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Dawn Steele

Scotland On Sunday (January 2005)

A few weeks before Christmas, Dawn Steele tried something completely new. She went to the theatre on her own. This may not seem like a grand revelation to most of us, but for the self-confessed “chatterbox”, whose school reports from primary one right up to sixth year all noted a distinct inability to keep her mouth shut, it was an important step. Even now she still can’t believe that she made it through the night.

“It was quite an experience. Dead weird,” she gabbles, words tumbling out of her mouth at high speed with a breezy, chatty confidence. “When you go to the cinema, if it’s really amazing you want to go ‘oh god’ or ‘look at that’. You want to share it with somebody. I came out of the theatre and I wanted to speak to someone about it. By the time I got home, I was like ‘I’ve not spoken to anyone for ages’.”

Two thousand and four was the year Steele decided to start doing things differently. For the five years running up to that, she’d been comfortably and successfully playing to type, having won the role of Lexie in Monarch Of The Glen because her personality mirrored that of the character. “We’re all quite like our characters in certain ways,” she admits happily. “So it was so natural to play Lexie. It wasn’t very difficult.” After five series, though, Steele had had enough. She wanted to challenge herself. To see if she could push her personality beyond being feisty, flirty, and having the requisite heart of gold.

“I felt I’d done enough of Monarch,” Steele says, sitting in a production office in Soho. “Storyline-wise, we’d done it all. We’d had Lexie’s mum turning up, my dad’s turned up, I’d been married, I was a laird, and where else could you go with it?” Was she limited on Monarch? “You are,” she nods. “Monarch’s very fantastical, that lovely wee Sunday night world. It’s not pretending to be a serious drama. It is Sunday night, nice comfort viewing. I wanted to stretch myself and do something to a completely different audience.”

Not long after handing in her notice on Monarch, Steele had her tarot cards read. “She said I’d be doing more theatre. She did actually say Broadway. I was like ‘oh, OK’. I will go there. I’ll probably see a show. I won’t be in one. She saw a big contract coming up. And she said ‘you’re going to get married, but it won’t be for a while’, and this wee chime rang. She said ‘your grannie’s pleased with that’. I didn’t tell her that my grannie was always going on about ‘when are you getting married?’ It was odd. You do wonder if there’s something out there and are they watching you and looking after you. It’s nice to think there is.”

Rather appropriately, that big contract turned out to be for the second series of Sea Of Souls, Glasgow’s paranormal answer to The X Files. Her character, Justine, is the perfect transitional role for Steele: a quietly intelligent and calmly emotional psychic investigator, almost a blank slate after the well-defined and easy to love caricature of Lexie. “Justine’s probably the straightest part I’ve played. She’s quite down to earth and quite straightforward.” Was that a stretch? “Yes, it was. Justine has to prove herself in Sea Of Souls. She’s got to be determined and stand up for herself, and it’s difficult not to do it in the style of Lexie which was quite hard and fiery.”

The important thing for Steele is that Sea Of Souls is a “bit more grown up and a bit more real.” She had a good apprenticeship on Monarch – “I grew up on it, I learnt how to act on camera” - but it’s time, at the age of 29, to move her career on a notch. After a positive run in Cuttin’ A Rug at the Traverse, she wants to do more theatre. And she’s moved from Glasgow to London to ensure she’s in the right place at the right time, ready to court opportunity at any hour.

“I still love Glasgow, but there’s just more in London,” she beams. “All the different cultures. You rarely hear a Londoner speaking. I just felt that Glasgow was getting a bit small. I love the fact that you’ll never get bored down here. There’s always something to do. Which is great if you’re an unemployed actor. And I’ve got loads of friends here, so there’s always somebody to go for a cup of tea with if you are unemployed. I’m lucky because my landlady’s one of my best friends that I met on Monarch, Anna. She and her husband bought the flat above them in Portobello, so I live with her sister and her brother. I’m having a great time.”

Right now, Steele’s looking forward to lots of cups of tea in 2005. She spent seven weeks wrapping up Monarch at the start of 2004, moved to London, got Seal Of Souls not long after, and went straight back to Glasgow for six months of filming. If there’s a third series, they’ll start shooting in May, so she needs to keep her books clear just in case.

“I’m completely unemployed at the moment. I’d love to do some theatre. I’d like to do a Shakespeare play. It would be terrifying, but I’d love to go to the RSC or the National. I’d like to do something in a different accent. I’ve seen more theatre in London and it’s made me go ‘I really want do to something’.” Would she consider a really disturbing role? “I’d like to play a right baddie. Even in Tinseltown, Teresa was a hard nut Glaswegian but she still had a heart. And Lexie’s definitely like that as well. So it would be nice to play a right bitch.” Could she be evil? “Yeah, I’d love to do that. I can be evil, yes.”

Naturally, Steele would love to work in cinema, particularly in a Baz Luhrmann movie, but the offers haven’t been there yet. She sent an audition tape for a HBO TV series called Rome, along with every other actor in the business she laughs, but didn’t hear anything back. It was a “slight disappointment” but she knew it was a one in a million chance. “But look at Catherine Zeta Jones. That’s how she got started. So you have to go for these things. I always think she did Darling Buds Of May which is along the same lines as Monarch. And she’s done very well for herself. But I don’t know about the marrying Michael Douglas thing.” Harrison Ford? “No, he’s going out with Ally McBeal.” There must be someone. “No. A bit too old for me, I’m afraid.”

Is she ambitious?

“Yes. I’m not overly ambitious. That’s probably why I didn’t go straight into doing big films. I’d love to go to New York and do theatre, and do films. But I’m not ambitious in a way I know people are in the acting world. I can’t do all that schmoozing and selling yourself. I don’t see myself going into that big Hollywood thing. I’d probably struggle with it a bit, because I’d still want to be grounded and have the same friends. I’d like to think I’d still be myself. Just better clothes.”

It’s hard to believe that such a naturally gregarious person wouldn’t be adept at selling herself. But Steele seems to not trust the success she’s had so far. That’s why she craves heavyweight roles, why she wants to be recognised as being a good, serious actress.

“I know I’ve got parts because of the way I look,” she concedes. “But I like to think it’s got something to do with the fact I went to drama school for four years and I worked really hard. Not just about the way my hair is or what weight I am. I try to not be influenced by that, but it’s difficult. Because I am a business. So that’s why I go to the gym and look after myself. If I ate the way I wanted to, I probably wouldn’t work as much. Or it would change the parts I went up for.”

All she can do now is wait and see what the new year brings. Enjoy the calm before the storm. Is she good at doing nothing? “No, not really,” Steele laughs. “I’m not very good at watching a video on my own. I’ve always got the radio on. There’s always something going on. I do think ‘what would I do if this all dried up?’ I’m not really good at anything else.”

She’s good at talking.

“Yes, OK. I’ll talk for a living.”

And she’ll be doing exactly that, you suspect, for quite some time yet.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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