Eastenders starlet Michelle Ryan is about to play a heroin addict and a zombie killer as well as taking on Liza Minelli’s iconic role in Cabaret. Shereen Low meets an actress whose work ethic is based on bloodhounds and sharks
Michelle Ryan is preparing to go to a friend’s funeral so she’d probably rather not have to talk about her career.
But, ever the pro, the actress is happy to continue our interview. “It’s totally fine. Honestly. She was the kind of woman who would just say ‘carry on’,” Ryan insists.
Her home in north London is a far cry from the Hollywood hills, where the 28-year-old was hailed as the latest British talent to hit US screens after winning the part of Bionic Woman in 2007.
However, the series was cancelled after just one season, and the actress decided to return to Britain, where she has made appearances in Doctor Who and Merlin.
“The Bionic Woman was the most challenging role I’ve played to date probably. Just the sheer scale of it was huge,” she says.
She hasn’t let the experience put her off working in the States again, although she says: “You definitely need a reason to be there, and have the right script and the right character.”
Right now Ryan doesn’t need Hollywood because she’s got the best of British. She has two Brit flicks coming out in the next month: The Man Inside and Cockneys Vs Zombies, as well as a starring role in West End musical Cabaret, which opens at the Savoy Theatre on October 3.
In gritty boxing drama The Man Inside, the Enfield-born actress plays heroin addict Alexia, alongside Ashley ‘Bashy’ Thomas and Peter Mullan.
“I love this character because she’s so complex. It just felt like one of those projects you dream of getting because it’s very layered and is completely different from what I normally get sent,” she explains.
“You don’t always get that with female roles, that someone’s allowing you to be vulnerable, strong, feisty and funny, so that was a real highlight.”
She didn’t need to do too much research into drug addiction because she had already been exposed to it in the past.
“I’m of that generation where there was so much around at school. We watched lots of documentaries and YouTube clips of people talking about their addictions and you see how people go cold turkey. It’s quite harrowing but it’s useful hearing the different stories,” she says.
In horror-comedy Cockneys Vs Zombies, Ryan gets to fight the walking dead alongside co-stars Honor Blackman and Alan Ford.
“It’s just so much fun, using a samurai sword to take out a zombie! And you’ve got all the older actors as well, who all have so much to bring - Honor Blackman is one sassy lady,” she says.
Ryan, who started acting in theatre at the age of 10, is also preparing to take on the iconic role of Sally Bowles - made famous by Liza Minelli - alongside former Pop Idol runner-up Will Young as Emcee.
“I’m very excited. It’s a great, great role. It’s a gift,” she says. “This is what I started doing when I was younger so I feel like I’ve come full circle. I love dancing, being on stage and I’m really enjoying the singing process, which we’ve just started.
“This will always be Liza’s role and it’s just been loaned out to me. It’s not like I’m trying to fill her shoes because it’s a new production.”
Contrary to rumours, Ryan insists she has not received any advice from Minelli herself. “I did meet her very briefly after her concert. She was charming and lovely - that felt like a nice thing to do before rehearsals start.”
In spite of everything she has accomplished, most people still recognise Ryan from her EastEnders role as Zoe Slater, whom she played for five years until she left the soap in 2005.
“It’s become nostalgic now. Cockneys Vs Zombies is set in the East End so the fact I still have people asking about EastEnders is great,” she admits.
Ryan has always insisted that she has no plans to return to Albert Square. “It’s like I wouldn’t go back to school,” she explains. “I just believe that sometimes in life you’re like a shark - you have to keep moving through water otherwise you’ll die.
“For me, once I’ve worked on something and it’s finished, it’s like an ex-boyfriend: you don’t go back to them. I’ve done it with my heart and soul, so I wouldn’t go back because it’s not part of my make-up to do so. I think it’s important to do different things.”
The challenge for Ryan is in seeking out new and different parts. “This is going to sound really cheesy, but my heart lies with a really good script and great roles,” she says, laughing.
“I’m like a bloodhound: I’ll sniff and dig out the great roles. They’re not always easy to come by and you have to fight your own path sometimes. It can be an emotional rollercoaster.
“I spent a lot of the last few years turning down lots of things. I just didn’t feel they were right. If I’m repeating what I’ve done or it’s not great directing or an interesting idea, then it just seems like a waste of time.
“Projects where the women are just victims or accessories are the strangest parts. They don’t do anything for humankind. There should be a little more fire in everyone.”
The future is bright for Ryan, but you won’t catch her blowing her own trumpet. “I’m just chipping away at my gold all the time, and I think the place I’m in now feels like a very good one. It’s all changing, which is good - it keeps me on my toes.”
The Man Inside opens in cinemas on Friday, July 27
Cockneys Vs Zombies opens on Friday, August 24
Cabaret is at London’s Savoy Theatre from Wednesday, October 3