Interview: Tracy Whitwell

TRACY Whitwell is an actress; she calls Macbeth the Scottish play, has suffered body image issues verging on an eating disorder and talks so much I have to keep checking the battery on my dictaphone.

Actress and author Tracy Whitwell
Actress and author Tracy Whitwell

TRACY Whitwell is an actress; she calls Macbeth the Scottish play, has suffered body image issues verging on an eating disorder and talks so much I have to keep checking the battery on my dictaphone.

But she’s also a down-to-earth Geordie lass. Her self-cut hair and £2 vintage dress ring hint at thriftiness, she has a waspish wit, loves a good argument and is self-aware enough to chide herself for sounding like Miss World at one point.

Oh and she’s psychic ...

Ghosts may well be confined to Halloween for most of us but for Tracy they’re part of everyday life. And some are even “dead canny”.

And whether you believe in the supernatural or not, her experiences with the spirit world have proved a fruitful seam of material for her first novel about a failing actress who starts getting messages from beyond the grave.

Her heroine Tanz is constantly questioning this gift until she discovers she comes from a long line of psychic mediums.

“All of the spooky stuff, the stuff you would expect to be made up, has happened to me or a friend of mine,” says Tracy, 41, who’s from Low Fell but now lives in London with her partner Don Gilet (best known as murdering preacher Lucas Johnson in EastEnders) and their five-year-old son Flynn.

“My great-grandma was a well-known Gateshead medium. It’s part of normal existence for me. You forget that other people find it quite disturbing.”

In the past Tracy has been known to make people burst into tears at parties with her astute off-the-cuff readings and she’s even done spirit clearings for people who feel a bad energy in their home although she’s cagey on the detail of how she actually banishes the spooks. “I don’t want to say it out loud because it makes me look like an idiot, but it does work,” she laughs.

Her reticence is understandable and she clearly feels conflicted at times – admiring the cleverness of Richard Dawkins and Derren Brown but berating them for their negativity and anger.

“It’s very trendy to be a sceptic,” she says. “Everyone loves Derren Brown but sometimes I could just punch him in the face. He’s right to debunk charlatans but not everything’s explicable. A lot of clairvoyants are money-makers but they’re not all scammers.”

Indeed Tracy briefly flirted with the idea of turning her abilities into a business by launching a psychic counselling website last year. But she quickly had second thoughts. “I couldn’t stand charging people,” she says. “But if I meet someone and they’re in distress I’ll still talk to them and try to help them out a bit.”

Aside from the spookiness, her book also contains lots of humour and a fair dollop of “realistic sex”.

Tanz’s encounter with an Irish barman (“an amalgam of everyone I’ve ever fancied”) is far more realistic than 50 Shades of Grey, which Tracy finds ridiculous. “I don’t know any 21-year-old virgins who have copped off with a billionaire,” she says. “Tanz is a proper woman. She gets it wrong. She’s a right cow sometimes. She gets drunk and says stupid stuff. It’s not chick lit though. She’s not a victim, she’s not obsessed with shoes or cellulite.”

Tracy’s North East friends and family may see themselves in the book too and her heroine’s gay best friend Milo is loosely based on Tracy’s real-life best mate, playwright Lee Mattinson.

Amazingly, Tracy wrote the whole thing in a month – a fact she was advised to conceal from publishers – after missing out on a plum role in a London play. “I thought in a month’s time I’m going to be really annoyed about this, but if I’ve written a novel in a month’s time, then I’ll be doing the thing I’m meant to be doing,” she explains.

She wrote for eight hours a day while Don took over parenting duties. “Flynn was cool with it because he thought he’d get loads of Nintendo games if I published a book,” she laughs. When her novelist friends Ros Wylie and Caroline Smailes gave it the thumbs up she decided to self-publish on Amazon and Kindle.

Although this is Tracy’s first novel, she’s penned several plays including Kaboom!, Peter Creme’s Eyes, Fat Floozies and Bad Men and Mexico Way as well as a playlet based on a Maximo Park song for Newcastle’s Live Theatre.

“I was putting on plays in school assembly from the age of five,” says the former Heathfield School pupil who often returns home to visit her parents and younger brother Mark who owns a tanning salon on Saltwell Road. “I was a goody two shoes and an over-achiever.”

As a teenage goth she would dance the night away at Newcastle’s Mayfair and Riverside alongside learning her lines as Lady Macbeth.

Then after seeing Gary Oldman in Sid & Nancy, she vowed to attend his drama school – Rose Bruford College in London. However, she missed meeting her hero at the graduation ceremony as she’d already landed her first lead role in a 1994 adaptation of Catherine Cookson’s The Dwelling Place.

“It was the best job I ever did,” she remembers. “I still get sad when I think about it because I wish I could do it again.”

Parts followed in The Knock and Soldier, Soldier before she landed the role of a lesbian footballer in Playing the Field.

“I loved playing a gay lass because she was cool and got the best lines,” says Tracy. “I got letters from some lovely lasses. But it was a bit overwhelming, the politics of having that many women in one place.”

Supporting comic roles in sitcoms Peep Show and Men Behaving Badly followed, along with meaty parts in Holby City and Northern Lights.

“The number of drinks I’ve been bought because of Peep Show,” she laughs. “I was told I had to snog Robert Webb just a few seconds before the scene, but Rob was so laid back that it was fine. It’s really hard to shoot though. Instead of eight shots in a scene you’ll have 32 shots because there are four POVs for each person.”

Over the years she’s met countless stars – some “absolutely lovely” and others “completely mental”. David Mitchell, Phil Daniels and Martin Shaw who she met recently when filming George Gently fall into the former camp, as does “Robson nutter Green”.

She’s also friends with Waterloo Road stars Melanie Hill and Mark Benton, and plans to collaborate on a writing project with Mark when he’s finished touring Hairspray. “The more talented they are, the nicer they are,” she says. “The ones who know they’re a bit ropey are usually the most grand.”

Eventually acting began to lose its appeal. “I was never very good at playing the game,” says Tracy. “My personality was all over the place because I was so insecure. I didn’t enjoy things as much as I should’ve done as I was too busy freaking out.”

Being a size 12 among obsessively skinny size six actresses began to take its toll. “I lived on salad and red wine and did step classes constantly for a long time,” she says. “There was a hierarchy of what parts you were allowed to go up for, depending on how famous you were and how you looked.

“People were being fast tracked because they were prettier and skinnier. At one point I called my agent because I was sick of being offered parts as prostitutes, barmaids and tarts with a heart.”

Despite her body insecurities she was cast as a scantily clad seductress for Channel 4 drama series Love in the 21st Century back in 1999. “Colin Farrell was going to be in it but at the last minute they cast Tommy Tiernan. I would’ve had to simulate sex for a week with Colin Farrell which would’ve been quite awful!,” she laughs.

Now she’s happy with her body in the flesh, but not on screen. “I’ll never be a size six,” she says. “But it doesn’t matter. You can be that skinny when you’re 20 but when you hit 40 your face starts to look like a prune.”

Tracy’s partner Don would no doubt shake his head at Tracy’s body image issues. His perfect woman is Helen Mirren and Tracy says he “doesn’t fancy young lasses”, favouring “women with a spine” instead.

The pair met in 2003 when Tracy played a prostitute in Newcastle-

based BBC drama 55 Degrees North and Don played cop Nicky Cole. They were friends at first but kept in contact afterwards. “There was no way I wanted to go out with the lead actor of a series, especially not someone as handsome as him,” she says. She also found him too pretty as she normally goes for “big strong Northern men who can look after themselves.”

Eventually she relented and on their first date Tracy knew Don was keen because he asked her to play his wife in a friend’s film.

“We just loved talking,” she smiles. “And he’s hilarious although he couldn’t get one over on me. It got to the point where you can’t not go out with someone because of other people.”

However, when EastEnders came along, Tracy found it hard to handle Don’s fame and the endless stream of women flirting with her man. “You couldn’t go to a supermarket or eat together as a couple,” she says. “Even now it doesn’t matter if he’s sitting engrossed with Flynn, someone will push in between them with a camera.

“Flynn once shouted at someone, ‘He’s not Lucas!’ Don’s extremely gracious about it but I’m not. And the women are shameless. They couldn’t care less that he’s got a partner.”

Being with Don does have its bonuses though – namely VIP access to the Soap Awards.

“The best year was when Madness entertained the guests,” says Tracy. “It was like they were doing a gig in my living room! I started crying when they played and Madness were laughing at me because I was having such a good time! Suggs took the micky out of me afterwards and I got freaked out and ran away.”

It was a stark contrast to the year she picked a fight with Jeremy Kyle. “I wanted to punch him for the way he behaves but he was being really charming,” says Tracy. “I asked him why he was so disgusting to people who don’t know any better but he said he was just doing his job. Weirdly he gave me a big kiss when he left.”

Although she still does the odd bit of acting (her latest role is alongside Phil Daniels in a film about The Alarm called Vinyl) and sells her own quirky ‘day of the dead’ jewellery, Tracy sees motherhood and writing as her main occupations these days.

“Having Flynn landed me square on the ground,” explains Tracy. “He came along to stop all this shilly shallying around with shallow stuff. I want to write a trilogy as there’s loads more true ghost stories I can use.”

As for acting, Tracy can live without it. “The pauses in between were hell,” she says. “You can never be you properly. You always have to be ambitious and it’s just tiring. If someone offered me a brilliant part, I’d do it for fun, not because if I never act again I’m going to slit my throat. I think I’m a better writer than I am an actress.”

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