18 February 2020
You played the starring role in Oliver aged 12 in the West End, when did you first become a member of Equity?
You had to be 15 and have 24 weeks to get a full card; otherwise, you got a provisional one. I turned up with all my contracts and immediately got full membership. That was an amazing badge to be an Equity member.
Of course, young members often get asked to become the Equity dep. And I was a zealot, I was in there chasing members for subs. The first show I was on as an Equity member was Peter Pan. By that time I’d appeared in the West End, about five times. I’d done television and films, so it was an opportunity. But of course, child actors often fall off the edge and don’t develop into adult ones.
Was sustaining a career a concern from an early age?
It was at the forefront of my mind because I left school aged 12 when I was discovered at school impersonating Eartha Kitt, and somehow they made a strange connection between Eartha Kitt and Oliver.
Going into the real world, I was looking at people who had gone to drama school, and for a long time, I felt threatened by them. The way they could argue and discuss texts because I came to things emotionally, I still do. I think it’s why I’m passionate about what I believe in.
You became a household name as Colin Russell on EastEnders where you shared the first gay kiss on British TV. How significant was that moment for you? Did you think it would have the impact it did?
It grabbed the nation, and in those days we only had four TV channels, we were going out to 11 million people an episode. The tabloids went berserk. There were questions in Parliament as to why with AIDS and HIV, quote: “swirling around like a gay plague,” the BBC was putting homosexuals into a family show?
Did I realise that it would affect our lives? Did I realise that it would put appalling pressure on my relationship? Did I think it would result in bricks coming through our window? No. But we’ve got to go with our instinct and our principles.
When the government introduced the first anti-gay law in a hundred years, from being in that show, I knew I had to be on that march. And there were Equity members and a brilliant gathering of artists, directors, writers, choreographers, set designers, to condemn Section 28. It was the reaction from the arts industries, in particular, that got such high traction in the media. It was a defining moment.
That’s how I ended up in politics, and as an officer of the union, helping to push through the pension scheme, which some of our colleagues thought would never happen.
How has the actor’s craft helped your activist and political career?
In activism and politics, if you have acting skills, you can pretend you’re not frightened, you can pretend that you know. Still, more importantly, you have the imagination to stand in the shoes of somebody else. That’s when you can make a difference. There are a lot of actors fascinated by politics, and many politicians fascinated by actors and acting. When somebody asks me, “When’s your next performance?” I say, “The next time I’m in the chamber!”
Can dramas still make a social and cultural impact in the way EastEnders did in the 1980s?
EastEnders took a leap into the dark, and the BBC showed great courage, not least when I was campaigning as well as appearing in it. Not once did they ever say, “Step back, pull away.” But we collectively changed the landscape because after that the kiss had been done. It’s what’s called leadership and vision. Yes, there are progressive elements still all around us, but we need to refresh the journey that we’ve all been on. Because a lot of what we have is being taken for granted.
What do the arts and acting do brilliantly?
They open up young minds to possibilities. If I hadn’t discovered that the world of entertainment behind the shabby, red stage curtain in my school, I think I would’ve ended up in prison because I was rebellious and I had energy. I knew I didn’t belong, I knew I was gay, I knew people didn’t want to be near me. Suddenly my drama master saw something and captured my energy, and opened my imagination, and I found a world where I could belong. Where I could fantasise. That’s why I’m passionate about the arts, and its access, particularly in state schools.
How do you feel Brexit will affect the performing industries from a mobility perspective?
Britain has a fantastic economy around the arts in all its different forms because we’re seen as a hub where you can come, try and experiment, you can get it right, you can get it wrong. Somebody said to me in New York, “We very rarely produce daring plays of our own. We look at what happens in the UK and then we bring it here.” I don’t want that to become affected, but equally, it’s how we dull the imagination of people who live here, by believing that the world exists within our borders. Absolutely not. The world exists where you feel less comfortable, more challenged, where things that you take for granted are starkly different. The fact that we will be preventing freedom of movement is a great sadness. But as ever, I think the artistic communities will overcome it, but at what expense?
You’ve just published your autobiography One of Them. Why did you choose now as the time to write your book, has it been long in the making?
Before Paul, my late husband, died he was encouraging me to write a biography because of all the enormous changes I’ve had in my life. The career changes as well as the political, and founding Stonewall. When he was diagnosed with a really aggressive and unusual cancer, everything got put on hold. When he died, it seemed to me that it was an opportunity to put down our story. If he’d been alive, he would’ve made me cut significant portions of it. “You can’t say that!” he would say.
But we lived through an amazing period. When we met it was illegal, he was 19 and I was 33. The age of consent was 21, and I wanted to write about when you are in a high-profile soap, what it does to people you love. It tests your family, and what tabloid exposure can do to you. And ultimately, it’s only love that sustains you, and if you’re lucky enough to be loved, you are changed forever.