Eastenders actress Melissa Dean on Northern Ireland mum, life as Belfast school cleaner and why she's back in city
Being of mixed racial heritage, actress Melissa Dean has forthright views on identity. Ahead of the Belfast premiere of her new play dealing with race and relationships, she tells Una Brankin why she has her Ardoyne-born mum, Margaret, to thank for sticking with her dreams
It should have been a relaxing stroll along the north Down coastline, a break from the intensity of theatre rehearsals and the bustle of Belfast's university quarter. But for actress Melissa Dean, the scenic walk from Bangor to Helen's Bay was no escape from the feeling, which she experiences on a regular basis, of being an outsider.
"It was such a beautiful, blue day, but I felt like I had to keep smiling continually as I met people (as if to say) 'Please accept me, I'm friendly'," she says.
"I was off for a couple of days, and I went to the cinema and St George's Market. People stare quite a lot at me. I get paranoid. I think, 'What's wrong with my face, my hair?'
"When I got back into rehearsals, I felt really homesick. I burst into tears. Not being with my partner, Jim (who was born in Belfast), I don't feel like I belong... I don't feel that same sense of belonging."
The alienation the sensitive Londoner was feeling chimes directly with the theme of the two-hander, Me You Us Them, she's appearing in with Stefan Dunbar, nephew of famous Enniskillen actor Adrian Dunbar.
Local writer Andrea Montgomery couldn't have picked a more appropriate actress for the play, which was inspired by conversations with real people across Northern Ireland on the experience non-natives have while living and working here.
Melissa, who plays a paramedic on EastEnders, has a father originally from Guyana in the Caribbean and a mother from Ardoyne in north Belfast. Her mum, Margaret (nee Orr), left Northern Ireland in the 1950s and eventually settled in Leyton, east London, with her husband, Tyrone Dean, Melissa's father.
"I remember asking my dad why people stared and he said, 'Because you're beautiful, because you're smiling and you look friendly', so I try and turn it into a positive, but you do feel different because of the colour of your skin.
"I was working in Wembley a while back and I met a man from Belfast. I told him I was from Belfast, too, on my mother's side, and he said, 'You're not Belfast - you're more Caribbean.' I said, 'Well, I'm not black either. I guess that just makes me nothing'."
Me You Us Them has made the actress focus squarely on her sense of identity.
Melissa is not alone, right across the board in Northern Ireland, in the experience of an identity crisis, but being of mixed racial heritage adds another dimension to the issue.
Prince Harry's fiancee, Meghan Markle, has written about the challenges of being bi-racial and being labelled "ethnically ambiguous" in castings.
While disparaging of the fuss over Markle's mixed heritage, Melissa welcomes her arrival on the royal scene.
"I think it's a great thing to finally have someone of mixed heritage joining the royals - hopefully it will open hearts and minds," she says.
"Imagine all the racists who are now dying their skin orange.
"But the fact that people are making such a big deal about a mixed-race person joining the Royal Family shows how closed-minded we are and that we still have so much further to go.
"We all know that, when the next person of mixed heritage joins, they, too, will be titled 'the second person of colour to join the Royal Family'. It will take generations to eradicate these opinions, but it can be done eventually, I think."
Her mother still has cousins in Ardoyne, and Melissa has worked here in the past, in a small part in Line of Duty and in Andrea Montgomery's play, Arrivals 2, three years ago.
She met her partner, the writer Jim Meredith, at a workshop while on tour with Arrivals 2. The couple now live in east London, in her parents' home. "He was one of the writers on a workshop weekend and we fell in love with each other," she recalls cheerfully, adding that Jim, a former BBC media trainer, is 20 years older than her.
"I'd worked here before, on Line of Duty, so I decided, 'Let's move to Belfast'. It was a really challenging 10 months. I worked as a cleaner in Breda Academy, in Forestside, which was tough. I've worked as a teaching assistant and I never heard kids speak to their teachers like that.
"I had to clean the toilets and stuff, but I really enjoyed it when I was promoted to caretaker over the school holidays, when there was no one around."
HBO was still auditioning for Game of Thrones back then and Melissa was "a bit heartbroken" when she didn't manage to land a role. Licking her wounds, she returned to London, Jim in tow, to resume her long-term day job as a teaching assistant.
"I dragged Jim back to London and we moved in with my parents - we live with my parents and we're up in the attic room, which is quite separate from the rest of the house," she explains. "We're very lucky to be able to live with my parents. It would cost us £1,500 to rent somewhere.
"My mum drives me insane sometimes, telling me it's cold and to put on a hat and scarf before I go out and all that, but it shows she cares. They love us and they won't be around for ever, although Dad's 75 and still works in a zip factory, dyeing the fabric, and he goes to the gym three times a week."
Melissa's mother, a former nursery school supervisor, has always been supportive of her daughter's acting ambitions, urging her not to go back to her full-time classroom assistant job and encouraging her to develop her natural comedic flair with the comedy sketches she writes and performs.
"I'd been doing the teaching assistant job for four years - I only made about £180 from acting last year - but mum said, 'Why are you taking a full-time job? You've no mortgage, no kids. Why give up on your dream?'
"So, I gave up the job and I've had the best year so far in acting. I've done a video game and voice-overs and now Me You Us Them. And I've a short film lined up when I go back."
Me You Us Them tackles race issues from a wide spectrum. Melissa and Stefan portray characters, living here, from different cultures and countries, including Sudan, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Iran and Jamaica, as well as rural Armagh, Belfast and Donegal.
The play introduces characters through a series of monologues, then shows lives gradually intersecting and overlapping in unpredictable ways.
Melissa's role requires many accents, which she has masters beautifully - her natural speaking voice is well-modulated BBC-ish and clear as a bell.
"Growing up, I didn't hear the Belfast in mum's voice, but people commented on it," she says. "I've done the Belfast accent before, but for the Armagh one I had to go on YouTube to do a voice study - you listen out for certain sounds, like 'th' being pronounced as 'd' and do on. It was hard to find a video of someone with an Armagh country accent. There were some girls from a football team, but they only spoke for about 10 seconds each.
"You tend to get Gerry Adams and DUP people, not rough country. And people from Northern Ireland generally speak quickly."
As a schoolgirl, Melissa found that acting gave her back the confidence that had been dented by bullies.
"I'd get things thrown at my head on the bus and the older girls would take my phone off me and call their boyfriends on it," she remembers. "They used to say I was trying to copy Alicia Keys because I had braids in my hair. I've seen them since school - seven kids by seven different fathers, out with their buggies, and I think, 'Well, what have you made of your life then?'
"But I had a really good drama teacher for GCSE and he opened the door for me. I remember seeing Meet Joe Black - not a great film, but it has a wonderful soundtrack, and The Last Samurai, too, has the most beautiful music, and I'd sit in my bedroom, listening and acting."
Since her school days, she feels that her skin colour - the envy of fake-tan enthusiasts everywhere - has not attracted prejudice or discrimination "in an obvious way". When she left London to study at Oxford Drama School, however, she began to lose friends, including a girl who she'd always planned to have as her future matron of honour.
"I was staying in Woodstock and I had black friends who'd come to see me and they'd say, 'That's such a white girl's dress you have', or 'That's such a white girl's look'.
"You remember comments like that. Am I not black enough for you? So, white people can't dance? We fell out over the race issue. Those little things are a form of abuse. They give you a complex.
"You're brown. The irony is that all these people are trying to make themselves this colour. And then there are people in the West Indies trying to lighten their skin."
Melissa was brought up in her mother's Catholic faith, but she changed direction at 21 after visiting her Belfast-born aunt in Canada.
"I walked into her house and I could immediately feel love in the air," she says. "After a couple of weeks, I mentioned this to my aunt, and she said that's because God is at the centre of it all. She's mum's sister and from the same Catholic background, but she started to question things, like the former Catholic teaching that suicides go to hell, and came to the realisation you can talk to God directly.
"I thought I'd give this a try and started to go to a home church in London. I don't follow a religion anymore. I think religion can box people in. In Northern Ireland, so many have fought over religion - that's not God, that's evil. It's nothing to do with God. So, I gave my heart to God, and I felt that he said 'I love you; I'm your dad'.
"I do believe in the afterlife and I do hope Stephen Hawking got a nice surprise when he passed on. I don't understand why people won't try something just because they don't understand it. Having God in your life is so positive. You receive blessings."
One of those blessings, she hopes, will be marriage and children with Jim, who is currently working on a book of Japanese-style poetry. In the meantime, she's enjoying her acting work and looking forward to making the short film, about a family squabble over a will, on location in Devon, after the Me You Us Them tour wraps up.
"Last week, at the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine, it was the first time I've come off stage really exhilarated in eight years," she says.
"There were some 16-year old GSCE drama students in the audience. You can get a varying response from 16-year-olds; some like to talk throughout the performance, but these ones were up at the front and listening.
"Some were quite shy and they laughed at a love scene at the end - that's the first time that's happened."
Me You Us Them (free of strong language and suitable for young people aged 11 and older) is running at The Accidental Theatre, 12-13 Shaftesbury Square, Belfast, today and tomorrow. Tickets £5-£10. Starts 8pm (Book Bar* open from 7.15pm). Matinee at 2pm tomorrow. Doors open 1pm. For more details, see: terranovaproductions.net.