way Is Essex, and this combination proved absolutely irresistible to the tabloids. Now 36, drinking an oat milk latte and leaning in generously, she finds herself at a sort of crossroads.

Her story, as she tells it, begins with her Coronation Street audition. Growing up in Stockport, her dad a police officer, her mum a primary school cook, she had “a sense of confidence”, which led her to the Manchester School of Acting, where she took the audition as “an experience”, never expecting to get the role, let alone stay for the next six years. “It was just such a level of love when you walked into that place,” she says of Coronation Street. “It was the best job, the best people. It was a really hard decision to go. I could have stayed there my whole life.” She softens when she talks about Corrie. “I feel very protective of it,” she says, “and very proud. It comes with a sense of warmth. I hear the music and I’m home.”

As she prepared to leave, she became aware that not everybody felt the same way. “In the industry, there’s a lot of snobbery surrounding soaps. But I feel like it’s the best learning experience, working with three different directors in one day, bouncing between different storylines – one minute I was crying over a death, then I was giving birth – it is such a unique experience. But it’s rare that soap gets any recognition. There’s a lot of ‘stuff’ surrounding it, because it’s seen as working class – people look down on it.” When she finally decided to quit, “they told me that they were going to kill Tina off”. Which was terrifying. She panicked – she couldn’t go back. “Julie Hesmondhalgh, who played Hayley, was leaving around the same time. And she said, ‘Killing off Tina is the best thing that could have happened to you. Because it’ll make you fight harder and make you work harder, and focus you.’ And she was right.”

Keegan’s first serious role after Coronation Street was in the BBC drama Our Girl, in which she played a soldier – this was the year she got married (and the year she was crowned FHM’s sexiest woman). “I totally threw myself into it. It was a really successful show, and it was so nerve-racking. But the main thing I remember were the comments about how I was wearing too much mascara. It wasn’t about my work, it was just about what I looked like.” She’d talked to plenty of women in the military about what they wore, so she knew she wasn’t adding unnecessary glamour. “But that’s when I realised, no matter what I do, that’s what’s going to happen for me. There’s always going to be comments about how I look, in any role that I do. I’ve learned to just sort of… deal with it.” She smiles, whitely.

As her career begins to re-shape itself, she’s starting to reflect on the decade before. While she’d felt part of a family in Corrie, she felt out of place in the wider industry, intimidated. On her first magazine shoot she remembers putting her hand up to ask if she could go to the loo. “It was the norm back then to do sexy spreads in men’s magazines and go to the award ceremonies where they’d have ‘sexiest female’. I was never comfortable with it.”

Was there pressure to do it?

“Yes, I felt pressure and I am a bit of a people pleaser, I try to go with the flow. But there was something in me that was like, ‘I really don’t want this. I don’t want to be on the front cover in my underwear.’ So, eventually, I gathered the courage…” To say no? “No, to ask for a cardigan.” She chuckles. “Once I was like, no no, I don’t like it, so to fix it they put a bobble hat on my head.” And the sexiest female awards? “It was embarrassing. Because I was in a lot of heavy storylines. There was one where I felt like I was crying every day for months and months. And then at the end of it, when the accolade was sexiest female, it was so frustrating.” She gives a resigned sigh. “And the funny thing is, I’m not sexy! I’ve never been sexy! My friends have always laughed about it. Even when I say the word it makes me cringe.”

Her relationships have always made the tabloids, but the interest tripled when she started seeing Mark Wright. He was the star of what the New York Times called “the most talked-about British television show” of 2011. Towie, a sort of Beckett play set in a Barbie Dreamhouse, caused a culture shift – it was a reality show that somehow altered reality. Today the couple live in a grand mansion they had built in Essex (an Instagram page, @wrightyhome, charts its journey) – it has a private spa and gym, and everything is in complementary shades of cream.

Talking about the house, Keegan suddenly starts to cry. Mid-build, “I was filming in Australia” – the BBC historical drama Ten Pound Poms – “and hadn’t seen the house for months. And when I walked in, Mark had lit all the candles and… I couldn’t speak for five minutes. He was like, ‘What do you think?'” Worried, anxious, this was a project he’d been working on since 2020. “I couldn’t find the words to say how I felt, because I was so overwhelmed. I just burst out crying.” She apologises, pushing away the tears. “It still gets me emotional. Because we’ve worked really hard for it. We’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices. I missed lots of milestones in my life due to work. Mark went to LA and we spent months apart, which was hard. But, it’s worth it.” She takes a breath, sips her coffee. “And the house – it’s also about security. Because you never know when all this is going to end.”

Updates about the house have their own headlines in the Sun and Daily Mail, stories about their Christmas decorations or their trouble choosing the right shade of white. While Keegan still seems uncomfortable with the attention, Wright is used to it. He and his Towie co-stars created a new ecosystem of fame and when they married (their wedding was on the cover of Hello! Magazine), Keegan became part of their story. “People openly spoke about our relationship. As time progressed, quite negative stories came out.” There were regular pieces suggesting that they’d split up. “It seemed really damaging, so we came to the conclusion that we should keep our relationship private – just for us.” She stopped going to parties, stopped being photographed on red carpets – she’d never liked it anyway – “and it’s worked out better. As we’ve got older, it’s become more natural for us.” She’s noticed a tonal change in how the media treat her, too. “It used to be circles on your cellulite, or saying you lost too much weight or speculating whether someone’s pregnant. You don’t see that in the press so much any more, but the judgment is still there. People are now judging you online. And the media are then allowed to pick it up by reporting on what they’ve said.”

A big shift came, though, when she realised that she could “say no to things that I don’t feel comfortable with”. Like the lingerie shoots and parties and the questions about her marriage, or babies. “I found it difficult at first. I always believed it was expected of you. You need to do your work and go to these events. And you need to do these interviews and you need to sell your brand. Give a little bit of yourself away. And have strangers comment on your life. I’m not going to do it again.” But, she grins, “I never take anything for granted. I have impostor syndrome. I’ve always thought I had to act and speak a particular way. I didn’t want people to look down on me. But there are so many great actors now who come from working-class backgrounds, who represent people like me. Like Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham – they’re so comfortable and proud of who they are. They’ve helped me realise I don’t have to change my accent when I go into these rooms.”

How does she feel about fame? “I find it odd how people want it. Is it the recognition they want? Is it adoration? Is it that they think fame equals money? I find that really interesting. Last night I was talking about it with two lads from Brassic… [Sky’s most successful comedy series in years, in which Keegan plays a single mum; it begins with the monologue, “Fuck the middle class, fuck the Guardian, fuck three holidays a year and drinking red wine] and we were thinking, are we happier than our friends? One’s an accountant, one’s a banker, one’s a teacher. I’m happy with my life, but I’m definitely not happier.”

Keegan’s heroes are people like Sarah Lancashire and Suranne Jones, both former Corrie actors, “both amazing, whose bodies of work changed over the course of time.” The appeal of her new Harlan Coben drama is the chance to push her career further in that direction, to continue to play “gritty”. In real life, “I’m nice, polite, if I think I’ve upset someone it really affects me.” So she likes playing characters who are the opposite. “I like the adrenaline.” Is Hollywood next? She scrunches her nose. “I went to America when Mark was out there. Didn’t like it. But let’s see. If a job comes up… I guess?” What’s the plan then? What’s the next step, away from sex and celebrity, towards something more serious, more anonymous? “I’ve never thought beyond what I’m doing right at that moment. And I think that’s how I live now as well. I don’t think in terms of goals. I live in the moment.”

She looks a little bashful as she says, “I feel like I’m living my dream. I’m very happy with where I am, work wise, family wise. I just feel very calm. And that for me is perfect. I never plan.” A pause. “I never plan, because I don’t like the thought of failure. I think maybe that’s why I don’t want to think too much about tomorrow. I just want to be in the moment.” What is it then, that keeps her pushing, auditioning, wanting? “I suppose I know how fickle the industry can be. And,” she says again, “I never know when it’s going to end.”

I get the sense there’s a kind of quiet determination behind her sweetness. Despite her skill, her poise, experience, talent, she’s navigated a series of mazes in order to be recognised as a serious actor. Not that she’s complaining – she walks through the world smiling, in gratitude, wonder, twinkling. But she is aware of how class, how beauty, how celebrity, impacts and complicates the way she will be seen. “No one in my family is in this industry. My friends aren’t in this industry. So for me, it’s still very alien. People say, ‘Oh, you get used to it.'” She grins. “But you never do.”