The former EastEnders stars who found unlikely success in Hollywood: Michelle Ryan and Sean Maguire discuss their new, British, two-part drama.
By Matt Warman - 04 December 2009 • 5:26pm
It is not normally the job of a journalist on a broadsheet newspaper to ask a former soap star how many men she has slept with. But Michelle Ryan – the kind of ex-EastEnder that the tabloids like to call stunning – is used to such attention, and now for her role in ITV1’s new two-part comedy drama, the question is inevitable from all-comers.
‘Mister Eleven is all about one girl and her attitude to statistics,’ says Ryan, ‘but what other people think of as really dry and boring, actually this stuff rules Saz’s life.’
Specifically, statistics rule Saz’s love life, and the title alludes to the fact that a woman will typically marry her 11th sexual partner. What for most people would be a coincidence, however, for Saz has become a mission: ‘She’s absolutely determined that Mr Right should also be Mr 11,’ says Ryan.
Unfortunately Mr Right turns out to be Dan, a dashing doctor played by another former EastEnder, Sean Maguire. Saz sets out to organise the perfect wedding, with all the numbers in the right place, and then on her wedding night discovers that in fact Mr Right is only Mr 10. The man who tells her – an ex-boyfriend played by Adam Garcia – goes on to become the third part of a messy love triangle. Such is Saz’s emotional reliance on statistics, she can’t cope with the inaccuracy, and she splits up with Dan.
‘It’s all about how, in so many ways, we all rely on little things to make us feel happy,’ says Ryan, who’s 25 and single. ‘For Saz, that little, crucial thing is one number. When it turns out she’s miscalculated, she falls apart.’
Dan, meanwhile, is devastated: ‘He thinks Saz is being irrational,’ says Ryan, ‘but he also knows that that’s who she is. He’s very quiet, very solid and reliable and he just simply doesn’t understand.’
For both the stars, these two romantic roles are at once a departure and a return. Maguire, who as a boy starred in Grange Hill, has almost disappeared from British TV screens, but he became a significant sitcom star in America, thanks to Eve and The Class. Ryan, meanwhile, went to America to star in Bionic Woman after making her name as Zoe Slater in EastEnders, and has been seen more recently in the UK in Merlin and Doctor Who. Both have lived with significant tabloid attention simply because of the acting roles they have taken, but Maguire says he has always endeavoured to keep his feet on the ground. ‘When you live under the title of “heart-throb” or “pin-up” of course people flatter you a lot,’ he says, ‘as Michelle will certainly know – but I think the only approach you can take is to say thank you, and remember that someone in your position is really replaceable.’ Ryan, meanwhile, says that she has always been careful to avoid the kind of lifestyle traps that many succesful young actresses fall into. ‘I drove myself to the party for Bionic Woman,’ she says, ‘which meant that there was never any chance that I was going to be seen drunkenly falling out of some club.’
The pair admit, however, that going to Hollywood has changed their lives: ‘It is a different world,’ says Ryan, ‘and when I was preparing for Bionic I did have to get really fit, for instance – I’d go for all these long runs but now that I’m back in the UK I find that I’m still keeping up the regime. I don’t think if I’d been to America I’d ever be running as much. But it does change how you see showbusiness as well because it’s very different.’
Maguire’s experience of Hollywood has been even more extreme: established firmly as a TV star there, he says that it becomes easy to get used to the kind of giant crews that go with Hollywood TV shows. ‘The key is, I think, to remember that if you believe all the flattery, you’d have to buy into everything people say when they write you off too.’
So what did the pair make of returning to the UK to make a romantic comedy? ‘I know that I was incredibly nervous,’ says Maguire, who’s 33 and has a girlfriend of 10 years. ‘You get so used in sitcom to being big and expansive – I’ve put my faith a lot in the director, because working in sitcom for seven solid years I’ve picked up some awful habits. When the director said I should do things just “smaller” it went against all my instincts.’
Ryan, meanwhile, says that it was the quality of the writing that drew her to the script: ‘To me it’s such an interesting topic,’ she says. ‘It’s a real water cooler kind of conversation: do you settle down with Mr 11 because he’s the right guy or because he’s around at the right time – that kind of topic always interests people, and I think it’s a subject where people’s answers have changed so much in recent years.’
So is it a topic that the cast have discussed in detail on set? Maguire implies that it is, but sadly won’t go into the details. ‘Women are much more liberated now,’ he says, ‘and so of course everybody stands around saying “Eleven? Does that sound about right?” I think the consensus was it’s not the number that matters.’
Ryan, of course, with her clean-living, exercising and driving to parties, bats the question away with elegance: ‘It’s not really a drama about how many people Saz has slept with,’ she says. ‘It’s far more about her learning that there are things that are even more important than numbers – and what makes it interesting writing is that in a way it’s really very sad: in the opening few minutes her dream wedding has disintegrated into inner turmoil. And I hope the audience will really care about what happens to her.’ Who would have thought it? A rebuff to tabloid culture from two ex-EastEnders.
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