For the latest in our WISE WORDS interview series - where stars from a whole range of fields share the important life lessons they’ve learned along the way - we’re posing some of the big questions to Michelle Collins.
Known to millions of soap fans as the original ‘EastEnders’ bad girl, Cindy Beale, Michelle has been a regular fixture on our screens for nearly 30 years.
Having recently enjoyed a role on ‘Coronation Street’ as Rovers landlady Stella Price, the actress is currently treading the boards in a production of ‘Kindertransport’, telling the story of Jewish children living in Germany who were sent to the UK during the 1930s and 40s to escape the Nazis.
Here, Michelle tells HuffPost UK how the death of her best friend as a teenager led her into acting, why she believes she has a sixth sense and why, at 54, she’s ready to backpack across the world.
What do you do to switch off from the world?
I find it hard because I’m a Gemini and I’m always on the go. I do a lot of hot yoga now and I love it because it’s a workout and a detox, but it’s brilliant for your mind. We rarely don’t take our phones with us to places these days and I can’t really switch off when I have it. I did do ‘Bear Grylls’ Mission Survive’ earlier in the year, and while I’m not sure it was switching off, we had a very different world without our phones.
How do you deal with any negativity?
I’ve got better as I’ve got older. As an actress, you have to deal with a lot of it anyway, and as a woman in my industry, you are up against a lot of negativity as well - it’s still very much a man’s world, and there’s a lot of misogynistic people around. As a woman, you often get picked upon and judged more than a man. But I’m the kind of person who will pick myself up and carry on. I do have a lifestyle coach I go to, and do a lot of meditation. He’s helped me a lot with myself.
When and where are you happiest?
Life has changed a lot because my daughter has gone to university and she’s my only child. I loved having her around, and fetching and carrying her to school when she was little. I was happy then, and when she left, I found it very hard. We’ve now reached a happy medium where I know she’s not going to call me every day, but if I leave her, she’ll come to me. I’ve now thrown myself into work, so I think I’m at my happiest when I’m busy and I’m being challenged as an actress. I don’t believe that people are always 100 percent happy, I really don’t. You have to live life from day to day and be happy in the moment. Going out and going to bars and stuff, I thought that made me happy years ago, but it doesn’t anymore. It’s the simple things like going for a walk in the park with my boyfriend before we go to work.
What has been the best bit of advice you’ve ever been given?
It’s always the cliched ones like ‘always be friends with the geeks because they’re the ones who will give you the jobs’, or ‘be nice to people on the way up, because you could meet them on the way down’. But I would say, ‘never think you’re too good for anything.’ There are a lot of things in life where I’ve thought, ‘oh I don’t really want to do that,’ but actually something always comes out of it.
What has been the hardest lesson you’ve learned?
Not to ask too many people about decisions. Now I’ve learned to follow my gut instinct and don’t tell everyone everything - they will always have their own opinion and something to say. Ultimately, you have to learn to trust yourself. And also, learn to say no. I said yes to too many people in life and now I’m not frightened to say ‘no’ or ‘I don’t like that’ or ‘I don’t want to do that’.
What would you could tell your 13-year-old self?
That’s a funny age because I don’t really remember much of 13. I remember when I was 15/16 because I was a bit of a rebel, but at 13 I was on the right track. But then my life started to go a little bit wrong as my best friend died. It was very difficult to deal with grief and I completely rebelled and became a punk, and was awful to my mum. So I would tell my 15-year-old self to talk to people more and not shut yourself off. I became a bit of a loner and decided I hated the world. But I suppose I had to do that, and in a sense, it helped me to decide I wanted to be an actor, as it gave me the chance to be somebody else.
What three things are at the top of your to-do list?
I’ve achieved a few - in the last year-and-a-half, I wanted to make a film, which I did, and I wanted to produce my own play, which I’ve written and is coming to the theatre in March. I have always wanted to play Dusty Springfield. I’ve tried but it’s never come off, so that’s on my bucket list. I want to play Lady Macbeth and I’d love to have my own TV series like ‘Prime Suspect’. I think I’d also like to go travelling because I’ve never been travelling, because I’ve never been backpacking in my life. Can I still go backpacking at the age of 54? Yeah, why not!
What do you think happens when we die?
I’m not a religious person at all, but I did go to Sunday school as a kid. But I think something happens when we die. I don’t believe we just disintegrate and disappear, but I do believe there is something out there, absolutely. I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, but I think there is some sort of being. I have seen a ghost a couple of times, but I wasn’t sure whether it was a soul.
When do you feel a sense that we live in the presence of something bigger than ourselves?
Isn’t it that feeling of déjà vu? That happens to me quite a lot because I’ve been told I am quite psychic, and I think I have a sixth sense. Years ago, I used to do this thing called psychometry where you held an object of somebody’s and tell them about themselves and it got quite spooky. I have moments like that, where you think you’ve been somewhere before or feel like you’ve heard someone say something before. Maybe that is us being in a parallel world.
What keeps you grounded?
Definitely my family - my mum is a very strong woman and she brought me and my sister up as a single parent in the 1960s, which was very tough. My sister is now a child protection officer, which is completely different from what I do, so she really keeps me grounded. Even though I’ve sort of become middle class, I still feel very working class in my roots - I don’t think I will ever forget where I came from. I’ve had a lot of people around me in the past that were sycophants, or ‘yes people’, but I feel it’s important to surround yourself with very honest people.
What do you try and bring to your relationships?
A spontaneity, a freshness, kindness, humour. I don’t live with my partner and I think that’s important, as often people can become too used to each other, take each other for granted or don’t make an effort with one another. You should be together because you want to be together and make time for each other. Also having time for yourself is very important in a relationship, because if you’re stressed, you take it out on the other person.
What was the last good deed or act of kindness you received?
I’m doing a play called ‘Kindertransport’ at the Chicken Shed Theatre Company, and Kindertransport was the train that came over in 1938 just before the Second World War, where in Germany, they sent Jewish children from the ages of three to 17 over to England. We recently had a Q&A where some of the children (who are now in their 80s and 90s) came along, and one of their daughters said she couldn’t tell me how overjoyed her mother was to meet me. She said this play was so moving and powerful that it made her think about her mother’s life and how hard it was for her. It was really nice to get that feedback when you’re doing a play like that. That made me feel really happy.
Michelle Collins is currently starring in ‘Kindertransport’ at the Chicken Shed Theatre Company until 29 October 2016.
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