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20 Questions With ... Dawn Steele

Actor Dawn Steele – now touring in David Harrower's controversial Olivier Award-winning play Blackbird – talks about high emotions, Monarch of the Glen, National Theatre of Scotland’s impact & the links between football & Shakespeare.

By • West End


Dawn Steele is perhaps best known for playing Lexie on the BBC television series Monarch of the Glen. Her theatre work includes Tutti Frutti for the National Theatre of Scotland, Rainbow Kiss at the Royal Court, The Slab Boys at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and Electra and Medea for Theatre Babel.

Steele's other television credits include True Dare Kiss, Sea of Souls and The Key. She has also appeared on film in Gregory’s Two Girls, The Debt Collector and Surveillance.

Steele is currently travelling the country in a nationwide tour of David Harrower's Blackbird, which premiered at the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival – directed by Peter Stein and starring Jodhi May and Roger Allam - and won last year’s Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play following that production’s 2007 West End transfer.

Harrower's play follows Ray and Una as they meet for the first time following a passionate love affair 15 years earlier, when Una was just 12 years old. Blackbird had its US premiere at New York’s Manhattan Theater Club in October 2007 and recently premiered in Sydney directed by Cate Blanchett. In the new UK touring production, directed by David Grindley, Steele stars opposite Robert Daws.


Date & place of birth
Born 11 December 1975 in Glasgow.

Lives now in
I live in Notting Hill, west London. I’ve been there about four, nearly five years.

What made you want to become an actor?
I would say I’ve always wanted to do it from a very young age. I know that’s quite a cliché, but I think it’s got to be in you from that young age to want to do this kind of weird job. I danced when I was younger, I did tap since I was about eight or even younger and we had lots of dance displays. That’s the only thing I can think of that it came from as my mum and dad aren’t remotely interested in acting really.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I spent a lot of time in the art room at school. I wasn’t really good at anything else, just drama and art, and English I suppose. I still like to draw - very occasionally, when I remember that I can actually do it. Maybe I would have gone to art school, though I don’t know if I was good enough. I’m quite a good waitress too - I think you’ve got to be to be an actor!

First big break
Monarch of the Glen definitely. I was so lucky to get it - I was straight out of drama school. I did it for five years. We filmed in the Highlands, a beautiful setting in the middle of nowhere with great people.

Career highlights to date
I did a play at the Royal Court recently which Richard Wilson directed called Rainbow Kiss. Well, I say recently but it was about two years ago now. The Royal Court is a great place to work, I had such a great time. Richard Wilson is definitely one of my favourite directors I’ve ever worked with and the cast were great as well. There were only four of us. All my scenes were with Joe McFadden who is one of my friends.

Favourite co-stars
I was very lucky to work with Ken Stott in The Key where he played my very horrible husband - but he isn’t a horrible man at all, he’s absolutely lovely. I was working with loads of other great people as well, like David Blair and Kevin McKidd. It was great. I also worked with Joe McFadden on Tutti Frutti, which was just great for all different reasons. There were 13 of us in the cast. It’s about a band and we really were a band by the end of it. It was with His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen, where we first opened it and then we went to Glasgow and Edinburgh. We rehearsed in Aberdeen for six weeks and then ran there for two weeks. We had quite a few good nights out bunched up there! It’s odd doing Blackbird when there’s only two of you so nowhere to run really.

Favourite playwrights
I’ve thought about this a lot. I’ve done some theatre obviously, but not absolutely loads. One playwright that I absolutely love is John Byrne who wrote Tutti Frutti. I also did Cutting a Rug, which was part of the Slab Boys Trilogy at the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh with John. He is just one of the most lovely men I’ve ever met. He was a huge part of Tutti Frutti. He was there absolutely every day of rehearsal continually changing, giving new lines, cutting lines as it was always a work in progress and I think it still is. The way he writes is just unbelievable, I’ve never come across anybody else like it. It’s very difficult to learn as an actor, but once you have it, it’s satisfying. It takes you back almost to drama school days where you’ve really got to think about your breathing and inclination. You’ve got to take a big breath before you get through any of John’s lines. He is just so fantastic, so original and wacky. A lot of it’s very Glaswegian and that’s why some of it works so well.

Favourite directors
In theatre, I have worked with Richard Wilson who I love and Tony Cownie who did Tutti Frutti and a panto at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow which I was in recently. Tony’s very good to work with. We get each other really. I think that’s true of a lot of directors, they only have to say a couple of words to you and you’re like “oh right, I get what you mean”. Television wise, I think David Blair has been totally brilliant to work with. I’ve done a couple of things with him, including The Key.

What was the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last?
I remember the first thing that had an impact on me was at drama school in my first year. That’s when it all really starts getting opened up to you. It was a production of Oedipus which the second-year students did and an actor called Mark Bonnar was playing Oedipus. I ran into Mark the other week at the Olivier Awards. I’ve literally not seen him since drama school and it made me think about the production. I remember being first year and having just started, and then being completely blown away by it. The last thing I saw was probably Wicked which I totally loved. I was in tears throughout the whole of it. I suppose it’s talent that really makes me get all teary-eyed, especially with musicals. People that can do all that … they’re just so good. I can’t wait to go and see it again.

What's the best advice you have ever received?
My mum always say “what’s for you, will not go by you”. I think you have to try and keep a level head like when you’re doing acting as a job. There will be lots of times when you won’t be working and it’s difficult - for your confidence and for your mortgage. There are so many things I’ve gone for and not got, but when you actually see them you think, “oh yeah, I wasn’t actually right for that, you know”. You just have to trust your instincts and go with the twists and turns in this job. If you don’t get one thing, there’s probably something else for you out there which will be just as good.

Are there any parts you would particularly like to play?
I’ve never done any Shakespeare professionally. I did some at drama school. We toured around schools with Romeo and Juliet, but we put a different twist on it. It was updated and we based it a lot on Rangers and Celtic for the Montagues and the Capulets rivalry. It was for the 13- to 16-year-olds and I played Mercutio, which is usually played by a man. In my professional career, which has not been very long, only about ten years, I’ve not had a chance to do any Shakespeare. If that came along at the right point, I would love to do it.

Favourite books
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I’ve seen the film recently as well and thought it was amazing. It was quite a difficult one to put onto film. I wondered how they were going to do, it but I loved the film just as much as I loved the book. I read so many books on holiday and I’ve come back and I’ve not read anything because I’m so busy learning lines. It goes in stops and starts with books.

Favourite holiday destinations
My boyfriend and I went to Goa and had a fantastic time. We went for two weeks after I’d finished panto. In this job you don’t really get your two weeks holiday every summer so I’m always going away about Christmas time and I always have to try and go a bit further away to get the sun. I’ve been to the Maldives and Barbados but I really, really fell in love with India. I didn’t want to do the backpacking thing as I’d just been doing so many shows, so we really had a relaxing laze on the beach all day.

Your career has taken you to both stage & screen. Do you have a preference?
I don’t really have a preference. In the past couple of years I’ve done loads of theatre. Sometimes you’re never happy. When you’re doing telly you want to do theatre, and when you’re doing theatre you want to do telly. The two of them are so different you can’t really compare them. I think it’s just good to try and have a mix and that’s what I am trying to do in my career – I try to remember it’s a marathon and not a sprint.

You appeared on Comic Relief Does Fame Academy. Was it strange to be appearing as yourself rather than taking on a character?
Very strange. I probably would think twice about doing it again. It was for Comic Relief and you have to keep telling yourself that. I know everyone says “oh it was for charity”, but you know for me I had to make a pretty quick decision whether I wanted to be involved with it or not. I didn’t quite realise how nerve-wracking it would be, but when you heard how much money was raised just from getting on stage and singing it was worth it. I must admit, it was one of the most frightening things I have ever done. I can sing a bit, but I’m not a singer.

You’ve worked with the National Theatre of Scotland on a few productions. What affect to you think it’s had on Scottish theatre?
The NTS has been totally amazing for Scotland, brilliant. Black Watch has been all over the world, sure, but it’s been great within Scotland, never mind travelling about. My experience within the NTS has been with Tutti Frutti mainly and also Home Edinburgh. I think it’s opened this whole new world for people that maybe wouldn’t normally get to the theatre. They’ve taken things like Venus as a Boy all over Scotland, way up to the Highlands and to the islands which is great.

Why did you want to accept the role of Una in Blackbird?
I read the play before, and really loved it, but I didn’t see the original, the Peter Stein production. It’s an amazing piece to read, you don’t want to put it down, you want to know what happens. I went for a meeting with the producer and I went and met the director, David Grindley, who was absolutely lovely. It was one of those things that would have been very silly of me to turn down because it’s just such a great part in a great play with a great director. Fear nearly made me not do it because it’s quite an undertaking and there are a lot of lines, probably the most I have ever done. But I’m up for the challenge.

What’s the play about?
It’s about a man and a woman who haven’t seen each other for 15 years, and 15 years ago they had an illicit love affair - he was an older man and she was an underage girl - and they’ve not seen each other since. She comes to find out if he remembers her, what he does remember, what he doesn’t. I suppose she wants to try and sort out a few things in her head. It’s about them. It’s almost like a boxing ring with those two flogging it out and raking over the past.

How does this new production differ from the original?
I can’t really comment as I didn’t see Peter Stein’s production, but I know it was quite stylised. We’re taking a different approach, including a different ending. Even if you have seen it before, it would be worthwhile coming to see it again because it’s such a different take.

What’s your favourite line from Blackbird?
There are loads of brilliant lines in this play. I would say probably the main one is Una speaking to Ray when she says “You left me, you left me in love”, which is very resonant to the whole play. It’s one of the bits that really gets to me every time I say it.

The play is intense & emotional. Is it difficult to summon the energy to perform the part every night?
That’s the challenge of doing theatre as opposed to television. You’ve got to keep doing the same thing every night and try and get that head, that emotional state every night, but you’ve got the whole play to do it in, if that makes sense. On television, you have to just turn up, do your scene and then move on to another scene which is maybe four episodes down the line. It’s a different skill.

- Dawn Steele was speaking to Kate Jackson


This new production of Blackbird opened on 31 March 2008 at the Rose Theatre in Kingston and is at Cambridge’s Arts Theatre this week (15-19 April). It continues on tour until 14 June 2008, visiting Oxford, Malvern, Windsor, Bath and Salford.


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