As Kara Tointon prepares to make her West End debut in Pygmalion, she tells Caroline Bishop about the fairytale year that has transformed her from soap star to leading lady.
It’s official: performing on a West End stage for the first time is harder than trekking 100k across Kenya’s Kaisut Desert in 38 degree heat.
Well, as Kara Tointon, who has now done both, admits, “they are two completely different things.” Nevertheless, the actress-turned-dancer-turned-desert-trekker certainly keeps giving herself new challenges, and the next always seems more difficult than the last. “Honestly every job I do this year I always say ‘oh this is the hardest thing I’ve done’ and every job seems to top it!”
It has certainly been a busy and varied 12 months for the former EastEnders actress. Last autumn she entered the eighth series of Strictly Come Dancing, eventually being crowned champion along with her professional partner – and now boyfriend – Russian dancer Artem Chigvintsev. In February she helped raise over £1.3million for Comic Relief with that five day trek across the desert, and now she is making her West End debut in the Chichester Festival Theatre transfer of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, alongside such theatrical veterans as Rupert Everett and Diana Rigg. Tointon, it seems, doesn’t do things by halves.
“It wasn’t until last night I thought ‘God, this is a really big part for me’ and suddenly I thought ‘oh don’t think about it because it will put me off!’” she says brightly over the phone the morning after her first preview at the Garrick theatre. “Now we’ve started and we have two weeks of previews so I guess I’ve learnt that apparently that’s the time that you iron out all the bits that you want to get right.”
"I’m surrounded by all these fantastically well spoken actors, so I hope it’s rubbing off on me"
The innocence of the statement shows just how much of a stage ingénue the 28-year-old is. Though she has been working as an actress since she was 11, Pygmalion is her first major stage role, her only previous theatrical experience coming as a youngster in school productions and in a 2009 pantomime in Bristol.
But then perhaps being a stage novice is a virtue for the part of Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, who is picked as a project by Henry Higgins, the phonetics professor who bets he can turn her into a lady by changing her accent. Eliza is fresh-faced and mouldable, honest and upfront, all of which could describe Tointon as she talks to me today, in her own mild Estuary twang. Tointon, like Eliza, is learning from her elders, director Philip Prowse and actors Everett and Rigg – “sometimes I just want to sit down and watch them and then ‘oh God I’ve got to join in!’” – and she makes no attempt to hide the fact that this is a new world for her, with a very different rehearsal process from the fast-paced nature of television she is used to. “We got to talk about it and every day make it better and discuss things, and I just loved that because it was something that I haven’t had for a long time.”
But there are other reasons why the phrase ‘perfect casting’ has floated around the press since Tointon’s participation was announced. Firstly, it is because the role for which she is best known, Dawn in EastEnders, shows she can play a working class Londoner who scrubs up nicely, but also it is because her winning stint on Strictly Come Dancing elevated her from soap star to glamorous Russian princess, the modern-day equivalent of Eliza’s rise from rough diamond to refined society lady.
“I guess I can see why people say that,” Tointon agrees, “because I’m what people think [of as an] East End girl, and then last year doing Strictly… it’s a fairytale really, I guess last year was my fairytale year. Very cheesy but that’s the way I look at it.”
Whatever the reasons, starring in Pygmalion gives Tointon the chance to prove she is more than a soap actress and reality show winner. “That’s always been my dream really, to do theatre,” she says.
Not that she feels she has anything to prove. Though stage has had to wait until now, Tointon has learnt to be comfortable in the career choices she has made to date, even if she is aware of the casting challenges faced by those coming out of a long-running soap role. “I knew that going into something like that [EastEnders], it’s lovely while you’re in it but I knew when I left it would really leave me in an awkward situation and I think everyone does know that, because people have seen you as that character and it’s really difficult.”
"You have to go with the opportunities that you’re given and make the best of them"
But the potential for pigeonholing should be weighed alongside a soap’s ability to give an actor the nearest equivalent to a nine to five job. By the time EastEnders came along in 2005, Tointon had been a jobbing actress since the age of 16 and was “ready for something to be comfortable”.
“I’ve always thought, ‘oh God maybe I went the wrong direction’” she adds, “but I don’t think you can have regrets. Me and my sister are both actresses but we’ve had no one in our family do this before us, and it just means that instead of learning through your parents’ mistakes, this has been a trial and error situation. It’s hard to know what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s best for you, but at the end of the day I think you have to go with the opportunities that you’re given and make the best of them.”
Her parents did their best to give her those opportunities. Tointon puts her success down to the fact that “I’ve had the best parents you could ask for really. A lot of people would love to go into this industry but without the right sort of support behind you it’s really difficult, it’s sometimes not realistic, but they are so supportive.”
Brought up in Essex, Tointon was interested in acting from an early age and spent her childhood going to elocution lessons and drama classes, a useful grounding for the spectrum of accents demanded by the role of Eliza: “I’ve always loved doing different accents and different voices and mimicking people, doing impressions.” Never particularly academic at school – she was also diagnosed with dyslexia – she favoured “art and drama and all those things”. At age 11, she joined the Sylvia Young Agency, which began to send her for professional auditions. “It was just a hobby, I didn’t take it too seriously, but it wasn’t until I left school at 16 that I thought ‘this is what I want to do’.” Even then, she decided to go to art college, until her hobby intervened and she gave up college for a three-month acting job. “I wanted to go to drama school but then it would have meant giving up working. I just thought, you know what, you learn so much on the job. I just went with it and I’ve been really – touch wood – lucky.”
She was lucky, too, in joining Strictly Come Dancing soon after leaving EastEnders. Despite being a huge fan of the show it was another job she deliberated over, worrying that it would be hard for her to get acting roles after being on a reality show. “But now I’ve realised that because I was in EastEnders maybe it [Strictly] was an ok thing for me to do because it took me out of being the character I was playing. And I’ve realised not to worry so much. I was so worried about it but it ended up being the best time of my life. Actually [I’ve learnt] just to have a good time sometimes and not be so caught up in what’s right, wrong and what people think.”
Unlike some who have been exposed to the media spotlight that comes with soap acting and reality television, Tointon is very open about her life. Sometimes, she has had no choice. Falling for Chigvintsev on live television was one such instance. Though the pair tried to keep it under wraps – she says because they didn’t want to make public what could have been a “holiday romance”, even though they knew it was probably more than that – the closeness between the two was obvious to most Strictly viewers, and confirmed with a kiss on winning the famous glitterball. Now she speaks freely about him, saying she loves his Russian accent and discussing the visa difficulties that meant he has only just got back to the UK after an enforced sojourn in LA.
"I guess last year was my fairytale year. Very cheesy but that’s the way I look at it"
She speaks openly, too, about her dyslexia, to the point that she made a BBC documentary on the subject last year. Is she too open? “I thought, now I’m voluntarily saying that I find it hard to read. No one will ever give me a part!” she laughs. “But I decided to do it because I thought, well I’m not really afraid of being honest. Actually it was quite a learning curve for me because I thought I knew everything there is to know on dyslexia when in fact I learnt so much while doing that documentary. It’s been one of the most positive things I’ve done.”
She says she didn’t realise how slow she was to learn lines until she made the programme. Now she has techniques she can use to overcome it and special glasses with green lenses which help her read. “I’ve changed the way I see dyslexia. I didn’t realise it was something to do with how unorganised I was. My family was always going ‘I wonder if this is do with the dyslexia’ and I was like, ‘no that’s just a personality trait.’ But it is, and that was quite nice to find that out, so I have an excuse!”
It seems learning to deal with dyslexia was just another step in what has been one big learning curve for Tointon over the past few years. As it continues with Pygmalion, perhaps her transformation into theatrical leading lady will leave a permanent mark on this malleable Essex girl. “I’m surrounded by all these fantastically well spoken actors, so I hope it’s rubbing off on me,” she says. “It’s not that I want to get rid of my Essex accent but I’ve always loved people that speak well. Personally I would love to speak with Diana Rigg’s voice all the time!”