Interview (Part I): Eva McKenna Talks Be My Baby

Katy McKenna, Equity name Eva McKenna, has been on my radar since she stole the show in Be My Baby with her performance as Delores (review here). If I’d written about the best casts and creatives of shows from 2016 as I’ve done for 2017 this year (read it here), she most definitely would have been my one to watch. So I caught up with her last week to find out about this actress very much with her head in the game, a deep love of her craft and full of charm and energy despite having just finished what must have been an exhausting stint as Cinderella…

8F0FFC95-6FB7-487A-8FB3-B712EAFD6BDB.pngLet’s start at the beginning – how long have you been playing the acting game now and how did you catch the acting bug?

I’ve been doing it all my life – I started dancing at eighteen months and I think I did my first professional show at nine. So I did a few professional tours and shows before I went into training and then I graduated in 2014. It just feels like forever – in a nice way!

What was your nine-year-old day début?

Well let me think… I’ve done a Christmas Carol, I’ve done Carousel for the UK productions, but I can’t remember which one came first! I’m going to say A Christmas Carol, I think. That was my first big one. What else have I done? I’ve done Joseph – but everybody’s Joseph!

Well I don’t think they let you graduate from childhood if you don’t! So, tell me about Be My Baby and how you came to be cast as Delores.

(Heartfelt) It was so good – it was a really long time coming. I’d known that the producer was putting it on a few years prior, so a while before it actually went on stage. I got my mum to print the script for me at work and I had my eye on the character I wanted and I read it and read it and read it – you know when you get obsessed with something? I had it in my room for two years and when it came to it I got the part – I had the script and I had it all highlighted so I was like boom! I’m good to go. It was a brilliant experience. So there were four of us; three girls and myself and two older ladies, so six girls, which you’d think would be a nightmare, but it wasn’t, it was just brilliant.

I remember seeing pictures on Twitter at the time and you seemed like you were having having a really good time.

Yeah, we really did. We’re still friends now – we talk all the time. It was just really really special. I’m really lucky in that everything I’ve done, I’ve got on really well with everyone – I’ve never had a job where I haven’t clicked with somebody. We all say that that (play) was just really special and we had a special connection. It was lovely.

AC2F1E8B-68D0-4611-80BF-743C8EC72F98.pngDol is such an important character in that play, for both the comedy and the drama – how did you find that balance in playing that role? 

It always shocked me – well, for the first couple of times I performed it in front of an audience – when she does the speech in Act 2 when the audience find out that her pregnancy is the result of being raped – I’d start the speech, and it would always get a laugh, and then when the audience started to process what I was saying, it would go really quiet. I remember just looking out and thinking everybody is really clinging onto what I’m saying. I think sometimes if you have a funny character, they expect everything to be funny and it just takes a sharp turn where it’s like oh, this isn’t funny anymore. This is super sad. I wanted to make her funny, and she is so funny, but you almost felt a little bit sorry for her. On one of the nights, completely by accident, I’d been for a wee, and I’d come back and my dress was stuck in my knickers and nobody had told me. I went on stage and they were laughing at me, then Brooke said ‘your dress is stuck in your knickers you idiot’. I was like oh no, but then that’s exactly the kind of dozy she is. She is funny but then when she comes out with that monologue in the second half, it’s like – oh yeah, it’s easier to feel sympathy for her because you’ve always felt a bit soft towards her because she is quite a fragile character anyway.

So you were very conscious of showing both sides – to get the laughs first and then to drop down into the back story.

Yeah, I didn’t want her to be two-dimensional and I did struggle with that at the start. Before I even got into the rehearsal room I’d decided that she didn’t have my voice, she had a really northern-y voice. I’d found the voice and I’d found the character, but I wanted her to be more than a voice; I needed her to be fully rounded otherwise it was just going to fall to pieces. I think our director was amazing- Kirsty Davies- she really helped me to find that roundedness, rather than it just being me putting on a silly voice and a walk.

A42BFF48-9536-412E-BB0F-9A50121BAFE5.pngHow much did you delve into the history of it when you were preparing for the role?

So much! Everyone laughed at me but I made a scrapbook of the time – I knew what the sixties was in my head; I knew the fashions but I needed to know everything so I started collecting things like pictures of people’s living rooms and people’s kitchens, streets and back gardens because I needed to know. My character wasn’t from a rich family, or even a middle class family, she was from a working class family, and I needed to know where she’d come from, and what things looked like in her house and her street. I looked at fashion, then I looked at what fashion would be for people who couldn’t afford the fashion. So I had this scrapbook, looking into everything she’d be into, like the music – I looked at every song released in – I think it was ‘64 that the play was set in – so I looked at the music she’d have been clued up on from 1963 because once she was in that home, she wouldn’t have listened to new music being released. For me, and I’ll definitely do it again if I do something set in, you know, ‘the olden days’ – even though this wasn’t really set that long ago. It’s really helpful for me to have visual images and people were going ah, you’re such a swot! But it was just so helpful to be able to flick a page and see it all.

The show dealt with some interesting issues and social history – did you have some awareness of the young mother’s homes around at the time – had you looked at it in school like I did?

I knew of it, I don’t think I’d done it in school but I’d seen the film The Magdalene Sisters, so I knew about it happening in Ireland, but I didn’t know a lot about it happening everywhere. The more I spoke to people about it though, like my grandma and other people that I knew – everyone was like yeah, it was a thing – and it was a big thing. I read loads of books – there’s loads of factual and fictional books on it which are really good. Online, it’s really sad because when you start looking, you see that there are still people looking for their parents in forums and online chat rooms, so when you delve into that you see that it’s still so relevant. There was a film I watched as well – Philomena, and that was great to see that happening now, that’s a newly released film – there’s people out there still looking so it was really sad to look into that and to research people’s struggles.

It really is such an interesting play. So after the pinafores were put away and Dol made her final exit, where did you land next?

Oooh, what did I do after that? I think I finished in the October/ November and I went straight into Panto – I do a lot of panto, so I went to play Snow White for the Christmas Season, which was definitely a change. I was having this conversation with a friend the other day – the thing is that you get pigeon-holed so easily. If you do a panto, you can’t possibly do a straight play because that’s where you belong: in panto. That really annoys me because it’s difficult to get seen for things because I do panto. Some people say, oh get that off your CV, but you know, it’s really hard doing panto and I think it was quite a jump going from so much effort in my mind (playing Dol in Be My Baby) – it really drained me mentally, then I went into panto and it was so much fun. Yes, it was still hard work, but in a different way. I just think that’s something that we need to have a conversation about – getting pigeon-holed – I mean, isn’t it the point of being an actor that you just play whatever you can play?

2FA48E9D-8C45-4081-B302-954413B4F97E.pngYou’ve just finished playing Cinderella at Thwaites Empire Theatre in Blackburn, – and you’ve done Snow White as well – have you been the lead in others?

Yes – I’ve just finished (playing Cinderella). I’ve done Snow White, Cinderella, Belle (in Beauty and the Beast), Maid Marion in Robin Hood in Easter just gone and I’ve played the fairy a couple of times before as well.

So you’re a pro in panto!

Yes! (Laughs)

But they do still need to see you for the others (genres)…

They do.

Do you currently have anything in the pipeline for your next role on stage or will it be a case of hanging up the glass slippers and enjoying a little break?

I’m not having a break – I’m never having a break, I’m such a psycho. Today I’ve been sending off emails to everybody and anybody who will look at them. I’ve not got anything at the minute lined up but I’m constantly emailing people –

– so it’s a case of watch this space?

Yeah, exactly.

Do you have dream roles for the future or are you more interested in new writing and originating roles?

I’ve definitely got dream roles, but with some of them, I’ll say to my friends oh I’m running out of time, but I’m not running out of time at all! My biggest dream roles would be Nina in The Seagull, Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – if I’m going to push the boat out – I’d love to play Eponine in Les Mis, but I feel like that ship has sailed as I’m not trained in musical theatre.

But in doing panto, you must sing?

I do sing, yes – I’ve has a couple of auditions for West End musicals and it always really shocks me how I can get in the room for them but not for more serious things. I’d love that (playing Eponine) – but that’s been the big one since…I came out of my mum! (Big, somewhat stunned laughs here at this choice of phrase, I won’t tell a lie – she’s a gem!)

I think I already know the answer to this, but maybe not – do you find yourself more drawn to comic or dramatic roles – I mean there’s often a cross-over, but what are you primarily drawn to?

I do love the comic roles – I did a play in the summer just gone at The Royal Court in Liverpool and that was a farce (called Omnibus). I’d never done a farce before and it was so silly and so much fun, every night was different – it was still the same script and the same direction but there’s so much room to play and play and play. I do love that. I’ve also played some really dramatic roles where there’s been no laughs and that is so rewarding in a different way. But I do think that I am a comic actress – I think that’s where my strength lies.

9C6C2F23-FCD8-4D9E-AF15-1843F6DE4189.pngWhat would you say has been your biggest triumph to date?

Probably Be My Baby and playing at The Royal Court – and The Royal Court was somewhere that I’d always wanted to work, especially as I live quite near to Liverpool. I was always told I’ll never get into the Royal Court, it’s really hard; it’s one of those places you just can’t get in. Then I ended up getting an audition and I’d had about seven auditions in two weeks and I was getting loads of no’s, so I was like oh for God’s sake, I’ve got to go to another one now! I went in and I did the monologue once and the director said thank you very much and I thought oh yeah, another no. Then I got a call the next day saying that I’d got it and it was just a fantastic experience, everybody was so lovely to work with and I could’ve done the show for the rest of my life, it was so much fun. So I’d say that’s the best thing I’ve done – that and Be My Baby.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about pursuing an acting career?

It has to be your main focus. That’s not to say that you can’t have a life outside it because I think when I first graduated, I was such a bore and my friends would be like oh, do you want to do this? And I’m like, no, I can’t leave the house because I might get an audition. I was really strict – I thought I can’t go anywhere in case I need that money, in case I need to go somewhere or I need to buy something. But as time’s gone on, I’ve freed myself up a lot more and I’ve found that you can have a life and do the job, but you can’t just sit and wait for things to happen, you have to be so proactive – without being annoying – and I don’t know if I’ve got that balance (laughs). I think you have to make your contacts and keep in contact with people and save your money because before you know it, you’re gonna need new headshots, you’re gonna need new show reels. I mean I’ve had my agent call me up on a Sunday saying I’m really sorry but you’ve got an audition tomorrow and it’s in London – so I can’t get cheap seats and it’s £80. So I need to make sure that I’ve got that money saved somewhere so I can do it – I’m always wary of what I’m spending, and I’m always wary of what I’m doing because there’s always going to be a time, and it’s always when you’re skint, that something needs renewing; your Spotlight, your Equity – something’s going to come out of the bank and you’re thinking oh why did I got on that night out and buy fifty Jägerbombs?!

Head over to Part II to find out what Eva thinks theatre needs right now, what irks her about etiquette…and for tales on on stage mishaps! Why not look Eva up in Twitterland too? Handle: @EvaMarieMcKenna

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