Ellen Thomas: 'You have to go to America for leading roles these days'
As the EastEnders actress takes on the lead role in a new play by Bonnie Greer, Ellen Thomas talks soaps, theatre and why America is where it's at
"Excuse me, could we have a picture taken with you?" Two slightly sheepish young men have sidled up to Ellen Thomas in the middle of our interview and put in a request. When she says yes, they beam, delighted that she's so forthcoming. But it's not just them who are beaming, Thomas herself laughs loud with glee. "I love people asking for pictures!" she says.
That's lucky, because she gets asked all the time. The EastEnders star even gets shouted at when she's walking down the street. It comes with the territory of creating a role like Claudette Hubbard, the naughty, sexy matriarchal troublemaker who has been appearing on the BBC soap since 2015.
Thomas has just taken a break from EastEnders, although she assures me that Claudette will return, and has run straight into the lead role of a brand new play by Bonnie Greer, based on The Cherry Orchard and staged at Theatre Royal Stratford East. She plays another matriarch, but one at the opposite end of the spectrum to Walford's Claudette. Anita Mountjoy is living in modern Michigan and is the owner of a hotel steeped in history.
Does it ever get weary having to pose for photos?
No, I love it, I think there was only once where I drew the line because I was eating and I had a mouthful of food, which wouldn't have made a great picture.
You've had a long association with EastEnders – you've played four characters, the first back in 1990…
Yes, sometimes I forget the first one. But it was Pearl, who came to take her grandson on Christmas day.
Has the process of filming EastEnders changed a lot?
Not really, it's still very much the same, except now we do Saturdays. And we also work a lot in the lead up to Christmas so we can then have Christmas week and New Year week off. That is priceless. But it is really hard work – sometimes its eight to ten days in a row and you have to get there at seven in the morning. And if it's your core storyline then you do something called triple banking which means you have three episodes in your head at once.
The theatre must be a very different type of pressure…
Yes, very different. Especially in terms of learning my lines. I don't like learning cuts - when you learn it and then the script is cut. I'd rather wait until there are no cuts, but then it gets close to opening. With a TV series the scripts are like gold dust. You turn up, go off into a corner and get ten minutes with it. It's like muscle memory.
This play seemed to be very well timed with you leaving EastEnders...
Yes, it was serendipity at play. The producers and I had begun talk about a story break with Claudette on EastEnders and within a week of that talk Femi Elufowoju the director rang my agent on spec in case I had a break in filming or something. When we sat down and they offered it to me, I thought "Is the Pope Catholic?! Yes!"
Presumably the dressing rooms at Theatre Royal Stratford East aren't as nice as those on EastEnders?
No. No… It's theatre...!
You last did a play five years ago, is it nice to be back?
You can't beat it. What I love about theatre is the direct communication you have with the audience. No matter what is going on in your life, the moment you step into that auditorium and the lights come up you have to leave it all behind. The challenge is to make the audience forget whatever they have going on in their lives and just be in [the story]. I totally love that. With television you do several different takes and it's always the director and the editor's choice. Onstage, once the director has handed it over to the actors, the reins are in your hands.
In Hotel Cerise you play Anita who is also a strong matriarch figure… is she like Claudette?
If Claudette is A, then Anita is Z. Anita is middle class, sensitive, educated, she is classy, she has poise and diplomacy and decorum. She is a lover and Claudette is a fighter. But I love Claudette. The woman is amazing. She doesn't suffer fools gladly, she's ballsy, she's sexy, what's not to love?
The play is set in modern America, do Trump and Clinton feature?
Yes! The Trump/Clinton situation is happening in the background. It's the undercurrent. The election will happen while we're onstage too, it's history!
Has the script changed as the election develops?
No, Bonnie [Greer] has created a rich tapestry of a play, which has touches of what's happening in America – Obama, the rise in gun crime, Trump and Clinton.
How closely is it based on The Cherry Orchard?
It's inspired by the original, but only inspired. Anita is returning to her family hotel after having been away in Paris for four years. In the play, the hotel was a place where black celebrities of the 50s and 60s could come and be treated like royalty. Remember, back then you might be Billie Holiday but often you couldn't use the front door. In the Hotel Cerise, you would get five star treatment and perform there too. It's whether Anita can turn the place round so it works for modern America. So get your Jay Zs and Beyonces there.
Anita seems to be a great role for a woman – and a black woman – are there enough parts like this in Britain?
No. If you want the leading role, it's beginning to look like you have to go to America because those roles are not available to us in Britain. I feel very blessed to get this part now. I am thinking of heading to America, but I am going to wait to see how the Trump/Clinton election plays out, as they could all be coming over here…
Will you definitely be going back to EastEnders?
They've said: "We've left the door open, she's coming back and if we weren't interested, we'd kill her off!" So I think six months, nine months – something like that. Hopefully she'll come back with fresh trouble because that's what Claudette majors in.
The Hotel Cerise runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East from 24 October to 12 November.