Sharon Rooney interview
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For Sharon Rooney, it's the stuff that dreams are made of. One day, she's travelling round schools in Scotland, performing sketches about safety around water. The next, she's landed the starring role in a brilliant new comedy-drama on E4, My Mad Fat Diary. Here, the actress talks about a remarkable few months, working with her heroes, and playing a less-than-glamorous role.
What's My Mad Fat Diary all about?
It basically revolves around Rae, who's just come out of a psychiatric hospital. She's only 16, and she's gone from the hospital where she feels safe and she has friends and she can be herself, to suddenly being back out in the big wide world. And she's been out five minutes when she meets her friend, Chloe, who doesn't know that she's been in hospital, and she's got a new group of friends. She asks Rae to go to the pub with them, and that's the start of her new life with her new friends.
How did you land the role of Rae?
I had met the casting director before, at another audition, that I wasn't right for. Luckily she remembered me when this came up, and asked to see me.
What had you been doing before this?
I've done a lot of Theatre in Education, which is basically being on the road going to different schools and doing shows about water safety and things like that. And I've also done some stand-up shows as well, just to keep busy, really, and trying to make people laugh.
Moving from doing shows about water safety in schools to landing the lead role in a major TV production is quite a leap, isn't it?
Yeah, it's a huge, huge jump. I think I was kind of lucky that I didn't know too much about it, so I didn't have too many worries or concerns. Because I'd never done anything like this before, I couldn't worry about how things would look on TV or what I should do.
Then, suddenly, you're on set, and you realise the scale of a production like this. And you're not only on your first TV production, but you're the lead. How did that feel?
I think it would have been terrifying, had I not been working with such an amazing crew, and amazing directors, and an amazing cast. Working with people like Claire Rushbrook [who plays Rae's mother] and Ian Hart [Rae's therapist] is just crazy - it as total pinch-myself moments every day. But both of them kind of took me under their wing, and I never, ever felt intimidated or nervous or scared. They treated me like an equal, they were so great. It was the same with the crew. I kind of felt like I was in a bubble, I felt so protected. It never dawned on me at all how big this would potentially be.
Did it also help, in a way, that a lot of the cast were young and relatively unknown?
Yeah. Obviously Nico's done quite a bit of stuff, and the others had done little bits. But no matter how much experience you had, everyone was so passionate about this, that everyone was on the same level. Even when Claire came on set - I'm a huge, huge fan of Claire's before this - she came on set and would just sit with us, there was no sense of us being the newbies. It was just a team effort, it was really cool.
Where was it filmed?
In Borehamwood, kind of Elstree, around about there.
Have you ever been to Stamford, in Lincolnshire, where this is set?
No, I have to admit I haven't. I kind of wish I had done.
Viewers of the show will be unaware that you have a broad Glaswegian accent. Did you have to have coaching to get Rae's accent down pat, or are you just a natural at stuff like that?
I'm one of those people that likes doing accents. I've always done them, since I was little. I've always impersonated people. It kind of just came naturally. But it was really good, in a way, that Rae had a different accent from me, because it meant it was easier to leave her behind on set.
So it helped you differentiate between you and her?
Yeah. Though I think it took people a while to get used to it on set, because I'd jump in and out of accent, I wouldn't stay in it. If I made a mistake, I'd go "Oh sorry, can we go again," in a Scottish accent, and then jump back into Rae's accent. I think it took people a while to get used to that.
Did you read the diary before you filmed?
Yeah, I read it before my first audition. I thought it was such a warm and honest and sad and real look at life from a teenager's perspective - no sugar-coating. Everything is as real as it can be.
What about Rae - did you meet her or speak to her while you were filming?
I haven't met her, because she lives quite far away now, but we emailed constantly. We've become so close now, even though we've never spoken. I'd email her constantly through filming, if I'd had a bad day, or if I felt really tired or homesick, she was kind of the first person I'd speak to. Even now, she's just a constant support. She's just so happy that it's being filmed, and luckily, I think she's pleased with what she's seen. That was really important to me. She's so lovely, and it's a real honour to be playing her teenage self.
What do you think of teenage Rae? She's a fantastic character, isn't she?
I think teenage Rae is one of the bravest people that I've ever come across. She's just a kid and she's got these huge issues, and has the worries of the world, when actually she's one of the coolest people there is. She's so cool and funny and bright and bubbly and everyone loves her, but she just can't see it. It's heartbreaking to know that there are people out there who are wonderful people, but because they don't feel like they look normal or are normal, they think there's something wrong with them. Normal's just a stupid word. Nobody's normal. Normal doesn't exist.
Do you like the music and the fashion from the period?
When I was younger, I was all about the Spice Girls. They literally were my life. I was obsessed. But as I got older, I've got much more into Oasis, Stone Roses, that kind of thing. And the fashion - God, it was much more forgiving then. You just had to stick on some leggings and a jumper. I just remember running about in t-shirts and climbing walls and trees. Now they're all about handbags and make-up at ten.
Rae's a fantastic character, but she's not exactly glamorous. Did you mind that, or did you quite relish it?
It would be ridiculous for me to go in and say "Well, I'd quite like to wear these nice, fitted clothes, and I'd quite like some nice eye-lashes," and so on. It wouldn't make any sense. And I think it's good for people to see someone on TV who doesn't bother with make-up, someone for whom how they look isn't the most important thing. At the time of filming I just thought "Ah, who cares?" Now I've seen a bit of it, I've thought to myself "Oh Sharon, why did you not get a bit of concealer? That would have been nice." But I think it was the most honest thing to do.
Everyone can relate a bit to Rae's story, can't they? The joys and agonies of being a teenager are universal, aren't they?
Oh definitely. I think that's what's so charming about this. Whether you're young or old, fat or thin, male or female, any ethnicity, you can look at Rae and go "Oh, I remember that." "Oh, I recognise that." "Oh, I'm going through that now." And hopefully they'll think "I am a good person. My friends like me for me." And I think the thing about Rae's friends is that they all have their own problems to deal with. And they all think the others are sorted. Whereas everyone's like a duck, sailing along on the surface and furiously paddling underneath.
So do you hope that teenagers who watch this will be able to take comfort from that knowledge?
I hope so. Your teenage years don't last long, but they are hard for everyone. There's too many hormones flying about, and you can feel that the world's against you. For me, the thing that I would love, is for one person to watch this and think "You know what? I'm not going to hurt myself tonight. I'm just going to know that I'm a good person, and don't have to put myself through this." Or if it made someone think "I might actually go and speak to someone." Just because you go and speak to someone, that doesn't mean you're weak. It actually means you're really brave and really strong. There's no shame in that. Actually, it's the best thing you can do. If you broke your foot you'd go to a doctor. If you've broken your soul a wee bit, get it fixed!
My Mad Fat Diary is on E4 in January (week 3).