What Gary McDonald Remembers About
Playing Darren on EastEnders 25 Years Ago:
.I loved every minute of it.
By Larry Jaffee
Editor.s note: I.ve previously noted how Facebook has put me in touch
with several EastEnders actors, resulting in a Walford Gazette
interview. This time LinkedIn worked some social-media magic.
Back in 1987.88 Gary McDonald graced EastEnders for some 50 episodes
with his acting talent as Darren Roberts, the brother of Carmel, the
pretty health visitor. An interesting character and often smartly
dressed, Darren always appeared to be on the make, and had memorable
scenes with Den Watts, Ian Beale and JamesWillmott-Brown, among many
others. Darren.s greatest hits, if you will, were compiled by a fan in
India (http://tinyurl.com/a54pgeh). These days Gary divides his time as
an actor between London and Los Angeles, where we found him eager to
reminisce about his work on EastEnders even though it was over a quarter
Walford Gazette: I can imagine how strange it must be to hear from this
guy who wants to talk about your time on EastEnders way back when!
Gary McDonald: Yes, and with an American accent!
WG: Does being on EastEnders ever come up in conversation when they see
it on your CV?
GM: Oh sure, because it.s such a big show over there. I proudly served
on EastEnders. Even here [in LA], I watch the show on YouTube and catch
up with it. I.ve done all kinds of different work over the years, but
nothing can compare with consistency to EastEnders. The experience you
get working on EastEnders can.t be compared to anything really. It.s
like TV rep (as in theatre repertory). You.re working on four or five
scripts at the same time. I.m quite proud to be associated with it. I
haven.t talked about that stuff in so long.
WG: The closest I ever came to your Darren character previously was when
I interviewed Judith Jacob in 2006, who played your on-air sister
Carmel. She told me a funny story about how her real-life daughter was
playing Darren.s daughter. During a take, she turns to Judith and calls
her .Mummy., and they ended up leaving it in what was broadcast. Were
GM: I can.t remember. Probably.
WG: We probably know a bunch of people in common in LA, such as Leila
Birch (Teresa di Marco), Troy Titus-Adams (Nina Harris), and Darren
Darnborough (Dot.s mugger). There seems to be something of a .former
EastEnders actors. mafia in LA. Do you think many of the expats in your
profession go for the sunshine or for career opportunities?
GM: I.m there for the weather. You can do so many outdoor activities,
such as acting, football. At home, you can do it, but the weather
scares. Even now in early March, it.s not hot but it.s very sunny during
the day. And it gets cold at night. Home in England, there isn.t
sunshine, and when it rains it becomes miserable. A lot of people pick
up that vibe . they get a bit miserable.
WG: How long have you been in LA?
GM: I.ve been coming back and forth for 10 years now. The longest period
of time I.ve stayed here has been about nine months. Most of the time, I
stay for four months at a time, and go back to London, and then come
back here again . wherever the workflow takes me. Last year I auditioned
for an American TV show here that was filming in Luxembourg. When I got
the job I had to go to London. It all worked out. I ended up going to
Manchester for another film there, and then I got cast in a play in
London. Originally I hadn.t anticipated staying in London for more than
a month. But I had to come back to Los Angeles to rent out my apartment,
and then come back [to London] to do the play, which was going to be on
until October. I had just moved into that new apartment around April,
and didn.t even stay in it for more than three weeks until I came back
in November. Now I.m trying to make this my base. I had a place in
Burbank (California) in 2003. When I first came to LA in 2002 it was to
visit a friend for a holiday. It was never about the work. I was very
busy back at home. Prior to coming I auditioned at Donmar Warehouse [a
prestigious London theatre]. They weren.t making up their minds and
taking forever, so I went to LA. The atmosphere here felt very
spiritual. Spirituality is not something I would associate with Los
Angeles. .Fake town. is normally how people associate it. When I landed,
a feeling sort of came over me. It felt cool. I said to myself, .I think
I can live here.. Hanging out with my friends, I wondered if that was
just a holiday feeling. When I went back to London to do the London play
. four weeks of rehearsal and four weeks of performances . funnily
enough it was an American play, Lobby Hero, by a well-known American
playwright, Kenneth Lonergan, and I was playing an American. So I was
heading back to LA, and then it transferred to the West End. It would be
a year before I.d get to come back to LA, but I was always thinking,
.When I.m finished, I.m coming back!. It was always my intention to live
here because I love it, primarily the lifestyle, and you can also work
WG: How are London and LA different in terms of work for you?
GM: It.s more competitive here because people are coming from all over
the world. There.s a lot more pressure here, as the stakes are so much
higher. If it.s a TV series that last three seasons and goes into
syndication, you.re changing your lifestyle: financial security. In
England, I.ve been in six TV shows. In terms of consistency, they shoot
for four or six months.
It doesn.t compare with EastEnders because it.s week in and week out.
When I was in EastEnders, it was only supposed to be a six-month
contract. There was an option on their side. What that meant was, after
six months if they liked you they kept you, if they didn.t your contract
ended. Fortunately for me, after the first two months they told me they
wanted to pick up the option. Before I knew it, I was going to be there
for a year. I loved every minute of it! It was the first time acting
that I didn.t have to think about whether I had enough to pay my bills.
I was in it 1987 and 1988. It was so popular. If I went to a restaurant
to eat and I.d go to pay the cheque, they.d say .No, no.. it was a
really weird feeling. Whenever you.re making money, people are giving
you things for free.
WG: How did your EastEnders audition come about?
GM: I did a TV film called London.s Burning. It was a pilot for a
possible series that went on for 14 years. The primary story in the film
was about my character and the female lead. The pilot was written by
Jack Rosenthal, a very famous British screenwriter. I went to see Julia
Smith, who created EastEnders. She saw London.s Burning and thought it
was great. We talked about the character she had in mind. I asked if I
would have some sort of say in it, and she said, .Yes, of course, once
it.s settled.. She said, .I.d like to offer you the role but I have to
see other people.. I got the role and I was really pleased. I was really
happy about it because even at that time [Smith] was known as a strong,
hard-hitting producer. You couldn.t mess with her. She invited me to
come up with ideas for the character. That was fabulous. I really
enjoyed it. The only reason I left, after the first year they kept
coming up to me throughout the year, .Are you enjoying it?. And I said,
.Yes.. They left it until two weeks before my contract expired, and they
hadn.t offered me anything at that point. All the time that was
happening, new TV series were going. I was 25 and ambitious to do other
things. When they came back to me and said they wanted to offer me
another three-month contract, I said, .No thanks, I.m good.. They came
back and said, .We.ll give you another year.. And I told them I was
going do a play at the Royal Court. Julia caught me in the hallway at
the BBC, asked about me leaving, and I told her yes. That.s why if you
look at what happened to the character of Darren, I had no out. All of a
sudden, I was missing. They just took it for granted that I was going to
renew. They put in a little scene of me with Judith [Jacob]. Darren told
Carmel, .I.ve got to go because The Firm (the mob) said I.ve got to get
out of town, so I.m going, and Carmel asked, .What.s this all about you
going? You can.t go. I don.t understand.. I told her, .I love my family,
but I gotta go... And she slapped me in the face. I had a little tear
coming down my eye. It made the audience feel sympathy for me, so they
cut it. Julia Smith was not going to let it work in your favour. So what
she did . they made [Darren] the bad guy, left his kids and just ran
off. So for a year everyone said, .Where.s Darren?. About a year later,
I got a phone call from my agent that they really wanted me to come
back, .They got really great storylines for you.. So I said, .OK, pay me
X,. . an outrageous amount of money. They said, .We.ll think about it,.
and I was kind of sweating it [i.e., afraid that they would accept his
financial demand]. They came back with an offer, but not what I asked
for. At the time, Judith.s character was going out with Matthew, who was
slapping her about. People would come up to me thinking that Darren was
going to come back [to straighten out Matthew].
WG: Do you have any regrets for the way you handled the situation?
GM: No, not at the time. I was about 27. I was hungry to do this really
good theatre. I became a better actor from doing this different stuff,
and have that variety.
WG: Did EastEnders. notoriously tough hours play any role in your
GM: No, I loved it. Compared to any kind of filming, there.s no
comparison. You.d have to get to the studio at 8 or 9 in the morning. In
EastEnders . when I was doing it . they had rehearsals. My very first
scene was a Friday morning, external on the lot. Saturday morning I had
to come in for rehearsals for the next episode. Then you come in on
Monday and rehearse it for the producer. They call it the .producer.s
run.. You get all your notes from Monday, and then you come in on
Tuesday and rehearse again and record on Wednesday and Thursday. Then
there were only two [half-hour] episodes a week; now there are four. It
was more like you were doing a play. Now they just rehearse, record.
They actually rehearse on camera, and then shoot.
WG: Getting back to when Julia Smith first approached you, did she have
a basic framework for Darren?
GM: Julia said Darren was .just like Den,. but not as successful. [Den]
was always going to be the man. The character I was playing was supposed
to be up and coming. Julia told me when I started that Darren was just
like Den. He.s a ducker and a diver. He.s a hustler. She told me who
Darren.s friends were going to be: Wicksy, a character called Graham
Clark, Rod the punk and Nick Cotton. We all went to the same school.
Nick would always have a lot of mouth, but could never back it up.
WG: I.m friends with John Altman (Nick), by the way.
GM: So am I; he came out here for about two weeks. We hung out. His
character is iconic. It.s been very difficult for John after EastEnders.
Everywhere he goes, it.s Nick Cotton.
WG: I remember a scene where you.re wearing a sharp suit, pretending to
be a real-estate broker about to rent out a flat that was obviously an
GM: That costume, how he dressed, was all my idea. Once you set up the
character.s premise, the costume designer always props up your wardrobe,
exactly what you.ll be wearing. When you first start [on EE] you talk
with the costume director and the costume designer. The thing about
Darren, people wondered, .What is he up to?. You never saw him stealing
anything, or his hands dirty. But he.s always suspected. He.s always
behind somebody else. He.s one of those guys who drives a really nice
car, and you wonder. He.s dabbling.
WG: Did you have any favourite moments on the set?
GM: Before I got onto the show, there were always these things about
Dirty Den, all over the front page of The Sun. At my first rehearsal,
Leslie [Grantham] (Den) came up to me, he shook my hand and said,
.Welcome to my show.. It was kind of incredible, but I thought, .OK.. I
didn.t actually have a scene with him when he said that to me. Then we
had a scene that I was messing about with his wife (Angie). I told him,
.I.m young, and this and that. kind of thing. When we were rehearsing
it, he said, .What.s all this about you messin. around with my wife?. As
I do my speech, he puts his hands up in the air, as if he.s not
interested. We finish the rehearsal, he says, .Don.t worry, I.ll be
there on the 9th.. I said, .Yeah, OK.. We start shooting, he says,
.Darren, come here!. I walk over, and he says [gruffly], .What.s all
this about messin. around with my wife?. I come to my line (and his mind
goes blank], and I ask the director, .Can we go again?. The next time,
it was all right.
We had a great on-screen and off-screen relationship. Sometimes
we would improvise on screen. One time Darren wanted to put on a strip
show in the community centre. The caretaker who looked after the hall
also worked at the pub collecting the glasses. I knew in order for that
to happen I.d have to get Den come to the actual evening. The caretaker
won.t kick me out because Den is there. I was selling tickets for £10,
but I told Den he could have it for £5. He said, .Thank you very much..
That.s how we did in rehearsal, but on the day of the shooting they
changed the line so that Den said, .For me, nothing.. They cut back to
Darren, and I.m supposed to be gutted. But instead I just smiled. I
could lose the fiver with all the money I was going to make that night
at the community centre. My whole objective was [Den] being there [at
the community centre]. It.s all about reaction, being on point, in
control of your reaction to the situation. That.s why I always liked
Michael French.s David Wicks. He.s my favourite EastEnders character.
WG: Why is that?
GM: He.s such a good actor. What he did was what my character did when
you.re outgunned. If he.s about to be beat up, he doesn.t squeal, .All
right, all right.. He calmly says, .All right.. He.s not going to be
throwing fists around. You saw it in his relationship with the Mitchell
brothers. They could have bashed him up. You never saw him shakin. in
his boots. It was so smart how he reacted to the situations.
WG: Were you surprised Michael French came back last year for a month or
GM: I thought he was great, fabulous, good episodes coming back for his
mum (Pat), and so well written. And David and Carol [rekindling their
WG: What was Julia Smith like on the set?
GM: Darren had a son named Junior, who was once accused of stealing in
the Square. Judith Jacob asked me, .Have you seen the script?. The older
people, Ethel and Dot and a few others, have this old way of thinking
bordering on racism. I had a speech, .I consider myself a guest in your
country but I was born here.. I said there.s no way Darren would say
that. So when we were getting ready to do the producer.s run, I sort of
changed the words around. [The producers are] watching it, and reading
the script and say, .Where.s that?. Julia Smith calls me over and asks,
.What.s the problem here?. And I say, .There.s no way he would say that.
Why would he say, .I consider myself a guest in your country?. He
doesn.t consider himself a guest. There.s no way I.m saying that... She
said, .Yeah, I understand that. Would it be better if he said, .You
consider me a guest in this country, I was born here.? I thought that
was perfect. Julia Smith was great. She would listen to you.
WG: Do you ever run into any of your former colleagues from EastEnders
GM: I saw Paul Medford who played Calvin (in the early years), about
five years ago over here (in LA). We had a few scenes together in
EastEnders. I.ve seen Nick Berry (Wicksy) and Tom Watt (Lofty) a few
times in London, but not at auditions.
WG: Besides EastEnders, I.ve heard of some of the other British shows
you.ve been in, such as Casualty, Doctors and Murder in Mind, but also
what caught my eye on your CV were two Mike Leigh films.
GM: Yes, I was in Secrets & Lies, and four or five scenes in All or
Nothing. I did a play with him as well, It.s a Great Big Shame. The work
is all improvised. We had a three-month rehearsal period because it
started from scratch. It was fabulous. He did a film called Naked. I was
doing a play in London and the set designer there, who worked with Mike
Leigh, told me I should write to him. So I wrote to say hi, and he
called me up [on the phone]. I thought my friends were winding me up. He
said, .No, it.s really Mike Leigh.. He wanted me to audition for this
next film. I go down there. There was a bed and a chair. He says, you
just got home from work. I took off my shoes and lay on the bed. He
offered me the job. But at that point I was about to go on tour with a
theatre group called The Posse. I told him I couldn.t let the boys down.
He asked, .Can.t you get out of it?. I would have been in Naked. But he
came back to me. A one-day shoot involving a boxer.
WG: Any behind-the-scenes insights you can share about when you were on
GM: There was a hierarchy in the show. Certain characters must react a
certain way. Remember James Willmott-Brown? The guy who played him
(William Boyde) was great. The script said Darren was in the Dagmar (the
wine bar owned by Willmott-Brown). Ian was originally supposed to be a
chip off the old block like his old man Pete, who was a madman, you
know? They thought Ian was going to be like Pete, who had a hot temper.
Adam [Woodyatt, who still plays Ian] is not like that. There was a scene
with Barry Clark, the gay guy. Barry and Ian were going into a
partnership for a mobile disco. I sold them the gear and music, but it
was on HP, higher purchase, so I couldn.t really sell but I sold it any
way. The debt people came and took it off them. So Ian was on the
warpath looking for me. I didn.t want to deal with his father, you know?
So I.m duckin. him. Over a couple of episodes he asks everyone, .Has
anyone seen Darren?. Eventually he catches me up in the Dagmar. The
script said Ian comes flyin. after me, and Wilmott-Brown bends his arm
around me and marches me out of the pub. I thought, .That ain.t goin. to
happen.. If he tells me to get out of his pub, I.m just going to go .
I.m not going to stay there. Ian rushes me, and I just push him away and
say, .Fair enough, cool,. and I just walk out of the pub. Darren didn.t
get himself into situations where he was going to get bashed up.
Another time Darren was going to show porn videos for Den, and
it turned out to be Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. When we rehearsed it,
it was funny. I.m not saying Den wouldn.t bash up Darren; there would at
least be a fight and someone would have to stop it. On the day we were
to shoot it, there was the big guy named Ron, he was always an extra in
the pub. Ron and a few of the others grab me. Den says to my face, .Next
time you come to my pub, behave yourself or you won.t come back here!.
And I got flung out of the pub. Remember I told you about that scene
with Den when I was in the show for a few months then. About three or
four months later, I had another scene with him, and I by now I felt
much confident and secure. So this scene took place in the toilet of the
pub. I say to him, .Let me tell you something here!. And Leslie says,
.Sorry, I forgot my lines here. I don.t know what.s happening today.. It
was because I was growing in stature. I was funny to have that sort of
role reversal. It was great.
Last year I did a play at the Royal Court Theatre called Quiet Boy, and
one of the actors in the play, Khali Best, had an opportunity to be in
EastEnders. I told him he would have a great time. He.s now in it as one
of the new characters, Dexter. I told him what a great experience it
was. It.s just grown in magnitude. He texted me when he first got there,
and said he was really enjoying it, and said, .Come back. You can be my
dad!. If I came back, it wouldn.t be right for me to come back as a
different character. It would have to be that same guy, Darren!
Gary McDonald started his career at the prestigious Royal Court Theatre
Activists and progressed to performing at the Royal Court in many
productions, including Hard Time Pressure, Hero.s Welcome, Gregory
Motton.s Downfall, Some Singing Blood and the critically acclaimed Been
So Long. His vast theatre background saw him at the beginning of the
black theatre explosion in the 80s, working with tour-de-force companies
such as BTC and Talawa in A Raisin in the Sun and The Importance of
Being Earnest, to name but two. His TV debut as Ethnic in Jack
Rosenthal.s BAFTA award-winning London.s Burning pilot had critics
citing Gary.s performance as .moving and sensitive.. Soon after,
EastEnders came calling, and Dirty Den.s nemesis, the flashy, brash
character of Darren Roberts, was born. Worried about being typecast,
after a year he left the soap and went back to the theatre, doing plays
at the National with directors Peter Gill and John Burgess in Macbeth
and Black Poppies respectively. Combining film and television, he won
lead roles in Valentine Falls with Michelle Fairley and Ian McElhinney
and Shooting Stars by Barry Hines (Kes), directed by Chris Bernard
(Letter to Brezhnev). On prime-time television, McDonald was a regular
on the hit shows Thief Takers, Brothers and Sisters and Sky One.s
flagship Dreamteam. As a stalwart of the Mike Leigh process he managed
to work with his mentor on Secrets & Lies, All or Nothing and the
sell-out play It.s a Great Big Shame. Finally Gary got the chance to
perform at the acting powerhouse Donmar Warehouse in Lobby Hero, which
after a triumphant run transferred to the West End. Once again at the
National Theatre, Gary was Leonardo in Blood Wedding and the Trader in
Market Boy; he has also dipped his toe in the American pond and has
appeared in Numb3rs and several independent films including Until Death,
The Shepherd with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Mob Rules for Lionsgate. In
the UK he has starred in Outpost 2 Black Sun, and soon to be released
Lapse of Honor. Back at the Royal Court Choir Boy, in which Gary
McDonald played the powerful headmaster Marrow, received rave reviews .
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