Michelle Keegan: 'I love to play strong women so I jumped at the chance of this role'
Michelle Keegan leads the charge in the new series of Our Girl. The actress talks to Susan Griffin about mastering press-ups, being outnumbered by her male co-stars and being 'a brunette at heart'
Leaving the comfort of a soap might prove a scary proposition for some, but Michelle Keegan hasn't looked back since her Corrie character Tina fell to her death on the cobbles two years ago.
Now, following supporting roles in Ordinary Lies and Plebs, the actress is about to tackle her first lead role.
"I haven't had time to think about what's going on," says Keegan, (29), who's joined the cast of BBC One's military drama, Our Girl.
"It's one of those moments where you have to pinch yourself."
EastEnders actress Lacey Turner used to head up the series, but this time, with Turner back in Albert Square, the focus is on new medic Corporal Georgie Lane (Keegan), who joins Two Section on a posting in Kenya.
"I read the script and straight away, I could relate to her," Keegan notes of the character.
"I love playing feisty roles, I love playing strong women - and she definitely fitted that bill, so I jumped at the chance."
The series follows Georgie's hazardous work in the world's biggest refugee camp, as well as her complex relationships with Elvis Harte (Luke Pasqualino) and Dr Jamie Cole (Royce Pierreson).
"There's a love triangle throughout the whole of the series, and it's basically a question of who she will pick at the end," Keegan explains.
"I don't think she ever loves one more than the other."
In preparation, the Stockport-born actress carried out basic medical training: "So I know now how to hold a needle, how to do first aid, how to put someone in position if they're choking."
She also spoke to real female medics, to understand first-hand what it's like on tour.
"To hear their stories and their experiences and what they've been through is unbelievable, and it really helped mould Georgie Lane for me.
"Their stories have stayed with me," she adds. "When Georgie gets back from the army, she suffers with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I didn't really understand what that meant before. Throughout, their stories were running through my mind and that helped me get in the zone, get into how Georgie would be feeling."
Understandably, the shoot left her pondering how she'd fare in the army.
"I'd like to say I would fit in, but you know what? I have always respected the army and people that are in it, but after doing this job, I take my hat off to them. It's an amazing job they're doing and they work very hard."
During her time in Coronation Street, Keegan was crowned Sexiest Female at the British Soap Awards for a record six years running, and is known for her glamorous red carpet looks and flawless photo shoots, but the actress insists she welcomed the opportunity to go au naturel on screen in Our Girl.
"I loved it. I embraced it," exclaims Keegan, today sporting a strappy white top beneath a chic black suit and heels.
"It's really liberating, and I love the fact it wasn't all about how someone looked as a character. I had grease put in my hair every single day, I had blood splashed on my face, but I loved that. It's just part of the role and I really enjoyed it."
Script aside, Keegan admits she was excited by the prospect of trying her hand at action sequences, as "it's something I have never done before".
Already a fitness enthusiast, she threw herself into the training. "By the end, I could actually do 'man' press-ups," she exclaims, laughing.
"I had to do them on my knees at the beginning, but by the end of the mission I was doing them all over the place."
She also learned how to handle a firearm at a shooting range in South Africa, where the series was shot. "Until you hold an actual gun, you don't understand how heavy they are. The power from a gun is unbelievable," she recalls.
Keegan met the rest of the cast a week before they travelled to South Africa, and admits "it was quite daunting at first".
"I was the last one to walk in the room, and I remember looking through the window and seeing 12 lads. They're not the quietest of lads, but they were great. They were so welcoming."
They're all still in touch on WhatsApp - they called their group 'Team Sassy'.
"I know it's a really cliched thing to say, but we ended up being a family," says Keegan. "They were my best mates; they were confidants when I was away."
She admits homesickness was a concern before she set off for the two-month shoot, but adds: "I loved every single second. It was a life experience for me." Skype and FaceTime - "which I use all the time" - helped, and her husband, Mark Wright, also travelled out there, along with her mum and brother, "so it wasn't that bad". Keegan and Wright, who celebrated their first wedding anniversary in May, recently returned from a short break in Spain. "I wrapped (my new series) in Majorca, and then Mark was out there working at the same time as well, so we had a three-day break, which was really nice," the actress explains.
Keegan recalls a particularly full-on week, finishing Our Girl on the Friday and then the following Monday starting work on upcoming ITV biopic Tina And Bobby, about the relationship between footballing legend Bobby Moore and his childhood sweetheart Tina Dean.
"It was really hard to get my head out of that game and into another one, but it was great doing a period drama and I loved dressing up in the fashion from the Sixties to the Eighties," the actress notes.
The role also required her to go blonde - and she's still sporting lighter locks today.
"The roots are coming through now," she says with a laugh. "But I am going back very soon. I'm a brunette at heart."
Our Girl begins on BBC One tonight, 9pm