Zoe Rainey: "I still miss my family, the sea and soda farls"
After travelling the world with her dad, Zoe Rainey is concentrating on learning her craft as she tackles Shakespeare with Kenneth Branagh
"If I worry about how I look, or if I am thin enough or I'm pretty enough for a role, I stop and step back."
It had to be someone special when Denroy Ltd was choosing a face for its iconic hairbrush brand. The famous Denman, with its familiar pink bristle-pad and dark brown handle, was celebrating its 75th birthday and needed a model for presentations at trade shows all over the world.
The Bangor company's boss, John Rainey MBE, always knew his younger daughter would be right for the job. Not only did she look the part, she could entertain the stand-weary reps and buyers with her beautiful operatic voice.
So, instead of a glamourpuss-for-hire, Zoe Rainey stepped into the role - and got the chance to travel the globe with her proud father.
"It was supposed to be just for the 75th anniversary in 2013, but I think I am still the 'Face of Denman'," the actress laughs.
"I performed at the celebrations at trade shows all around the world, from Hong Kong to Las Vegas. It was great to travel with dad and spend quality time together, and to see what he does at close range.
"He had to go away on business a lot when I was growing up and I didn't really understand what he did. Not that we complained, as he always brought great presents back from places like the Far East, and saris from India."
She's speaking from London, her home for the past 14 years, where she's appearing opposite Dame Judi Dench and Sir Kenneth Branagh in his smash-hit production of Shakespeare's tragicomedy, A Winter's Tale.
Photos from the production - and a charismatic performance online of Somewhere Over the Rainbow - reveal Zoe's facial similarity to her father; they have the same big warm smile and high, rounded cheekbones.
But, despite her attractiveness, Zoe admits to sometimes wondering if she is pretty enough, an understandable consideration given the emphasis on looks in casting nowadays, and the trend for models - such as the wooden Rosie Huntington Whitely - landing leading lady roles.
But the talented thirtysomething (she won't disclose her age) has her head screwed on, quoting a young Meryl Streep's response when the multi Oscar winner was told she was too ugly to play a role in King Kong:
"It was a pivotal moment for me. This one rogue opinion could derail my dreams of becoming an actress or force me to pull myself up by the boot straps and believe in myself," said Streep.
"I took a deep breath and said, 'I'm sorry you think I'm too ugly for your film, but you're just one opinion in a sea of thousands and I'm off to find a kinder tide'."
Zoe says: "Meryl put it beautifully. I see why directors would cast someone because of their looks, but most of the roles I remember, and that have made a huge impact on me, are because of the emotions someone is going through, and little to do with what they look like. When I worry about how I look, or if I am thin enough or pretty enough, I stop and step back.
"I look to how I can better my skills and technique, because that will help keep me working for longer. Don't get me wrong, it is very important to look after myself and look well, but I need to be bettering my talents first and foremost. I still have so much to learn. That is what really excites me."
Based in London since she graduated from drama school in Chiswick, Zoe has retained a generic, non-posh Northern Ireland accent - not too typically Bangorian, in other words. Naturally, her parents panicked when the news broke of the 7/7 bombings in central London, as Zoe was working in the Palace Theatre there on a musical production of The Woman in White.
She had a close shave with danger back then, and last weekend's atrocity in Paris brought back memories of the horrific 2007 attack, which left 52 innocents and four suicide bombers dead.
"I was in the middle of a show and trying to get into town, there was so much non-information at the time," she recalls.
"The Tube was down so I got on a bus and this girl beside me had heard there were five more bombs. She was shouting: 'Get off the bus! Get off the bus!' I got off at Edgware Road, which turned out to be very close to one of the bombings, and I walked to the theatre from there.
"It's funny how your judgement is affected. I just kept thinking, 'I have to get to work'. I was so apologetic when I arrived half an hour late, but my company manager said only 10 people had made it from the entire company.
"The scale of what was happening was suddenly real, we were surrounded by the army. When we walked home later that day people were rallying around and looking out for others. It was rather haunting, but heart-warming seeing the spirit of Londoners in the midst of such sadness."
Growing up on the Co. Down coast in the Eighties, Zoe was cocooned in world of drama, dance and singing lessons, the latter courtesy of her great aunt Mary, on her mother Sally-Ann's (Gray) side of the family - a "hard taskmaster" who had been a singer in her day and taught Zoe vocal discipline. She and her namesake, former Miss Northern Ireland Zoe Salmon, also from Bangor, were prominent members of the local junior drama circuit back in the day, attending Vivienne McMaster's dance classes and Michael Poynor's projects at the Ulster Theatre Company.
"I chose the stage over horse-riding when I had the choice as a child and I'm eternally grateful! I'd gone along to my sister Victoria's audition for Hansel and Gretel and ended up being cast as Gretel.
"My sister was at stage school, but she has ended up running the American end of dad's business. It's funny how things turn out."
Another influence on the budding actress was her paternal grandparents, who were fans of golden-age Hollywood musicals.
"Granny and granddad Rainey would have us over for Sunday dinner and afterwards there was a choice of three films: Easter Parade, The Little Matchstick Girl, or a Shirley Temple film, The Blue Band," she remembers.
"It was Easter Parade for me very time. I loved Judy Garland, still do, and Anne Miller and Doris Day, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
"Judy, in particular, had that ability to be both heartbreaking and hilarious in her roles. Sally Field has that too, she's an idol of mine and I'd love to work with her. Sally Field and Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias - insane, so good. Sally was incredible in Brothers and Sisters too, and don't get me started on Mrs Doubtfire - that's one of my all-time favourites."
Although she's a primarily a stage actress and a stalwart of musical theatre - with starring roles in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Cole Porter's Anything Goes - Zoe recently made her big-screen debut in a small part in Mr Holmes, with Sir Ian McKellen.
As a slim brunette, she would have made ideal prey for Jamie Dornan's serial killer in The Fall, but wasn't available to audition. Although she's all for "female empowerment" in drama, she didn't share the shrill criticism of the drama's sometimes graphic portrayal of women as murder victims.
"I would have loved to be in it," she admits. "It's exciting to see such an incredible series filmed in Belfast, with so many people I know, and in a drama not about the Troubles. Yes, there is a shift in women wanting to be empowered on TV and I agree with that, but The Fall is so well made.
"It is true you don't often see men in nude scenes - not that I want to," she giggles.
"In the last Mission Impossible, it was great seeing Rebecca Ferguson - a real person, not a stick insect - equal to Tom Cruise as an assassin. That was incredible.
"I do have an appreciation of feminism, I went to Bronte sisters' home in Sheffield and it was incredible to see where they wrote back then. And I saw where Beatrix Potter lived, she was the first to come up with merchandising. To think she and the Brontes were able to do all that in the man's world they inhabited then is wonderful."
If you have a chance to see Branagh's exquisite screen remake of Disney's Cinderella on DVD or Netflix/Amazon, look closely at the dancing guests in the ballroom scene and you'll spot Zoe.
She will also appear in an adaptation of Beauty & The Beast in 2017, but isn't allowed to talk about it yet. In the meantime, she's having a ball with Judi and our Ken in A Winter's Tale, and in an accompanying production of Harlequinade, a comedy about a middle-aged theatrical couple (starring Branagh), performing Romeo and Juliet in a duff theatre company.
"Ken is such a warm, wonderful man. He and Judi have no ego at all," she enthuses.
"A lot of actors think you have to behave in a certain way to get ahead. Judi is very generous and very aware of my role and what I have to do.
"I am learning a lot from both of them and their approach to the process. They bring such fun into the room, but the hard work never stops. And I was so lucky to get to be on the incredible set of Cinderella. It was such a beautifully portrayed story.
"Ken made it seem so fresh, the way he brought in the prince's relationship with his dad. It's the first time I got to work with him properly, although he was very busy with Cate Blanchett and Lily James."
John Rainey and Sally-Ann Rainey have seen the vast majority of their daughter's performances and Zoe is particularly grateful to her mother for her constant "taxi-ing to classes and auditions" throughout her childhood. She is also in awe of her father.
As chairman of the Denroy Group - who produce Denman hair-styling products and industrial plastics - John was awarded an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours last year for his outstanding contribution to economic development in Northern Ireland.
"It was a really special day, getting to see your dad receive an honour like that after working so hard all his life," says Zoe.
"I was very, very proud of him. It happened to be the Queen presiding that day and we were allowed in to see the presentation ceremony with about 50 other people.
"I watched the Queen from a distance and felt seriously inspired by her. She's of a certain age yet she stood the entire time and didn't make any fuss. She knows how to do her job and does it incredibly well."
The busy performer is coming home for the traditional family Christmas this year at her aunt Brenda's in Donaghadee, while her boyfriend, Paul Gatehouse, a music sound engineer who mixed local X Factor songstress Janet Devlin's last album, goes home to his family in Plymouth. Zoe hasn't missed a Christmas at home throughout her 14 years in England.
"I adore London and can't believe that I live here now. London is my favourite city in the world, especially in the summer, but I miss the sea at home. I miss being by the shore and breathing in that wonderful fresh, salty air. Not to mention the soda farls - and my family, of course.
"I don't get much time off during the year so I really look forward to Christmas to catch up with everyone. When I do get a breather from work, I would go to the theatre or watch movies. I enjoy exercise and have discovered a new workout called 'sleek technique' which is a ballet-based workout.
"And to wind down and to clear my head, I enjoy going for walks or just being in nature. There are some fantastic parks in London; my favourites would have to be Richmond Park and Regent's Park. When I performed in Gigi at Regent's Park, I grew a real love for it and how it is looked after. The theatre there is so special and performing outdoors adds another layer to the magic. There are so many things you can't control, like insects and the sun, and that makes it really special."
As for many actors, the immediate working horizon is uncertain for Zoe when she finishes her run in The Winter's Tale and Harlequinade on January 16. But she has no doubt where her future lies.
"Consistency is more important than a big break for me," she concludes wisely.
"My biggest ambition is to continue to be part of exciting productions and continue working with the best in their field. I want to learn first-hand from whoever I can and enjoy exploring new avenues in acting. I truly love my job and want to enjoy it forever."
The Winter's Tale and its accompanying productions, Harlequinade/All On Her Own, are at the Garrick, London until 16 January/ 13 January respectively. See branaghtheatre.com/the-winters-tale
'I never thought I'd be watching Zoe holding hands with Judi Dench on stage'
The Denroy Plastic company's hairbrushes were made famous by the late Vidal Sassoon, who gave the world the blow dry using the Denman brush, the only product able to withstand the heat of the drier and be water resilient. Furthermore, the Bangor-based firm's aircraft components are used in fighter jets and passenger planes.
From Belfast's Springfield Road originally, boss John Rainey's eldest daughter Victoria runs the Boston office and has doubled their US sales in the past 18 months, achieving $2.5m this year alone.
Plain-spoken John (64) is equally proud of Victoria and his younger daughter Zoe.
"It was a great moment when Zoe sang Diamonds Are Forever, as part of the celebrations at the Royal Albert Hall in London," he recalls.
"That's one of my favourites. She also did Down By The Sally Gardens, or whatever you call it. Her aunt Mary Barr was a great teacher of music in Ballymena and she used to give her lessons.
"We've been to see Zoe in some great shows like Sunshine On Leith - my favourite, and Wicked, Hairspray and Parade. I never thought I'd sit through three hours of Shakespeare and watch her holding hands with Judi Dench on the stage."
It was Zoe and Victoria's turn to watch their father with pride when he received his MBE last November.
"It fell on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, World War One's Armistice Day, so the whole thing started with a minute's silence," says John.
"That was very special. My uncle Tom Brown, who was born before my mother, was killed at the Dardanelles when he was 19. He's on the monument at Queen's University and at the British Royal Academy college. He would have loved to see the girls doing so well, too."