Tracy-Ann Oberman went down in soap history by finally offing Dirty Den once and for all. Despite high profile TV roles in the likes of EastEnders and Doctor Who, the stage is her first love and she returns to the theatre from 12 May in a new play that promises a visual trip inside the world of Alexander McQueen
What attracted you to the play McQueen?
I have always been interested in Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow in particular, so for me to be offered the chance to play her felt like a wonderful opportunity. Also with the exhibition opening, Savage Beauty, I think this play is very interesting to work alongside all of that. This is about exploring Alexander McQueen and his world through words, which were not his strongest point, he was very visual. It’s interesting to see this come alive.
So were you always earmarked for the part of Isabella Blow?
I know the writer, James [Phillips], I have workshopped a couple of his plays before. I was sent the play and was asked if I would like to play Isabella and it was all about timing, so it wasn’t written for me, it was just fortuitous – but she has always been one of those people who has fascinated me ever since I was aware of her. To get the chance to really delve into who she was and her relationship with fashion and with Lee McQueen was really interesting.
Can you give anything away about what kind of Isabella we will see on stage?
It’s the dead Isabella coming back and it’s the conversation that I would imagine both she and Alexander McQueen would have wanted to have had. For him, it was said after her death that he didn’t stop crying for two months. He kept three photos of her by his bed, her death really affected him. They had an odd relationship for the last few years of her life. She was obsessed with him, she was obsessed with his clothes and she loved him dearly, but he was also very cruel to her, so I wonder whether there was a feeling of guilt that he had carried around with him – and actually when she did finally kill herself after she tried on a number of occasions in this grand way, I think there was something that really fractured in him. In a way there’s something quite pleasing seeing them on stage together having a conversation.
Is it easier to play someone who’s real?
I think it adds more pressure. I have just written the third part of a trilogy for radio in which I play Anne Bancroft, around the making of The Graduate, and I think there is always a pressure to honour that person. Every time I have ever played somebody who was really there, I have always taken the idea an actor is not an impressionist. There is a pressure, but you go along the lines of doing my version of that person. Isabella Blow spoke in a very specific way, and she sat in a very specific way, and there are mannerisms which I can’t copy 100% accurately as I am not an impressionist, but hopefully I can make a version of it.
Is the story ideal for the stage?
I think John is such a visual director and he’s incorporating this into a whole event: the set, the design, there are dancers, there’s music, so it’s becoming a theatrical experience rather than a linear narrative play.
You have a really extensive stage background Tracy-Ann – does it remain an important medium to you?
It’s ironic, being in the rehearsal room with John [Caird, the director of McQueen], he gave me my first job out of drama school at the RSC in The Beggar’s Opera and I haven’t worked with him since. It is important for me to do theatre. I do a lot of TV, and I write a lot now, but there is something about rehearsing a new play in particular which is really exciting, it’s the meat and bones of the industry for me, it’s about creating something. There’s something very alchemical about it, you have words on a page and it’s about a group experience, you are putting flesh to these words and making a world and a character live that up to this point only existed in that writer’s head, so it feels very exciting. If I can, I do a play a year.
How did you find the initial jump from stage work to the screen?
My first screen job was a comedy. So having been working in Shakespeare solidly and then doing that… It was odd. It was a multi-cammed sitcom and was something that they didn’t teach us at drama school and it was quite nerve-wracking. I remember on my first day thinking ‘I don’t know how this works’ and an actor called Oscar James took me through it. Then I did a series called Bob Martin and that was a single camera and shot on film, and I remember then being really nervous. I was with Keith Allen, Denis Lawson, all these veteran actors, I did not have a clue as it was so different to the multi-cammed sitcom I had been doing. Then Denis Lawson took me under his wing… Every job you go on you are learning.
It’s nearly a decade since you first appeared in EastEnders. Was it a no-brainer for you to take the part of Chrissie Watts?
When I auditioned for it, I didn’t know what I was auditioning for, they always shroud with incredible secrecy [window is open]. I was just told it was the wife of a well established character, so I thought it was Ian Beale’s wife, then I went down for a screen test, got shortlisted, so I think I was one of the few people to be cast in a very big role and from the start to being on set was nine days. Mine was not the usual route. Normally they workshop people for a long time to get the chemistry.
I was a bit nervous because at the time of going into the soap there was a lot of tabloid interest in it and I went into it at the height of I guess what now people would call ‘hacking gate’ so it was a big change on your personal life going into the soap at that stage because there were not as many reality shows, so the tabloids were more interested in soaps. But it was a no brainer because she was a wonderful character, I got to work with Leslie [Grantham] – I always remembered those episodes with him an Angie back in the day, he was an iconic character. I didn’t know how the part was going to play out, but it was really exciting and I was glad I did it. Chrissie Watts was a very good character and I am really delighted that she ended up being who she was. She seemed to be remembered in the public consciousness, people who watched it at the time really bought into who that character was. It gave me a platform and a profile to be able to do the writing and the things I wanted to do.
How did it change your life?
Massively and I don’t think I appreciated it at the time. But – and this is really true – going into a soap, particularly EastEnders, is like jumping on a very fast moving train. I literally had nine days to get my head around it, I had eight scripts arriving and normally that’s what you get for a series… You had no time to process the fact that it’s going to change your life. I remember the screening of the first night, I walked downstairs from my flat to go to meet a friend for a drink, and two cars stopped and people jumped out and took photos. So, yes, your life changes beyond belief overnight. I was very lucky and people were always very lovely to me. People were very respectful, they knew the difference between Tracy and Chrissie… EastEnders is watched everywhere in the world. We were in a tiny little village in India, they had one TV in the whole village, and they used to watch EastEnders on the world service. I had to sit down with the entire village and talk about the murder of Dirty Den. It was quite remarkable.
We would be here for some time talking about all of your roles, but as a fellow Whovian, how exciting was it to be involved in the show?
I was always a Doctor Who fan as a kid. That was the one for me. I got a phone call from Russell [T Davies], saying I have written this part and we’d love you to have to a look at it. I couldn’t believe my luck, I got to be with the Cybermen and the Daleks, and I knew David Tennant, so for me to be on the set of Doctor Who was an extraordinary thrill.
You are a keen writer too Tracy… How do you fit it all in?
As a mum of a young child, I don’t quite know how I do it! I am somebody who works well under pressure, I will quite often do it after she has gone to bed or I write on set, but I just write whenever I have a gap. I have a good editor who always says to me get this in, this is your homework, so I know my deadlines… I am writing four things at the moment!
McQueen runs from 12 May ay St James Theatre – see more at mcqueentheplay.com