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Interview: Holly Lucas

12 March 15 interview: Lucy Manning
photos: Ralph Barklam

Having graced our screens in a scruffy apron and bonnet for the Channel 4 series The Mill over the course of last year, Holly Lucas has now ditched the dirty work in favour of the Buddhist faith. We caught up with her and had a good old natter about veganism, lamb chops, and those jobs you just want to forget...

Fresh from a weekend Buddhist retreat, Holly Lucas bounds down the stairs to meet us with the kind of energy that can only be found after 48 hours’ worth of meditation. “It was a retreat on kindness and love. I’ve literally just got back which is why my hair is still wet,” she squeals, asking if we can wait until her hair is dry to take any photos.

This is not the entrance one would expect from an actress of her calibre – having starred in BAFTA-nominated film Knitting a Love Song and Channel 4 series The Mill, she’s been a regular face on our screens since the age of fourteen. Lucas seems to have bypassed the stereotypical child actor haughtiness, though. Looking at our surroundings, it’s easy to understand why.

The Television Workshop is nestled in a basement on the end of Stoney Street. Despite winning a BAFTA and nurturing talent such as Joe Dempsie, Vicky McClure and Toby Kebbell, the basement has not seen the glamour many of its students now have. Old doors, broken chairs and a well-worn sofa are strewn around the room. Tattered newspaper clippings of student success stories line the paint-chipped, dirt-smudged walls, and the remains of sets from days gone by have been graffitied by the likes of Michael Socha and Jack O’Connell. A working-class actor’s autograph.

“It’s a bit messy,” Holly apologises, as the photographer admits he was expecting state of the art lighting and recording equipment. “It’s lovely to be able to come down here, though – you know these walls. They’re safe. You can make a tit of yourself and no one cares.”

To the naked eye, it’s hard to imagine this place can spawn young actors of such incredible talent. When asked why she thinks the Workshop is so successful, Holly replies, “It’s because everything is kept so real, there’s no bullshit. We’re just normal people who are here to play. It’s not beaten out of you – we don’t feel the need to kiss arse to work our way to the top. We do our best and that’s it. There’s something really buzzy, an electricity, about an untrained actor.”

Is that what the Workshop is: a safe place for young people to come and be creative? “Definitely. A lot of the kids who go are quite naughty as well, so it’s a really good place for them to let off steam and channel it into something creative. They just have fun and express themselves, and then someone will come and put you on camera.”

Thanks to O’Connell’s public ‘big up’ to the Workshop and its dedicated leader, Ian Smith, at the BAFTAs, the entire British film industry knows about Nottingham’s hidden gem. It was refreshing to hear our regional accent at the BAFTAs, reminding us that the Workshop provides the industry with an influx of actors who differ from the London-based drama school norms. “Workshop is different – they’re fresh faces. No one is glamorous or too skinny or perfect. We’ve all got crooked teeth and big bums. It’s that untapped, un-butchered realness. Keeping it real sounds really wanky, but it’s true.”

She says that looking at me with the facial features mere mortals would sell their souls for – a far cry from her daily get-up in television series, The Mill. Set in a Victorian cotton factory, Lucas played Susannah, a character who is pregnant in the first series. “They stuck this huge bump on me with some fake tits. It was on all the time and I’d eat loads but it didn’t matter cos no one could see how fat I was getting, and then I’d be rubbing my belly when I was full but I was rubbing the bump – we became one.”

Sadly, the connection with her bump didn’t last long, and despite not going the full nine months with her fake foetus, Holly gave birth on screen. “I was so scared. I watched loads of YouTube videos and the women look so serene – I thought I would be one of those serene mums.” The outcome, however, was far from the calm, welcome-to-the-world-my-young-one scenario that she’d planned. “They wanted me to scream as loud as I could. I actually burst some of the blood vessels in my eyes I was so loud. They sprayed my hair to my face and made me look blotchy – I looked awful.”

It becomes apparent that this isn’t a lady who does things by halves. Having been in and out of more TV shows than you can shake a stick at, Holly is ready for a break. “I’ve taken a step back. I’ve been doing this for fourteen years now and you’re constantly on a rollercoaster – you get a job and you’re like ‘Aah!’ Finish a job, and you’re like ‘Ugh.’ It’s up and down all the time.” So what’s she planning on doing? Shipping herself off on another retreat, of course. This time, for five months. “It will be nice to not think about anything and just be. You can’t do that when you’re acting because you’re waiting for the phone to ring for a job or an audition or ‘Oh, you’re off to Prague next week!’ I’m tired at the minute.”

The Buddhist faith has really shaped Holly’s life recently, and she describes herself as a practising Buddhist. “I’m not there yet,” she says. When asked why she finds it so valuable, she says, “It’s just all about you and how you live your life. It gets you to re-evaluate your intention behind everything. We do meditations about being kind to yourself and all living things in the world. It’s why I’m now a vegan, because I would go to these meditations, and then go and eat lamb drenched in mint sauce. I couldn’t do it. I feel good now because I’m eating cleaner.”

Aside from her self-development, she’s been pretty busy this year, filming with local film heavyweight Simon Ellis on his short film Stew and Punch, which has just received funding from Film4 to turn it into a feature. Having worked on national projects, how does she find working with local directors? “There’s so much more opportunity to be interesting with local stuff. I want to work with people who are doing it for themselves.” National projects don’t always equal success either. “I did this job that was on TV the other day, and I haven’t told anyone about it because it was so awful. I was like ‘Oh my god, I can’t act any more!’ I can’t say what it was because I don’t want anyone to watch it.”

At this point, our photographer points out that he saw her performance, and Holly screams in embarrassment, hiding her face behind her hands. “It’s so embarrassing, it was so bad! Then again, I thought Guy Pearce was shit in Neighbours and then he left and was amazing. You need the right script and we’ve got some brilliant local writers. Hopefully I’ll be ok.”

Come the end of the interview, Lucas dashes off for a communal dinner at the Buddhist Centre in the Lace Market. Marching back up the stairs in her vegan Dr Martens, she’s on a one woman mission and, despite her efforts, I can’t imagine her staying off our screens for very long.

The Television Workshop website

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