Ex-EastEnders star Rita Simons on playing gritty female lead in hard-hitting new film
Ex-EastEnders star Rita Simons tells Kerri-Ann Roper about her first film project since she left the soap and why it was important to her that her role in The Krays: Dead Man walking was as far removed from Roxy Mitchell as possible
Rita Simons believes in the law of attraction. Her first film project since she left EastEnders after 10 years in 2017 is proof enough. The 41-year-old is back in her first screen role since she played Roxy, one half of the no-nonsense Mitchell sisters, on television - and it's a role she knew she wanted before it was offered to her.
"When I left EastEnders, I said I wanted to do a gangster movie. A friend was doing a gangster movie and I was doing Legally Blonde, the tour. I had a break at Christmas, and I said to myself, 'I'm going to do a gangster film in my break'," she explains.
"This is how my career always goes. (I say) I'm going to do this and then it happens - law of attraction, I'm sure."
The role she's talking about sees her playing the gritty female lead in a hard-hitting new feature film, The Krays: Dead Man Walking.
The film sees notorious London gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray organise for Frank 'The Mad Axeman' Mitchell to escape from a high-security prison.
Simons plays Lisa Prescott, a nightclub hostess enlisted to help keep Mitchell under control after his prison break while he lays low at a safe house in London.
Since leaving EastEnders after Roxy and her sister, Ronnie (played by Samantha Womack), were killed off on New Year's Day in 2017, she's been treading the boards playing Paulette Bonafonte in the musical stage version of Legally Blonde.
She says the film was an immediate yes when it crossed her path while on a break from the theatre.
"Even though I was going back on tour, I get really bored and I was like, 'A gangster film is going to come up, I know', and sure enough, Jonathan Sothcott, the producer, texted me and said, 'We're doing a film, we need a female lead, you're perfect for it'."
She says that after hearing it was a Krays-type film: "I saw the script, but I didn't even need to see the script, I was in. I was like, 'This is my film', and it was as simple as that."
The film's cast boasts a star-studded line-up including the late Leslie Grantham, known for playing EastEnders' 'Dirty' Den Watts, as Detective Nipper Read in what was his last role before his death in June this year.
Simons did her fair share of research on Prescott, who in real life was reported to have been kidnapped by the Krays for four days.
What she was clear on was that she wanted the character to be a departure from the one she played in EastEnders.
She explains: "I really tried not to have her be like Roxy, because for my first drama role since EastEnders it was important for me not to be."
The film sees Boardwalk Empire's Marc Pickering playing Reggie Kray and Guerrilla star Nathanjohn Carter starring as Ronnie. British star Josh Myers plays madman Frank Mitchell while Guy Henry (Holby City, V For Vendetta) stars as Lord Boothby. Darren Day and Linda Lusardi also star in the film.
Simons' scenes with Myers are fraught with tension as madman Frank switches from placid to psychopath within seconds.
You're never quite sure where the Lisa and Frank dynamic will go, and to keep audiences guessing, Simons reveals a tactic she suggested to the film's director, Richard John Taylor, for a specific kissing scene.
"One of the things, and the director was pleased I made the suggestion, was when she goes in to kiss him, I said the audience need a sign to know she's not on his side," she says.
"So I said, 'I'm going to keep my eyes open and watch him'."
Simons shot the film in four days in east London's Bethnal Green and says it was "intense". "It was late January, early February, it was about minus five, there was no heating in the place we were in," she adds.
"When I put my normal clothes on at the end of the day to go back home, they were frozen in my bag. It was absolutely freezing, but I loved every second of it because I love authenticity."
Explaining that Roxy also shared her own mannerisms, Simons says: "I had to try not to do those same mannerisms - I wanted everything about her to be different. For me, it was freeing to be as gritty and real as I wanted to be."
She's not yet done a reality TV series, and laughs when asked why not.
"I said when I left EastEnders I was going to be spending a good year turning down reality TV and focusing on being an actress, which I did, so I've done that year. However, I will say this. The only reality shows I would do are reality shows that I don't feel have a bad impact on my career as an actress."
The Krays: Dead Man Walking is available now on DVD and download