As Michelle Ryan joins Doctor Who, she talks about pulling off terrifying stunts and why she doesn’t want to be the next Doctor’s assistant.
By Andrew Pettie - 11 April 2009 • 12:01am
Michelle Ryan likes to throw herself headlong into a role. In 2007, when she crossed the Atlantic to star in NBC’s multi-million dollar remake of the Bionic Woman, Ryan’s commitment was total. In order to play the all-action heroine she mastered Krav Maga, a martial art developed by the Israeli special forces, learned sign language (to communicate with her character’s deaf sister), and did most of the gravity-defying stunts herself.
Tonight, Ryan stars in a Doctor Who special, Planet of the Dead, and little has changed. Indeed for the Doctor, Ryan is ready to go one step further and throw herself headlong down a well.
“I love doing my own stunts,” she says. “There is one in a museum where I leap down 50 feet on a wire, head first. Looking down over the cast and crew was scary, but you get over that. In another scene they throw me down a well and there were no wires involved that time. I had to fall flat on my face.”
Ryan, 24, plays Lady Christina De Souza, an aristocratic jewel thief. As she escapes from the scene of a crime, De Souza finds herself on a double-decker bus alongside the Doctor (David Tennant, appearing in the first of his last four specials as the Doctor).
However, like the Tardis, the bus takes them on an unexpected journey: the passengers disembark on a mysterious desert planet, where they are threatened by the Tritovore, a swarm of repulsive aliens who look like giant mosquitoes wearing mackintoshes. The comedian Lee Evans, whose elastic features could have been created by the Doctor Who prosthetics team, guest stars as a scientist. But it is up to the Doctor and De Souza to swat the alien menace. And, high-end thievery aside, Ryan and her character sound as if they have plenty in common.
‘Christina is sexy and glamorous,” says Ryan, “but she’s also a tomboy and very independent. She’s always chasing the next adventure, the next high. And because the Doctor is charismatic and fearless too, I think they’re an excellent match.”
Many Doctor Who fans have already reached the same conclusion. Reports and internet rumours abound that Ryan, after supposedly auditioning for the role of Martha Jones, which went to Freema Agyeman, is now lined up to play the new Doctor’s new assistant when Matt Smith inherits the Tardis in 2010.
“That’s completely untrue,” she laughs. “I have never auditioned for the role of the Doctor’s assistant in the past. And I’m not in talks about becoming the new assistant. I’m just enjoying the freedom I have to play a variety of roles. Playing Christina is perfect: she’s a special guest who could return. At the moment, when it comes to acting, I’m a bit of a commitment-phobe.”
Reading Ryan’s CV it’s easy to see why she no longer wants to be tied to a long-term role. She made her name in a soap, playing EastEnders’ downtrodden market trader Zoe Slater for six years.
Then a big, unexpected break took her to Vancouver for Bionic Woman. Initially, the series did well; the pilot attracted 13?million viewers. However, falling ratings and the US writers’ strike meant that the series was shelved after just eight episodes.
“Bionic Woman changed direction too much from episode to episode,” Ryan explains, “which I think is why it lost momentum. But the whole experience was amazing, living in Vancouver, having my own place. It opened up my world. I remember when we shot the trailer in LA the crew had to close off a road because the scene involved a helicopter, a fire engine and an upturned police car. I remember jumping on the police car and had a moment of: ‘OK, I think I’ve landed in Hollywood.’”
Aside from upturned police cars, Ryan also had to adjust to a life in the celebrity spotlight. According to stories in the press, she was in a relationship with the actor Owen Wilson. In reality, she says, they “never met”; Ryan is single. Since her return to the UK, she has slipped happily back into her old life, starring in Robin Hood and the comedy horror film Flick alongside Faye Dunaway, but otherwise staying “under the radar”.
Ryan is unfussily famous: when we meet she is wearing a simple white top and blue jeans and no make-up – but is still strikingly pretty. She lives with her mother, who works for Clinique, and her father, a fire safety officer, in north London. Even her hobbies are endearingly humdrum.
“I like to hang out with my friends, go to the theatre, watch DVDs, read, play with my niece,” she says. “I recently went to the Natural History Museum to see an exhibition on Darwin and someone came up to me and said, ‘Ooh, so why are you here?’ I just told them that I like exhibitions.”
For a 24 year-old who has already starred in hit dramas in the US and the UK, Ryan doesn’t seem especially career-conscious. But this wasn’t always the case.
“I am still ambitious but not as much as I used to be before Bionic Woman,” she says. “I’m more go-with-the-flow now. Although when a role comes along that I really love – like sprinting across alien sand-dunes with Doctor Who – it will fire me up again.”
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