Actor Callie Cooke: ‘I had to distance myself or I’d get emotionally drained’

Callie Cooke as Bernice in Filthy Business. Picture: Dominic Clemence

Callie Cooke as Bernice in Filthy Business. Picture: Dominic Clemence - Credit: Archant

As she prepares to play a cocksure teen, BRIDGET GALTON talks to an actor whose career was launched in a tough role at Hampstead Theatre

Callie Cooke’s first job out of drama school was playing a teenage victim of the Rochdale sex abuse scandal.

The 23-year-old’s acclaimed performance as mouthy, brittle Tia in Firebird at Hampstead Theatre kickstarted her career when it transferred to the Trafalgar Studios last year.

Cooke, who returns to the Eton Avenue venue for the latest production, says playing a vulnerable girl groomed by an older man sent her to a dark place at times.

“I spent my graduation day in the rehearsal room and I couldn’t have asked to be in anything better,” she says. “The feeling I got every night from doing it made me feel so lucky to be playing play a part like that.

“But it took me to a dark place at times. I had to distance myself or I’d get emotionally drained. There were times in rehearsal if it went a bit too hard I’d go home and have a little cry.”

The Leicestershire-born actress was playing an amalgam of real life girls, and said it was “overwhelming” when some came to watch Firebird.

Most Read

“Meeting the people you are playing was surreal. They were more interested in my trainers and that my co-star was in Eastenders and they couldn’t get over that I wasn’t 14 in real life. But there were girls in tears saying: ‘thank you’.”

Like those girls, Tia is let down by the care and criminal justice system who blame them for their predicament.

“The scene that most affected people – you’d hear the audience gasp with anger - was in the police station when they describe it as a lifestyle choice for girls to go out and get drunk and stay out.”

Cooke’s current role is a different kind of rebellious teen in Filthy Business at Hampstead Theatre. Set in Hackney between 1968 and the 80s, it portrays three generations of a warring, loving Jewish family running a rubber shop and is partly based on playwright Ryan Craig’s own family business in Pentonville Road. (he’s the fourth generation of rubber retailers.)

Cooke plays Bernice, the “brilliantly sassy” granddaughter of Polish matriarch Yetta.

“She’s not interested in the business, she just turns up at the shop, smokes a few fags, and prances around in a beehive and a very skimpy mini skirt like she owns the place,” says Cooke. “It’s great to play someone so sure of who she is. I’m a bit nervous about the short skirt but I’m going to have to own it.”

Sara Kestelman’s forceful Yetta, was a refugee whose family perished in the Holocaust, a fact she often mentions to her wayward brood as she tries to instil the importance of loyalty and kin.

“She talks about where she’s come from and what she’s had to do to be here all the time,” says Cooke.

“She’s proud of where she’s from but she’s holding on by her fingernails trying to prove that family and loyalty are everything. She goes too far and there’s a downfall.”

Cooke emphasises there are comic moments as the men of the family slug it out for control.

“There’s a constant power struggle and fights going on. Yetta is the root of this tree trying to keep this family together as it moves through to the 80s - it’s really funny - but you won’t find a stronger family. When we scream we scream but when we love we love.”

Prior to rehearsals Cooke spent seven months in Prague filming epic new Sky/Amazon series Britannia. Set just after the Roman invasion in 43AD, the summer release is penned by Spectre and Jerusalem writer Jez Butterworth and pits David Morrisey’s Roman general Aulus Plautius against Kelly Reilly’s Celtic princess and her hordes – not to mention powerful druids who can channel the forces of the underworld.

“My character’s part of a normal Celtic family but I am a warrior so it was brilliant to learn to horse ride and do archery,” says Cooke, who landed the part when a casting director came to see her in Firebird.

“It’s gritty, there’s a real lack of make up and lots of women who can fight which I am all for. It was an amazing job working with all those great actors on TV which I never thought I would get a chance to do.

“And it was all down to Hampstead and (director) Ed Hall. It’s so lovely to be back.”

Filthy Business runs until April 21.