If you told me I would have a conversation with one of the UK’s leading black actresses about bags of nuggets, photo bombing and being too embarrassed to wear leotards; I would have told you that’s about as likely as this summer being rain free – but that’s exactly what happened when I caught up with Karen Bryson.
At the time of speaking to Karen, she was still appearing on our screens as Avril Powell in Channel 4’s Shameless. With the long running series about to end, it was interesting to be transported to the start of her journey to stardom.
“I was one of those kids who rather than being out there and singing and dancing in front of everyone, I was shy and internal,” Karen tells me.
It’s hard to believe that she was that shy child she describes; she’s chatty and funny and above all else: open. It’s a relief to me when we get talking that I’m not met with a wall of pre-rehearsed answers that bring us no closer to finding anything out about the person we see on television.
Karen is able to laugh as she tells me how gaining weight in her early teens put her off the dancing classes she was doing, “I got fat and I knew it wasn’t for me because I was embarrassed. You know those leotards and tights? Yep not for me.”
Acting was just the outlet a “shy and chubby” Karen needed. “I’m not saying I was class clown, but I would give people joke and they would like me,” Karen says with the hint of a smile.
Despite being discouraged by career advisors who suggested alternatives such as typing; or by backhanded comments like “your quite large but there’s something about you” from the person who ran her acting classes, Karen now had her eye on the prize.
When I hear this I realise another of Karen’s personality traits – determination. It takes a strong, focused person to pursue a dream when others are not so supportive. By the time she made it to LAMDA, she had shed the weight as well as any thoughts that she was on the wrong path.
Speaking of paths, Karen was the perfect person to talk to about why so many of our black actors follow the yellow brick road to Hollywood. Karen’s response echoes many that we’ve heard before: the parts just don’t exist over here. Many black British actors find that they have to make a name for themselves stateside before they see the same doors open for them here.
“Massive case in point is gorgeous Idris [Elba]. Idris was working for years and years and went over there and stuck it out,” says Karen before adding “I’m really chuffed for him.”
Whereas before it seemed as though British film and television was preoccupied with race being integral to the storyline (hence there not being that many parts available), we are slowly seeing a shift that could open up more parts for black actors in this country.
Talking to me about why she thinks her role as Avril Powell in Shameless was so successful Karen tells me: “The part is not about her being black, she is just the head of a family and they live a life that any of the other families in the show would.”
Karen goes on to explain it’s not just Shameless where you can see the shift. Ice Cream Girls that recently aired on ITV, is another great example of casting black actors without their race being the driving force of the storyline. “They are both black professionals, but it’s about something else, it’s about drama and intrigue. It’s wonderful. Won-der-ful”.
Karen is also proud of young black actors and writers coming up with a different point of view. She makes a point of saying hard living and ghetto life is not every black person’s reality, and hopes that people will eventually get bored of the “yeah yeah yeah what you sayin’ kind of guy.”
With such passionate and honest views on the portrayal of people of colour on screen, you would be right in guessing that Karen would like to get into writing. “I used to write in my 20s but lost confidence when someone told me I wasn’t formulaic enough.” But Karen assures me she has some ideas that she would now like to put to paper.
Throughout the conversation, I pick up on a Mancunian accent that is left over from her time in Shameless. Karen tells me that she is a bit of a sponge when it comes to accents and she finds herself morphing into the accent of whoever she is speaking to; so much so that she has to warn them in advance.
“Like if I am speaking to a Scottish person, I have to tell them ‘if by the end of the conversation I end up speaking like you, I’m not taking the mick’”, She says before finishing in an almost perfect Scottish accent “It’s just the way I am.”
One of the things that I liked most about speaking to Karen is how random the conversation would get. Who would have thought, for example, that she would have such off the wall taste in furniture?
“I always find something quite odd to do something quite normal,” Karen tells me in explanation to what type of furniture she likes. “For example, my bedside tables are chairs from a set. Long gold elegant chairs from my very first job.” Whilst Karen admits that describing them may have taken away from their beauty, she tells me they look absolutely gorgeous, and has started the tradition of her collecting bits and pieces from her roles along the way.
“I can’t keep every script from every job any more, I wouldn’t have enough space. But I have Avril’s wedding ring from Shameless as a memento.”
Now looking for the next part to sink her teeth into, Karen tells me her dream role would be a cop a la DCI Tennison from Prime Suspect. “I’m trying to put out the positive vibes to attract it. If not, I will have to create it myself.”
As we both seem to be fans of the crime genre, I ask Karen if she had been watching the Following with Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy. Although she hadn’t seen it yet, she told me James Purefoy was responsible for giving her her first nugget.
“I do a thing that I call a bag of nuggets, and nuggets are nuggets of wisdom. There have been several people along the way that I have said ‘thank you for this nugget, if I can, I will pass it on’” Karen tells me.
Apparently a once nervous Karen was calmed down by James, who told her a story about when he had to give a speech to a room full of famous actors, and he overcame his fear by taking a deep breath. One deep breath later, Karen was able to get on set and play her part to perfection.
Coming to the end of the conversation, I get the impression that Karen is decent lady, but wondered if she had ever had a Shameless moment. “I was at the cinema the other day. There was a couple in front of us. We are all respectable grown people, I’m with my husband, and they went to take a picture of themselves on their phone. I don’t know what made me do it, but I went and put my face like ‘argggh’ in the back. I didn’t think they would look at it because the lights were just about to go down, but they did and they turned around and we all just burst out laughing”.
I’m sure it won’t be long before we see Karen on a screen again – mobile phone or otherwise.
W| Interview by Taytula Burke @Taykeova