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April 2021 / People / by Liz Skone James

Exclusive Interview: Katherine Kelly

Katherine Kelly reveals why she’s chosen a career path that allows her to embrace the chameleon in her character, and tells us about her role in the new series of Innocent.

Photography by Trisha Ward | Styling by Michelle Kelly | Hair & Make up by Charlotte Yeomans
Hair prep by Simon Webster | Skin Prep by Sarah Chapman

I catch up with Katherine a couple of days after our cover shoot. “It was such a joy to be able to do that and not be in continuity for anything else,” she exclaims, happily. “Usually, I’ve kind of got my hair a certain way because I am in the middle of shooting something, or I’m about to shoot something. And then it never quite feels like me… So, actually, it is probably one of the few shoots I have ever done where it is really feels like me. With my choice of hair – which, in this case, is pink!”

Having made her name on the Coronation Street cobbles playing barmaid Becky McDonald between 2006 and 2012, the Yorkshire-born actress has gone on to roles in an impressive mix of television projects, including hit shows Mr Selfridge, Happy Valley, The Night Manager, Gentleman Jack, Liar and, most recently, Criminal. Yet despite a CV bursting with blockbusters, she says that she is rarely recognised – and she couldn’t be happier about that. “I want to be able to represent real life, and I want audiences to watch and not think that it is me, but to really believe the character,” she explains. “Which is also why I am quite private, because I feel like if people know me too well, they will just see me as Katherine Kelly, and not as the role that I am in. I want them to forget that it is Katherine Kelly within the first two minutes.” 

It helps, then, in her quest to avoid playing to type, that when it comes to taking on new work, Katherine is drawn to the different. “I am always attracted to things that haven’t been seen before,” she reveals. “I am lucky that I get sent a lot of scripts where I think, yeah, I haven’t embarked on this sort of thing before, or for a long time, and yeah, I really want to do that. I am a bit of a chameleon – I don’t get recognised from one role to the other, which I love. I embrace the chameleon,” she laughs.

Her latest role is the lead in ITV’s psychological thriller, Innocent. Unusually, rather than following on from the first, this second series features a whole new cast of characters and is set in a different location. The story focuses on the plight of English teacher Sally Wright, who has just been released from prison after serving five years for a murder she did not commit. “Sally is a character that I feel I haven’t played before. And also, I don’t think I have really seen her so much,” Katherine tells me. “She is quite a vulnerable character, who has been deeply, deeply traumatised – as you would be, having gone through what she does. You find out within the first few minutes that she is indeed innocent of a crime that she served five years in prison for. And that was for the murder of one of her students. Also, there are rumours, and they are no more than rumours because she was never charged with it, but there are rumours that she was having a sexual relationship with him.”

There is an element of whodunnit running through the series, because the police, having originally convicted the wrong person, are now hot on the trail trying to find who actually did kill this young boy. But Katherine tells me that though Sally does try to help – she wants to know who did it and is keen to offer her assistance – her personal story concentrates on the struggles she faces trying to reintegrate back into her old life. “Her journey is about finding her way back to life, integrating herself back into society and finding her freedom again at a time when we are not just tried by the jury, but we are also tried by the press. And the rumours are still strong in the village that she comes from, so she finds it surprisingly hard to be accepted again. I found it was really beautifully written and I was really interested in playing it.”

Katherine Kelly

Sally’s story is shocking, and Katherine says that she wanted viewers to be able to relate to it. “What happens to her is a complete tragedy, but it was important to me that she didn’t feel far removed,” she explains. “I really wanted Sally to feel like every woman. That anybody could associate with her. You either feel like she could be you, or somebody close to you.” For Katherine, empathy and acting have come hand in hand. “I was never really judgemental, but I am not at all now,” she tells me. “I think being an actor gives you an understanding and an empathy and a kindness to human beings, actually. And the more I do it, the more I dig into that.”

I wonder what originally attracted her to acting? “Everything about me, when I look back at myself as a child, was all about my imagination,” she recalls. “It was fierce. I had a huge imagination, and these two younger brothers who were quite happy to go along with it!”

More than that, she says that performance was in her blood. “My parents did the clubs before I was born: my mum was a great singer, and my dad a musician, and a singer, and he had the chat as well –so he did a lot of comedy and that sort of thing,” Katherine reveals. “They didn’t want that lifestyle with young kids though, so they did amateur dramatics when we came along. There was no youth theatre where I grew up, and I didn’t do any drama at school either, but myself and my brothers used to tag along with them to rehearsals. Some of my earliest memories are running around theatres. It was always something the family enjoyed – my nan would do costumes and my grandad would do lighting. It was just what we liked doing – some people like to go and play tennis, but we did this,” she recalls, fondly.

The idea of doing it professionally didn’t even occur to Katherine until much later on, though. “I didn’t know any professional actors. I used to look at TV and think, I don’t know how you would ever get on television. So, it was quite an abstract thing, doing it as a job, even though it was definitely in my nature,” she explains. “When everybody was thinking about what they were going to do at university, my dad randomly brought back this pamphlet from the job centre about drama schools, and I just couldn’t believe it, that you could actually do drama all day long. And learn.”

She recalls taking “a punt” and applying for RADA and a couple of the other drama schools in London – the idea of being anywhere but here never even occurred to her. “I’d been to London, because my parents loved it,” she remembers. “We used to go down to the theatre, and I think they had their honeymoon here, so to me, London was like the destination,” she laughs.

Katherine Kelly - Fabric Magazine

She had no expectation that her application would be successful, though. “I don’t think I appreciated the enormity of it at the time, because I just did it and I was quite prepared to not be very good,” she admits. “It’s like playing football on your own, you know, kicking a ball about by yourself your whole childhood and being like, well, the adults say I’m alright at it, but I have no idea, I’ve never played against anybody my own age. And suddenly you find yourself on a pitch and you are quite prepared that you are going to be dreadful. But you might be amazing… you just never know, because you have never been in that arena before…” In fact, the adults were on to something, she was alright, better than that, in fact – against the odds she was accepted to study at RADA aged 18. 

And it was all she dreamt it would be. “I completely fell in love with London,” she admits. “I remember being with a friend – there were only about five of us who were 18, the rest had already been to university and were older – and we were up at Gower Street, where RADA is, and my friend had already been in London for three years, and she bumped into somebody she knew, and I thought, oh as if you ever bump into somebody in London. You don’t ever bump into somebody in London, it’s too big! And then, of course, of course you do…” she laughs, recalling her naivety.

There was no better place than RADA to launch her career. “When you train at a classical drama school you tend to go into theatre first, so you have to have a huge casting range to get the parts,” Katherine tells me. “Brilliantly, you get your leading part, but also, you have to be ready to play a servant, and that was always the thing that got me the gig, when it was between me and a couple of others. It was like, well, she can do the other bits as well. And I have realised that I really just love variety, that’s what my passion is about acting. I don’t just mean variety of character, but variety of everything. You know, I love working across all mediums – television, radio, theatre, film…”

It is this love of variety that she has built her career on. “I am lucky, I get sent lots of scripts for lots and lots of different parts, and lots of different casting directors and directors see me in very different ways, and I am really very grateful for that, because, as I say, it is the variety that I enjoy,” she smiles. Indeed, until recently, those scripts have translated into an almost constant stream of parts, but Katherine tells me that she has been rethinking the way that she works. “I was going from set to set, and at some points I was filming by day and doing theatre by night, and I felt like I wasn’t in real life enough to represent real life,” she muses. “I remember once, being stood at a bar in a drama and thinking, God, I don’t really know what the drink is that everyone is having at the moment. Prosecco, or gin, or… And I thought, God, I have basically spent the last 12 months either being in a canteen on set, or, at the other extreme, on a red carpet, and that bothered me. Because I want to be able to represent real life.”

This, coupled with a desire to spend more time with her children – she has two young daughters, Orla and Rose – has led her to be a little more selective when it comes to taking on work. “When they were younger, I just used to take them along on jobs with me, but school is definitely a factor, because, inevitably, usually, this job takes you away,” Katherine tells me. “I love motherhood as much as I love my job, and I wouldn’t want one without the other. If that’s the case, you need to try and find a balance.”

Which isn’t to say that she’s not currently working. “Where I find myself in terms of career, I have got the second series Gentleman Jack, which I am filming at the moment, and I am just putting the finishing touches to a podcast drama that is called Curl up and D.I., which is an absurdist comedy. And I haven’t done comedy for a while. So that is what I am on with at the moment. So, busy, but nice busy.” On which note, other commitments mean she has to dash. “I think I live life at 100 miles an hour, I fit as much as I can into a day – as much as I try to tell myself not to, I just can’t help it. I have this huge thirst for life, and don’t like to waste a moment,” she says, sheepishly. It is nothing to apologise for. 

The second series of Innocent is on ITV this month