Hollyoaks star talks to Maureen Coleman about cross-dressing, his return to acting on the stage... and that split with Zoe Salmon
When actor Gerard McCarthy took on the role of an outspoken, bisexual cross-dresser in teen soap Hollyoaks, he was terrified at how his character would be received in his native Northern Ireland. The Belfast man was convinced certain sections of the community here — mainly the macho male brigade — would find Kris Fisher a bit too, let’s say, flamboyant.
But the 28-year-old was pleasantly surprised at the favourable response to the man who likes to wear make-up.
“When the producer was describing Kris to me, he said he was a cross between Pete Doherty, Pete Burns and Pete Bennett from Big Brother — a bit of a Boy George character,” he says, as we catch up over coffee at Clements in the city’s Royal Avenue.
“Kris is a non-conformist. If he wakes up in the morning and wants to dye his hair blue and stick a safety pin through his nose, then that’s exactly what he’ll do.
“The character is very colourful, but also very controversial, and I must admit that I was petrified at how people back home would react to him. I don’t know why, but I was convinced Belfast would be worse than anywhere else.
“When I first started coming home I really didn’t know what to expect. I did think some people, especially men, would give me a bit of a hard time about it, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“The funny thing is, girls rarely come and talk to me because they reckon I must be gay in real life. But it’s the typical Belfast lad that I get coming over and saying ‘fair play to you’. That surprised me.”
On a recent night out in Belfast city centre, Gerard and some friends ran into a bunch of lairy men and feared potential danger.
“We were returning to our hotel after the Fate Awards when we bumped into a group of guys in their late 20s. There were about five or six of them and they were all quite drunk,” he says.
“They started shouting ‘Here, Kris’ at me and my friends were a bit worried that something might kick off.
“But they came over and started asking for photographs. One of them was like ‘my girlfriend loves you, she’s not going to believe that I’ve met you’. That seems to be the the general reaction.
“I’m thrilled that people like Kris. He is what he is, a bolshy, ballsy lad from Belfast who doesn’t give a damn.”
Part of Kris Fisher’s appeal is his straight-talking, no-nonsense approach to life and Gerard wishes, in that sense, he could be more like his alter-ego.
“There are some similarities between myself and Kris, but I’d love to be more like him,” he says.
“He doesn’t care what people think about him. He goes out of his way to shock people and has so much confidence in himself, that no one can intimidate him.
“He’s also very witty. I can be funny yeah, but I’m not quite as sharp as him.
“And, of course, he can pull anyone he wants! I love Kris, he’s a great character to play. When I come home from work every day, I have a smile on my face.”
However, after three years in Hollyoaks, during which time he was nominated for Best Newcomer at the British Soap Awards, Gerard has decided to move on.
He’ll film his final scenes in the fictional village of Hollyoaks later this year but is hoping his characer won’t be killed off.
“Last week I was filming a storyline in which Kris graduates from college and then goes for a job interview,” he says.
“He’s no make-up on, has his hair in a side shade and is wearing a suit.
“The whole day people on the set were taking the mickey out of me, saying ‘look at the state of you. What are you like?’, because I looked like a normal bloke.
“They’ve been so used to seeing me walking around the place with full make-up on and a dress.
“I’d like to think they won’t kill Kris off. Maybe in five years he might come back and viewers can find out what he’s been up to in that time. Maybe he’ll have got himself a job in an office, be wearing a suit, and be married with two children.
“I’d like them to leave the door open. Never say never.”
Although his character regularly features in some of the soap’s main plots — including a recent bisexual love triangle — Gerard felt the time was right to leave the soap. He now wants to return to his first love — musical theatre.
“Had I done everything that I wanted to do before joining Hollyoaks, I could have ended up being Channel Four’s answer to Ken Barlow,” he says.
“But there were other things I wanted to do. I really want to go back onto the stage again — that’s why I got into Hollyoaks in the first place.”
Gerard was coming to the end of his contract with the West End musical Saturday Night Fever when he decided to try his hand at television acting.
Having appeared in both Mamma Mia! and John Anderson’s production On Eagle’s Wing, Gerard then secured a part as an understudy in Saturday Night Fever. This was a step up the ladder and Gerard now had his sights set on a lead role. It fell to a former soap star to advise him what to do next.
“I loved doing Saturday Night Fever. It was a really difficult job and Arlene Phillips was a brilliant choregrapher and after a year with the show I was confident I could try for a lead,” he says.
“I’d done the small singing and dancing roles, then the understudy and this seemed like the natural progression.
“But something was happening in the West End at the time. Lots of the lead roles were going to celebrities like Denise Van Outen and people like me weren’t getting a look in.
“I remember talking about this to Shaun Williamson [Barry Evans in EastEnders], who was in Saturday Night Fever with me. He gave me a really valuable piece of advice. He said, ‘Go and get a job in television then’. Just like that. He told me to try Hollyoaks, give it a few years, then come back.
“The next day I rang my agent and told him that this is what I wanted to do. I admitted I’d never seen an episode of the soap in my life, but that I knew it was aimed at young people and would be good for me. He looked at me like I had two heads. But I knew then exactly what I wanted to do.”
Gerard’s agent set up a screen test for him with the casting director for Hollyoaks and he was called in to meet the show’s new producer, who outlined his proposals for the character Kris.
“He said ‘if you’re up for it, then so are we’. So I said yes.”
Gerard was originally brought in for 12 episodes but this loud-mouthed bisexual Belfast man proved such a hit with the show’s fans, the producers decided to keep him on. Since then, another local actor, Glen Wallace, has joined the soap as Kris’s older brother Malachy Fisher and Belfast actress Bronagh Waugh will also soon be gracing our screens.
He says: “It’s great to see so many opportunities available now for actors from here. However, there is still not a lot of work in Northern Ireland, which is a pity.
“When I was at school, saying I wanted to be an actor, everyone — my parents, teachers, career advisors — pointed out to me how unstable a profession it was.
“But I never wanted to do anything else. It was that simple.
“The one piece of advice I always give kids is that, if you can be talked out of it, then it’s not for you. Nobody could have talked me out of it. It’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Gerard realised he was born to perform at the tender age of seven, when he played Titch the Mouse in a primary school production called The Barnyard Christmas.
“I had this one line that had everyone laughing and I can remmember being pretty impressed that something I had said had prompted this reaction,” he says.
“That’s why I love theatre. The audience goes on a journey with you. When it’s over, they stand up and applaud and they’ve forgotten whatever else they were up to that day, they’re just caught up in the moment. I like being able to have an influence on how they feel.
“None of my family comes from a drama background, although my dad loves to sing all the time. I reckon I must get it from him.”
At St Mary’s Christian Brothers, Gerard’s potential was spotted — and nurtured — by his ‘brilliant’ drama teacher Marie McQuillan. He acted in several school productions, including West Side Story and Oliver — and, bitten by the bug, decided to apply to drama school.
Gerard was accepted into Laine Theatre Arts School in Epsom, but then came a rude awakening for the boy from Belfast.
“Here I was, suddenly surrounded by the cream of the crop,” he says.
“I thought I was talented, but there were all these kids in my class, who were younger than me, who were brilliant. I realised pretty quickly I really wasn’t all that special.
“There were guys there who had been trained at the Royal Ballet from the age of four. It was pretty scary.”
On leaving college in 2002, he was to face more disappointment.
“I got myself an agent and, for the next six months, auditioned for absolutely everything going,” he recalls.
“My agent said it was to improve my auditioning technique, but I was getting turned down for jobs on cruise ships and in holiday camps, which was very soul-destroying.
“I was walking into auditions a bundle of nerves, wet behind the ears. After about 35 rejections, I rang home and told my parents that I was coming back to Belfast. Mum, of course, being a typical mum, told me to come home but my dad told me to stick it out.
“Well, I stuck it out and when I went for my first West End audition, for Mamma Mia!, I got it.
“I nearly passed out when my agent rang me to tell me.”
On the opening night Gerard looked out into the audience and saw his proud parents sitting in the packed theatre.
“Mum and dad aren’t luvvies by any stretch of the imagination, but here they were and they were loving it,” he says.
“When I took my final bow I could see my mum crying. Seriously, it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. It was an amazing feeling.”
The talented actor says he has a couple of projects in the pipeline to keep him busy when he leaves Hollyoaks.
He makes no secret of his desire to return to the West End, although plays down any recent meetings with world-famous choreographer Arlene Phillips as a mere coincidence.
“She’s my friend, that’s all,” he laughs.
“I’ve a few options available to me, but I can’t say what they are just yet.”
He’s also preparing to help out with a massive project back in Belfast, which he mysteriously tells me will ‘give something back to the community’.
“I can’t reveal too much about it now, but it’s one of the benefits of taking the ‘celebrity’ tag and putting it to good use,” he says.
“Let’s just say, I’m calling in a lot of favours.”
Of course, having a black book of celebrity friends isn’t the only advantage of being in Hollyoaks.
Over the last few years, Gerard has been romantically linked to several beautiful women he has met through the show, including Hollyoaks co-star Loui Batley and ex-Blue Peter presenter Zoe Salmon. The actor and former beauty queen from Bangor hit it off at a Children In Need event in Belfast in 2007 and began dating.
However, the couple split up recently after a year and a half together and Gerard was quoted in the Press as saying “there’s plenty more salmon in the sea”.
Setting the record straight about what some people might see as a flippant comment, he says: “Zoe and I never talked about our relationship when we were together and really, that was just a deliberate remark which I said to put people off asking any more questions.
“I said it without any hint of malice or nastiness and anyone who knows me, including Zoe, will know that.
“She’s a great girl and we’re still friends. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
Gerard says he’s single now — but given his luck with the ladies, that won’t be for long.
“Since drama school I’ve been surrounded by beautiful girls. I mean, come on, I’ve been in Hollyoaks for three years!” he says.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but I think that there needs to be something more for me. They need to be funny or talented or have something else going for them rather than just their looks. That’s really not enough for me.”
Gerard will be on our screens until Christmas this year — but then everyone’s favourite cross-dresser will bid a fond farewell to the sex-crazed students of Hollyoaks.
Will he miss Kris?
“Of course I will,” he says.
“I’ll miss loads of people on Hollyoaks, the cast, people in wardrobe, the designer, the make-up girls — all of them. I’ve had three brilliant years there and it’s been a fantastic apprenticeship.
“But who knows, he may reappear some day. One thing’s for sure, the world will be a much duller place without Kris Fisher.”