Most actors find it hard to shake off soap roles. Michelle Ryan, best known as Zoe Slater in EastEnders, has pulled off a huge leap - she's about to star in a major US remake of the 70s sci-fi series The Bionic Woman. But is she tough enough to handle it? She talks to Emine Saner.
The producers of Bionic Woman cannot be accused of going for an obvious choice when they cast the lead in their big-budget, glossy new version of the iconic 70s TV show. There were rumours that Jennifer Aniston was lined up, but it was Michelle Ryan, an unknown in the States, who got the part.
Here, Ryan is best-known as Zoe, the youngest of the Slater sisters - the one who found out that her sister was really her mum - in EastEnders, the soap she left two years ago. Ryan as the fearless, fighting Bionic Woman? If I had not seen the trailer, in which she is very convincing, and unrecognisable from downtrodden Zoe on her Albert Square market stall, I would not have believed it. Ryan still lives at home with her parents, and she seems so sweet that you can't imaginie her throwing a punch. And she is afraid of the dark.
The show, Ryan says, is darker and edgier than the bouncy 70s original. When her mother dies, Jamie Sommers, who works behind a bar, has to look after her feisty teenage sister, who is deaf. After a car crash, Sommers' legs and arm are replaced with bionic limbs, and "anthrocytes" are added to her blood, nanomachines that allow her body to heal in super-quick time. Gorgeous lead: check. Geeky science: check. A "journey of self-discovery": check. How can this show fail?
"What I love about Jamie is that she's very strong and smart, but she's also vulnerable and I can identify with that," says Ryan. She seems so unsure of herself that I feel like shaking her. She is clearly bright (she was a "real geek, very academic" at school) and beautiful, with perfect, creamy skin, and, at 23, has been working solidly since she was 16.
For a month before they shot the pilot, Ryan trained daily - to the Rocky soundtrack. "At first I couldn't even do one press-up, but by the end of it I could do 15, 20 reps. When I'm left to my own devices, I don't work out. I'll walk the dog with my mum or go out dancing with my friends, but I like sleeping. The first week was gruelling, but by the second week I loved it because it gave me so much energy and confidence." For the fight scenes, she had to learn krav maga, an Israeli martial art. "It's really dirty fighting and the quickest way to bring somebody down. During the first three days of training, I was having really violent dreams - I'd be having to rescue my family or I was being attacked by a giant swan. It must have been part of the transformation because I'm not a violent, aggressive person and I've never hit anyone in my life. I hate violence." She also perfected her American accent and learned a bit of sign language.
In the past couple of years, she has been relishing a lower level of fame, but all that will probably change. Is she ready for it? "People keep saying to me that if it is a big hit then it will change things, but I haven't thought that far ahead," she says. "Sometimes I feel really confident, and sometimes I don't - there's always something that makes me doubt myself. One of the things I learned from EastEnders is not to read about myself or go on the internet because people just love to be bitchy. I know that it will bring me more attention, but I've learned that the only people who really care about you are your family and friends. When I was at EastEnders, there were people who were standoffish with me and now they're like, 'You're so amazing,' and again, none of it is real. As long as I remember all of that and remember what's important ... "
If Ryan seems grounded, she says it is mainly thanks to a happy childhood and a very close family. She grew up in Enfield, north London, with her younger brother, her father, a former firefighter, and her mother, who works for a beauty company. "I saw Grease in the West End when I was 10 and thought, 'That must be so much fun, I'd love to be part of that.'" She enrolled at a local drama group and when she was 14, she got a part in a children's TV show, the Worst Witch; then came EastEnders.
For five years, Ryan played Zoe Slater in the BBC soap. She was 16 when she joined, straight after her GCSEs. How did her parents feel about her going into it so young? "I think we were naive about it all. When you join, they sit you down and say your life is going to change and you think, 'Oh really, that's exciting,' and you don't really realise what they mean. The hardest thing for me was people thinking I was Zoe. I was at that age when I was very awkward, insecure and trying to find my own identity and I had people assuming I was this character. I found being recognised - it happened the day after I first appeared on EastEnders - quite hard because I am a really quiet person."
She did not tell anyone at school that she had gone for the role, partly, she says, because she is a private person. And she does not seem the boastful type - but could it be that she was worried about other girls being bitchy about her? "I'm sure they were," she says. "I was a complete geek at school. I was bullied in the lower school, for sitting at the front and putting my hand up, always being enthusiastic and polite to teachers. At my school, that didn't go down well. But I used to think, 'Right, I'll show you.' I didn't have the best time at school but it was better in the upper school once the boys had grown up and the bitchy girls had been expelled."
Did she never feel she had missed out on proper teenage years? Ryan never appeared in the tabloids drunk, or with a succession of attractive young men (she was in a four-year relationship with a semi-professional footballer, but they broke up - very amicably, she says - fairly recently and Ryan is currently single). "I never was a huge drinker or party person. Have I missed out? I don't think so, because I've always been quite serious and focused, whether it was on school work or whatever. And being a teenager is such an awkward stage. EastEnders was such a blur and I was fast-tracked through my teen years, and that was a good thing."
She had been in the soap for nearly four years when, burned out and exhausted, she decided that she needed some time off. The attention that a big show brings was also hard to deal with. "I just took everything way too seriously and was pushing myself too much," she says. "On the one hand, you've got people raising you up and on the other you've got people completely ripping you up and none of it is real. But when I was that age, I got drawn into both. I worried what people thought about me. Nobody likes to have nasty things said or written about them, but I'm learning now that you can't please everybody."
Ryan left EastEnders on good terms, but working on the soap was not always enjoyable. She says she never felt that she fitted in there. "I felt that at school, and I felt that on EastEnders. The only place I felt I really fitted in was my drama group because everyone was like me - geeks, a bit of an outcast. I think I felt sometimes on EastEnders that I couldn't be myself; I let stronger personalities take over and didn't stand my ground. My plan was to stay for three years and then I stayed for a fourth year. I was getting comfortable and that's not me - I like to be challenged."
Taking smaller roles in the two years since looks, in hindsight, like a bit of a masterstroke - the path from soap star to an actor who is taken seriously is littered with the careers of those who have failed and usually find themselves, instead, on reality TV shows - although she says it was not planned. "I knew that when some people leave soaps it can be really hard for them," she says. "Part of me was really worried but I knew that there were all these influential casting directors giving me great feedback."
Ryan kept her head down and took supporting roles in theatre (in Who's the Daddy?, the play about the apparent hotbed of lust at the Spectator), and parts in the TV dramas Mansfield Park and Marple, and low-budget British films (admittedly, she didn't make such a good choice with the execrable I Want Candy). She plays a psychiatrist in Jekyll, a new BBC drama, which starts this weekend, with James Nesbitt playing a present-day Jekyll and Hyde. "It's really unusual," she says. "It's very different from any other drama." She says it has been one of her favourite jobs so far. "My character is fantastic - really ballsy, steely and intelligent. She is meant to be young, and I realised that I had to be confident on set, to go in on the first day and match Jimmy [Nesbitt]. He was fantastic. My mum was so excited I was working with him."
In America, few people know who she is. Was she glad that she did not have the EastEnders baggage when she went up for Bionic Woman? "To be completely honest, yes. It felt good walking into a room and them judging me as Michelle. It gave me the confidence to take the lead. Doing something over there is a fresh start; nobody has any prejudgements."
The other thing Ryan has not done, unlike a lot of her contemporaries, is take off her clothes for the lads' magazines (well, she did one shoot, but she only agreed because it was shot by the well-known photographer Rankin). "I was spending my time working on trying to build my confidence and going to auditions and if I had done all that as well, it would have been too distracting. Soap stars get a rough deal and you need to do everything you can to be taken seriously because it's really hard. Also, it was a body-confidence thing. I always felt like the bigger girl - because I eat - and I always felt insecure when it came to my body."
A few weeks ago, the gossip email Popbitch said there had been mutterings in the US about Ryan's weight, although in a rare flash of magnanimity, it pointed out that Ryan couldn't win - even though actresses are now expected to be a size zero, doesn't the Bionic Woman have to look strong and athletic? Ryan says she hasn't heard any negative comments but admits she was expecting it. "I am a normal size," she says. "But I was waiting for someone on the pilot to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'Michelle, you need to drop a stone,' but nobody did. We're filming in Vancouver, so I'm not exposed to any of that LA skinniness.
"I really do love my food. Everyone has a vice and mine is food and I would be so miserable if someone said I had to lose weight. I do have to be toned for Bionic Woman, though. The stunt woman was like, 'When you come back, you've got to cut out the chocolate,' because I'd sneak bits on to set. That's going to be the hardest thing, trying to eat nuts instead of chocolate for the energy, not to get skinnier."
We are having breakfast in a hotel in London and Ryan is eating buttered toast and jam (Carbs! Fat! Sugar!). She is slim to the point where her jeans hang off her hips, but she looks healthy and toned, not super-skinny. "I hope that I won't let it get to me if people start saying I need to lose weight," she says. "People are always going to try to find something to criticise. I know this might sound silly, but I would love to have kids one day and I don't want to mess up my body and have trouble conceiving if I starve myself throughout my 20s. Kate Winslet is a normal size and she's definitely a good role model. I know that when I see her, she makes me feel good because I feel that I don't need to be a size zero."
Ryan has spent the past two months at home, catching up with friends and family and going around London, taking photographs like a tourist, trying to absorb as much of "home" as she can. This week, she goes back to Vancouver to start training and filming, where she will stay, if the show does well (American networks are ruthless at pulling off a show if it gets disappointing ratings), for at least eight months. "My friend said, 'How are you going to cope? You still live at home and your mum still does your washing.'" I think it will make me grow up and I need that. I'm so comfortable at home and I think I can be quite lazy. I'm still a bit scared of the dark; when I'm at home, my dad's there and I feel safe. I was thinking of staying in a hotel, but that's ridiculous. I'm going to get a place on my own. It probably won't be as hard as I think."
By the time she next comes home, undoubtedly, her life will have changed in lots of ways. "I'm ready for it," she says. "I can go off and have an adventure."
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