To millions of viewers, Michelle Ryan is best known as the mouthy Zoe Slater from 'EastEnders'. Now she's landed the lead in the glossy remake of a Seventies TV classic. But the six-million dollar question is: can she really make the leap from soap star to Bionic Woman? Interview by Ed Caesar Published: 07 July 2007
Some days after Michelle Ryan gave an interview to The Independent – to promote the ex-EastEnder's first foray into A-list territory with NBC's Bionic Woman – the strangest thing happened. I received a call from Ryan's press officer. In itself, there's nothing strange about that – it's common enough for a PR to make a follow-up call to a journalist after an interview – but the tone was odd. "Everything go OK with Michelle?" she trilled. "Yes, thank you." "Get everything you needed?" she continued. "Um, yes, I think so..." A pause. "It's just that we noticed that your interview didn't last quite as long as we had expected..."
In fact, the interview had ended some 17 minutes early. We didn't need them. Ryan talks fast and volunteers information without prompting. She is also personable and intelligent enough to see where a line of questioning is going and pre-empt your next enquiry. And, while she is pretty and talented, Ryan is, ultimately, a 23-year-old girl from Enfield who spent her formative years on a soap opera. The time we had was enough. But why was this publicist worried? Had Ryan asked her to make the call? "She was just concerned you wouldn't have enough material," said the PR, suddenly nervous. "If you want any more time, I'm sure we could set up a call." This was getting interesting. Most celebrities, however far down the alphabet, do as little press as possible, and escape contact with journalists at all times. I had released Ryan 17 minutes early. I would have thought she'd have been relieved. Why was she angling for more time? Did she have some dark secret to impart?
"No, it's nothing like that," stammered the PR, before gently icing the proposed second interview.
She was right – it was nothing like that. Ryan is not the sort of girl to have dark secrets. She wouldn't have time. She was a member of a local acting troupe near her home in Enfield, north London, and from the age of 10, she always "really wanted to be an actress professionally". Ever since then, she says, it has been work, work, work, which takes us up to her recent, lauded appearance in the BBC's Jekyll, and, now, her arrival as the star of NBC's headline action series, Bionic Woman.
Ryan had what she calls, "an easy, happy childhood". Her father works in fire safety, and her mother is a make-up artist. Her younger brother is an electrician. Her accent – for those who know her solely as the "leave it aht!" Slater girl from EastEnders – is surprisingly posh, although she does have the odd Walford moment. When she says "nothing", for instance, it comes out as "nothing".
When Ryan was 16, she aced an audition for EastEnders, and landed the role of Zoe Slater. How did that feel? Was she nervous? "No," she says, "I've always been very mature. I've always been quite sensible, and always loved to work, and always been really dedicated."
Right. So there was nothing weird about being a schoolgirl one minute and being on a programme that was watched by millions the next? "Yeah, it was a bit weird when people recognised me in the street," she says. "Because they associate you with your character. It was when I was growing up and trying to find my own identity."
Ryan was on EastEnders from 2000 to 2005, when she was between the ages of 16 and 21. However professional a young actor you are, that is a hell of a time to be permanently in the public eye. Didn't she ever want to rebel? Did she ever want to stay out late with friends, not turn up to filming the next day, or just jack the whole thing in?
"Not at first, no," she says. "I took it all very seriously. When I wasn't working I would take time out to work on an American accent with a dialect coach, or read a book on Stanislavsky." But being so serious, says Ryan, led to some tough times. There were periods, on EastEnders, in which she became deeply depressed.
"I'd always been sensible," she says, "but I definitely hadn't had all the life experiences I needed. I hadn't had relationships – my first boyfriend I met on EastEnders – and it was really hard meeting someone at first, because guys would come up to me and think I was Zoe. But I'm nothing like her. It was awkward."
The atmosphere on set could also, she says, be poisonous. "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?' "
Ryan left EastEnders in 2005. Why? "It just got really boring in the end," she says. "It was too easy. I think I'd found every possible layer to the character, and I got to the point where I needed a new challenge. I was 21, and desperate to go out and meet some new people."
So Ryan left the show that had made her, and, for a while, cut loose. Or at least, she cut loose as far as Ryan was ever going to cut loose. She visited galleries, she went to parties, she saw her friends, and she went shopping. She also tried her hand at some new acting gigs. But, unlike many ex-soap starlets, she didn't take her clothes off for the lads' mags. Was she ever tempted?
"No, never," she says. "Partly, I was body-conscious. I think you have to be über-confident to be taking your clothes off the whole time. In a way, I really admire people who can do that. "I was always wary of doing the whole lads' mag thing anyway," she continues. "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.
"I actually felt really bad, because I always turned [the magazines] down. They'd say, 'Why won't you do it? We'll fly you to the Maldives, we'll give you Jimmy Choos!' I said, 'It's really not about that.'" Ryan's reticence, though, has only spurred them on – a couple of years ago, FHM voted her the fourth sexiest woman in the world.
Just as you will never see Ryan in her smalls, you are unlikely to see paparazzi pictures of her in the wee small hours. Like everything else in her career, her public persona is thoroughly considered.
"If you're always in the press for reasons other than your acting," she says, "it's going to be even harder for you to get credibility. I'm naturally a private person anyway. I'd rather do my job and that's that. It's nice to go to events and get dressed up but if it becomes only about that, then you're in it for the wrong reasons." Does Ryan ever want to behave like an airhead celebrity – just for a night? "Oh, I go to a few things," she says. "I went to the Glamour awards the other night. But I always arrive late and leave early. When I first went to an awards ceremony with EastEnders, I stayed 15 minutes. Everyone else was like, 'Come on Michelle, stay, have a drink, relax ...' But I find all those things a bit awkward. People are watching you. You're constantly on show. It's work actually." If it feels like work you might think Ryan would enjoy it, but she insists her private life is spent far away from the camera lens. A few months ago she had her first holiday in three years, in Antigua. There were no paparazzi shots. In January, she broke up with her long-term boyfriend – a semi-professional footballer she met on EastEnders. It hardly caused a murmur in the tabloids.
When she's not working, she does a variety of everyday things – all without troubling the showbusiness sections of the tabloids. She shops, she sleeps in, she goes to the theatre, she eats out (often with a gaggle of her colleagues from EastEnders), and, just occasionally, she hits the town with her friends.
"There's a karaoke place in London called Little Voice which is just brilliant," she says. "They keep serving you drinks and you keep singing. There's no press there, so me and my friends can all get really drunk. My speciality's Dusty Springfield's 'I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself'. I love it."
As she prepares to film the first 13 episodes of Bionic Woman, there will be no time for such frivolities. The show casts Ryan in a darker remake of the cultish 1970s Bionic Man spin-off. To play Jaime, the female athlete bionically remade after a car crash, Ryan had to learn Krav Magar – a martial art used by the Israeli Special Forces. She also had to polish her American accent and learn sign language, because, in this modern version, Jaime's little sister is deaf. It sounds like hard work.
"It's been great," says Ryan. "They get me to do about an hour and a half of physical training every morning. Then there's the accent and the sign language. And I'm in pretty much every scene, so the shoot is hardcore. It's really good for the stamina."
If Bionic Woman is a success – and critics who have seen the pilot seem to think it might be – Ryan could be involved for seven series, all shot in Vancouver. For someone who found five years on EastEnders a challenge, that seems like quite a commitment. Is she worried about lasting the distance?
"It did worry me," says Ryan. "What if I wanted to have a baby in three years? It's not on my agenda at the moment, but what if I did want to? I'm only 23, though, so I think I've still got time to do everything I want. And, anyway, this is an amazing opportunity, which I have given my all to – blood, sweat and tears. I could never have turned it down."
Which brings us back to that phone call. Ryan didn't ask her press officer to make it because she likes journalists, or because she had some newsworthy nugget to deliver. She asked because she has a work-rate that can only be described as bionic, and because the plan did not fit the execution. When Ryan goes after something, she does so with blood, sweat and tears. And, when she thinks she's booked for 45 minutes, she wants 45 minutes.
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