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 century ago.

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 you there?
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 here.

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 decision?
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 illegal squat.
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 so?
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 romance].

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 these days?
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 EastEnders?
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!


IMDB Biography:

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 .

Back to Latest Articles