Her big break came in soaps, but having scored hits on the stage and in period drama, Barnsley’s Katherine Kelly is a genuine rising star. Phil Penfold met her.
Very cool, very poised, very classy. In an elegant lime green shift dress and the highest of snakeskin-style high heels, Katherine Kelly is every inch a star, but she is also frank, honest, and refreshingly down to earth.
The actress may be RADA trained, but she was Barnsley-born, went to Wakefield Girls High School, and there is the slight trace of an accent still there. There’s a giggle as soon as she sits down, as she says, “Oooh, I do like doing interviews. I talk a lot about myself, and I get to drink a lot of tea.”
Kelly is undoubtedly one of the new generation of rising stars, specialising in characters who have complex lives, and who are not afraid to stand up for themselves.
Recently she’s been seen as Maloney, an ambitious newspaper editor-in-chief in The Field of Blood, then there’s the aristocratic Lady Mae Loxley in the ITV hit Mr Selfridge, and not forgetting the four years she spent as the rather less refined Becky Granger in Coronation Street. Continuing the theme, when we speak Kelly has recently completed a new TV drama series, due to be aired next month
In The Guilty, she plays a young mother whose young son has gone missing. The story shifts between 2008, when young Callum Reid disappears after a neighbourhood barbecue and the present day. It’s penned by Debbie O’Malley, who based it on a real-life case, and the other female lead is Tamsin Grieg, who plays a police officer obsessed with uncovering the truth.
“It is rather grim, very gritty subject matter, but I’m one of those performers who don’t take their work home with them,” says the 33-year-old. “In fact, as soon as a director shouts ‘Cut’, that’s it, I’m back to being me again, and not my character. Some may want to inhabit the person they are playing all the time – not me. I’d rather have a decent cuppa. You are a bit like a tennis player – you either walk off in defeat and think a lot about the last match, muttering as you go, or you just say ‘Lost that one. Move on’. I’m the latter.”
Then there’s another big grin. “Blimey, where did that come from? The fact that I’m reading Andre Agassi’s autobiography at the moment, I think…”
Confident she may be, but she also admits that it definitely helped on The Guilty to have four other ladies from Barnsley working in the make-up and hairdressing trailers.
“We inevitably found out that we had a lot of friends and acquaintances in common, as well as a shed-load of memories and stories about the town. It’s a very small place, really, so it would be virtually impossible not to have a lot of things to talk about. And the thing about the Barnsley accent is that it isn’t an accent at all – it’s a really strong and dialect, unique to the area, and we still use a lot of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. If you’re not from the place, which I love deeply, it is almost impossible for an ‘outsider’ to know what you are talking about.”
While it’s still very early in Kelly’s career, it’s one that has been characterised by brave choices.
The theme of The Guilty grabbed her, she says, “from the minute that I picked up the script. I realised that this was something rather special, in that the story progresses and that there’s an ending to it – not like The Sopranos, where I felt right cheated.
“But yes, it is bleak, and not the cheeriest of subjects, but I have to tell you that it has been one of the most satisfying jobs I have ever done. It wasn’t easy, let me tell you that, not least because we were filming earlier this year when it was perishing cold – and pretending to be enjoying yourself at a summer barbie when the temperature is a few below takes a bit of doing. Summer clothing, with thermals underneath, and there was a moment when a snowstorm stopped the filming because the flakes were landing on the camera lenses! It was a very busy shoot, back to back, over about four weeks, and I finished on a Friday and went back on to the set for the new series of Mr Selfridge on the Monday, which hardly gave me time to draw breath. Dressed for 2013 at the end of one week, and into a laced-up Twenties corset for the start of the week after.”
Mr Selfridge will return to our screens early in 2014. There was a rumour at one point that Katherine was opting out of series two, but she is definitely now in the forefront of the action. “Lady Mae is going to be changing quite a bit”, she reveals, “a lot harder, sharper, not quite the society gadabout that she was…”
While Kelly may have been classically trained, she is an instinctive actress and has not yet been persuaded by the merits of method acting.
“I never do research on anyone I play. Well not really. Not that deeply. I read an awful lot – for pleasure and around the subject matter of the projects I do, but I really do feel that it’s either there, in the writing, or it isn’t.
“Maybe some of my colleagues enjoy getting deeply involved with the people they play, but that’s not how I do it, it doesn’t sit well with me. You have to act on instincts.”
It’s a philosophy which has served her well, ever since she was cast in Coronation Street as Becky, a former drug addict and jailbird, who was prone to go on the rampage.
The actress who started her life on stage in Barnsley’s famous Lamproom Theatre (which was co-founded by Katherine’s Irish-born father, John) was in the public eye for half a decade, reaping several soap awards and various gongs. But when she left Weatherfield she did so without a single regret. “Not one. I missed and miss a lot of my good friends and colleagues over in Manchester, but I just thought that enough was enough, and that it was time to move on. I wouldn’t have changed a minute of my time there, and it was a tough decision to make – but it was also time to explore fresh fields.”
One of the first plum jobs that she picked up after her exit was to play Kenny Everett’s wife, Lee Middleton, in a warts and all TV biopic about the outrageous entertainer and DJ, and his switchback life. That came after a stint at the National Theatre on the South Bank last year in a new production of Goldsmith’s classic She Stoops to Conquer, where Katherine was Kate Hardcastle, the lady who does the stooping. And also the conquering.
“Talk about ‘and now for something completely different’,” she laughs, “Corrie and She Stoops couldn’t have been further apart, and I was well aware of the fact that I could well have fallen flat on my backside…”
Of course, she didn’t, and she won some excellent notices from the critics and has continued to plough her own furrow ever since. And while the nature of the business may have taken her away from her Barnsley home, her ties to Yorkshire remain strong.
“Growing up, I was always ‘the little mum’ because I had younger siblings and cousins. Are they proud of what I’ve done? Oh dear, that’s a bit too embarrassing to think about. My mother, well, she is ‘Mother Earth’, always has been. You know, I rather like a lot of kids on a set when I’m filming. They keep it all fresh, for them, it’s ‘coming out to play’ time, but then, it does rather depend what you want to get in the can on the day.”
The last few years have been relentless and Katherine has just one plan when Mr Selfridge finishes production in the autumn. “I am going to do what I did after the first series, and take a break – hopefully. Give myself a little bit of a breather. Heaven alone knows what will definitely come up next, but there have been one or two ideas bandied about that…” Stage, or screen? “Wouldn’t you like to know. When I’m doing one, I long for the other, and vice versa. When I’m working on TV, it is a joy to let your director see what you can do in six or so takes, and then let him pick the best one. In the theatre, you have to repeat that performance night after night… not always easy.”