Actress Kara Tointon has had an incredible career so far, and she’s perhaps best known for her recurring role as the vivacious barmaid Dawn Swann on Eastenders, becoming a regular presence on our television screens for four years. After leaving the soap her winning streak continued, winning BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing in 2010 and making her West-End debut in Pygmalion alongside Rupert Everett in 2011. Most recently, Kara has been performing as Bella in the iconic theatre thriller Gaslight across the country, portraying a woman who is the victim of a sustained campaign of mental abuse. We spoke to Kara about how she approached playing Bella and discussed how a childhood competition is actually one of her career highlights.
London Calling: Can you tell us a little bit about Gaslight?
Kara Tointon: It focuses on a couple who have been married for seven years, and at first we think it’s marital bliss, but slowly but surely you realise that Bella is actually being mentally manipulated and doubting her sanity, and you really start to feel for her. You always think of bullying in a physical sense but mental bullying is tough to see, and you doubt yourself and what’s right and wrong.
It’s a Victorian melodrama, so the challenge in the rehearsal room was trying to make it work for today’s audience and I hope we’ve managed to do that. The set helps a lot, it almost feels very claustrophobic so the audience get to feel that with how it’s been designed.
LC: Gaslighting is a term we’re hearing more often now – what was it like to explore this concept, perhaps in its most extreme form, with this play?
KT: The term gaslight actually comes from this play, and it’s interesting because it’s a very modern term. It’s only recently, since we’ve been rehearsing that I’ve been hearing it more and more on the news, with Donald Trump for instance. That’s what we hope the audience will leave talking about, it’s a subject that’s quite present at the moment in today’s society.
LC: Was there ever a sense that you didn’t want to make Bella too much of a victim, to show her empowerment and sense of self too?
KT: The way I’ve chosen to play her is actually as an optimist, a childlike optimist. She wants to make the best of her marriage and have a nice life, and she’s absolutely besotted with her husband, she adores him. But he’s got his own back story of course. There’s strength bubbling underneath, she has guts and can unravel the badness that has been spaghetti junctioned in her head.
Kara Tointon as Bella Manningham and Rupert Young as Jack Manningham.
LC: You’ve established yourself as a theatre actress now, but you’re of course also known for your television work. Were there ever any challenges in making that transition, for instance how the media would perceive you?
KT: Luckily enough I’m at a place now where I know what fits well with me, and suits my way of working. You’re always going to get people left, right and centre giving you their reviews, and we live in a society where people are going to be very quick to judge.
LC: When you’re reading scripts, what kind of roles most appeal to you?
KT: I try and always keep the next role different. You want to play as many different characters, roles and dialects and possible – it keeps it interesting and fresh. It certainly keeps you on your toes!
LC: Did you always want to be a theatre actress and is there a significant difference between performing on the stage and appearing on TV?
KT: It started out as a hobby, and I just always enjoyed looking at a piece of text and adding light and shade and just bringing it off the page. There’s nothing more special than being live, you have the whole beginning, middle and end, and everyone has been on this ride for the evening with you. The audience brings so much energy too.
LC: What would you say has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
KT: There was a competition whilst I was at school, and I had to learn three big chunks of the bible, which was obviously really difficult, but I ended up getting down to the last three! Just standing up in front of that many people at that time, when I was 13 or 14 or something, that was a real challenge and I conquered it!