It's a quantum leap from Walford to Hollywood, but the former EastEnder Michelle Ryan has successfully rinsed the soap off her hands and remodelled herself as the Bionic Woman. The actress who was bullied at school won't be messed with again. Interview by Craig McLean. Photograph by Lorenzo Agius
Over a hefty lunchtime platter of steak and chips in an Islington pub, Michelle Ryan is still struggling to come to terms with everything that happened to her last year. 'I'm piecing it all back together,' the 23-year-old actress says, her smile as wide as her eyes are doe-like. 'It was a complete blur. It all moved so fast.' Bionically fast, you might say.
Early in 2007 Ryan was just another alumnus of the British soap factory. She had played the puffer-jacketed market-stallholder Zoe Slater in EastEnders for five years. Her character had begun her stint on Albert Square as a slouchy teen with a feline moan - 'Eeeoowww, Kat!' she would yell at the woman she thought was her sister but was really her mum. By the end, Zoe had survived incest/abuse revelations and matured into a graceful young woman with a sheepy bleat ('Ohhhh, Dennis!') who found herself tangled in a rape/abortion/murder love triangle with her boyfriend Dennis Watts and his dad 'Dirty' Den Watts. In May 2005, having effectively lived as Zoe since taking her GCSEs, Ryan left EastEnders. She did a bit of theatre, a bit-part in a costume drama (Mansfield Park), a drama series (last summer's James Nesbitt vehicle Jekyll?). So far, so post-soap. Then, 14 months ago, while she was filming a horror film, Flick, in Wales with Faye Dunaway, Ryan was asked to do a videotaped audition for a big new series. The Bionic Woman, a remake of the 1970s show that starred Lindsay Wagner, was being developed by the American network NBC.
The swimmer's shoulders that had given Zoe a look of hunched disaffection and Cockney argy-bargy in London E20 were viewed in Los Angeles as suggestive of a tough feminine physique that - with the aid of future-clever cyber-surgery - could convincingly kick terrorist and criminal butt. advertisement
'I think [the executive producer] David Eich felt I was very natural,' she reflects. They also appreciated her ease with an American accent. 'And the experience I had being on EastEnders - I think they just felt, "She's unknown in the US but she'll be able to handle it." ' Ryan landed the part, apparently triumphing over, among other contenders, Jennifer Aniston. She would be Jaime Sommers, the San Francisco bartender who, after a car crash, has her shattered body rebuilt: superfast legs, one strong arm, an extra-sensitive ear and a brilliantly far-sighted eye. Ryan left her parents' home in Enfield, north London (where she had remained throughout her time on EastEnders), and spent the spring, summer and autumn making The Bionic Woman in Vancouver. It seems Eich was impressed by Ryan's can-do/gung-ho approach - qualities that matter a great deal in the intense, big-stakes atmosphere of American television. 'When Michelle came to this role she had a lot of things she wanted to perfect,' he has said. 'She looked at it not just as a great opportunity career-wise but an opportunity to reshape who she was so she could fit into this role as perfectly as possible.' When it premiered in the US on a Wednesday evening in September, The Bionic Woman was watched by a staggering 14 million. It was NBC's best ratings performance in that highly competitive slot since the premiere of The West Wing eight years before. Critics raved about the exciting young acting talent in the title role. Here was another high-octane, high-budget, high-quality American drama, with the special-effects whiz of Heroes, the dark background narrative of Lost, the thrilling momentum of 24. All fronted by a beautiful 'glamazon' heroine. It's a long jump from Walford to Hollywood, and Michelle Ryan had seemingly cleared it with ease. But it took a lot of hard work. For all her golly-goshness, Ryan is a fiercely driven young woman who is not afraid of hard graft. 'Michelle's an ambitious girl, but not in a desperate way,' James Nesbitt says. 'She thinks that this isn't just her job, it's her vocation, and she will do as much as she can. She's very experienced and very technical. But equally she doesn't take it too seriously - we had a very good laugh making Jekyll.' 'Huge sets, great script, and me leading it all,' is how Ryan laughingly recalls the filming of The Bionic Woman. She credits a childhood spent in drama groups as giving her a grounding in accents. But just to be sure, the studio hired her a dialect coach and an acting coach. Eich, who also oversaw the highly successful reboot of the 1980s sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica, told Ryan that he wanted her to be 'as supported as you possibly can be'. Michelle Ryan
This also meant a rigorous regime of stunt and fitness training. It was 'really grinding. I am a real tomboy and I've always been quite athletic, but I guess it was that British sensibility - "oh, I'll do a little bit!" - and I like to indulge,' she says with a guilty grin. 'But I love doing Bikram yoga, and I really got into doing that more.' On top of that, she had to commit to 90 minutes with a personal trainer every day, and studied the Israeli martial art Krav Maga for two hours three times a week. This was alongside the arduous daily filming routine. And evening stints with her dialect coach. 'By that time I'd be slightly delirious and some of my accent would be a bit wonky,' she laughs. Ryan asked that she be allowed to do her own stunts; the producers were happy with this 'because it meant we got some great shots'. At one point she had to leap an 18ft drop; a worried camera operator asked if she was scared. 'I was, like, "I am loving it!" I used to run at school, and I did endless running [scenes]. Then all the fight sequences - it was so funny, they had this scene in a nail salon. They said, "We need you to kick this guy." I said, "Look, I have really strong legs, if I kick him he's going to go through the set." They were, like, "No, it'll be fine." And I did kick him and he nearly went through the wall. Then I punched him and sort of caught him - I guess I'm very strong,' she laughs.
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